Deepa Anappara is a freelance writer and editor from India currently based in the UK. Her short stories have been published in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology (Volume 6), Once Upon a Time There was a Traveller: Asham Award-winning stories, Five Degrees: The Asian Short Story Prize 2012 Anthology and Beyond the Border. She is about to start her master's degree in creative writing at the University of East Anglia, Norwich.
After a Hijacking
My father doesn’t belong in our house. Except for me, no one else seems to have noticed this. He always sounded the happiest when he phoned us from Apapa or Shuwaikh or Fujairah, ports with names that made me picture old men with long and soft white beards. Instead of asking us how we were, he would talk about something he had seen: the dark sea’s belly glowing an electric blue at night or a pair of dolphins staging high jumps in the white bubbles trailing behind his ship.
He hasn’t been able to call us in three years. Our phone hasn’t stopped ringing though. It’s mostly aunts, uncles, Mother’s friends, colleagues, the journalists she befriended with tears and tea. One of them called Mother on her cell phone last week to say that Father was finally FREE-E-E-E!!! so loudly that even I heard her. I expected Mother to whoop but instead she started to cry.
The grey sky huddles against the red roofs of houses. The clouds are waiting to spit on me. I jump over puddles, hurrying away from shopkeepers who lean over their counters lined with jars of sweets and biscuits, their sticky lizard tongues unfurling towards me with questions. When I reach home, I hear Mother singing in the kitchen. The house smells of the rice twists and the jackfruit jam she has stopped making for me. I don’t take off my black school shoes at the front door as I always do. Instead I stomp my feet so that the mud clinging to the soles will form zigzag patterns on the Lizol-mopped concrete floor.
‘Prithvi, is that you?’ Mother calls out.
I walk across the living room and lean against the kitchen door with my arms crossed.
‘Da, can’t you open your mouth and speak?’ Mother asks, shaking her slotted spoon at me. She looks the same but also different and I’m not sure why. Then she sees my shoes and shrieks: ‘You’ve been walking around in those? I just cleaned the floor.’
‘The shopkeepers in this village are too stupid,’ I say. ‘They want to know what time Father’s getting back from Somalia tomorrow. Like there’s a direct flight or something.’
Mother scrunches her forehead, turns back to the gas-stove, and fishes out golden-brown murukkus from a pan. Her hair is tied in a loose bun that abruptly comes undone. I now see what is different about her: someone has ironed out the waves in her hair so that it falls over her blouse soft and smooth as silk.
‘What happened to your hair?’ I ask.
‘The women at the beauty parlour said this’ – Mother strokes her hair with one hand – ‘is the latest fashion.’
Now I notice that her face is shinier and whiter too. The sparse moustache above her lips has been bleached a silvery grey.
‘Take off those dirty shoes and go wash up. Then you can eat. This is your favourite, isn’t it?’ she says. ‘Your father’s too.’
I rub my hands against my nose as if I am about to sneeze. Everyone in the village is dressing up to welcome Father. They’ve decorated the streets with multi-coloured bunting, and there’s talk of him giving a speech under the banyan tree where old men stand around gossiping in the evenings. All because Father spent one thousand and four nights in an oil tanker hijacked by Somali pirates. As far I know, he didn’t as much as punch one of them. He’s a big man, and his shoulders are so wide that he can hold three of me standing side by side. But there was no trace of his strength in a video clip the pirates released soon after his ship was hijacked. Father’s lips trembled as he stood behind the master, who pleaded with the ship’s owners and the Indian government to pay the ransom the pirates demanded. ‘We’re requesting to the honourable Prime Minister of India, please to help us,’ the master said and, sitting on our living room sofa, Mother bit her knuckles and squeezed her eyes shut.
I drop my satchel on the floor and wash my hands at the kitchen sink. ‘I’m hungry,’ I say.
Mother heaps murukkus on a steel plate and hands it to me with a warning: ‘Don’t drop crumbs all over the floor.’
I put the plate down on the granite kitchen counter, which is smudged with rice flour and gluey with jackfruit gum, and snap the murukkus into small pieces with both my hands.
‘Guruvayurappa, will my son ever learn to eat slowly?’ Mother asks Lord Krishna as I shove the pieces into my mouth. She talks to him often, as if he has nothing better to do than listen to her.
I wipe my hands against the back of my pants and, still chewing, say, ‘I’m going out. Okay-bye.’
‘Da, at least change out of your uniform,’ Mother shouts as I open the back door. I duck my head under the windows and make my way around the side of the house to the front gate, sploshing through the mud. My white socks feel cool against my legs. Mother has had the garden freshly weeded and it smells like mulch and damp earth. I pick up an earthworm, watch it wriggle, and then drop it back into the dirt. I pluck a couple of toothed hibiscus leaves to clean my fingers. Outside the front gate our neighbours are standing in a circle, chatting about Father.
‘They asked for nine million US dollars—’
‘But the ship’s owner just disappeared.’
‘Thank God for the Indian navy—’
‘India didn’t even lift a finger. It was all because of the Somalian military.’
‘Somalia doesn’t have a military. They don’t have anything.’
‘Prithvi, excited about your father coming home?’
Mister Dasan, the only man in our village who wears a jacket because he is a railway ticket-checker, has caught me trying to sneak out, and asks me the very question that I don’t want to hear. I push my hands into the pockets of my trousers and say, ‘All that lies between us and Somalia is the Indian Ocean. Really, it’s only a long boat ride away.’
I don’t wander around the run-down Frog Palace by myself when it’s raining. Its bare rooms are almost-dark, and the broken windows open and slam shut by themselves in the wind. Fat scorpions hide in the cracks in the walls, and on the floors slither vipers with forked tongues. But the palace is empty and there’s no one around to tell me you must be so excited/happy/relieved. I head to a room that my friend Basheer and I cleaned last week with brooms stolen from our houses.
A long time ago, the Frog Palace was the village king’s summer residence, but now its loudest inhabitants are frogs that croak all night in the monsoon. In summer, college students bunk classes and come here to smoke cigarettes, drink beer and scratch revolutionary slogans on the walls, but in the rains, it’s a slippery walk up the hill on which the palace stands, and the students flock instead to their cinemas and cool bars. They leave the palace to us. Basheer and I play football or take turns at being the king, though now we are nearly eleven and Basheer says we’re too old for play-acting. I still like to pretend that a stick is a sword though.
I decide to be a king this evening. I will ride my horse into battle on the National Highway that loops around the hill. I put on my fine clothes and pick up my sword. I practise my moves, slicing the air with such strength that my arms hurt. The wind swears outside. Water dribbles down the palace’s leaking roof. I miss Basheer though I’m the reason he is not here today. I lied to him that I wouldn’t be able to get out of the house before the weekend. He is my best friend but even he is thrilled about Father’s release. ‘What do you think he will get you?’ he nudged my elbow and whispered during the school assembly this morning, and I hissed, ‘It’s not like there’s duty-free in Somalia.’ Even then, he didn’t give up: ‘But he’s coming back through Muscat, isn’t he?’
Lightning crackles through the sky and the rumble of thunder follows. The ground shudders. On my father’s first sailing trip, a storm broke and the sea became a moving mountain, each wave marbled with white a crest that the ship had to climb and descend. I heard Father tell Mother that he watched the sea heave without throwing up or shivering, hearing only the roar of the waves and the creak of the ship and not even the beating of his heart. This is how I have always imagined him: fearless, the kind of man who would, like a hero in a Tamil film, single-handedly knock out ten rogues.
My mother and I, we have never questioned Father. In our house, his word is God. I wonder how he spent three years shackled by pirates and their guns. Maybe it has made him softer, rounder. This is what I secretly hope for.
Mother starts addressing Guruvayurappan again when she sees me dripping water and tracking dirt onto the floor. My hair is plastered against my skull and my school uniform looks like it’s going to need a thorough thrashing against the washing stone before the dirt stains fade.
‘I’m glad your father’s going to be home from now on to sort you out,’ Mother says as she dries my hair with a Turkish towel. ‘You don’t listen to a word of what I say.’
The tube light flickers and dies. Another power-cut, a monsoon special. In the dark, I find my way to my room and bolt the door. I peel off my clothes and twist the skin on the back of my thigh until I can feel what I’m looking for: the outline of a raised scar from the last round of Father’s beatings, which was two years and nine months ago.
A week or so before he was to fly to Sharjah, to start his job on the MT Phoenix Explorer sailing to Nigeria, Father had stayed with Mother in their room all evening. I knocked on the door more than once because it was well past my dinner time and there were no fish-chicken-sambhar smells coming from the kitchen.
‘Prithvi, be quiet,’ Father shouted from the other side of the door.
I leaned against it and listened to the strange sounds they were making. Then I knocked again. The door opened so suddenly that I tumbled into their room. Father’s hair looked frizzier than normal and red rivers criss-crossed his eyes.
‘You have spoilt him rotten,’ Father turned to Mother and said. ‘What’s he going to be like when he grows up?’
Then he grabbed a brown leather belt hanging from a hook behind the bedroom door, and its metal clasp clanked as it hit the floor. I stepped back. He swung the belt and it stung my thighs. I turned around and heard the whoosh of the belt again. My skin was burning. I crumpled to the floor, and pressed my knees against my nose. Mother grabbed Father’s hands, begging him to stop, but he pushed her aside and dragged me up and slapped my face and things went white at first and then black. When I woke up, I was lying on my bed with gooey balm on my legs.
The next morning, my face was the colour of the brinjals Mother sliced into her sambhar. Father read the newspaper as Mother fed me my favourite breakfast: ghee dosas with coriander-mint chutney. She told me I didn’t have to go to school. I said I would play in the garden but, the first chance I got, I tiptoed out and ran to the police station. I approached a stout constable and told him I wanted to file a complaint against Father.
With his fingers that had crusty, yellow-brown nails, the policeman examined my face. ‘Very bad, very bad,’ he said. ‘You must have done something very bad.’
He took me home and told Father, ‘Your son should be locked up in a cage.’ Then he laughed as if he had cracked the world’s best joke. Mother gave him tea and asked him about the helmet-wearing men on bikes who rode around the village ripping gold chains off women’s necks. ‘We’re this close to catching them,’ the constable said, making a small C with his thumb and forefinger. Father talked to him about petrol prices and a chief minister who had just died in a helicopter crash.
After he left, Father looked at my mother and said, ‘See what I’ve to deal with. And you ask me why I don’t spend more time at home.’
It is tomorrow today. Mother makes me wear a new shirt with a label that scratches against my neck. I complain I’m feeling too unwell to go on the long drive to the airport but Mother presses her hand against my forehead and pronounces me fit for travel. She’s wearing a maroon sari and dangling jhumka earrings. Her straight hair hangs loose over her shoulders, and there’s a smudge of vermillion in her central parting.
At nine in the morning, the sound of a van’s loud horn has Mother bundling me out of the house. The driver has already picked up Big Aunt and Grandma, who live in the village next to us. They sit on the seat behind the driver, their saris hitched up well above their ankles. They make a big fuss about Mother’s brand-new look and slide to the edge of their seat to accommodate her, but banish me to the last row of seats in the van. It smells like diesel and vomit. I wipe the windows that are foggy with condensation. Through my misty circle on the glass, I watch the potholed highway snake behind us. I say goodbye to my thousand and four nights of freedom.
Two hours later, we’re at the airport, which looks like a temple with its gables and sloping roof. Someone comes rushing towards Mother with a microphone. It’s a journalist, a girl who looks young enough to be in school. They talk about the time Mother went to Delhi. She had left me with Grandma for a week to protest outside the Transport Bhavan in Delhi, with families of other crew members in Father’s ship. They had even slept on the pavement for two nights in Delhi’s winter cold.
‘You think this would have happened if the crew was white?’ Mother asks the journalist now. ‘No one cares what happens to people like us.’
‘It’s shameful,’ the journalist agrees. ‘America would have gone to war with Somalia for this. Bombed it right off the map.’
The Malayala Manorama, which Mother reads every morning, announced the return of the Phoenix Explorer’s mostly Indian crew with the words: ‘The longest hijack in modern maritime history has come to an end.’ For sure, three years is a lot more than the time you have to spend in prison for some crimes, but I feel like it isn’t long enough for me to forgive Father.
By the time a woman announces that Father’s plane has landed, there is a crowd in the Arrivals section and so much pushing and elbowing that my head hurts. The air smells of sweaty armpits and flowers. Everyone moves to make space for a chubby man wearing white clothes, circled by his flunkeys also dressed in white, carrying pink roses wrapped in transparent plastic packets. The man folds his hands and greets Mother. ‘He’s an MP,’ Big Aunt, who’s standing next to me, bends down and whispers in my ears.
Father comes out just then, holding a small, blue travel bag in his hands. The clothes he wears hang loosely from his frame. His cheeks are sunken and his hands are as thin as twigs. His hair has turned white. Mother and Grandma sob loudly and Big Aunt pushes me towards him. The MP’s lackeys cut in front of me and shake Father’s hands. The MP gives him so many bouquets that some fall from his hands. He looks dazed. Drops everything to the ground and stumbles towards us. Holds me tight and kisses the top of my head. Hugs Big Aunt and Grandma and, to my surprise, Mother. I have never seen them touch each other but now Father buries his face in Mother’s shoulder and cries. Then he kisses her cheek. Cameras flash. I’m so embarrassed I want to take my sword out and plunge it deep into my stomach and die.
Mother is worried about Father, I can tell. Every night, he wanders around our house, unable to sleep, swaying as if he is a boat bobbing on the waves. He always dresses like he is about to go for a job interview. The vests and the lungis he once favoured stay in the cupboard. He sometimes manages to fall asleep on the sofa while watching the news on television but wakes up screaming every few minutes. Some afternoons, he scoops out jackfruit jam from glass jars with his fingers, but mostly he doesn’t touch his food. He has long conversations on the phone with fellow sailors about how the shipping company hasn’t paid them their salaries. They’re all broke, Father too. Mother took up a job as a receptionist at a gynaecologist’s clinic last year after our money ran out. We aren’t poor because Grandma and Big Aunt write Mother cheques she cashes with her cheeks as red as it gets when she eats something too spicy.
One night, I wake up from a bad dream about pirates who have skull heads and machete hands, and hear the television in the living room. The yellow light from the street lamp outside filters into the room through the frosted glass windows. I lie in my bed, staring at the ceiling fan, switched off tonight because the rains have seeped into the walls of our house and made it cold. After a while, I slide out of my bed and open the door slowly so it won’t creak.
Father’s slumped on the sofa in front of the television. He changes channels. He drinks a glass of water on the side-table, tilting his head back as far as possible to drain the last drop. He drums his fingers on the sofa and jumps when he hears my footsteps.
I know why he is so twitchy. I heard him tell the relatives, friends and acquaintances who came home to see him that the Somali pirates, who were always high on something, hung the sailors upside down on a wire and beat them with pipes and AK-47 guns. Some days the pirates shot at them for fun and bullets missed Father by inches.
‘There are no pirates here,’ I say and then feel stupid. He doesn’t need me to console him.
‘Why aren’t you asleep?’ he asks.
He walks with me to the kitchen, switches on the light, and gives me a glass of jeera water from a jug. I remember Father telling my mother that the Explorer’s crew had to drink stale water that tasted of petrol out of jerry cans. I rub my eyes with the back of my hands, thinking of all the horrible things I had wished upon him over the years and feel sick inside.
‘You’ll go blind if you keep doing that,’ Father says.
I drink up. He switches off the light.
By the end of the fifteen-day leave Mother took because Father was coming home, the air in the house is as thick and heavy as a woollen blanket. Mother’s hair starts curling up again and black half-moons swell under her eyes.
On a Saturday morning, a loud conversation between Mother and Father, drifting into my room through the half-open door, wakes me up. Mother thinks the Indian government should give Father a job. ‘It’s the least they can do,’ she says.
‘I’m not a government employee. They don’t have to do anything.’
‘I’m going to write to the Prime Minister. I will call up all the journalists I know.’
‘Why don’t you look for a pot of gold too while you’re at it?’
I get out of bed and run into the bathroom. I turn on the tap so I won’t hear anything, splash water on my face and brush my teeth so hard threads of red run through the white foam that I spit out.
Afterwards, Father tells me that he is going to spend the day with me. I have to meet Basheer but he looks so eager that I nod. We walk around the village, me wearing an oversized yellow raincoat, Father carrying his oversized black umbrella. He tires easily. He stops to stare at the parrot-green paddy fields where men and women pull weeds, standing in knee-high murky water, yellow and blue tarpaulin sheets draped over their heads. In the river by the fields, we watch mahouts scrub a temple elephant lying on its side, one ivory tusk sticking out of the water. We hike up to the Frog Palace, Father panting, stopping often to stretch his back and catch his shallow breath. Our feet slip on the mossy stones on the path. I don’t tell Father that Basheer and I come here to play. He doesn’t seem to notice the palace’s mouldy walls, the wind sweeping through the rooms like a masked thug rifling through the shelves in your house, the black rat droppings and the wet cigarette and beedi stubs left over from the summer on the floor.
Outside the palace, Father stands at the edge of the hill, looking down at the highway and the rain trees flanking it and the grey horizon in the distance.
‘Let’s go to the town today,’ he says. ‘We won’t tell Mother because… ah, you know what she’s like.’
‘Money-money-money, bak-bak-bak,’ I say in a whiny voice while also trying to imitate a chicken. Father and I have become best friends. We will play kings and soldiers. We will sharpen our swords and take our ship to Somalia and find the pirates who beat Father and cut their heads off.
We climb down the hill and take a bus. Its windows are covered with blue tarpaulin sheets to keep the rain out. I lift up a sheet, because it’s musty inside, and an old woman sitting in front of us turns around and asks me to put it down. I don’t. She ticks me off for drenching her with water. ‘No one has taught you to respect your elders or what?’ she asks.
Father shakes his head and I can’t make out if he’s blaming me or the woman. When we get to the town, he takes me to a restaurant and orders mushrooms with onions and tomatoes, stuffed pomfrets, and chicken biriyani. I drink two chilled glasses of Fanta and my stomach swells up like a balloon.
‘When we were in Somalia,’ Father says, ‘the only thing we talked about was food. What we were going to eat when we were free. The North Indians wanted their roti and dal, their channa-bhatura. All I could think of was your mother’s murukkus and dosas.’ Father spoons out the oil floating on top of the curry. ‘We got to eat only once a day. A handful of rice, with a pinch of salt if the pirates were in a good mood.’
I don’t feel like eating anymore. Father doesn’t ask the waiter to pack the leftovers. After he pays the bill, we look around the shops and the cinema halls in the town, and Father keeps saying how so much has changed in three years. To me, everything looks the same.
The wind scatters the clouds in the sky and the sun comes out. Shouts rise from a stadium nearby. Father takes me inside to watch a football match between students from two local colleges. He cheers for both teams. He screams ‘come on, come on’ when a player dribbles the ball close to the goal post, and then he has a coughing fit. I rub his back. Someone scores a goal and the umpire blows a long, loud whistle. The game is over. The students are too tired to high-five each other but Father grins. ‘We won, we won,’ he says, gripping my shoulders and shaking me like he’s angry with me. People look at us as if we’re mad.
The next day there’s a call from someone who was on the Phoenix Explorer with Father. I’m sitting on the living room floor trying to calculate the width of a uniform path that’s wrapped around a rectangular field seventy metres long and fifty metres wide. I can’t concentrate because Father’s talking on the phone. The house smells like the damp clothes Mother has hung on the back of chairs to dry. She comes out of the kitchen now, holding a knife, the edge of her sari tucked in at the waist.
‘Who was it?’ she asks when Father hangs up.
‘Sharma. He’s been talking to the people at the International Transport Workers’ Federation.’ Father stands up. ‘Doesn’t look like anything’s going to come out of it. Apparently our ship wasn’t insured.’
‘Three years of torture and not even a hundred rupees to show for it?’
‘It could have been worse,’ Father says. ‘Sharma has a bullet in his leg and his doctors have told him not to put any pressure on his feet.’
‘You keep saying that but what’s the use? It’s not going to pay Prithvi’s tuition fees,’ Mother says, pointing the knife at me.
Two months ago, Mother rolled around the Guruvayoor temple, her outstretched hands pointing towards the idol of Lord Krishna, with Grandma and Big Aunt helping her stay on the pradikshina path. She was punishing herself so that God would let Father return. I was walking alongside her, asking God to keep him right where he was. I wonder if this is why they’re fighting. Mother never argued with Father before.
‘There are plenty of jobs in the merchant navy,’ Father says. ‘I will find work soon.’
‘You’re not going back to the sea,’ Mother says. ‘We talked about that already.’
Father’s face puffs up as it does when he is angry. A snail that the rain has hounded out of the garden crawls under the sofa.
‘What else do you think I can do?’ Father asks. ‘I’m an oiler. I’m completely useless outside of a ship.’
I get up and edge towards the door, trying to be as quiet as I can. But my stupid legs knock against a three-legged stool that holds a brass vase overflowing with dead roses.
‘Where do you think you’re going?’ Father snarls at me. ‘Have you finished your homework?’
‘No?’ I say like it’s a question. This is the first time Father has shouted at me since he came back. I feel like a wave of sludge is rising up from the garden to smother me.
‘When does your son study?’ Father asks Mother. ‘Never, that’s when. Wanders around all the time like a beggar.’ His voice is booming again. There’s no sign of the man he had been yesterday. He turns to me now. ‘Don’t think I don’t know what you’re up to in that broken-down palace.’
‘But… I… it’s nothing—’
‘Hanging around with those good-for-nothing college boys,’ Father says. ‘Smoking with them too, looks like. I saw the cigarette stubs lying outside the palace.’
‘I don’t smoke,’ I say. I am disappointed by how easily he has recovered his old self. I know that the scars and wounds the pirates inflicted on him haven’t yet healed because he is so desperate to hide them under his full-sleeved shirts and trousers.
‘Don’t scream at me because you’re scared of pirates and you can’t sleep at night,’ I find myself saying.
Father’s nostrils flare. Swearing at me, he marches forward and bends down to pick up a plastic ruler lying next to my books on the floor. I know what he has in mind and I should turn around and run and I can’t, I seem to be nailed to the ground. But before I have said a word, Mother is standing in front of him, blocking his way.
‘No,’ she says, her voice shrill and menacing. ‘Don’t you dare touch him. You can’t behave like that around here anymore.’
Father’s mouth is half-open with surprise. Mother wrenches the ruler out of his hand, so sharply that its sides must have cut into his skin. The pressure cooker hisses on the gas-stove and Mother dashes to the kitchen, my ruler in one hand and her knife in the other, a goddess with a blood-stained mouth. Father flops down on the sofa and switches the TV on.
‘Turn the volume down,’ Mother shouts from the kitchen.
People do change, I realise. Maybe just not the ones you expect.
Outside, the rain pelts down. I want to make a paper boat, catch a tiny fish swivelling in the culvert below our front gate. The Maths homework can wait.