Dina’s home is on a hill. A Victorian home, built at the turn of this century and remodelled twice, two storeys high, its window-sills covered with herbs and flowering plants, its shingled roof ending in carved eaves. The windows are large, the hallways bright. The light reflected off the shimmering water of the ocean comes in silver strands through the windows. The curtains are opened wide, because she thinks there should be light in a home, especially this one where the residents come to escape the stygian despair of their lives.
She stands at a window and stares at the seagulls flying across the backdrop of a setting sun; far to the north she can see the Pacific fog rolling inland like a smokescreen on a movie set.
She is crying silently. One of the residents has just died. Every time someone dies she cries like she did the first time. The sudden shock of finding a woman whom she had fed just a few moments ago lying in bed with a beatific smile had almost made her throw up and run down the hill in fear. Chuck too must have had a happy smile frozen on his face when he let the book he was reading fall on his chest and closed his eyes.
They all die smiling, it must be the light, this glorious light of the western skies that helps them conjure visions of heaven just moments before the light go out of their own eyes. And every time she cries with renewed grief.
‘How can you still cry after so many years?’ Anna the nurse asks, standing behind Dina at the door. ‘I can’t cry any more, not a drop more. They come, stay for a while and then they go. Mechanically. Inevitably. An assembly line of dying humans.’
‘They don’t all die,’ Dina answers, wiping her tears, still facing the window, ‘I didn’t!’
She remembers well the darkness. The darkness that enveloped her so tightly that she almost suffocated and succumbed to its sinister charms. And she has Sasha to thank for her redemption. Old crazy Sasha who had picked her up from under a freeway one evening, taken her home, bathed her, fed her, put her in a hospital and got her cured. He left her his house when he died in a psychiatric hospital a few months later.
She never figured out why he saved her. Perhaps because he was crazy long before they actually diagnosed it. So am I also crazy? she wonders. Especially when she is letting a little bit of her heart break every time someone in her home dies.
She sits on her bed and stares at the bedspread hung on the wall in front of her. A tableau of scenes from the Mahabharata painted on it in rich shades of red and green and gold and blue and silver. The sage and charioteer, the warrior and the wreck, the chakravyuh spinning its labyrinths, an incongruous peacock dancing in the corner, the infinite yards of fabric that saves a woman’s honour. One thing about the painting that still never ceases to amaze her—its brightness. After all these years it has lost none of its lustre and its resplendent hues.
It reminds her of her family. It is the sole surviving piece from the things she had brought with her from India many years ago. At first it hung in her dorm, then served as a cover for her escapades; yet later it was the blanket without which she could never go anywhere. Now, washed off the filth it had acquired during her years in darkness, it was back on the wall, a reminder of her family, the one she left many years ago and never went back to visit.
Now they are a blur: a father whose voice she has forgotten, a mother whose features have dissolved over time, a brother unrecognisable, a stranger. How heartbroken they must be especially from not knowing what became of her. One owes it to one’s family to at least tell them where you are.
She is gripped by shame and remorse. For having abandoned them like old clothes. At first she was enjoying herself far too much to think of them; later when she had the time and sanity to do so, she was too ashamed to pick up the phone and call them. What could she tell them? That she had tested their tolerance and faith in her to the limits? And that she had failed? So miserably that she had to be placed under medical care for a month during which her arms and legs shook violently in uncontrollable spasms, her mouth dry, her tongue like a lizard. She had come perilously close to breaking loose from the restraining straps that pinned her to the hospital bed, almost running back to the underbelly of the city to Mark. Whose bloated body they fished out of the Bay the next morning. Later, with a depressing detachment she’d identified his blackened face in her narcotic-induced stupefaction at the coroner’s office.
Mr Jackson is bawling piteously upon discovering that Chuck had died. ‘It ain’t yet no time for him to go’n die he cried. ‘He still had a good year or two left.’
Dina put her hand on his shoulder and said, ‘A week ago the doctor had told me that he was in a pretty bad shape. At least he died happy.’
‘What does that damn doctor know?’ Mr Jackson retorted through his tears. ‘He don’t know nothin’ about what us folks goin’ through. An’ Chuck, he was recovering fast, like nobody else ah’ve seen. So why him? Why now?’
He buried his face in his hands and let Dina cradle him in her arms. It was he who had philosophically spoken about Chuck a month ago, ‘Who says he’s dyin’? He ain’t dyin’ or nothin’. He’s waitin’ for God!’
Now he was weeping at the loss of a friend of whom he had grown rather fond over the last six months. He suddenly yanked himself out of her arms and cried hoarsely with fear, rage and hurt, ‘He may be blond, like the colour of the halo ’round yuh head, but he wuz mah brother, understand? He didn’t deserve this! Ah don’t deserve this!’ He retreated into the next room and banged the door shut.
She doesn’t know what to say to him. She decides to let him be for a while. Perhaps he’ll go back to his canvas and paint. She thinks the colours he uses are therapeutic, the act of painting a catharsis. He has produced dozens of paintings, of scenes he has only imagined, of events he’s never witnessed seething out of his inherited humiliation. Like everyone else at Dina’s home, he came in with a history and with the memory of his ancestors as well. His favourite painting depicts a man wearing a joker’s costume, three layers oversized lips painted on his face, standing on the stage of a rural carnival, laughingly wiping away the yellow and white of the eggs that people are throwing at his face. Mr Jackson claims that man is his great-grandfather, and that the scene actually took place in rural Mississippi. He was a star attraction there for the white folks. The act of throwing eggs at his face and winning a goat for the maximum number of hits was a challenge immediately taken up.
Mr Jackson had cried when he had finished the painting. It now hangs in the hallway, and everyone who enters Dina’s home is caught by its pathos. Dina can hear the sound of a canvas frame being slammed on the easel in the next room. The painting will keep him occupied and calm him down. Satisfied, she goes over to the phone to make arrangements for Chuck’s funeral.
Tonight, she remembers her early years: her parents, always the most liberal of people, had no misgivings about sending her to America by herself at a time when very few—if any—single women ventured out of the hometown. Even in India she had always tested the limits of her parents’ liberalness: the boyfriend she flaunted during her college days, a cigarette between her lips; her hair like an angry halo, flared trousers that she stitched at a men’s tailor. She was ‘an Indian version of a hippie a distressed professor once remarked. The men in college, always thrilled to be around her, praised her, ‘You’re so bindaas, yaar, you put us all to shame!’ The women, crinkling their noses even as they grudged her her bright eyes and confidence, called her names.
And yet, when she came to America she felt as though the limits had been stretched just that much beyond her reach. She enthusiastically took up the challenge even as she continued to do brilliantly in academics. It was Charles who first introduced her to the world of college parties, the weekends that drowned the angst of a youth trying to escape the draft in endless drinking sessions. Then it was Petri, John, Hank, Michel, Dan…. She’s even forgotten their names.
With every step she took she was sure that her parents would understand, sure that she hadn’t reached the limit. Her parents, after all, were the most compassionate people she knew. She felt superior to the other Indian students at the university. She was experiencing a culture that was undergoing a transition; she was witness to a revolution that she knew would change the way the world thought; whereas they were content with burying themselves in books, keeping to themselves and secretly envying her. And the few Indian women she did encounter were utter bores, often provincial and supremely content with the domestic middle-class nirvana they had found. ‘You’re tethered like stupid, unimaginative cattle,’ she’d told one woman once and let out a peal of tinkling laughter at her rage.
And then she met Mark. She left her dorm one day with him, hardly knowing where his beaten-up jalopy would take them. He had taught her to experience ecstasy, to float in unknown worlds from which they could look down upon their earthly existence and laugh it off as a bad dream. It was the mesmerising power of his hooded eyes, his long, uncombed hair, the string of beads around his neck, and the absolutely divine timbre of his whispery voice that had convinced her to leave. She did not have the time to tell her parents or her friends. All she left was a scribbled note on her room-mate’s desk that read, ‘Going in search of heaven. Don’t know when I’ll be back. Don’t stay up for me.’
They lived in his car, worked odd jobs, sometimes joined groups of people and drove for hours without knowing where they were going, simply following their instincts or the sunset. Incense constantly burned in the car, and they thought they smelt heavenly when the smell of incense mingled with smell of the countryside, their sweat and other bodily odours.
When they chanced upon San Francisco during their aimless peregrinations, Mark said they had finally found heaven. They found lodgings in a house filled with incense smoke, where every room was crammed with people who seemed to be in search of something. They greeted them with open arms. They said her eyes were lovely, her smile soft and vulnerable, that her skin had a texture they had never felt before and that it glowed in the dark. They took to her more than they took to Mark, but he never seemed to notice. As they sat on the floor of their commune, his roving eyes studied them all detachedly. Months later, when they fished out his body from the Bay, she had begun to feel the same sense of detachment, her eyes had acquired the same glaze.
She does not remember much of that period in her life. Perhaps it is her instinctively defensive memory that has erased large chunks of her life leaving the rest like a badlyedited film. All she remembers is being perpetually in a daze, sometimes coming home after a night of partying, sometimes lying curled up on the pavement with Mark, shivering under the Mahabharata painting.
After his death she was more often on the pavement than under a roof. That is, until crazy Sasha found her under a freeway overpass where she had been lying dazed for two days, too cold and hungry to move.
Crazy Sasha, crazy Alexander Rostov. She smiles sadly whenever she thinks of him. She does not remember much about him, because no sooner had she emerged from her dazed state than they ran him to a sanatorium and had him certified as a lunatic. It was his daughter who had done that: angry that he had left his home and modest savings to a woman he had picked up from the street. I always knew my father was crazy, but I didn’t know he was stark raving mad!’ Sasha’s daughter once spat on Dina’s face.
No matter what everyone else says about him, no matter what the medical records show, to Dina he was not crazy. Before he died, when she went to the hospital and told him what she intended doing with the house he left her, he had smiled happily, brought her close to him and said, ‘There can be nothing better you can do for me than to open it up to those who need it the most.’
A crazy man does not talk like that.
Dina, now greying and plump, walks around the house most of the time in a kaftan, one of the dozens a woman who had returned from India gave her years ago. As she goes from room to room, walking down the hallways, the floors creaking, her kaftan flapping like an elephant’s ears, she notices how quiet it is tonight. She’s lost count of the number of times she’s done these rounds after the death of a resident: literally hundreds, she thinks. Even though she started out bravely, full of vigour and enthusiasm and compassion after Sasha’s death, it was a struggle to deal with the passing of people who took refuge in her home. The first residents had all sorts of ailment of the body and the mind. Some came to get rid of addictions, some came because they had nowhere else to go. But of late, no matter where they come from, most of them have AIDS and come in knowing they don’t have long. Once there, many discover talents they had never imagined they had. Mr Jackson has sold his paintings all over the country, and all his earnings go into the fund for the home. Then there was Ronald who could pull out rabbits from behind people’s ears. And Melissa, who played the harpsichord (that a neighbouring music store had loaned her) so divinely that while she was alive a number of residents recovered completely; those who didn’t, went at peace with themselves and the world.
A few of them do miraculously become healthy enough to leave. They usually come back to help Dina maintain the home. Nothing gives her more pleasure than seeing some of the former inmates again. But just as she feels vindicated with every person who regains health and leaves, she feels like she has lost one more piece of her sanity with every corpse that is taken away from her home.
She knocks softly on every door and opens it just wide enough to enter. She sits at every bed and talks to the person in it; she says smiles really do cure them better than all the medicines in the world. They have all taken to bed early tonight.
‘We want to die like Chuck,’ they tell her, ‘comfortably and in bed.’
Mr Jackson doesn’t speak to her. He turns his face away when she enters the room.
“‘You probably think I was responsible for his death,’ she tells him. ‘But what could I have done? He was sick when he came in. Terribly, terribly sick. It’s a miracle that he survived that long.’
Mr Jackson still does not respond.
She sighs and pats him on the forehead. I suppose you won’t even show me your newest painting. But that’s okay. Because I’ll see it tomorrow when you’re feeling better.’
In the next room Juanita is muttering agitatedly. ‘I wonder what became of my son,’ she says.
‘Did Chuck remind you of him?’
‘No,’ the woman says. ‘But death reminds you of people you haven’t remembered in a long time.’ After a pause, she shakes her head and says, ‘I think he’s dead too.’
Dina looks at her for a moment. ‘I can do nothing to replace your son,’ she says. ‘But we’ll do our best as long as you live.’ She puts her hand under the woman and hugs her. The woman clings to her like a baby. Dina runs her hand over her head and soothes her. It is only after a few minutes, when the woman has released her grip, does Dina leave her bed and go to her next resident, the woman who shares the room with Juanita.
Dina listens to the fragile sound of the santoor as she gets ready for another day. The clear notes sound like birds at sunrise. She dusts her room, waters the plants and sits by the window meditatively listening to the music. Then she and Anna prepare breakfast for all of them. She tries hard not to think of Chuck.
Groceries today after the funeral, she reminds herself. And Juanita’s laundry too. She’s run out of fresh clothes. Also medicines for Claire. Don’t forget the prescription on the table in the living room.
Dr Mehra, who volunteers his time at her home, will be here soon on his rounds. When a local newspaper did a story on her after she’d thrown the doors of her home open, Dr Mehra was among the first people to step forward to help out. He comes in every morning and checks on everyone in the home regardless of whether they need medical attention or not. She looks forward to his visits because he also reminds her of home and her family and makes her feel as though she is spending time with them.
Stocky Dr Mehra rolls in with a jovial greeting. ‘How are you beautiful people doing today?’ he bellows down the hallway.
His laughter is infectious. Seeing him she already feels a little better. Yet he sits with Dina in her room and tells her what he’s told her so many times before. ‘You know what we say. The soul has discarded one garment to don another. Believe me when I say this: that because of you Chuck died happy.’ He holds her hand in his and pats her on the shoulder. ‘Just think of what they’d do without you.’
When he goes into Mr Jackson’s room he says while he’s taking his pulse, I hear you’ve got another masterpiece for us.’
Mr Jackson smiles, he’s already feeling better. ‘The sadder ah get, the better it comes out,’ he says.
Dr Mehra looks at it and hoots playfully. ‘You know, this should hang at the Smithsonian. Or better still at the Louvre.’
‘You’ve got to be kiddin’ Dr M. Ah’m no Picasso or nothin’. All ah do is splash some of them paint on the canvas and you say they’re masterpieces.’ He is delighted.
Dr Mehra puts his bag away and says, ‘You’re now so much better that pretty soon you’ll be back on a construction site.’
He pats the man’s head and moves on to the next room.
‘If it ain’t for Dina’s Home Ah’d be a dead man,’ he calls out. Dina’s at the door, listening. He turns to her and says, ‘Thank you dear. And sorry for bein’ such a baby last night.’
Mr Jackson’s child-like smile fills the room. Dina suddenly realises what is it that keeps her going. She smiles even as she knows that a coffin will be delivered within the next hour or two.
Dina cleans Chuck’s limp body with a sponge. She does not let Anna help her with this. She wants to do this herself, to prepare him the way she has prepared all the others before him. She knows Anna neither approves of this nor thinks she does a particularly good job, but this is one thing Dina insists on doing.
She applies the sponge gently in feather-touch strokes so as not to displace the stiff muscles even a little bit or tear at the rough skin. After death the skin always becomes translucent and she can count the number of veins in his body. After she’s wiped his body with a fresh towel she puts him into his best clothes: his only suit, the one in which he came home, once filthy and smelling of urine. Now, dry-cleaned and hardly used, the suit is bright and gives him dignity. He looks more like a professor than the plumber he was. She struggles with the tie. Even after all these years she has to try it out several times before she can get a perfect knot. Ultimately she ties it on her own neck and then puts it on him.
Satisfied at last, she opens the door. Chuck is ready. They seal the coffin and the last enduring image she sees of him, is his smile. The glorious, beatific smile.
A black man, whose wiry greying hair sits uneasily on his head like a rag picked up from a dumpster, staggers up the stairs, supporting himself on the bannisters with every step. His face is wrinkled like a bulldog’s, large warts on his nose, his shaggy beard could house a family of bees. He must have heard that there is an opening in the home. When he crosses the threshold and blinks at the darkness inside Dina appears from the shadows. She smiles.
‘Welcome home!’ she exclaims softly with the same trepidation and joy with which she greeted her first resident. The man blinks confusedly for a moment. Then staggers into her big arms and weeps like a child.