Short Fiction ~ Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar
Third Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 8
“Bahu, did you buy mangoes?” Mummyji, my mother-in-law, asks from her room at the back of the house. She’s old and paraplegic now, but her senses are still strong. As is her voice. I pay the produce seller in the porch for the fruits and vegetables I’ve bought and lock the front door behind me.
“I smell them…mangoes,” she adds.
Of course, you do. I smelled them too, for 25 years, I want to reply but don’t.
After he’d married me off, every summer, my father plucked near-ripe fruits from the mango tree in his courtyard, washed them, packed them in a wooden box layered with straw, and parceled them to me at my marital address — this house, Mummyji’s domain. In the two days it took for the package to arrive by train, the mangoes turned soft and fragrant.
“Only mangoes for his daughter. No sari for me or a kurta for my son,” Mummyji sneered at the mango carton, ordered my husband, Nitin, to carry it to her room and stow it under her bed. Nitin obeyed her command while she berated my father.
“That miser of a man! He sent only pots and pans with his daughter. No cash, no gold coins. My Nitin is a junior engineer. Even boys with a B.A degree get a motorcycle in dowry these days,” she continued. “I thought he’ll compensate on festivals, but he proved me wrong. On Diwali, I have nothing to show when women from the neighborhood flaunt glinting necklaces or earrings from their daughter-in-law’s parents.”
While I kept chopping green beans and potatoes in preparation for dinner, my thoughts drifted to my wedding night, the night I knew my kismet was doomed. After the guests left, I waited for my new husband. Nitin arrived with Mummyji to the doorway and touched her feet before entering our bedroom. She sang blessings for his long life and left.
Nitin lifted my embroidered veil, raised my chin with his fingers and told me that his mother was the most important person in his life, that I was to respect and serve her at all times, without question or retort. He said nothing about how pretty I was or how excited he was about our life together.
Without a college degree or a marketable skill, I had no choice but to depend on my husband and my mother-in-law. Day after day, Mummyji ordered me around, showed me my lowly position in the family hierarchy. I yearned to confide in my mother but she was dead, taken by dengue. My father, a schoolteacher, struggled to raise my younger brother and sister. I couldn’t return, be a burden to him.
I smelled the mangoes my father sent in Mummyji’s room as I swept the floor under her watchful gaze and instruction, reaching the broom under the bed to gather dust and fallen hair.
In the evening, Mummyji and Nitin ate while I served fresh, hot rotis to them. After the meal, every day, until the box was empty, Mummyji pulled out mangoes—my mangoes—from the carton, asked me to wash them. It took every iota of willpower in me to not bring those juicy orbs to my mouth, to take them back to her.
As I scrubbed the dinner dishes after eating alone in the kitchen, my mouth watered at the sound of Nitin and Mummyji sucking in the juice and the pulp, at the thought of the golden sweetness gushing down their throats.
How sweet those mangoes were from my childhood tree. How my mother used to squeeze them out to make aamras, which she served with puffed pooris. How the three of us, my brother, sister, and I, raced to the courtyard at the sound of a ripe fruit dropping to the ground. How we sat in a circle in our underclothes every night, eating the yellow mangoes, the juice dribbling down our mouths to our elbows to our clothes. How my father made us sit, one by one, under the tube well’s outlet while he worked the handle up and down, drawing water to wash us clean.
At night, after Nitin was done with my body, I stayed awake, smelled the mango aroma wafting from the trash, and waited for his and Mummyji’s snores to fill the silence. Then, I sneaked into the kitchen, shooed away the rats, extracted the mango carcasses from the garbage, tore open the fruits’ skins, scraped the remnant flesh on them with my front teeth, licked the stones until they looked like oval faces framed with short, white hair.
I wrote thanks to my father, said the mangoes were getting sweeter and juicier with each season. When he died, last year, the fruit parcel stopped.
Today, I picked up a yellow mango from the produce seller’s cart at the doorstep. Now, after Mummyji took to bed, after 26 years of our being married, Nitin gives me money every month to purchase groceries.
“Are these mangoes sweet?” I asked the vendor.
“Sweeter than jaggery,” he replied.
I pressed the fruit between my palms, felt its texture, brought it to my nose, smelled its ripeness, then put it down, and bought only spinach and tomatoes. I still felt Mummyji’s eyes on me, all the time.
“Memsahib, buy these mangoes,” the vendor called out, as if sensing my desire and dilemma when I walked away. “They’re the last of the season. You’ll regret passing on them, I tell you.”
My feet turned around and I bought two kilograms of the fruit.
“Bahu, bring me a mango!” Mummyji screams. “Are you deaf?”
I tear the top off a fruit, suck, and suck, noisily.
She clinks a spoon to the bedrail to get my attention but she can’t have it or the mango.
Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar is an Indian American writer. She was born in a middle-class family in India and is indebted to her parents for educating her beyond their means. She is a Pushcart and Best of the Net nominee; her work has been published online in MoonPark Review, PidgeonHoles, Barren Magazine, and also in some print anthologies. She can be reached on twitter @PunyFingers.