Shefali Shah Choksi (b. 1964) teaches Literature and Composition at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale. She has an MA (English) and MPhil (Women’s Studies) from the MS University of Vadodara (Gujarat, India) and lived in Florida since 1988, when she immigrated from Mumbai. She published her first book of poetry, Frontier Literature, in 2011, and has published short stories, reviews, and reflective essays in a variety of anthologies and publications
Chasing Shahrukh Khan
The thin, deep creek that ran along the busy road was no babbling brook. The long-haired reeds that trailed their creepers in its waters stirred no light into its depths. Unlike other brooks and streams in the City of Canals, this one had no shallows easing into gentle slopes, no eddies or whorls sketching interesting mazes on its banks. The creek began with sudden depth that no one had really bothered to fathom. While not very wide, it had no ford and was not narrow enough to skip over. Somehow, eyes skittered away from it, and even the sun and the moon forgot about it. Whenever people drove by the forgotten creek, they remembered being overcast, of skies hidden for days, of heavy clouds the color of bruises; purple and grey and dark blue, though no one noticed the creek.
No one, that is, unless they were the forgotten. The chudail (witch) swinging on the traffic lights kept a watchful eye over the creek, the burning coals of her eyes and sharp jut of her mouth-less chin fixated in its direction, her backward toes clutching the wires she squatted on, a traffic light where no birds alighted or flew near. Of course, no one saw her swinging up there, except the grey ghost of the cat who haunted the bank opposite the creek, just beyond the parking lot that skirted the apartment building where Simi lived.
There was a reason the creek was deep; it was pregnant with too much to be clear. The legend had it that its gravid load silenced it; the need to tell smothered by all that needed telling, an irony not lost upon the chudail, who cackled constantly at it. So, the creek had stopped trying to babble, whisper, or sing and tried to balance itself by a constant weeping and swooshing of unseen currents and invisible tides. The ghost kept an eye on these tides, watchful for any movement that might promise a meal, a prospect that the forgottenchudail found amusing.
But nothing can be forgotten or remain unseen by everyone, and Simi could not forget or refuse to see. She often found herself here, among the undergrowth bordering the forgotten stream, not really remembering deciding to leave the house, locking the door, and crossing the busy cross roads with its four traffic lights. As it always was, the strains of “O majhi re” whirled in a carousel in the back of her head, her father’s favorite song that he always played on the old phonograph in late afternoons, as he sat in his ancient chair, making his way through the day’s Times of India, spectacles perched on his nose, his tea (2 small spoons of sugar, a pinch of elaichi) steaming on the little teapot close by. Thatpaher of afternoon had long been a favorite with Simi: the four hours when the day breathed and heaved before launching off again in a race against the evening; the few hours when shopkeepers would close shop and go home for lunch and nap; the stretch of time after school, before Masterjee came for Simi’s singing lesson; the loose hours that no one was asked to account for; when one could sleep, or listen to old Mukesh and Lata Mangeshkar songs while lazily embroidering a rose on a hankie, or make tea, if one was inclined to do so; when the kitchen was cool and dark and quiet, resting after lunch and before the evening teatime that preceded dinner preparations.
Now, in this swampy land across oceans, ages after, afternoon was still Simi’s favorite time, once her kitchen chores and cleaning up were squared away, the few hours before Vinay returned from work, before Maa (not Simi’s mother, but Vinay’s) woke up from her nap, were hers to do with as she wished. She often found herself chasing beloved songs, all the Bhule-Bisre Nagme, chart toppers of Binaca Geetmala, netting them as they hid playfully in the undergrowth near the forgotten stream, songs from long-past antaksharisessions played with her school mates and teachers, on sleepless rooftops of summers with cousins and uncles and aunts, and the songs from new films, though Vinay and Maa always frowned upon the new films, condemning them as tasteless exhibitions of confused identities.
Simi sighed in resignation: Maa and Vinay were old fashioned and found her very obvious delight in filmy music as yet another proof of her lack of breeding, her lack of inborn class. She remembered their gaping faces when she had thoughtlessly declared Shahrukh Khan as her favorite actor, all those years ago. Things had changed right there and then and Simi had known that she’d have to pay dearly for her unbecoming exhibitionism. Declaring such things loudly was definitely something a properly brought up daughter-in-law of a good family would have never ever done.
Simi was never allowed to forget her declaration about Shahrukh Khan; if she dawdled in the kitchen getting tea for Vinay, Maa would loudly speculate what she was telling Shahrukh Khan in the kitchen and if she could hurry up and finish her conversation; if the almond and clove oil she used to massage her mother-in-law’s feet with every night was too warm, Vinay would remind her that these were not Shahrukh Khan’s feet she was massaging; if she did not return from her afternoon walks by 4pm, Maa would tell Vinay over dinner that Simi had a rather longer-than-usual tryst with Shahrukh Khan that day, and they would both laugh at their wit. Simi had learned to participate in this laughter against her, even when these episodes were recounted for amusement during family events, much to Simi’s parents’ annoyance and embarrassment.
Simi tried to talk to her own mother on a rare Diwali visit without Vinay just before they left the country for Florida, but her mother admonished her to remember that she carried her father’s honor with her wherever she went, and that this was not cute. Simi had breathed in the beloved dust blowing into her girlhood terrace from the old, bitter Neem, and bit back and swallowed all that rose up within her. She cursed her stars at the grief that the unsuspecting, unknowing actor was causing her, reminding herself that this was exactly what stars of all kinds did: they shone from afar, all coldness and unconcern at the ways in which they changed destinies of earth folk.
She had been doing a lot of biting back and swallowing since then: the unaware gasps that used to escape when Maa accidently touched a hot vessel to her skin; the whimper that used to skitter out when Vinay absently pinched her too hard; the unchecked hiss that would sizzle when Maa (by mistake, of course) dropped the ladder on her toe during the fan cleaning. She used to watch for the flash in their eyes as they waited for her response to their causal cruelties, but she soon learned to lower her eyes and just concentrate on swallowing.
Then came the job. It shone like the Syamantaka Jewel, promising deliverance. She suggested to Maa that she should be helping family finances with a job; that she had found a position she’d be perfect for, in which she would have to handle no meat or any kind of non-vegetarian food. Maa was wary, but could not deny the obvious rise in their standard of living that such a prospect implied and convinced Vinay of its merits. When Simi began working as a cashier at the local Target, she had thought to escape the house, make some friends, save herself a few bruises and make her family proud and less angry. Of course, Vinay had never actually agreed to the merits of Simi being employed and he learned to weave in many a Shahrukh Khan innuendo when he saw Maa working alone in the kitchen and Simi walking in the door after dinner was cooked. He would glance anxiously at Maa all the time, inviting her to join in the hilarity. But Simi didn’t mind and her smiles at his jokes were wider with apology at leaving Maa alone in the kitchen.
The job did do what it was meant to for as long as it lasted: Simi’s body sported less bruises. But then she got pregnant, and all bruises stopped, along with the job. The next seven months crept by in breath bated with anticipation. Vinay and Maa took it upon themselves to ensure that Simi did not overeat and regulated her food intake. They put her on a strict diet of salt-less, oil-less food, till the very sight of the bland, tasteless matter killed her appetite. When the doctor expressed concern over her weight loss, the doctor’s visits were stopped. After all, reasoned Maa, it wasn’t as though women weren’t giving births before doctors! Vinay concurred. He would calmly remind Simi that she wasn’t carrying a god, for god’s sake! Likely as not, it was a puny girl that was growing in her belly, a girl much like her, who did not really need much looking after. In fact, she should be more concerned, he told her, about her child’s breeding and tastes, and should listen to prayers and soul-edifying bhajans, resist her natural inclination to all those tasteless, cheap movie songs, and maybe that alone could nourish the scrawny, flawed being she was carrying within her.
Simi, of course, did not agree. She believed that she was carrying a piece of the gods inside her, a miracle that should be nurtured with sweet, fatty foods and worshipped with well- loved music. She fed her son the afternoon light shining on the wild, un-named leaves after the rains, and the songs that heaved and ebbed within the veins of her soul, like giant, ancient rivers, live and undulating. Most of all, she fed him songs from the films she had grown up with. The melodies sung by Mukesh and Lata and Kishore Kumar and Asha Bhonsle warbled out of her skin and flowed inward, where he waited, bright-eyed and blossoming, cocooned in the bubble of his mother’s afternoons.
When he was born, too soon and too little, Vinay and Maa sighed in defeat: the child looked like everything they had tried to curb and deny in Simi, though he was male and would have to do. Their forced smiles directed at Simi in the hospital bespoke their bravery and grace in face of such a blow from fate. Vinay did not offer to hold the baby and Maa, when she did, studied Simi’s face rather than his.
They postponed naming the baby, citing a variety of rituals that could not be ignored. On the morning of her discharge, in desperation, Simi whispered “Munna” when pushed for a name by the hospital authorities. In face of such deliberate rebellion, there seemed no need to name the baby until he turned 4 or 5, and he learned to recognize himself as Munna.
After Munna, Simi decided to give up her job at Target; there was too much to care for now. Thankfully, Munna was not a demanding baby and only whimpered when hungry, at which point he would be given a bottle by Maa because no decent family advised breast-feeding a baby for long, for fear of spoiling it. Munna watched all with large eyes and silence, as though trying to figure out the world around him. As soon as he could toddle, Simi began taking him for her afternoon walks, on her “dates” with Shahrukh Khan, since her walks now took her farther along the bank of the deep creek to where the tall cypress swayed the eyries perched on the leanest of highest branches.
That is where Vinay saw them on his way home on the day he got fired. Simi saw the overcast sky on her way back and carried Munna for the last half hour, hurrying to reach shelter before the skies opened.
She should have chosen to get wet; she should have run away with Shahrukh Khan; she should have known the difference between storms when she still had the choice between them. She knew she had not chosen wisely when she heard the noise of breaking glass; she should have heeded her reluctant feet.
The rice jar broke at her feet as she and Munna entered the foyer of the apartment, in some kind of a cruel mockery of the traditional welcoming of the new daughter-in-law, spilling rice at her feet, cutting her soles and heels, bloodying her unheeding, shocked footprints as she walked in absently, clutching Munna to her.
“Do you even know what your husband…”
“Ah now she walks in, the Maharani…”
Amidst all the screeching from Maa and shouting from Vinay, Simi tried to make sense. Munna was now clutching her fiercely, his head on her shoulder, his silent, burning eyes not understanding the red footprints.
“What has happened? What did I …?”
It was Vinay who answered her with a deep calm that threatened to swallow:
“Come into the room, Simi. I will tell you and explain to you exactly what has happened.”
Munna was suddenly not in her arms and she heard his cry, but was yanked into the room before she could reach out to her son. He started after her, but his toddling was suddenly cut short when the banging door caught his body mid-bang.
When finally the door opened, they saw Maa sitting with Munna stretched out next to her on the sofa. He had not moved since the door caught him and Maa’s eyes were pools that screamed horror tales of demons at them.
Vinay had decided to take charge and had forced the boy down the throat of the deep creek that had not wanted to gulp him. He then looked at Maa and Simi and told them in the same calm voice that Munna was no name for a real person.
Months, eons, millennia later, Simi meandered along the deep creek in which her son lived. No one talked of him at home. Everyone at home was told that he was taken by Sitala Mata, the Goddess of Smallpox, and Simi offered a thousand prayers to the goddess, begging her forgiveness. The neighbors and friends in Florida were told that he was sent home to India to be brought up properly according to the customs of the family.
But Simi knew that nothing is forgotten by everyone; some whispers are bound to linger, some breadcrumbs, if followed, will inevitably lead the curious to lost children. So she tried to be aware of the un-seeable, to recognize another face as she bent over the creek, over her own face made gaunt by a rogue ripple until it became a hungry crone’s.
But the swinging chudail cackled at what Simi did not see in the creek, an unborn daughter, an unfurling flame, a burning afternoon swallowed whole. The knowing, un-born girl heard and blew a breath of burnt mustard seeds at the occupied traffic light, frightening the chudail and causing Simi to wrinkle her nose at the sudden, familiar smell that spread on the air, like a memory.
Chudail: A witch or a female spirit in South-Asian legend that inhabits cremation grounds or graveyards. Her feet face backwards and she is exorcized by the pungent smell of burning mustard seeds
O majhi re: a Hindi song, literally meaning “oh waves,” addressed to the river during a crossing
Paher: a set of three or four hours, a section of the day
Masterjee: generic name for a music teacher
Teapoy: a small three-legged stool
Shahrukh Khan: popular Bollywood actor
Bhule-Bisre Nagme: a stock idiom literally meaning “forgotten songs”
Binaca Geetmala: a popular radio program from the 70’s that rated the most popular songs of Bollywood
Antakshari: a popular song game, in which the opponent has to sing a song beginning with the ending syllable of the previous song
Mukesh, Kishore Kumar, Asha Bhonsle, Lata Mangeshkar: popular singers of Bollywood from the 50’s to 2000’sNeem: a large Asiatic tree whose bitter leaves are used in curry and medicine
Syamantak Jewel: the legendary jewel that can bequeath wealth and youth if held by a righteous person, but which can cause destruction if held by a wicked person
Bhajans: Songs of worship
Munna: a generic term of endearment for a little boy
Maharani: High Queen or Great Queen
Sitala Mata: the goddess of smallpox