Sheela Jaywant, a humour-columnist and writer-at-large, lives in Goa, India. Her short stories have been published internationally and have found their way into anthologies such as ‘She Writes’, ‘Vanilla Desires’, ‘City of the Gods’, ‘Carnival’, ‘Indian Voices’, ‘Shell Windows’, ‘Railonama’ and others. Her own collections are ‘Quilted-stories of Middle-Class India’, ‘Liftman and Other Stories’ and ‘Melting Moments’. Her story ‘After Seven Long Years’ was included in the South Million Writers Award Notable Stories of 2009. Her short fiction has also won prizes on www.toasted-cheese.com and the Fundacao Oriente Competition. She has written two plays and translated (Marathi-English) several books.
No Cake, No Candles
The first thing Avinash got on the morning of his fourteenth birthday was a very scientific, explicit lecture on sex from his father, Dr Som Kateja. According to the scriptures, lessons learnt at dawn were never forgotten, and Dr Kateja believed every word written in the puraan.
After a breakfast of ragi porridge studded with cashew bits and raisins, the family in unison chanted special mantras for Avinash’s well-being. The positive vibrations that emanated from the recitation would ensure overall well-being and be a magnet for happy thoughts, he was told. The milk for the porridge came from indigenous cows bred and kept at a farm near Khandala, a three-hour drive from their home in Mumbai. The cows were fed on a mix of flax seeds, crumbled oil-cakes, locally grown pulses, freshly ground rind, seeds of various fruits and vegetables and a kind of wild grass.
Before he set out for school, his mother gave him a special sweet made of ground almonds, tulsi leaves and jaggery. For his classmates, the treat was dates stuffed with poppy-seeds, saffron strands and powdered walnuts. Had Avinash not been sure that his father would check with his teacher whether he’d distributed the stuff or not, he’d have thrown the entire lot into the dustbin.
He knew what the boys would say: “Dates? They look like ‘roaches, dude, brown and shiny.”
It was a joke, what Avinash brought to class on his birthday. One year there were laddoos with a resin called dink or gondh in them and they were distributed along with a printed note which explained its properties. They were made at home in pure ghee — unprocessed butter that had been clarified in their kitchen, in a caste-iron pan. That fact was also announced, causing Avinash much embarrassment. Another time, little coir boxes lined with strips of banana leaves were handed out. The leaves were wilted, discolored and smelly by the time his mates ate the ‘treat’ wrapped inside them: a carrot-cucumber-avocado salad in jowar-flour bread. Last year there were soyabean barfis, washed down with flavored lauki juice. His classmates had tortured him by calling him Mr O’Rourke (the sound one made when one vomited, they explained).
There was nothing Avinash could do about his parents’ ‘tender loving care’.
On this, the second birthday of his teens, he was, they guessed, grown enough to know the roles of the male and female gonads, yet still a child for them to regulate his daily activities. Out of sheer conditioning, if Avinash wasn’t monitored, he felt lost. He had got used to having an adult eye on him.
It had been this way from the time he was born. He and his brother, Ashwin, were not born in a hospital but at home, in the same bedroom they now occupied.
Dr Kateja and his wife Javitri believed childbirth was a normal physiological function, not an illness (though sometimes their mother joked, it was dis-ease all right). They believed strongly in doing everything the natural way and were part of the movement called ‘By the Vedas’. Pulses and grains were bought from a certain store in Kalbadevi which didn’t use polythene bags, or plastic implements. Their groceries came wrapped in old newspapers and were stored in earthenware jars specially ordered through the famous ‘Earth-Network’. Fruits and vegetables were specially fetched from a friend’s farm in Karjat. Living simply took much time and effort. They ate their meals squatting on the floor on woven mats from ‘India Grass Products’, using low ebony-wood stools as tables. The shampoo they used was made from reetha seeds, and instead of soap they used gram-flour scented with sandalwood powder. When they learnt that sandalwood trees were a protected species, they stopped using the powder.
Whenever Avinash visited his friends’ homes, he would visit the bathroom and deeply sniff at all the soaps, detergents and shampoos that he saw. Sometimes he felt their bubbly, frothy slipperiness between his fingers and dawdled before he washed it off. Often he took so long, people knocked on the door asking what he was up to. He loved to eat at a table. It seemed such a fancy thing to do. Everyone did it, and he liked to feel that he ‘belonged’ to the rest of the world.
Until he was four, Avinash had worn no clothes, except for an oversized chaddi. He had only a vague memory of those days: the feel of soft white khadi muslin against his skin. He was aware of it only because his brother, four years younger, was put through the same regimen.
What he remembered distinctly though, was when his parents decided that he had to be put in a proper school. He was seven, home-tutored until then, and knew little more than what a kindergarten child did. He was dragged from one reluctant principal’s office to another; everyone openly ridiculed him and his parents for his ignorance.
At the time, at home, he had found solace in but one thing: their dear (and now) departed pet cat named Timepass. The name bothered him, for quite often relatives and acquaintances would ask his parents in loud tones when they spoke of his home-based education, “What are you doing, ‘time-pass’ with the boy’s life?” He didn’t understand what it meant. It was so confusing for, in his little mind, Timepass was his furry friend, his confidante. Yoga, meditation, the Vedic way of life and the companionship of parents and a sibling weren’t a substitute for real playmates. The lack of television meant contemporary vocabulary was very, very limited. And adult, and outdated.
Finally, a new school in the far-off suburbs admitted him in a lower class than was the norm for a child of his age. Over two years of attendance there plus personalized coaching and a ‘donation’ later he was transferred to a nearer school of his parents’ choice.
Thanks to their parents’ influence and training, by the age of five, both Avinash and Ashwin were able to talk in verse, had incorporated exercise in their daily routine, could recite shlokas in Sanskrit and were adept at tidying up the house, for doing personal tasks was encouraged. The strong and continuous attempt to eat sattvic food, to live a pure life as prescribed by the ancient sages, had its own stresses in 2017 A.D. They lived on the sixteenth floor of a skyscraper, dependent on a lift, a car, a geyser, freezer and other gadgets. For cooking, his mother used the ‘gas’, though she liked to tell relatives that, in spite of its convenience, she used coal for some things, like roasting brinjals. The mixer-blender was considered anti-nature, so the grinding stone lived on. Avinash was fascinated by the utensils he saw in his friends’ homes. The friends’ families didn’t have iron or brass kadhais; they had non-stick tawas and glassware and microwave ovens. He had a tendency to wander into others’ kitchens and loos.
The Kateja flat got a lot of breeze and sunlight. Dr Som Kateja’s ‘business’ was doing well. He worked fixed hours as a General Practitioner, though his fame was more as a spiritual healer and naturopath. There was good money in the latter. He didn’t believe that ‘cut-practice’ would harm his soul, so the referrals to hospitals and consultants brought in commissions, too. Once, a “chest pain case” was brought in, a cardiac arrest. He resuscitated the patient right there in his dispensary and transferred him to the hospital immediately, with the help of some kind (and strong) Samaritans, in his own car. The man survived. His other patients, who had witnessed him doing the procedure, thought it was miraculous: “Doctor banged his hands on the dead man’s chest and the man came around. Doctor made a dead man alive. There’s jadoo in Doctor’s hands. It’s not just the doctori, it’s the spiritual thing.” Word went around that Doctor had a ‘divine hand’. He didn’t rectify that notion, nor let them know that he was, after all, a trained allopath.
Which was why, he wondered, at times, whether or not he should inoculate his children with vaccines. Were mobile phones really a menace to humankind? Why wasn’t he considering moving out of Mumbai, to a less polluted place? Had sufficient research been done on cow-urine properties? The boys witnessed these discussions between their parents, who wanted to simplify their lifestyle, but the compartmentalization, the divide between the ancient and the modern, between them and the ‘others’ was actually complicating matters.
Murmurs about how ‘abnormal’ his family was frequently reached Avinash’s ears. Sometimes, Ashwin, though so young, also asked awkward questions to which he didn’t have any answers. For example: “Why don’t we have a TV?” There was no point in asking his mother or father about it. Once, Avinash said to a friend, “Television spoils the eyesight, melts the brain cells.” The friend laughed and retorted, “You wear specs yourself, and you don’t have the IQ of a stray cat, buddy. You guys are weirdoes. Get real.” Avinash was hurt, and wanted to delete, delete, delete the memory of that incident. But it stayed put in his mind; he still remembers the hurt he felt at those words.
Beyond the bars of the windows of his house, Avinash could see other flats, other buildings, the cars below, occupied by people who lived such different lives. Avinash’s parents claimed they were all unhappy people, but they didn’t seem at all unhappy to Avinash. On the contrary, he so often saw people laughing loudly, chatting with abandon, walking, smiling, and eating on roadside stalls, at bus-stops, in markets.
Markets. One day, the boys were taken to a mall to show them how horrid malls were. Avinash loved the cool interior, the escalator, the shiny windows, the smart fare within, the salespersons who made him feel so important. Why didn’t they go there more often? The parents pointed out how much electricity was wasted, how much people spent on things they didn’t really need, how excess ownership of clothes, shoes, whatever meant they’d have to spend that much time in maintenance, how those cars were killing the earth.
Avinash asked his father, “How can cars kill the earth?” It was hard to explain the effects of pollution when nothing could be seen, Dr Kateja replied. He took the boys to the open drain at Love Grove near Worli, made them close their eyes and inhale. “Isn’t the stink disgusting?” he asked. Avinash had spent nearly three years in a dump of a school with open urinals and had commuted through the sewage-reeking slums of Dharavi to get there. He didn’t notice anything amiss. Familiarity is kind to ugliness. If one gets used to dirt, one stays dirty. Despicable or otherwise, conditions become a habit. The memory of his early schooldays was an experience of freedom from home. At home, he was allowed to do whatever he pleased, for his parents believed in ‘no restrictions’ for children. At school, he experienced discipline. The dos and don’ts gave him a sense of worth, allowed him to be a part of a group. The structure of routine and regulation soothed his high energy levels. The teachers in that suburban school were old. They made him learn math-tables, Hindi poems, grammar. From his classmates he picked up Bollywood songs and dialogues. He learned to detach his home life from the outside world. He associated that effort, that sense of achievement, with the stench he now inhaled.
Father and son were imperceptibly following divergent paths, each not fully comprehending the other’s views. Just because an adult has spent more years on the planet doesn’t make his mind clearer than a teenager’s. Unclouded by experience, Avinash’s views were unbiased. He didn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t voice them; his father tried to read his silence, failing miserably in the attempt. “Isn’t the smell horrible? See the gandh? That’s how we’re choking Mother Earth, that’s pollution. In the air, we can’t see it; in the water, sometimes we can. We can’t see the micro-organisms, though.”
“Micro…?” Avinash asked.
“Germs, germs! Disease-germs, killing Mother Earth,” his father replied impatiently.
How, Avinash thought to himself, could the earth fall ill? Was it a living thing? Trees were living, yes, for one could see the flowers and leaves grow. They felt different from plastic. Father said, rocks and soil were living, too. Besides, the planet was huge. If at all, it was the earth that could kill all those on it. It seemed a bit arrogant to say ‘we’re killing the earth’. Are we really that powerful, to change the fate of a planet? How, Avinash couldn’t figure that out and he let it be. Those driving the cars seemed more at ease, more cheerful than his parents who always told him how wholesome a life they were leading. Again the question came to mind: How? Perhaps, he figured, there was more energy required to live the good life and they were just tired, tired of it all. Unknowingly, he had grasped the truth. Instinctively, he knew he wouldn’t get any satisfactory answers to these questions.
School, classmates, play and the Internet. Hard though his parents tried, there was no escape from their influence.
One day, about a month after his fourteenth birthday, Avinash and his mother had a bitter fight. Avinash, his cracked adolescent voice loud but unsteady, had answered her back, rudely. Shocked and tearful, she told his father that evening: “… he eats chips every day in school. Do you know that? Every day! Soft-drinks, chocolates and red meat kababs. Don’t I take trouble over the variety of sprouts that I pack in his tiffin? How did he develop this taste? Why can’t he convince others, convert them to a more natural way of living? He should be leading the way, not following them.” The boys were brought up to be gentle, caring, courteous lambs. Although Avinash had tried to growl at his mother, he had not been really successful at it. It was too late for him to change.
The sex-talk Dr Som Kateja had given had had an impact on Avinash. In the following weeks, he understood just what his friends meant when they said (or made) certain words (or gestures). He laughed with them and continued laughing long after they’d stopped. This residual giggling made him the butt of more jokes, but he couldn’t help himself: he found this business about being ‘with’ girls so… so… he couldn’t describe it… funny? That change in him got him a couple of friends. Within a few months, some of them even showed him how their mobile phones worked, shared facts about iPods, mp3s and other such things about which he was curious.
Avinash had a crush on his history teacher. He dreamed about her all the time and he wanted to do ‘it’ to her. As his father had drilled into his head on that birthday dawn (so he wouldn’t ever forget), he had to ‘keep’ himself for his future wife. He had to be a one-woman man, clean and careful, and loyal. Avinash interpreted that to mean… he’d have to marry ‘History Miss’.
Then Avinash learnt that she was married. He was more than heartbroken. He couldn’t believe that the woman he loved belonged to someone else. His tender soul wept copiously inside him; he lost his appetite, he couldn’t bear to look at her. Misery, he repeated to himself through his waking hours, thy name is Avinash.
Six months later, Avinash got promoted into the next standard, and forgot about her. By then, he had sorted some of the stuff his father had told him, in his head, on his own, and come to a conclusion. The lesson his father had given him on sex, about females and males made to fit each other, about the urge and the instinct, the egg and sperm story was perhaps his father’s view, perhaps other people had sex differently. After all, the Katejas were so unlike anyone he knew in school or elsewhere. They were the odd ones out. They never had cakes and candles on their birthdays. What his father had told him had sounded so repulsive in any case. Absurd, Avinash thought as he contemplated the topic. Which boy would like to expose his nunu to a girl? Maybe his father didn’t know how others did ‘it’. Maybe his father was as wrong about sex as he was about thinking other people were unhappy. How and where could Avinash find out the truth? He had tried to ask his classmates, but they teased him mercilessly when he did. He tried to search for something on the topic online, but his school library, his only access to the www, had no access to sites that dealt with it.
He decided to ask his uncle, Pappu-mama, who lived near them. Pappu-mama, Javitri’s cousin, worked in a private firm and was a friendly and worldly-wise fellow. He was like a handyman for the Katejas. He knew where to get the best paan in Mumbai and he could spit its ‘after-chewed’ contents with accuracy. He knew what to do, whom to contact, when some bank work had to be done, or the washing-machine (bought when hand-washing the linen became a back-aching chore) belt broke, or the sewage drain choked. The Katejas could do without some twenty-first century amenities and gloat about their rich heritage and lost culture, but they could not do without Pappu-mama. He lived nearby with his wife and children. He ran errands for the Katejas, sourced farm-fresh fruits for them, helped in getting a substitute to clean the house when the maid was on leave, maintained the car, ferried the children when needed, and was a dependable sort. In return for the work he did for the Katejas, he got interest-free loans whenever he needed them. One didn’t know whether he ever returned them, but that’s beyond the scope of this story.
When Avinash hesitated to show an end of term report card to his parents, it was Pappu-mama who assured him that all would be well, stroked his back, massaged his shoulders, tickled his feet, drew his fingers up his legs, beyond his knees, across his thighs, exploring what lay inside his shorts. Pappu-mama cajoled Avinash by calling him ‘Bhanja-sahib’, giving him forbidden goodies like the sweet candy-cigarettes, to spend some extra minutes in with him whenever he was feeling low. Pappu-mama had the keys to the Katejas’ less-used car, and he sometimes took Avinash for a drive in it. Sometimes with Ashwin, too, but never with anyone else.
It was to him Avinash turned for answers regarding what girls and boys did, as explained to him by his father.
As always, the dependable Pappu-mama ‘did’, as the Indian phrase goes, ‘the needful’. He drew pictures of naked men, mostly, and one or two women, showed Avinash some video clips on his mobile phone.
It was a few weeks after his fifteenth birthday that Avinash’s mother found him very quiet, looking ill, not willing to get out of bed, not wanting to go to school, and he spent a lot of time in the bathroom. He wouldn’t tell her much when she asked him whether everything was okay.
“Yes” was his brief and abrupt answer.
She spoke about it to her husband. “Seems to have injured his foot, he’s limping, and he’s withdrawn. Do you think he got into a fight or something? He won’t tell me anything. The amount of time he spends in the bathroom… you think he…?”
“You worry too much,” Dr Kateja said. “It’s the age. His hormones are activated. He is becoming a man. Let him be. I’ve told him about the changes in his body, talked to him as a father should. He will contemplate those things, it’s okay.”
But all the questions that had arisen in Avinash’s mind had been answered by Pappu-mama. Whenever he wanted to go anywhere, as long as he was with the trustworthy Pappu-mama, he was allowed to go. To the aquarium on Marine Drive, for the heritage walk on Colaba Causeway, to see the monsoon waves on the beach and near the Mahim Fort, on long drives on holiday mornings to Karjat and back. And to dance bars. Pappu-mama, the vegetarian, the one with ‘God’s threads’ tied around his wrists, with lockets representing saints hanging on cheap chains around his neck, who was always mumbling some prayer or the other in the presence of his employers, who was so ‘spiritually inclined’, that whenever Dr Kateja spoke about him, and he always spoke highly of him, people said: “Lucky you; where do you get such good and loyal people nowadays.” And Dr Kateja would reply: “He’s no ‘people’, he’s like my brother, he is a member of my family.”
Avinash believed that what Pappu-mama said or did was the correct thing, more so when it was different from what his father had told him. Pappu-mama was someone who was as much part of his memory as his parents. He made him laugh with jokes he couldn’t repeat to his parents. Avinash believed that what Pappu-mama did to him was the real thing, and what his father had taught him on the morning of his fourteenth birthday was not. His parents weren’t ‘real’, he figured, as his classmates had repeatedly told him, as the relatives who came to their house often said.
It was nearly ten years later, when Avinash met Anisha, with whom he shared a cubicle in the office where he was interning as a lawyer-to-be, with whom he had fallen in like not-really-love, who was boisterous and caring and fun, who was dealing with human rights, domestic violence and juvenile delinquents, that he understood the meaning of the word ‘abuse’.
And that abuse did not have to be physical.
No Cake, No Candles is one of the three winners of the 2017 DWL Short Story Contest. Read the other winning entries here.