It’s late in the afternoon when mipaati skulks in, her eyes still carrying the gunk from yesterday and her face sunken with a fidgety anxiousness for tomorrow. Her appearance—bedraggled and nervous—lends a sense of foreboding to the proceedings. Mtra and I watch our grandmother guardedly as she shuts the door behind her and scurries inside our patched walls, holding a lump in the hem of her saree. Her georgette is frayed at the edges; it’s a navy-blue relic, a memento from her former life as a Tupperware hustler, one she’s always telling stories about. She is an unapologetic hoarder, our mipaati, and I’ve often held a lingering suspicion that she picked us from the dumps too, that we’re perhaps yet another part of her hoard. Today is all about the lump though; she cradles it with the tenderness reserved for a newborn and ushers us into a corner. My sister and I comply, for the hush of the affair excites us, its mystery and suspense spurring us on to partake in her secrecy. For once in our lives, we are glad to follow her cue. For once in our lives, we feel thrilled to do something that isn’t nothing. It beats counting bars on the fencing outside camp; it beats playing hopscotch with whittled down chalk; and it certainly beats memorizing timetables for trains we can always hear but never see. I wonder if mipaati has finally grown into the mold of a responsible adult and found us some food.
How wrong was I.
Grandma steps forward, her eyes darting around in search of a container to dump her secret in. She ventures to her hoarder heap and fetches a take-out box from the top of the pile, giving the thing a thorough look. Meanwhile Mtra’s patience runs the end of its course, and she grows restless from all the subterfuge. “Is it chocolate? It’s chocolate, isn’t it?” my six-year-old sister demands of mipaati, dogging the old woman at every turn and footstep while sniffing out the hem of her saree.
Mipaati humors my sister with a smile.
“No, it’s even better,” she insists, her grey eyes gleaming.
We watch as she unrolls the pallu of her saree and dumps her spoils into the container.
There’s a silence— a long, hard silence. I stare at the tribute on our table; I recognize the thing for what it is and my eyes widen a little.
“Is that mu—?” I barely manage to utter before a hand clamps around my mouth.
Mipaati gasps in horror, muffling my question before I can even speak it.
“Sshh, you idiot,” she hisses furiously and gives a frantic look around. Her eyes scan the walls of our dwelling, roving from corner to corner; she looks uneasy and so very afraid. She waits for voices to break out or a door to slam open and when nothing happens, she turns to me. Don’t call it out loud, she reproaches me in a whisper. Walls have ears, remember? She hazards a look at the door again and when no one’s outside, banging it open, her nerves lose their edge, and she sags back into her wrinkled skin, looking relieved. She doesn’t release me yet. No, not until I bite my tongue and promise to treat the subject of her spoils with more delicacy.
“But mipaati,” I protest in a small voice. “How—” My face betrays my chagrin, knowing she is up to her foolish schemes again. “Where did you even get this?”
The old fossil shrugs and evades the question.
“Never you mind,” she replies tartly. “It took some persuasion. Took some bartering as well. But my pains will bear fruit; just wait and watch, my dove.”
Mtra, never one to be left out of a conversation, presses her elbows on the table and leans her small head in.
“Is that mud?” she asks belligerently, earning another furious squawk from our grandmother.
“The walls. THE WALLS!” mipaati bemoans.
Undeterred, my sister merely grins and drops her voice to a whisper. “But what can you do with a handful of mud, granny?”
Our mipaati turns to the walls again and scorns at them.
“We can do so much, gumdrop. Mud is versatile like life itself. It gives and it takes.”
Truer words have been spoken.
“Like what?” I ask, raising the voice of the skeptic.
Mipaati isn’t insulted by my query. She glances at me, this time with a strange fervor in her eyes, like a missionary come to educate the savages.
“We can make new life, Dana. Plant a tree, a shrub, even grow food,” her voice thrums with energy, enthused at the myriad possibilities before her. “It will be like living above ground. Just like old times, children.”
My sister tugs at our grandmother’s elbow.
“How about chocolates? Can we grow chocolates, mipaati?”
Our grandmother’s face turns sour. She shakes her head mutedly.
“No, we won’t,” she vows. “Chocolates are symbols of capitalism, a means to slavery, Mtra. It’s the reason why we can’t live above anymore. All because of industrialists and their bottomless greed! The corrupt are the ones who ruined everything! We were happy back then!”
If it isn’t apparent already, mipaati is a stout proponent of alternative theories. Especially those derived from tabloids she scavenges out of dumpsters. I wouldn’t exactly call her a socialist since she doesn’t like sharing much, least of all her after-meal mango puddings. My sister’s enthusiasm deflates a little, and our grandmother, noticing the lull in her spirit, reaches out to pet Mtra’s head, smoothing out the tangles in her black hair. “Don’t be disheartened, dove,” she tells Mtra and after a long moment of deliberation, she concedes a sigh. “Know what? Perhaps we can try growing chocolates too. But don’t get your hopes up, alright?”
Mtra perks up immediately while mipaati turns to the table to gaze ardently at her spoils. Her eyes blaze like wildfire.
I look between the two of them—between guardian and ward—knowing not the fool between them. I step away, hoping their delusions aren’t infectious.
Let it not be said that I didn’t try. The presence of mud in our room keeps me on edge and nags at me throughout the day. During dinner of mashed potatoes and lemon rice (which arrived, wrapped in banana leaves and coir strings, thanks to government food stamps and the biodegradable initiative), I clear my throat and offer a suggestion—a suggestion that ought to be more practical than the schemes grandma concocts inside her head.
“Mipaati,” I call. “How about we turn the mud into clay? We can make something out of it.”
My grandmother clicks her tongue, turning down the idea.
I propose another.
“How about we use it to seal the crack in our roof? Remember that corner over the heater and how it drips every time it rains?”
Mipaati shakes her head again, her answer another stout ‘no’.
“We are going to grow our own food,” she says determinedly. “— and that is final.”
“But—” I protest, wondering if she’s even thinking straight. “What about water? What about seeds?”
Her attention draws to the crude calendar we have marked on the wall. Letters from Sunday to Saturday and a number to go with each day. Mipaati ruminates over the calendar before turning to me. “Tomorrow will be gourd” she says, remembering the schedule of rations and food distributed by State Relief Housing. “If you find some seeds in your curry tomorrow, spit them out, alright?”
I stare at her, shell-shocked, amazed that she’s intent on going through with this.
“What about light?” I blurt out.
Here, she pauses, finding herself to be at a loss for words. She glances around our home, our cantonment home, and grows dismayed at the state of it. Shadows cling to the inside of our dwelling; there’s no light except for the fluorescent tube glowing outside the cantonment and attracting the moths. I’m surprised how she even missed such a crucial detail.
“I’ll… I’ll figure out something,” she says.
I’m not convinced.
It’s an irony how my grandmother—the plastic toting jezebel of yesterday—has turned into a tree hugger. I wonder if she’s prepared to handle the gravity of this change.
Our grandmother keeps the mud in its makeshift pot, away from prying eyes. She’s planted something in there. I don’t know what it is.
You must excuse me for the little faith I place in my guardian. For my grandmother is as strange as they come, her stories stranger than her. It’s mipaati’s habit to share euphemisms during laundry. Mtra and I are sitting on the ground, elbows drawn around our grubby knees, faces burrowed in our hands while the drums spin. Mtra watches on in awe, enamored by the machines and the chug-chug rhythm of their spin cycles. There’s no ventilation in the cantonment’s laundry room, and we nearly bake in the heat of twenty machines chugging dirt and filth.
Mipaati speaks up suddenly.
“Don’t ever ask questions to a drowning man,” grandmother tells us sagely.
We look up at her, startled.
Mipaati doesn’t give reason and continues folding linen in her lap. Against my better judgment, I clear my throat and ask her what she means. Grandma glances at me sharp as if the answer ought to be obvious.
“Because if you ask questions to a drowning man, and if he drowns, you’d blame no one but yourself.”
I stare at her, confounded. We don’t get it, really. Neither me nor my sister understand what she’s on about. Why anyone would court death by drowning? Or why we’d be shooting questions to a drowning man and not be saving him instead? We’d never learnt how to swim either—my sister and I. We’ve never seen a pool or the sea. We can imagine how it must feel; after all, we’ve seen ads in the ol’ magazines, a poster of a woman in a bikini, lying flat on top of a turtle float, drinking from a glass that has a little umbrella and a slice of cucumber. I called dibs on the umbrella while Mtra announced her rights to the slice of cucumber. So, that’s the extent of what we know about pools, swimming and how to float and drown in them. We return to watching our grandmother; we watch her haul our clothes out of the laundromat; and we follow her out to the subterra yard where she hooks the clothes on a line to dry. Mipaati says the clothes would dry quicker if the sun were here. Or if the dryer wasn’t kept out of order to conserve electricity. Another reason why mipaati isn’t fond of capitalism or the machines. She’s eager to return home, to her handful of mud.
My sister and I are content to watch the clothes dry, because we have time, all the time in the world, and because somebody might just steal our clothes if we don’t keep that watch.
Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I entertain a hope that somebody would steal the mud.
But it’s still there when we get back.
The next day, mipaati is running late from her errands, and I wonder if they caught her.
Will they come for us next?
I drag Mtra away from home, paranoia digging its claws deep in me.
The gayatri mantra bounces off the sound bar over tin homes and in other places—someone’s playing the old songs of MGR. The people of the underground still believe in their gods, in their heroes, and are still waiting for their day of reckoning. Their day of the sun. There is a buzz of static, and the songs are broken by a metro announcement.
I clutch my sister’s hand in mine and navigate through the tunnels. There are ventilator shafts at every twenty steps, bringing in recycled air, ribbons dancing under them.
Mtra drags her feet, wanting to stay under the airy shafts.
“Where are we going? Where is mipaati?” she whines.
I try to pull her along with force.
“C’mon, walk,” I urge her. “I don’t know where the old crone is, alright. She said she’s going to get some torchlights from the commissary.”
Mtra yanks her arm free and whimpers.
“Then, lets head back home and wait. She’ll come back, won’t she?”
I turn to my sister and reach for her hand again, afraid to let her go. “Mtra, trust me, will you?” I tell her, but she doesn’t believe a word of mine. I look at the tunnel, at the great unknown beyond and wonder if it’s easier to trust in my foolish grandmother than me.
We hear a thunderous echo next.
“It’s the train,” says my sister, growing buoyant. We feel it rumbling down the network of subway tunnels.
Mtra looks at me.
“Do you think it’s true?”
“That the train is carried by the Whistling Man. That’s where the sound comes from?”
“Who told you that?”
I sigh and sink to my knees, grasping hold of her shoulders.
“Mtra, don’t believe everything mipaati says. You can’t… her.”
My sister looks puzzled.
“Does this mean we can’t grow chocolate too?”
Mipaati returns at the crack of dawn. We know because Srini’s roosters are crowing already, the little beasts. Our grandmother can hardly contain her excitement and I understand why. She’s siphoned off a pair of flashlights from somewhere.
I’m tempted to ask if she stole them from the commissary.
Humming to herself a song, she sets about fixing the flashlights around her box of mud.
“What makes you think it’s safe?” I finally ask her, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes. “What makes you think your mud isn’t poisoned like the land above?”
Mipaati throws me a peeved look.
“Of course, it isn’t poisoned. Don’t be ridiculous, Dana.”
I’m not convinced. I don’t know what she’s planted in there, but one day we see the seed germinating. Just a pair of leaves pops out, tiny, miniscule, and it takes both Mtra and me to hold back our grandmother and muffle her cries of jubilation. After a week, more leaves join the fray and the plant looks like a basil now, because that’s the only plant I’ve seen growing underground.
I don’t tell my sister—my sister who still thinks the plant is going to sprout chocolate bars one day.
The plant grows into a sapling and as it grows, mipaati becomes obsessed with it. She sacrifices her tea to the sapling, prays to it, tells it all her strange stories. It occurs to mipaati one day that the plant is in dire need of mulch. It occurs to mipaati that we possess neither pebbles nor wooden chips to achieve this feat.
It’s not until Mtra and I are breaking our midday eggs (from the government’s an egg a day programme) that I look up and catch the fervent expression on grandmother’s face. Mtra willingly gives up her egg, but I shake my head, denying her silent plea.
“No!” I grit.
“Just the shell, it’s good for the soil.”
“It’s good for me too,” I insist, protecting my egg shells.
I give the woman a scathing look. The only reason she keeps us around is for the government food stamps, I’m sure.
Mipaati purses her lips in a thin line. I know she’ll have her way, and I try to barter.
“Then tell me, what happened to our parents?”
“Haven’t we had this discussion already? It was tuberculosis.”
“You said they died in a car crash!”
Mipaati turns irritated.
“Look at you. Remembering stuff. You’re just a kid, act your age.”
Our grandmother flip-flops between asking us to act like adults and kids. It’s almost as if she doesn’t know what she wants us to be.
I sacrifice the egg shells anyway.
Our fears take shape on the tenth night when there’s a knock on the door. Mipaati opens the door and falls back with a yelp; there’s a crack of a taser and two hazmat suits restrain her with force while a third comes for Mtra and me.
“Are the kids compromised? Check them for toxicity!”
The hazmat suits scan us from head to toe, running our stats in their machines before declaring us ‘clean’. Our grandmother doesn’t go down without a fight; she bites into the hand of the officer holding her back. “We have rights!” she screams, struggling against him. “You can’t barge in here!”
The sentinel growls back at her.
“We can if you are foolish enough to bring hazardous substances down. Where is it? WHERE?”
She simmers down and regards the hazmats with distrust.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she snarls.
“For the last time, where is it, you blithering old fool?”
When mipaati isn’t forthcoming with answers, the hazmat suits turn to us, the kids.
“Where is the soil, children? Do you know about it?”
Mtra lets out a sob and hides behind the cot, and so the responders turn to me. I give my grandmother a cold, hard look and then raising a hand, point to the chest of drawers.
The responders discover it soon enough.
“Is it mud?”
The hazmat suits crowd around the box of mud. They rip away the plant, toss it to the floor and trample all over it with their boots. It’s the mud they’ve come for, and they hold their breath as they scoop it into a ziplock bag with careful hands.
Exchanging wary glances, they scan the bag.
After what seems like a lifetime, the machine completes its tests and its display beeps green; there’s a collective sigh of relief.
“False alarm,” one hazmat announces. “Thank god.”
They remove the ‘Quarantine’ sticker from our door and stick a ‘Safe’ over it. They leave, but not before slapping a two thousand rupee fine on mipaati for her audacity to smuggle mud, toxic or otherwise. When they’re gone, all that’s left is the circle of spectators standing outside our door. Mipaati is frozen to her spot, looking shell-shocked, her eyes glued to the floor and the remains of the plant.
I watch my sister crawl out of hiding. She stumbles over to the crushed basil, picks out a leaf and takes a bite. She pulls a face at the taste.
“This isn’t chocolate,” she says.