In that week leading to Benny’s death, the Jacob kids were mostly at the next-door Philips’. School finals were round the corner and the children—the Philips’ and the Jacobs’—often got together in one or the other house to study. Books lay spread on the mat in the small verandah of the Philips’, but not a lot of studying would have got done that week. The older of the Philip kids, Benny, had taken to bed, his eyes stony and unmoving, although it was not clear what, if anything, was the matter with him. He was in the seventh grade, like Molly, the younger of the Jacob kids, although he was two years older, having been held back in various grades, including the year before. And now he looked set to repeat his feat, another year wasted, which was why his mother, Alice, couldn’t stop badgering him. Her bleating entreaties to Benny to stop putting on an act, were drowned in the girls’ loud gabble.
The only one who listened to Benny’s deranged rambling was Molly’s older sister, Suja, although she couldn’t do much either—she was after all only sixteen herself, the same age as Benny. After it was all over, Benny buried deep in the cemetery at Shahjahan Road, Suja couldn’t stop repeating to her mother how she had tried to shut his eyelids, unable to bear his stony look, but how they wouldn’t shut, which now that she had heard, was the last stage of the disease.
“Patients can’t bear light. But they fear darkness,” she told her mother, from behind the blue sari hanging limp on the plastic clothesline on that still, lifeless day. “Just imagine!”
Ammal shushed her; her daughter’s obsession with Benny—and the very symptoms the adults had missed—had begun to grate on her.
They didn’t take the final exams. Back in 1983, even government schools could take such decisions on their own, without fear of being hauled up by the district authorities. The school made a rare concession to the three girls—Suja and Molly and Benny’s sister Betsy, of course—and promoted them by averaging their marks in the three term exams held before.
The school was taking no chances. Besides, the girls had to take the seven vaccinations and, so, couldn’t have taken the exams anyway.
It was rabies, that’s what took Benny.
Nobody knew how Benny had contracted rabies. He recalled having once moved a huddled- up pup off the main road lest it should be run over. That’s what he told the nurse at the gates to the Emergency, but by then nothing Benny said could be trusted.
They wouldn’t have taken him to the hospital that morning if he hadn’t been so agitated. First, he refused to swallow water with the Crocin (Alice had noticed that he was feverish), and then he wouldn’t even rinse his mouth when Alice coaxed him to brush. After Benny’s father left for work—he was a clerk in Udyog Bhavan and never took leave —Alice thought that a check-up would do no harm. Ammal Jacob would come to wonder later as to why they took Benny to Safdarjung Hospital and not the government dispensary nearby. Perhaps, Alice had a foreboding.
The hospital was in no doubt that it was rabies. After the initial questions, the nurses shoo-ed them away from the Emergency with a slip of paper directing them to the Infectious Diseases hospital. Not even an ambulance was provided, and so they took a taxi to the Infectious Diseases hospital at Kingsway Camp, a luxury they would have never considered but for their quick realisation that the draft of air in an open auto-rickshaw would make Benny unmanageable. The unsuspecting taxi-wallah joined the women in cajoling Benny out of the taxi at the hospital gate, even offered his hand, which Benny rejected angrily. Ammal would later come to mumble prayers for the taxi-wallah, pleading to God that he be kept out of harm’s way.
Benny died two days later. And before Alice could heap all the blame for his death upon herself—after all, it was not she alone who had ignored Benny’s symptoms until it was too late—Ammal Jacob tried to quell it with the only arrow in her quiver, “Alice, alic-e, molle, who are we before God’s will?”
Alice blamed herself regardless, although for a different reason. “Just two Sundays back, I stood here, right here in the verandah, and watched him walk home. And I thought how well he looked, how handsome, so healthy, his hair shining in the sun.” She turned her face away from her friend, sobbing into the pallu of her green nylon sari, as if unable to bear the shame of her sin, the deadly sin of parental pride. “For just that momentary pride, did I deserve such a punishment?”
Poor Alice Philip, who could possibly answer her questions? For days, the women recalled the events leading to Benny’s death, all those stories told and re-told, but the shock of his death was such that no storytelling could expel it.
The Jacobs had three girls, but the oldest had been sent fairly early to a boarding school in Kerala. Ammal Jacob would often lament that in both their families, it was the eldest who brought them grief (how could the poor woman have imagined then that Benny’s end would come like this?). But Alice Philip would disagree. Her Benny was a boy, and a boy was a boy after all. The Philips were the only family in their immediate circle with a boy. In fact, the foetus Alice miscarried in the fourth month (two years after Betsy) had also been a male. But the failed pregnancy had done in the already frail Alice. As Joey Jacob said, Pande durbala, pinne garbini. They were certain that it was the copious blood loss in that miscarriage which triggered Alice’s first migraine attack three months later.
When Alice would gloat like that about her Benny, Ammal would wince because a girl to marry off was, after all, a cross to carry and she had three of them, and God only knew how she would find enough for their dowry. And the girls were not her only burden. Tending to an arthritic husband and being the Jacob family’s sole earning member—Joey Jacob’s contribution being as unpredictable as the municipal water supply—filled Ammal’s days with unending chores and left her bristling with rage. And come every Sunday, she had to entertain the parish members at her home. While the men played cards, the women gathered in the kitchen. Suja, the older of the Jacob girls, was a talented mimic and the Parish vicar was her speciality, and the women laughed so much that the men would occasionally shush them from the living room. That is, women other than Alice, who merely smiled, her thin lips pursed tight with disapproval at such reckless liberties taken with the clergy.
Save the Sunday evenings at Jacobs’, the parishioners, especially the young among them, congregated at Alice’s flat. This would continue even after Benny; in fact, they thronged even more after him. Alice never missed a birthday or let the guests leave home without a meal. They, mainly new emigres, came laden with gifts from Kerala for Alice—precious gifts like kodampuli, pepper, unda, avalospodi—which she generously shared with Ammal. Alice received love in a tangible form which she could swoop into her palms as a measure of her popularity. Her sunken irises skittered inside the eyeballs, animated, when she told her friends in office about the gifts her guests showered on her. While her cupboards got packed to the gills, just like her life and her days were, with duties, chores, and prayers.
When migraines hit her—and they weren’t infrequent—Alice’s face would contort, the cheeks slumping down further, her eyes disappearing into the sockets, signs that would set in motion a drill that her colleagues in the government office, the clerks, Ammal included, had come to follow. One of them would take her home while the rest would chip in with her unattended work at office. Back home, the heavy faux silk curtains with thick lining specially chosen for this reason, would be drawn tight to shut out all light. A plastic bucket would be kept under her bed; she got nauseous a lot and all that retching would leave her incapacitated for days. Betsy would then be sent to the Jacobs’, but Benny would never leave her side even when Alice would beg him to leave her alone. He would sponge her face with cold water after each bout of vomiting and lay her head on his lap and massage her forehead, while reassuring her that she would get fine as she always did, eventually. A boy so devoted to his mother was uncommon, why even the girls wouldn’t tend to their mothers like Benny did.
And perhaps it was because of this devotion that the other women wouldn’t ever broach the subject of Benny’s vagrancy with Alice. Although the rest of the children weren’t exactly shining at school—except Betsy, the odd bright one—they hadn’t lost years at school like Benny. The mother would know, they would discuss behind her back, and certainly a devoted mother like Alice would have known that Benny had it coming. The stale smell of Charminar cigarettes from his clothes. Or the missing notes from her purse? “That Benny would have made Alice weep even if he had survived,” they whispered amongst themselves. Although, which boy deserved a death so shocking like his?
Then there was that girl.
They saw the girl for the first time at the cemetery. No one was allowed to kiss Benny farewell, even his face was encased in glass for protection, and only the Jacobs and Alice’s brother Babu stood with the Philips at the head of the casket. But this girl broke through the crowd to tumble on the roof of the casket with her arms flayed and planted a kiss on the glass before she was pulled back. And in full view of the crowd, the girl cried shamelessly with her eyes latched on to the face underneath the glass, the black kajal streaming down her plump fair cheeks, which she wiped with the cuff of her blue polka-dotted sleeve. She re-appeared the next day at the Safdarjung hospital where the group—the Philips, the Jacobs besides three friends of Benny’s—assembled for their rabies shots, and she was there on each of those seven days, with her two friends for company.
But when the girl reached Alice’s home on the fortieth-day prayers, Alice’s brother turned her away. That was taking it too far. The girl shook herself free from his grip and glared at him defiantly, but she left. Alice was in the kitchen at that moment, but she would have sensed the girl’s appearance at the door and been relieved that her community had gathered the courage to do the right thing, even if belatedly.
By the fortieth-day prayers, the oldest of the Jacob daughters, Leela, returned to Delhi from boarding school for summer vacations. Leela emerged from the train disheveled, her mass of frizzy hair twisted loosely and tucked on the nape under her kurta which she seemed to have grown out of. This burst of Leela’s body into adult fullness made Ammal’s heart sink; the press of the imminent responsibilities that she could no longer ignore. At the Philips’ home, Leela declared that she had seen Benny in her dreams, playing in the meadows of heaven under the loving gaze of the Lord. Later that week, Molly told her sister about Benny’s girl, but Leela was unfazed on that score too. “Oh, Benny saved that girl,” she declared, apparently from a vision the night before. “She became a Christian.” And Alice couldn’t help but nod; after all, that girl wore a metal cross on her chain, Alice had noticed it herself.
While the Jacobs winced at their daughter’s antics, it had the opposite effect on Alice. That she was indeed making an impact wasn’t lost on Leela. She was unstoppable. “What does Exodus 20 2:6 say? Yahowa, your God…” Leela twisted the verse on its head and, pointing her index finger up, her flawless skin aglow in the fading evening sun, “Yahowa, your God, is a selfish God. He takes those whom he loves.” What Alice gleaned from Leela’s chatter was that her family was chosen for suffering. And like with the biblical Job, every tribulation laid out in her way—which was why Benny’s life, or its extinguishing was not meaningless— should only serve to solder her faith. This was no different from what the parish priest said, but the young Leela’s fervent faith could reach places where the priest’s mechanical sermons couldn’t.
Back in the Jacob home, Molly served to feed Leela’s hunger for details about the death. In her letters to a cousin in Kerala, Leela gave her imagination a free spin. She wrote about the stunning power in a rabid body, the family’s pain as it watched their son leap high in his cell which was really like a cage, Benny’s hollow cries of help, the drool that foamed on the edges of his locked mouth.
The helpless Benny which the rabies had transmuted into an animal.
It wasn’t just Leela, Benny had ceased to be human for the whole community. That’s how they inured themselves from the tragedy. Having caged him thus, they felt that they were beyond his pale, safe.
For that month at least, the frenzy following Benny’s death seemed to have exorcised the demons that tormented Leela. She didn’t wake up screaming at night, the schizophrenia was at its most benign phase that summer, or so her mother thought—although the disease would remain unacknowledged, undiagnosed through her life. But no one was fooled, Joey not the least, that even a sturdy woman like Ammal couldn’t deal with a girl so troubled as their first born—didn’t she have enough grief in her life already? When Joey bid Leela good-bye at the train station that summer, it was with a prayer and a heavy heart that he silently acknowledged that sending her away to the boarding school was the only option they ever had.
But the wheels of fortune did turn. Six months before Benny’s death, the Delhi Development Authority had announced a new scheme for instalment-based purchase of flats in different parts of Delhi. The allotment, through a draw of lots, took place almost a year later and as it happened, the Jacobs struck gold.
A flat in the capital city was the ultimate dream for middle class families like Jacobs. But the Jacobs had aimed for more, theirs was a High-Income-Group flat with three bedrooms. Even in the best of times, this would have highlighted an unseemly level of aspiration. And now, in the middle of this catastrophe at the Philip household, it felt plain vulgar to gloat over this unexpected good luck. “Keep your mouth shut!” Ammal scolded her girls when they shrieked with joy. This news, she decided, would remain a secret. What Ammal feared most was Alice’s envy, which she thought was so deep-felt that it could scorch the house of her dreams to dust, bring harm to her family. She wasn’t the only one who thought so. In the parish, Philips were now marked as “the Philips whose son died of rabies”, whose grief would cast a shadow on them, their families.
In the days following Benny’s fortieth, Ammal turned her ire on Suja. Now that the mimicry on Sunday evenings was out of question, she would shoo away Suja. “What are you preening for so much? Go inside and study.” But Suja wouldn’t comply, aware that she could get away with it in the presence of the guests even if she would have to pay a price later after the guests left. Ammal shuddered when she noticed Alice’s eyes rove over Suja’s blossoming body, and she would begin chiding Suja for squeezing her pimples or for not oiling her hair, bringing attention to Suja’s faults as if wiping away the evil eye, which lurked so close to their lives.
Ammal needn’t have bothered to hide the news of their good luck with the house. News like that couldn’t have been capped, and word got around soon enough. And even before Ammal could figure out how to face Alice, the Philips made a visit to the Jacobs’ to offer their own savings to help them pay their instalments. It seemed like Alice’s way of shaming Ammal, but it wasn’t. For Alice lived her life on the sword of duties, and nothing, not even her son’s loss, could make her veer away from that life of her choosing—by the commandments, a life of fasting, prayers, and above all, of restraint and moderate wants.
In her own family, Alice found herself alone. While she went about doing her duties unfailingly, her husband’s haste to return to normalcy hurt her. Following the fortieth day prayers, Philip made it a habit to spend evenings at the Jacobs’, playing cards and lingering late into the night, so he could eat—eat, that’s what Alice alleged and was bitter about—the non-vegetarian food that Alice was denying him.
“Gluttony is a sin! Why is he sinking into this sinful life?” Alice asked Ammal.
“It’s only food!”
Eventually Alice gave in and resumed cooking meat at home. But Philip’s craving couldn’t be doused. Well after midnight, he would sneak into the kitchen and return to bed with his mouth smelling of garlic and masalas, his burps bellowing in the silent room, while Alice pretended to be asleep even as sleep evaded them both. As Alice shrunk further, if there ever was a possibility to shrink further, her husband ballooned out of his body, his eyes disappearing into the folds of the lids. His square jaw, which Benny had inherited, fell into a shapeless mass of sagging flesh. Ammal noticed how long Philip’s neck was, that it could absorb the drooping jowl and had now taken the shape of the trunk of the stunted tree near the colony dumpster, his rosy lips just as pink as the tree’s autumn flowers. Philip was running his fingers over his jowl that afternoon, his legs stretched out, waiting for Joey to resume their game of cards. Relaxed in Ammal’s presence. In her, he saw an ally. They were both of sturdy build and robust health, which Philip ascribed to their uncomplicated nature.
“You and I, we are guileless, Ammal-e, that’s why we don’t get them,” Philip told her
Joey laughed, “Doves!” he said as he folded his checked blue lungi to his knees before sitting down to shuffle the cards. “Or sacrificial goats, eh, Ammal-e?” he added, smiling to himself.
Back at home, Alice, whose eyes missed nothing, knew that there were many shades to being alone, and hers wasn’t the worst.
One evening, she had gone on the lookout and was waiting behind the peepal tree for that girl, the one who claimed to have been Benny’s girl when Benny was no longer there to deny it. What for? Alice didn’t know when it became her after-work routine to be in that neighbourhood, but once started, she couldn’t bring it to stop. She had never meant to do any more than wait, and not every evening could she spot the girl, but when she did, she immediately averted her eyes, as if the very sight of the girl would defile her.
Alice would have missed Joey limping past the peepal tree, except that he coughed, and then she spotted him with a servant woman, handing her an envelope, their hands touching, with neither in a hurry to withdraw. This woman was also robust like Ammal but not half as fair as her. And even if Alice could never forgive Joey, she knew that like a boy must be allowed to be a boy, a man too must be treated like a man even if you were washing his bum. Not the way Ammal tended to her husband as if he were her child. No man would stand to such infantilizing. Men wouldn’t take it. Not her Philip who was a strong man. And now, it seemed, not even a cripple like Joey. Ammal, she felt, had it coming.
She didn’t tell Ammal about this when she met her at office the next day. She wouldn’t snitch and hurt her friend. When matters got out of hand a few months later at the Jacob household, Alice would come to wonder if she should have told after all, though she couldn’t have imagined that Ammal would crumple so completely, so sapped of will so as to attempt to give up her life—even if it was an aborted attempt that Alice could hush with swift action—when all she had to do was thwack that cripple. Teach a lesson the wretch wouldn’t forget.
Alice had lost a son, but she knew that there were other losses that cut deeper, and were more isolating because they couldn’t be acknowledged. That, she knew, was the loneliest space.
That same year, a young man died in a silent heart attack in the wee hours of the morning. The widow worked in the same office as Alice and Ammal; her older daughter would often visit the Jacobs’ to borrow Archie comics from Molly.
“My heart breaks to see Manjula suffer like this,” said Ammal one evening.
“And you say this to a mother who has lost her young son?” Alice demanded, contemptuous.
“Aiyo, Alice, nothing is comparable to our Benny’s loss, molle!” Ammal hugged her but Alice broke herself free from her grasp, and wailed, “This is all we have spoken of for weeks. Thamby, Manjula, those heathens, the idol-worshippers” she spat, “As if Benny didn’t matter. I am frightened what I will lose, that I will forget the shape of his ears or his fingers. Not that thumb which he once squished between a jamb and the nail had blackened, but his knuckles, the lines of his palms, how he crooked his index finger when he held a teacup? I, his mother, I will forget. And then he will be obliterated from here as if he didn’t exist. How do you think that will be, ah, Ammal, how do you think that will be?” Alice’s wail pierced through the stillness of her house, and brought her daughter Betsy running, and she was at the door when Alice screamed, “Why did He take Benny? Why not her? Me?”
No, Alice couldn’t countenance that Thamby’s untimely death had overtaken her own loss. Her friend, Ammal realized, had locked herself in a fugue of despair as if it were a cathedral on which she would allow no breach.
Even as she continued a life fully devoted to her duties. She was the first in the colony to send food to Manjula’s kids and continued to do so until Manjula herself made it clear that the help, much appreciated, was no longer necessary. And as always, Alice never failed to greet her friends and their families with payasam on their birthdays or anniversaries.
Over the next two years, the families celebrated each such occasion with a visit to the Shahjahan Road Cemetery. This tradition started with Joey Jacob’s 46th birthday when he made it his birthday wish that the families—the Philips and the Jacobs—visit Benny’s grave on the occasion. In 1986, a month-long ayurvedic treatment at the Kottakkal Aryavaidyashala had returned sensation to Joey’s numb toes besides an overall infusion of life in his arthritic body, and he had found employment after almost four years of being largely immured to bed, all of which made his 46th birthday particularly special. And that’s how they celebrated, four months later, the news of Leela being included in the ten-member group from the All-India Mar Gregorios Orthodox Christian Students’ Movement chosen for a breakfast with His Holiness at the Devalokam in Kottayam.
The families would follow up the visit to the cemetery with a stop at the nearby Karnataka Bhavan for masala dosas and vadas, and as it happened, those were Benny’s favourites too. The kids would then walk back home, and the adults would take Bus route no. 604, the only bus to the upcoming colony in Vasant Kunj where the Jacobs awaited the final possession of the flat under construction.
Their lives had now entered a phase of consolidation with the Jacobs leading the way. The Philips also followed suit and bought (with Philip’s family inheritance) a built-flat in a co- operative housing society of the Malayali Association at Vikaspuri. A corner flat on the third floor, no more than 650 square feet which was mostly consumed by the living room, leaving two bedrooms the size of a chicken coop. Alice must have noticed the disappointment on Suja’s face when they were taken for the viewing—although Suja gathered her wits soon to admire the neighbourhood park that the flat overlooked—for she declared self-righteously to Suja, “This is more than what we need, molle. Anything more will be greed.” Then she patted her head though not a hair was out of place on the tightly held bun and joined Suja by the window.
When the Jacobs took possession of their flat in the winter of 1987—by which time Leela had returned home, having abandoned studies for good, and Suja was set to join college—their friends gathered to plan for the housewarming, for which it was naturally assumed that they would all contribute, in cash and efforts. One friend offered to bring unniyappams; Alice undertook a lot more on herself with the vadas, the bananas and the mixture. Leaving Ammal with the overall responsibility for the function, and of course, the cake.
The housewarming was on a particularly cold and windy January evening, and not many could attend it. After the function, Ammal and Joey stayed in the flat as was the custom—it was inauspicious to leave the flat vacant after housewarming. The Philips volunteered to donate the leftover food, of which there was a lot, to the night shelter at Dhaula Kuan on their way home.
Instead, the Philips spent the night at the hospital.
When the Jacobs heard of the accident the next morning, they imagined the worst. But by God’s grace, the Philips had got away lightly. Alice had suffered a concussion for which she was kept under observation for the next two days. Otherwise, she was untouched. Philip had visible injuries on his body, a rib fractured, but the helmet had saved his life.
On the second night, Ammal stayed with Alice in the hospital. She woke up next day to find Alice sitting up in bed, her face red and blotchy, eyes bloodshot.
Ammal rushed to her side. “Alice, molle, are you in pain, kutta?”
Alice leaned back in her bed and whispered hoarsely, “We got knocked off the scooter. And how did that happen? It was cold that evening but no longer windy. It wasn’t even foggy.”
Her eyes were fixed on Ammal. “Do you see what happened? It was Benny.”
“Yes, he was there, standing in the middle of the road. I saw him before he knocked us down.”
“Why would Benny knock you down?”
“Because that’s the only way he can go away. Concussion, they call it. But it isn’t. It is from this pit, touch this,” she pulled Ammal’s index finger to her forehead, “see, not even a cut, it is from here the migraine has left my head. It can never come back. Benny couldn’t leave earth until he did this for me. Don’t you remember, how much the poor boy would suffer when I was ill?”
“Is Benny here now? Here? Do—”
“You don’t believe me. I can see it. You think… well, I don’t know what you think. I know it was my Benny. I saw his hands as he reached out to me one last time, before he left. That thumb, the greyed nail, I saw it.” She lay back on her pillow and closed her eyes, shutting Ammal out.
Alice was discharged the next day. Philip was laid up at home for close to a month. And just as Alice had predicted, she never got an attack of migraine thereafter.
“A son is a son, Ammal-e. And a son like Benny. How could he leave me without seeing me safe?” she said more than once.
Different folks in the small community put their own spin to this story. It would come to take a biblical form in its many iterations; Alice the modern-day Job, as Leela had once said and her suffering a purificatory ritual and the death of a son, the sacrifice to save his loved ones—in true Christian tradition. By furthering the story for Alice, the parishioners redeemed their prodigal son Benny and partook in an unwritten rite of passage, as they had always done for each other and would expect from others when life doled out its griefs, which it always did, even if, hopefully, nothing as catastrophic as what happened to the Philips. And they would know, the women knew, that with that story on her lips, it was time to release Alice from the fortress of grief—even if it had once overlooked a wondrous hillside with a giant cross etched on its rocks—and let her life force flow out, thawed, and revitalized, to merge back into their own ordinary lives.
Rebecca Mathai grew up in Delhi. After having lived in eleven cities over the course of more than three decades in the bureaucracy, she has now returned home. She is currently editing her novel, the concept of which was a winning entry in the iWrite contest at the Jaipur Litfest 2020. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Bombay Literary Magazine, Commonwealth adda, The Bangalore Review, The Story Cabinet and in an anthology of The Written Circle called “Constellations”.