The Old Woman Who Could Fly
'Big-Shot' Bhaskar knew what he was doing when he built the first nursing home in Trichur. He called it 'Gulf Party Peoples'. This was the early eighties. Families, especially matriarchs, would walk by the place in order to giggle at the lone sentry in uniform, some foreign fellow from somewhere whose job it was to stand at attention outside the building site. Bhaskar wasn't in a hurry to do more hiring. In a few years, he said. Fool's gone mad, everyone said. But I went to school with Bhaskar. The boy's brain was a crystal ball loaned to him by the devil himself. Early on, he'd calculated that geriatrics needing care would constitute the biggest market in Gulf-addicted NRI-obsessed Kerala. He was right. When I put my own mother in there, she'd been the last one holding out. Everyone else over the age of sixty had been cajoled, coerced, and convinced into locking up or subletting or selling their homes and moving into Big-Shot's Gulf Party Peoples. When family came to visit, these men and women representing various positions of familial authority were escorted by sons and daughters to locked homes which were unlocked for the duration of their visit, before being returned to the nursing home weeks (or days) later. Frankly, if you had someone in there, like I did, it was an excellent arrangement.
Gradually, the phones – and Bhaskar had installed at least thirty – stopped ringing. Visits from family ceased. Soon, the place had its first suicide. Leelama Jose was a popular and long-term resident who was convinced her Manama-based daughter, Bahrain Beena, had sold off the family plot and house built by Leelama's late husband Constable Chacko. Leelama took her own life by swallowing Christmas lights still attached to a ten-foot plastic tree, an annual gift from the Sharjah-based Car-Parts Charlie whose incontinent father always received an extra piece of fruitcake for the gesture. The morning Leelama's body was discovered, Kumaran, an orderly, asked for her home address, then walked there in order to pluck flowers from her garden, famous, Leelama used to boast, for the sheer variety of flora. If she died away from home, she'd shared with kindly Kumaran, away from family, she wanted to be buried wearing flowers from her garden. When Kumaran reached the place where Leelama's house was supposed to be, he didn't find it. What used to exist had been levelled to the ground, with posters in place advertising and baiting the public to stay tuned for something magnificent.
If Leelama's death was a shock, Ravi Menon's death was a blow to the morale. Menon's son, ADNOC Anil had surprised him early in the year with the news that he was working on procuring a residence visa for the old man so that they could all live together with Anil's family in Abu Dhabi. Expecting house upkeep to be expensive, Anil convinced his father to sell the property. He said he'd use the money from the sale towards sensible Gulf investments guaranteeing robust returns. Long story short, Menon never made it to the Gulf. Anil's business venture went bust. When Menon was told the truth over the phone, he borrowed a shovel from the gardener and began digging near the nursing home entrance, by the gates. The staff, thinking he was letting off steam, let him be. But Menon continued to dig throughout the night. By dawn, he had dug a tunnel from the nursing home all the way to the house he had sold. As Menon burst through the floor in the room he had shared with his late wife, he interrupted a man in the middle of making wild love to his fulsome wife, a Frenchman who'd bought the place on the urging of his new bride. Forgive me, said Menon, but how much to buy all this back from you? His last words, before he died.
My mother was responsible for everything that happened next. She'd never been a woman interested in handouts or pity. Instead, she wanted revenge. This was the year reality tv had begun to take off. Producers were itching for new angles. My mother contacted a leading channel and pitched her idea, promising an exclusive.
She told them she lived in a small town in Kerala devoid of its young, that every able man and woman was employed in the Gulf. The only inhabitants left behind were corralled into a massive nursing home built by one of their own. It was a world, she said, where diet, medication, even companionship was regimented. People like her were losing their minds. I know my mother, it must have been a masterful performance. If you knew my mother, you'd say the same. The tv channel was interested, but they wanted to spice things up a bit. They'd show up, the producer confirmed, but they needed an angle, something the world didn't know. And that's when my mother produced her full deck of cards. Have a show, she said, where nursing home residents compete for the most interesting ways to lure their kids back to see them. The producer wasn't convinced. There is an old man who lives here, my mother said, who refuses to go to sleep, but walks up and down five flights of stairs every day, set in the belief that when his son, a doctor in Kuwait, finds out, he'll drop everything in order to ask him to stop. My mother then waited a beat. Today, she said, is his tenth year of doing this. Within a week, a production crew surrounded the nursing home.
The show was controversial, and lasted only one season, but it was a memorable one. After the elimination rounds, four finalists were chosen among the nursing home residents to fight for the grand prize. A phone call was made to a child living in the Gulf with sweeteners like airline tickets and shopping vouchers to bait the guilty party into taking the call. It was an ambush, of course. While congratulations were being offered, cries of surprise (No way! No way! I won! I won?), the producers would quietly put the winners' aged parents on the phone. That was the plan anyway.
Viewers of that pilot episode saw, Sudha Chandrasekhar, the arthritic woman who made replicas of her children out of Glucose biscuits she pulped into a paste with hot tea. And Ramu 'Maash,' who had taught himself Arabic in the hopes of being invited to join his daughter who was a schoolteacher in Ajman. But there were clearly two front runners for the prize.
One was a man by the name of 'Shirt-Piece' Babu. Shirt-Piece worked as a tailor in Bombay for many years. When he retired, he moved back with his wife, who succumbed to a heart murmur one balmy day. Shirt-Piece's son Murali, residing in Doha, was the one who dropped him off at the nursing home. It was the last time Shirt-Piece saw him. First, Shirt-Piece wouldn't talk to anyone. He tried feeding the tame cats, but the felines ignored him after feeding time. Then he began making overtures to the spiders in his room. There were three. He stitched them little shirts with eight openings, he gave them names. Oman. Falooda. Genghis. Then one day, a staff member found him scaling the walls, refusing to come down until his son Murali came back for him. Then he requested fresh flies and crickets for dinner.
The second front runner was my mother. When asked what consequences she faced after being abandoned by her son, she looked up and smiled. Don't feel sorry for me, she said, my son's an idiot, as is my hog-faced daughter-in-law. But you do want to see him? she was asked. I suppose, she said, I suppose I want to tell him that I shouldn't have trusted him. And this has impacted your mental state, yes? My mother never liked anyone questioning her independence, never mind her mental state. My father always used to tell her she was nuts. She wouldn't say much, except add salt to his tea. But my mother understood where the question was coming from. My roommate, she said, is a woman who refused fifty prospective brides before she married her Sharjah-based son to the highest bidder, a woman responsible for putting her here. Me on the other hand, my mother added, I came here voluntarily, on the pretext that I didn't want to burden anyone, especially my child. Yet, she said, yet. Yet? The other day, my mother said, I was in the shower, when I noticed boils on either side of the middle of my spine. Fearing the worst, I sat down and rubbed the bumps, and something happened. What? My mother then calmly undid her sari and blouse, put her arms behind her back and rubbed the middle of her spine. Then she turned around. Tiny gossamer wings had emerged, and had begun to beat, lifting my mother and making her hover inches above her seat. She laughed as she turned around to face the interviewer. I don't go much higher than this, she said, and I only have the strength for a minute's worth of levitation. And this is the message for your son, the state you're in? Oh no, she said, this is the message for my son. And my mother began to urinate in front of the live studio audience.
I know this because I was there. At the last minute, the producers had decided to fly the children of the three finalists out to their parents, on the pretext that we had won a lot of money playing a random lottery none of us really remembered. At the airport, we were blindfolded and asked to wear earplugs. At the nursing home, as finalists prepared to share their testimonials with the studio audience, the mess hall serving as the makeshift auditorium, we were placed in wheelchairs, our legs and arms bound, and wheeled to the back of the set. By now, our blindfold and earplugs had been removed. So when my mother began sharing her story, about her life, how she raised me, where I left her, I could hear everything she said. And as my mother pissed in response to the lady's prompt, I was wheeled by my helper onto the makeshift stage, and placed directly opposite her naked body, just as her wings stopped beating, and a puddle began to form near my legs. My mother was smiling. This, wouldn't you agree, should have been enough, but there was more to come.
The interviewer quickly introduced me. I was met by vociferous boos. Before I could say anything, the interviewer offered me one of two options. If I repented, the lady said, took my mother back, I'd win twenty lakhs in prize money, good money those days, on the condition that it would be paid to me over the course of ten years. If I didn't regret anything I'd done, the lady continued, or even felt that I hadn't done anything wrong, I 'd get a lump sum of ten lakhs, paid in cash, with the promise that I wouldn't try to contact my mother ever again.
I demurred, of course, embarrassed that getting rich involved such scrutiny. If it had been a phone call instead of live tv, I would've taken the ten, but such circumstances called for diplomacy. My mother on the other hand had other ideas. Fully dressed again, she interrupted. What if, she told the interviewer, those options were in my hands, instead of his? And what if, she said, unlike my son, I've already decided.
As she said this, the audience members began to hoot and cheer. My mother, that witch, disrobed once more, her tiny wings beating robustly, lifting her a few feet in the air. It was good of you to come, my boy, she said. She looked at me and laughed. Then she flew towards the members of the studio audience who by now were giving her a standing ovation, many waiting to shake my mother's hand.
Deepak Unnikrishnan is a writer from Abu Dhabi. His fiction and non-fiction has appeared in Drunken Boat, Himal Southasian, Bound Off, The State Vol IV: Dubai, the art project Autopoiesis (www.autopoiesis.io), and in the anthology Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana, Zubaan Books. While on scholarship at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he completed the manuscript for his first work of fiction set in the Gulf, excerpts from which are forthcoming in Guernica.