“Where is Aditi?” he whimpered when his mother reappeared.
His baby sister is the one that vanished. The coveted space next to his mother returned to him. His tiny sister felt like a doll he had imagined and outgrown. Yet his beloved Aditi, he thought of often at the most difficult times in his life.
Throughout the years, the memory would reappear—the image of Aditi’s swollen eyes, his feeling of great remorse and the injustice of his mother’s actions. It started as a drip, steady and constant, until years later, the weight of anxiety had pooled into a reservoir. After eighty years, it was an ocean.
He did not know why his mother acted so violently. But it seemed to be the beginning of a bigger change, a harbinger of what was to come. Besides being shipped to England for boarding school, as was the convention of the British Raj in those days, his mother rarely looked him in the eyes without tears pinched in the corners. She didn’t smile like Aditi used to; she didn’t put her arm around him and brush her hands lightly on his knees. Many years later, after he became a father, he began to question whether his mother’s change towards him was because of Aditi, or if his mother was emotionally shoring herself up for his absence.
“Oh monkey!” Aditi playfully called as she stepped past the servant.
Her toes peeked out from under her white sari as she stopped next to the desk. He inhaled the scent of coconut as she gently coaxed him up.
“Tell me the story of Hanuman, the monkey god,” he pleaded as she unbuttoned his shirt.
“Shhhhhhh.” She put her finger to her lips and glanced over to the cradle where his sister, Rose, was sleeping. “I will tonight. I’ll tell you any story you want. Remember, only speak English with your mother and Memsahib,” she whispered.
From the other room he heard tea being offered, laughter from a stranger, and his mother’s voice.
“Well, this hill station doesn’t feel as official. Matheran is hardly high society.” His mother laughed. “If you want fashionable, go to Mahabaleshwar. Now that’s where you’ll be in society.” His mother’s voice became louder as she walked to the bedroom.
“Alistair, stop following Aditi around. Come sit with us,” his mother called. He reluctantly stood, dragged his sandaled feet to the sofa and sat close to his mother.
The woman was a friend of a friend and had secured a place for him at a London boarding school. She would be his contact in London his mother explained.
“England will be an adjustment for you,” his mother said to him.
England was more than an adjustment.
He was completely unprepared. He’d never learned to tie his shoes, as he always went barefoot or wore sandals. He’d never had fish and chips, Yorkshire pudding, or seen rain besides the monsoon rains. But it wasn’t just the weather, or the eliteness or isolation of the boarding school. Everyone looked the same with fair skin. They all ate the same bland foods and spoke the same incessant language. He concluded the British created class just to make themselves feel superior to each other to overcome the sameness.
He did not identify as British, nor did he want to when his grandfather declared, “You’re English!” His childhood and identity had been nurtured in the plains of Bombay and the jungles of Matheran. He felt more at ease in India than he ever did in England. It wasn’t as though he felt like an outsider, though he was. It was the way everyone coexisted that made being an outsider easier.
In India, each group kept to themselves, until they didn’t.
He read about the Direct Action Day riots between the Muslims and Hindus in Calcutta in August of ‘46 while sitting under the desk lamp in the boarding school’s library. The photos in the news magazine showed images of mutilated bodies in the streets and vultures perched on the wall.
His father made it a point to send any clippings he could to discourage Alistair’s romanticism of India. But each clipping and headline only made his resolve to return grow stronger.
In the ten years he’d been away at boarding school, he hadn’t returned to India or seen his parents. Even if his family could have afforded the exorbitant cost to visit, the war made it nearly impossible. His mother sent one-page letters folded in his father’s clippings with snippets of trite sayings and impersonal accounts. He wouldn’t know either one of them any more than a stranger he met at the market. So when his father wrote a brief note saying the end of Britain’s presence and role in India was inevitable and that he and his mother were returning, he had to reread the letter to process the magnitude of it. The name of their ship and their arrival date was written across the bottom.
When they returned for good, their travel chests loaded into the car, they didn’t even recognize him on the Heathrow platform. His mother walked past him.
“Well, I do miss the coolies now,” she gasped. She wore a fur over her shoulders.
Probably one she packed as a newlywed eighteen years ago before she realized India was in the tropics, he thought to himself.
“Do you see Alistair?” Her eyes followed the young boys running by.
How sad. Did she think he was still a six-year old boy?
His father was already climbing into the car.
“Come dear, he’s at the hotel. I’m sure. We’ll see him there.” He moved in quick, confidant steps. He seemed most unchanged. His receding hairline was combed back. There were wisps of white hair by his ears.
She turned to him, startled, and stared.
“Well then, you are not at the hotel,” she said, with little intonation or emotion. It sounded like she’d have preferred he weren’t there. He almost regretted his one-on-one with the head master to request the time to meet with them.
They didn’t know whether to hug, shake hands or just stare at one another.
She had bags under her eyes and looked tired.
“How was your journey?” he asked. It was odd to see her without a topi, a signature sun hat. He had vivid memories of her leaning out the window yelling to Aditi, “Hat! He should wear his hat!”
“No topi?” he asked.
“I finally retired that retched thing,” she said.
He thought of Aditi often, even before his mother’s sudden death, but afterwards, it was as though every thought flowed in one direction. Where was she? What happened to her? Why did his mother send her away?
All his mother said about Aditi was, “I survived the mosquitoes, yellow fevers, snakes and dysentery. I even survived the servants.” Before her death, she admitted British help could not compare to an Indian servant. It struck him how stuck she was. She was emboldened that she had lived in India, but completely disconnected from the people or country. It was as though she could transplant her English violets and completely dismiss the mogra and chameli or the mali who tended to the garden and the bheesti who carried water to the garden after he supplied the bathrooms and kitchen.
Alistair knew he needed to return. When the viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, announced Britain’s new departure date and handover of power, his father was even more enraged by his declaration that he wanted to return after his graduation.
“What is it you are trying to do?” his father asked, bewildered. “Walk into the middle of a civil war? Why do you think Lord Mountbatten pushed the date up? No Englishman with any lick of common sense would go traipsing back. What do you propose to do, walk into the Indian Congress and ask Gandhi for a job? Why would they take a British man over their own? Every national is celebrating independence from you, the crown and 200 hundred years of colonial rule. You’re apt to be chased out by a nationalist with a machete.”
He didn’t want to see the world as his father did, an old man pining for an India he felt he must subordinate then tolerate out of pretense.
“I’d like to look up my old nanny, Aditi.”
His father scowled, accentuating his graying eyebrows. “The dirt on your mother’s grave is still wet and you’re asking about Aditi.”
“What happened to her?”
“What’s done is done. There’s nothing to say.” His father sighed and picked up his keys from the table.
But it wasn’t done. What was done was his father’s pride. Alistar watched him pull on his boots for the night shift. His educated father, who worked with a proconsul in India, was mopping floors in Edinburgh. When his father said, “There’s no place for us in India,” Alistair felt it was the other way around.
His time in England was a brief respite. Time was holding still for him. He had grown up; he had been educated and followed in his father and grandfather’s path for him. Though they were civil servants and their jobs and roles transitioned with India’s Independence, he would find his own path. He did not expect India to serve him. He would be a servant to India.
To him, India was full of generosity and warmth. He missed the Hindu women in their colorful saris and bangles, Sikhs in turbans and long beards, or Muslims in long hijabs and caps. The Muslims’ call to prayer resonated with him as much as the bells on the bullock carts. There was the taste of water from the ceramic pot, boiled buffalo milk and the smell of burning wood at the hill stations. He preferred Matheran’s red soil to the English countryside.
And, Aditi, he missed Aditi. In her presence, he felt a boyish urgency to stay close.
As he stood over his mother’s casket, Aditi was the mother he yearned for.
The majestic arch and turrets of the Gateway of India seemed to glow in the sunlight as Alistair’s ship entered the Bombay harbor. He inhaled the scent of ground spice and admired the intricate architecture of the beautiful Taj Mahal hotel. Everything was on the cusp of change; he breathed it in with salty swells of the ocean and felt invigorated. Bombay itself buzzed in anticipation of India’s new Independence. Corner stands sold independence paraphernalia and paper flags. Saffron, white and green saris lined the windows of the shops. Humidity enveloped him. Sweat dripped from his forehead.
Aditi’s village was outside of Bombay.
How many times had he imagined this reunion with her? His childlike love had swelled into whirling dervishes of anticipation. There was her faint smile, her gentle voice, and the sing-song way she called him monkey. Then there were the wonderful stories she told of her home and village. While away, he collected his own stories—anecdotes from boarding school and of hiding in the unfinished tube station during the air raids in the war. Standing in her remote village he realized how removed he had been from her life. The searing image of her being dragged away had devastated him, but how did it change her? Had he created his own story and inserted her into it to placate his own gaping need for his mother?
He stood, awkward, at the entrance of the small mud hut.
It worried him that she had never answered his letters. But now, he realized, she may have chosen not to write.
She was a caregiver, not his mother.
The thatched roof seemed beaten with the heavy monsoon rains. A goat meandered past him. He saw a young woman on her hands and knees spreading gobar, cow dung, on the outer wall. Of course, it would be an auspicious thing to do, he thought. India’s Independence was a day away.
Independence from you, he could hear his father’s voice chastise him in his head.
She stood and gasped when she saw him.
Was this a daughter? Niece? Cousin? Neighbor? Her blue sari slipped on her shoulder from rising so quickly.
“I’m Alistair,” he said. “I’m looking for Aditi. She was my ayah from long ago. I wanted to see her again.”
He shifted her gift to his other hand as the goat tried to chew on the wrapping paper. The china seemed overdone, pompous next to the poverty around him.
“Aditi?” She frowned, shook her head and said something he didn’t understand.
She signaled for him to wait as she wiped her hands then covered the remaining gobar. She led him down the dusty trail past small huts. At the bend of the watering hole, a few women in the village were crouched between the tall grasses wringing out their clothes. Was Aditi here? Topless children played near the water. She eventually stopped at a bungalow near the main road. A toran, or beaded banner, hung in the doorway of the small house. An elderly gentleman opened the door. Alistair recognized the thin undergarment of a sudreh, worn by the Parsis. The woman said something deferentially to him then pointed to Alistair.
“She’s asked me to translate for you,” the man said in English. “I’m sorry, but the woman you are looking for is dead.”
He had already buried his mother before coming back home, and now, his second mother was gone.
“What happened?” he wheezed.
The man stared at the gift in Alistair’s hand.
“She says she was hung.”
“Hung?” Alistair tremored, wiping his eyes.
“For culpable homicide,” the man said.
“Aditi? There must be some mistake,” he said. “I don’t understand.” He wept.
The old man translated for the woman.
“She says she knows one servant who worked briefly in your home many years ago,” he said.
Alistair nodded, still stunned. By the time the former servant arrived, the man’s family had gathered in the small living room. His wife brought out tea and his daughter a small platter of savory snacks. The man’s elderly mother sat in a wooden chair by the window.
“She was like a second mother to me,” he said to the old woman who nodded sympathetically.
He did not remember the former servant’s face. Her black hair was pulled back. Her shoulders slumped forward. At the hill station, they traveled with at least 12 servants. Some he vaguely recalled like the bearer, the cook, the cook’s boy, the waiter and the sweeper, the bheesti who carried water, the messengers or chuprassis, and of course their ayah, Aditi.
“She says your mother always collected the jhaadan, or duster, at the end of the day. She did not trust the servants to not take it.”
“What does she remember about Aditi? About what happened?”
“Nothing,” the man said.
Before leaving, she brought her hands together in a prayer gesture of Namaste.
“Namaste,” he whispered to the woman. He repeated it again to the man and his family before he left.
He scanned an old Times of India while waiting at the police station for details about Aditi’s case.
Birth of India’s Freedom. Nation Wakes to New Life. He imagined thousands of people surrounding the arches at the Red Fort in New Delhi, the new flag of India hoisted in the foreground of the arches.
He could hear his father scoffing in his head. What of the order that Britain has given to India? What of the railroads, roads, postal systems and law?
When the clerk finally signaled Alistair to approach him, it took everything in him to stand.
“About your ayah, she was accused of negligence. The family wouldn’t let it rest there. It was pushed through as culpable homicide. Life in prison or death penalty as punishment,” he said.
“Who do they claim she––who died?” Alistair asked.
“Rose Attaway. A baby, a newborn. It’s body was found outside the family’s Matheran bungalow,” the clerk said.
He had checked into Lord’s with enough sunlight for a walk.
When he was a boy, cascading porcupine flowers created yellow carpets during the monsoon season. Then there were the waterfalls. Rushing streams, pounding sprays and lush greenery on the rock faces. He wondered if this, too, was like his memory, a fragment of perfection, all of it a nostalgic wonder he’d imagined and reimagined in the gray, rainy days in London.
Now, he saw empty chip bags, crushed Bisleri water bottles, shredded cardboard boxes and plastic shopping bags littering the trails. The smog was too thick to see the valley, or even see past the sheer rock faces of Garbett point.
Alistair found his grandfather’s old bungalow overgrown with tentacle vines of the jungle. Green mold surrounded the peeling walls. The roof had collapsed on one side. He eased himself through a gate unmoored from the red dirt. The kadu jambhul tree had grown taller in the passing years. The branches were covered in dense, long leaves. Black plums filled the limbs. A lingering scent of turpentine filled the air.
He had a feeling of being watched.
As his eyes adjusted to the shadows of the dense trees, he saw a troop of monkeys perched in the tallest branches.
They leapt on the corroded metal roof. Boom. Boom. Boom.
He had heard the sound before.
“Close the windows. We don’t want the monkeys inside,” his mother said to him. She stood in the center of the room waiting for Aditi to change Rose’s nappy. “I know it’s customary for both children to have their own ayahs, but with Alistair in London, you’ll be able to focus primarily on Rose.”
When he tried to wrap his hands around his mother’s waist, she brushed him aside and put the baby to her chest.
“But mother, I don’t want to go to boarding school.”
“It’s not about wanting,” his mother said. “We have the resources, we will use them.”
“We are not discussing this any more. Shut the window and go to sleep!” his mother snapped.
Already his mother had replaced him.
He turned away from her and pretended to sleep when she leaned in and whispered, “Goodnight Alistair Attaway. England is my home. Now you can see where I come from.” He listened to the click of his mother’s shoes as she left the room.
The new baby slept in his old cradle.
He laid in the dark next to Aditi’s warm body. She kept an old dupatta rolled underneath her head. He pulled at the tight edges, slowly loosening the corner of the scarf as though this act alone would change what his mother had said.
“I don’t want to go,” he whispered.
“Sweetie, I know it is far away, but you must go.”
“I can go to school in India,” he pleaded.
“You do not need to convince me,” she said. “Now sleep. Tomorrow is another day.” She gently brushed his hair behind his ear.
He listened to the steady rocking of the cradle as Aditi sang, “So jaa raajkumari, so jaa.” There was the tinny chime from her gold bangles, then a soft shuffle of her bare feet as she walked to the window and latched it shut before leaving the room for the night.
A pounding from the metal roof startled him awake. The room was dark. He could hear Rose’s little tufts of breath. A wild, thumping adrenaline surged through him. He brushed past the mosquito netting and went to the window, releasing the latch. Small slivers of stars shredded the night sky. The crickets’ wistful creeing filled his head as he leaned over the ledge trying to see into the dense foliage. He listened to the rustle of the tamarind trees outside. There was nothing. He waited until his eyes could stay open no longer. He crept back to the floor by his bed.
When the window creaked, his eyes jerked open to see a figure moving in the darkness. He felt the lightness of two paws. A monkey brushed past him on the floor and climbed to the cradle where his sister slept. He stayed still. It was a criminal act and he knew it.
The monkey had his sister. In the dark, elongated shadows of the room, he watched the tail slip through the window with Aditi’s worn dupatta dragging over the ledge.
Trembling, he crept towards the blackness and swung the wooden frame towards him. He had not locked the window. It was a jolting shock, the punishment that awaited him. The switch, not just on the knuckles, but they would surely send him to England. Sweat dripped on the small of his back. He pulled the latch shut, locking it in place.
His pocket vibrated. He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and set it on the dirt in front of him. It hopped and bounced on the dirt.
Why didn’t he speak or shout? Why didn’t he shut the window earlier? Rose and Aditi’s death could have been avoided had he said something.
“The monkey has taken your cell phone,” a man said. Startled that he was no longer alone, Alistair watched the stranger approach on the trail. The man pointed towards the limber creature as it climbed up the trunk.
“Oh my,” Alistair coughed. “I’m not paying attention.”
His daughter’s ringtone burst from the jungle canopy.
In the town where I was born
Lived a man who sailed to sea
And he told us of his life
In the land of submarines
The monkey jumped up to a higher branch in the tree.
“The monkeys will take anything. Never keep something valuable out in the open,” the man said.
“I know,” said Alistair.
“Ahcha. Been here before?” the man asked.
“Yes. My family was part of the British Raj. I was sent to England when I was six, but I came back in August of ‘47, right before Independence.”
“Why did you come back then?” the man asked.
“I wanted peace,” he said, knowing peace could mean anything from the millions displaced after the partition to the hundred thousands or more who were murdered on both sides of the bloody division after the British left.
“How do you make peace?” the man asked.
Alistair shrugged. He thought of Gandhi. “Gandhi tried,” he said.
“Gandhi,” the man said dismissively. “You have better luck arguing with an atheist.”
It was not his homeland per say, it was his heart. Using Gandhi’s name was a vain attempt to cover up his own inferiorities. He never thought his British lineage gave him a birthright to this country. Nor did he now think that he must absolve for the sins of his father and grandfather. India, his India, would not be the same country as this man’s, nor of the coolie who carried his bags up the red hills. He thought of E.M. Forester’s description of India as “a hundred Indias.” It seemed to Alistair it was more than a hundred. There were so many faces, eyes and hands reaching for a collapsing and rising sun to call home.
We all live in a yellow submarine.
He could hear his daughter’s voice somewhere in the canopy of the trees.
“The monkey must have answered my phone,” he said to the man who then nodded his head side to side in acknowledgment. The two men looked into the trees. The phone was quiet.
He imagined his daughter attributing the silence to his ineptness with the new phone. He felt a tremendous pity for her. He was thousands of miles away at a hill station, sitting under the shadow of the plum tree and preoccupied with a past he could never change.
All she wanted was her father to be present.
He suddenly recognized the primitive need she must feel. He thought of his mother.
The ringtone started again.
The two men followed the sound, deeper into the foliage stepping over roots of the Dinda trees.
The monkey was in clear view perched in the upper branches. More monkeys followed and sauntered along the lower branch stopping below the monkey with the phone.
“Give it back!” Alistair yelled up.
He looked at the snack bags littered around him. He picked one up that seemed to have something still in it. He waved it above his head. The monkey turned away disinterested.
“Did you see that? What a stinker.” Alistair gasped. “A monkey stole my baby sister from her own bed,” he said.
It had taken a lifetime for him to come back to it, to only tell a stranger.
“My ayah was falsely accused of her death.”
“You must forgive the monkeys,” the man said.
There was chattering in the tree above. Alistair looked up to see the monkey with his cell phone wrestling another monkey. The two somersaulted along the branch. He cringed with each tumble, keeping his eyes on the phone. They leaped to a larger tree climbing higher and farther over the cliff’s edge.
He saw his baby sister dropping into the gapping valley below.
We all live in a yellow submarine, rebounded loudly, yellow submarine, then grew dimmer into a faint, yellow submarine.
There was a dull smack, then silence.
The finality of it struck him. He collapsed on the red soil.
His mother’s cry woke him that morning. Her anguish was one he’d never heard before or seen again. It was the sound, a primitive howl that rattled him, more so with age and time. Only as a parent could he begin to understand the source.
For so many years, he’d blamed his mother for Aditi’s death. Her callousness, quick judgment and readiness to condemn, these were all a part of the injustice he held against her as a young boy and later when he returned, his suspicions and memory twisted it, turned it over and over in his mind until he didn’t know what was real and what was imagined.
But the truth, he realized now, was too painful.
“Where is she?” Aditi whispered as he sat up in his bed. Her eyes grazed past the empty cradle. Trembling, his mother grabbed Aditi by the arm and yanked her backwards. Aditi’s sari caught the edge of the cradle and ripped as his mother dragged her out of the room.
She collapsed at the sight of Rose’s flaccid body twisted in her stained dupatta.
“Now, as we leave the East behind us and cross over into West. Bring out your topis!” the captain called. The crowd swelled. Sun helmets and hats of all varieties were lifted off heads: Khaki Cawnpore Tent Clubs and Solar Pith Hats. He thought of his mother’s sun helmet from the Army and Navy store. The rigid brim. She masked the utility of it with silk from London. His mother had forced the topi on him for fear of the tropical, Indian sun. How he loved Aditi for letting him take it off.
“On the count of three!”
The crowd chanted in giddy solidarity. “One, two, three!”
They released their topis, a spinning flurry of brims catching the wind.
“So much for the Indian sun,” yelled a woman. Her arm lingered over the edge of the deck as though waving goodbye. He imagined his mother doing the same when she made the passage back home.
He watched the mass of topis rising and falling, carelessly in the Mediterranean. Then slowly, one by one, they disappeared.