ALICE IN WONDERLAND - 2019
Alice was an incorrigible dreamer who dreamt when she was awake and dreamt in her sleep. It was a childhood ‘gift’ she could do nothing about or, rather, did not wish to wash off. Her dreams had made life away from home pleasant and cheerful. Her dreams were golden sunshine and liquid honey, because she never ever had nightmares. She had no idea about what nightmares were or what they were like. Her dreams were moonshine and pattering rain, slanted pencils of sunlight filtering in through the glass-covered Venetian blinds of the French windows to fall on the marbled floor of the Ali home. She dreamt colourful dreams of cuddling little Doll, her granddaughter, in her ample arms. She dreamt sound-dreams of her sons belting out loud and musical Malayalee songs around a campfire during Christmas in their backyard.
She dreamt of being young all over again, revelling in being made love to by Patrick, at night, on the sands of the beach at Kovalam, which she had seen only in picture postcards and on TV. Her dreams took in the fresh whiff of an oven-fresh welcome plum cake baked by her daughters. The sweet fragrance of vanilla essence in the cake mingled with the lovely ice-cream pink colour of Doll's birthday dress she had sent from Dubai. This telescoped into another dream where Missy Baba's smiling face changed to Salome's sad face and then turned back to become Missy Baba, asking Alice-amma to tighten the belt of her gym dress. She rose to tighten the belt on Missy Baba's gym dress. As Alice turned her around to face her, she found herself looking at her own face when she was 17 and crazily in love with Patrick, six months before they had a Church marriage.
Time and space and people were too diffused, too blurred and unfocussed for Alice. The past, the present and the future telescoped into each other freely, confusing her instead of making her happy. Instead of addressing Missy Baba as Missy Baba, she would call her Salome, her younger daughter’s name. Missy Baba was around the same age as Salome because she wished she was with Salome back in Kottayam than with Missy Baba in Dubai. Alice never could rid herself of guilt for having left Salome alone with her ageing mother when the girl was only five. Patrick, when he was young, had a girlfriend from his bachelor days to keep him company while Alice was away. Alice was hurt at first. But she knew it would end one day. It did. Phelomena, a widow, left for a Sharjah family to earn enough money to feed her brood of three, left behind with her ageing parents.
Alice loved her children - Peter, Michael, Rita and Salome. Rita was married with two tiny tots . She lived nearby and Alice dreamt of babysitting for her daughter while Rita went off to the nursing home where she put in shift duty as an ayah. Salome was dusky and healthy, with lovely, wide eyes set on an oval face framed with a bevy of curls. She worked in a beauty parlour as hairdresser. She was looking for work in Dubai because she needed money to marry her boyfriend Samuel. The boys were lovable alright, but spoilt silly by Alice and her husband, Patrick, dead for five years. Peter and Michael were school drop-outs and did nothing other than engaging in street brawls and living off the rent from the portion of the house they had let out. They chased girls and watched films or just loafed around. The only trait they carried in their genes was their dead father's love for the bottle. Alice did not bother because it did not surpass their love for their mother. They loved their mother much, much more than they had ever loved their father, Patrick Thomas. They never missed Sunday mass.
Alice tightened the seat-beltShe was in a hurry to fly back. She was aware, but indifferent, to the snobbish stares of the lady seated next to her. Can a stare be snobbish? Mrs. Hi-Funda tried to increase the distance between Alice and herself by edging on and on towards the aisle-side armrest of her seat as if she wished to dig herself into it. Then she took out a sparkling white, perfumed, lace handkerchief from her Gucci handbag and covered her nose with it. Alice ignored the snub because she was sucked in by the thrill of turning her back on her Dubai job forever to come and live in their small home, built with love and care and with her Dubai earnings.
She took a handkerchief out of her weather-beaten leather purse, a hand-me-down from the kindly Mrs. Khan. She noticed that Mrs.Hi-Funda was looking at her a bit angrily, because the handkerchief Alice used was as delicate as her own. The rich hate to see the poor using what they use, as if there is an hierarchy in the use of expensive things like dainty handkerchiefs and branded perfumes. As if they have a monopoly over expensive things. Alice couldn't care less. She drowned herself in thoughts of the future.
Each time, it was the same scenario, even if the person she shared the row with was different. The men were a bit nicer. They did not go out of their way to exhibit a handkerchief over a snobbish nose. Sometimes, they made a deliberate effort to squeeze their way to the toilet, ttrying to get a feel of her lavish breasts. This did not faze her. Alice was drunk with happy feelings of going home.
Kumarakom lies along the coast of Vembanad Lake, a beautiful village stocked with divine mangroves and coconut groves, lush green paddy fields, gushing waters snaking through the dense forests. It also has a bird sanctuary. Alice was coming back for good. She looked forward to seeing her sons and daughters in her home, a few miles away in the suburbs of Kottayam.
Over twelve years, she had been from Dubai to Kerala just five times. In the middle, she came two more times, once for Rita’s wedding and once when Patrick died. Distance had blunted the grief of losing Patrick But the distance did not take away from her the joy of her daughter’s wedding. Patrick’s death was a relief because she had to break her back doing her ‘extra’ duty to pay his medical bills. The long distance calls back and forth from Dubai to Kumarakom slowed down because the expenses cut into the money she sent home as the calls also had to be paid for by Alice. They still called up but rarely, just to exchange “hellos” and “hi's” and “byes”.
Alice picked at the food when the stewardess brought the tray in. She was too immersed in her dreams to care about orange juice and roasted chicken. She sipped her coffee absent-mindedly, so did not notice that it was watery as well as cold. The roasted chicken was leathery and the juice was bitter. The French fries had gone soggy and soft while the salad was too salty. The chocolate fudge dessert was tasty though, but Alice had no taste left in her mouth. Thoughts of her grownup children blended into happy moments spent with the five Aly children whose ayah she was for twelve long years. Rukhma, Missy Baba in other words, depended on Alice-amma for every little thing she misplaced, or, for a favourite dish she was looking forward to, or, to go to the gym with, which was inside the spacious Aly home. Gone would be the luxury of a well-lit, air-conditioned room to herself with an attached bath. Gone would be those days of taking the children out for an occasional movie, or, watching a movie in their home theatre with little Amir perched on her heavy, soft, lap. But these pleasures were little, or, nothing, compared to the feelings of love that arose within as memories of her children wiped the others away. It was like cleaning the blackboard with a duster and beginning to write all over again. Some chalk marks remained, of what was written before, with its baggage of memories. But that too faded when she visualised her children around her.
When the stewardess announced that it was time for the plane to land, Alice came out of her daydream. The first and the biggest leg of her journey was over. She had to collect the Home Theatre system, the two computers, two tablets, two microwave ovens from the baggage collection point and take it through customs. Her earlier visits had brought home a sophisticated, stereophonic music system, a big-screen colour television set, an expensive camera, a ten-unit mixer-grinder, a vacuum cleaner, a juicer, and dresses and perfumes. She had even brought money saved up from her earnings to have the floor mosaic-ed., and to add one floor to the single-storey bungalow. It looked beautiful from outside, what with Salome having created a nice little patch with roses and things. And all this was after having sent Patrick enough money to run the house, to look after the medical expenses of her mother-in-law while she was alive, and to cover the expenses of her children's schooling. The Thomases did have some cultivable land. But Patrick had sold it all away, piece by little piece, to pay for his daily drink.
All this would never have been possible had not Alice taken the decision to accept the Dubai job when she wasin her thirties. Also, had she depended only on the salary the Khans paid her. She had to do some extra work on the side. Such as massaging Mr. Khan on an occasional jhoomma day, the day the Muslims offer their prayers at the mosque. Or, through selling a little bit of comfort to the odd Indian immigrant who had left his wife and children behind to live all alone in faraway Dubai. They were generous; the men were, including Khan Saheb who always rewarded her with a generous tip. Alice rationalised her prostitution through her homespun logic: if the selling of comfort could buy comfort for those who were closest to her heart, then there was really nothing wrong with it. Besides, her family did not know and what they did not know made no difference to them. She did this under the veil of going to the only church in the neighbourhood because her Muslim employers did not know that mass was held at different hours on Sundays and not on Fridays, their jhoomma day.
The domestic flight from Mumbai to Thiruvananthapuram seemed to go on and on. Firstly, the aircraft remained parked in the runway for two hours for some technical snag, which no one bothered to explain. Secondly, the in-flight staff had switched the air-conditioning off and within the sweltering heat, Alice had nothing to do but catch up on lost sleep. Thirdly, when the plane took flight, Alice was fast asleep and had to be awoken by the stewardess who, in a brusque tone, asked her to fasten her seat belt and to raise her seat. Alice promptly went back to sleep and to her favourite pastime - dreaming.
Alice did not realise she was smiling in her sleep, till the stewardess gave her a gentle nudge. She woke up to find Mrs.Hi-Funda throwing furrowed brows in her direction in the deepest frown she had ever seen. Alice saw they had arrived when the 'fasten-your-seat-belts' sign went up. She looked fondly out of the window to catch a small rectangle of the India she had left behind, as the plane taxied into the runway. It was a lush green India. An India filled with her four children, the home she had lovingly built for them, a nest to come back to, like a homing pigeon. She was already getting on in years for the jhoomma extra-income bit. Besides, all that talk of AIDS she saw on television and in movies were enough to scare her off any intention of selling 'comfort' to homesick Indians in Dubai. Her children had all the comfort she could buy for them.
No one was there to receive her at the airport. Since Patrick died, no one came to receive her. She did not allow herself to puncture the joy of coming back. She took a private taxi, reminding herself that since she had earned so much in the past twelve years, she was entitled to enjoy at least some of it. As the taxi breezed past, she caught the fields and the trees speed by. The ponds, the lakes, then the houses looming large as they made their presence felt with the taxi stepping within city limits. At a traffic light, she waved at a young mother with a baby in her arms and the woman waved right back. "It is just wonderful to be home," she kept telling herself.
Alice resisted all attempts of the driver to draw her into a tête-à-tête. She was too drunk with the joy of returning to her roots . She tried to catch the eye of passengers in neighbouring cars as they sped past, just to flash them a welcome smile, as if trying to tell them - "are you coming home? I am coming home too." The ecstasy of homecoming was so tangible, so strong, that it made her forget all those years of living away - from her family and from her country, of putting in hard labour for years together, of depriving herself of the joys of wifehood and motherhood, of selling the service of her body to buy goodies for her close ones. So tangible that she felt she could reach out and touch it.
As the taxi drove into the lane where the Thomas bungalow stood, Alice discovered, with shock, that there was no bungalow there. All that remained of the bungalow was the patch of garden with a few rose bushes, drying up in rebellion against wilful neglect. A few discarded toys of her children when they were little were strewn here and there. The plot was fenced over with barbed wire. There was a notice stuck into the earth but Alice was too shocked to notice it. Patrick's walking stick led a lonely life in the overgrown thatch of wild grass.
The driver turned out to be a sympathetic soul. He parked his car at a safe spot, checked the lock on the car dickey, and set about with Alice to find out. Alice knocked at the door of the Nairs, their immediate neighbours, who lived a block away, their bungalows separated by a small playground for children. A maid answering the door informed them that the family was away in Mumbai to attend the wedding of a close relative. She knew nothing of the Thomases, she said, because she had just joined the Nairs. She went on staring after Alice as she walked back to the gate, her shoulders bunched together, her gait reduced to a slow and halting stoop. Then, with a sigh, the young girl turned in, pulling the door shut behind her.
The Koshys were of no help either. The family comprised of a doddering old couple and their very old servant, whose memories persistently played hide-and-seek with their senses of sight and hearing. At first, they mistook Alice for their US-settled daughter who had promised to fetch them to take them back to the US five years ago. But never did. When the driver patiently explained to them who Alice was, all they did was shake their heads in disbelief, look at each other in shock and cluck their tongues. Then, they promptly went back to their TV set and forgot all about their new visitor.
They ran into 'luck' - if one could call it that, when they pressed the musical bell of the Joshys. The younger Mrs. Joshy, the daughter-in-law of the widowed old matriarch, was kind. She bade them sit, and asked the maid to bring in filter coffee and banana crispies. Alice was too impatient to savour hospitality at that moment. But politeness stopped her from refusing. Saira Joshy told them, bit by slow bit, that the Thomas boys had sold off their bungalow to a real estate developer. The house, Alice recalled with a shock, was in the name of Patrick, her husband. The two sons had moved away to Thiruvananthapuram, into an apartment of their own, bought off the proceeds of the bungalow sale. Alice could see recollect any construction work going on in that fenced off plot of land. But perhaps, all that was yet to begin. The house she felt was her home had already been razed to the ground.
Rita had moved on to Doha, with a new job in a private nursing home, leaving her children behind to be looked after by her in-laws in Kochy. Salome, presently living with her brothers who refused her any share of the flat or the money that came in from the bungalow sale, was preparing to leave for Bahrain to join a beauty parlour as hairstylist. She had split with Samuel because he did not want a girl without a dowry. Alice slowly made her way back to the taxi. She realised there was no home for her to come back to. Nor was there one she could go back to. She had only bought a one way ticket to nowhere ……...
Sunday, 25 June 2017