I am eight. I remember the heat, thick, and syrupy, sticking to my skin. The sky is so bright it glares at me – as though a piece of skin has been stretched thin and pulled across the Indian hemisphere. I squint up to the sun. The sun is much bigger here than it is in Luton. In Luton the sun is a small, quivering, anemic egg yoke. Here, the Sun is a great golden orb, pulsating and burning in the sky. I like the sun here.
I cannot remember my mother. I try and picture her face. But there is only flesh, melting into nothing….
I am with my father. His bloodshot, whisky soaked eyes stare ahead, as the taxi weave’s through my new strange world. We are going to stay at my Aunt’s house in Amritsar, Punjab. He wears his best suit and all his finest Indian jewellery. He still can’t quite bring himself to remove his wedding ring; it has only been two months. I feel uncomfortable in the polyester dress and patent black Mary-Janes, and click my heels together, once, twice, three times, like Dorothy.
We travel through many villages, on mud tracks, through a monsoon, past shantytowns, with children in rags, holding onto sticks carrying their polio-ridden bodies. Holding out their hands for money. The poor fall into the cracks between the jewelled houses – forgotten and ignored.
On the final approach, we pass a vast crater filled with a muddy lake and an unseen force. Mad red pigs, squeal and roll about in the watery harem, as the birds’ over-head avoid the darkness below. There are dead trees in the cloudy water, naked and burnt.
My mother cradles a single lit candle; she goes from room to room, blessing each space in our house, whilst I follow behind in the darkness. She has warm hands and a kind face; her cuddles are strong and tight. I see her silhouette, and her curly hair, the way her shoulders move when she laughs.
I stay in the shadows of the enclosed courtyard of my Aunt’s stone house. Honey kissed air fights with the smell of cow manure. A women squatting in the street makes rice cakes, drying them in the sun. Another women, gathers handfuls of steaming cowpat and moulds them into dome shaped patties, once dried, they will be used to fuel her oven.
There is an excitement in the air and people have already started to ignite the town and their bodies with wild vivid hues of turmeric, indigo, pomegranate, red sandalwood and mehendi, as Holi the Festival of Colour turns the dusty yellow town into a creature full of music, colour and vibration.
I recognise rhododendrons, begonias and orchids (my mother taught me), they gently caress the garden with their calming perfumes, crawling slowly around the courtyard and up the sides of the white cement building, a cooling reassurance in this acidic heat. Blood red poppies sprout around the cast iron water pump, where I collect warm rusty water in my tin mug.
The earth is hot; I skip across the courtyard, a stone skimming dark waters, as the heat of the ground burns my small bare feet. I try to keep to the shadows. I am used to hiding.
My aunty is a shifting globule, with course wiry black hair scraped back into a frizzy ponytail. Her thick black-rimmed glasses magnify her black eyes. She scares me. Aunty calls me the “little white Indian girl” – I am much lighter skinned than my cousins. I want her to like me.
Aunty is busy preparing a feast; she will have a busy day cooking sweets and curries for the Holi celebrations.
“Masi, I am hungry” – she silently makes me scrambled eggs with milk roll bread. The ants are five times bigger than the ones back home. They crawl all over the marbled surface, into the pan, where buttery scrambled eggs sprinkled with coriander, mingle in the tangled crisp limbs of the frying ants. I eat the scrambled eggs and the bread. And the ants.
My father will go to the market today; he will buy Indian sweets, exotic materials, and wild flowers for Holi. I ask for a pair of red flip-flops but he won’t let me have red flips-flops saying it’s the colour of married women. I won’t get anything from the market.
A young man comes to the door, he is selling coloured pigments ‘gulal’; my aunt buys sacks and sacks of beautiful cornflower, violet, indigo, emerald and ruby red; moving the precious talc into the parlour to store in the cool darkness “we will set this free later” she tells me.
I watch quietly as she and my cousins Ruby and Rosie help her cut salad. I try to help but cut my finger, she takes the knife away from me and tells me to go and play calling after me “stay away from the mango tree – the fruit is for Lakshmi”. I go back to the shadows sucking my bloody finger.
A sugary brown face with dark molasses of eyes. Sprinkling of freckles. Elizabeth Arden Red Door. Ponds face cream. “Darling I have a bad egg in my head which makes mummy a bit sicky”.
The mangoes have become syrupy and swollen – the tree burdened by her fat offspring, she can no longer hold her fruit. The light of the sun caresses the golden nuggets. The mangoes are so ripe that a sticky sweet nectar drips from them, and I stand under the tree, trying to catch the drips with my outstretched tongue.
A mango falls heavily by my feet, it explodes violently; more and more mangoes fall to the ground, like tiny canon balls. I try to catch them in my outstretched dress. Rosie and Ruby watch with curiosity. “The biggest mango of all, is right at the top” I point with excitement. My cousins look to me – their eyes are big and white, rock pools of milk amongst a dark chocolate brown face.
I feel a compulsion to impress my wide-eyed audience. At home, I would never climb so high or dare to pick anything from the garden. Once I had picked bluebells from the garden for my school project. My father had caught me. He chased me around the house and smacked me hard across the face, snatching the bluebells away from me. I didn’t finish my school project. I couldn’t tell the teacher its because my father wouldn’t let me pick flowers.
I begin to shimmy up the tree, catching my breath as the rough bark scratches at my singed feet “you keep an eye out for Aunty, I will get that mango. We can go eat it by the pig lake whilst watching Holi”. My lungs burn as I hold my breath and set my sights on the forbidden fruit. I reach out for the mango, and grab its slippery skin; it’s much heavier than I thought. Just as the mango comes free, I lose my footing, and feel myself falling away from the bones of the tree, landing hard on the mossy grass beneath. Mango carcasses surround me and I am covered in mango flesh, matted into my hair and staining my skin. My cousins gasp and come to help me, I pretend to play dead, but inside I am racked with pain and there is mango in my knickers.
The silhouettes of their bodies press against the sky, plaits swinging wildly, as they stand over me, shimmering in the shafts of sunlight. Ruby whispers “is she dead?’ I am still clutching my prize. “Quick, we can’t let mummy know what we have done!” Rosie cries.
My mother is finally at home. She has spent a long time in the hospice. She is in a hospital bed, the hospice arranged for her to have all her equipment at home so that she could be comfortable. She has a drip now. Her eyes have been closed for three days. They say she can only last for seven at the most in this state. I sit with her day and night and squeeze her hand “Mum, if you love me, squeeze my hand” and my heart erupts with joy when I feel her squeeze my hand back.
My Aunty comes cluttering through the garden; I have angered her. And Lakshmi. Before I know it my feet have carried me out of the courtyard and through the back gate. I run as fast as I can, beyond the women making rice cakes, and cow pats, past the dancing street, with her jewelled people feasting on rainbow and light. The sun beats on my face, hot air whips around me in fury and excitement, music seeps into my ears. I try to block out the darkness inside me, but still Death clings to me – I so want to let it go.
Finally I come to the moon crater, filled with the screaming pigs.
It feels like the sun has set, darkness has lived and dawn has risen. I have been still for a long time.
Looking down to my dress, I am surprised to find the mango still nestled in the folds of my dress; I hug it gently. A shadow crosses my face, my cousins are standing over me. I bite my lip and try not to cry. How can they ever know? This immeasurable pain of the heart….
I stand quickly and gather my dress “Let’s feed the pigs”.
My cousins push bruised mangoes through holes in the brick wall, down falls the yellow manna to the wallowing pigs, they squeal in delight at mangoes from the gods. I hear Erebus calling me; looking down to the crater, I want to go further.
“Let’s go down there” and point down to the mud banks. “No, the pigs are wild and we will be eaten!” cries Rosie, but I have already begun my descent down to the swollen pit of the belly where I can play with danger.
The mud bank is soft and hot and my feet get sucked into the ground. I do not notice that the further I go in, the harder my feet seem to stick.
A charred, swollen creature drifts in the water. Maggots wriggle through the skin, eyes oozing, a coat of black flies greedily suck. It’s the ballooned corpse of a giant hog; it creaks slowly in the heat. Taught, black and hissing in the sun, I can hear the skin fizzle. It smiles at me and lets out a snort, I scream and fall back into the hot mud.
My feet are stuck – I cannot move, the devil pig stares at me. The wake of the bog causes it to perform a macabre dance in the stagnant waters. The fingers of a dead tree catch the pig and spear it gently. The low hissing is now combined with a wet bubbling noise, as it gets louder and gathers momentum the maggot filled eyeballs pop out of its head and violently and almost without expectation the pig explodes in the heat, spraying me in a sticky brown liquid.
My mother died whilst I read her favorite psalm. Psalm 21. It was 6.10pm on New Years Day. I run to fetch my father and all my mother sisters. We said goodbye and told her to follow the light. We kissed her head and hands. She stopped breathing and then the silence dropped. I hold on to her tightly and won’t let go.
There is a noise that I do not recognize. It is me. The noise is coming from me. I am vomiting. More and more screaming pigs have started to close in but my feet are glued to the syrupy floor. In desperation I throw the mango at them. They ignore it and continue to advance. My cousins are crying; watching me in the distance, they are powerless to help. The largest boar of all, is bearing down on me – hot air puffs from its nostrils, hungry eyes, he squeals at me with great delight, smiling, his teeth are rotten and black.
We waited three hours for the doctor to come and sign the death certificate. A black ambulance turns up. My mother is lifted from the bed and she is stiff and splayed out – in her death position. She is put into the body bag and zipped up. A scream pierces the air, and my aunt is clinging to the body bag shouting at God “take me instead”. My mother is taken away from the warmth of her beloved house, to spend her final moments on earth in a cold dark freezer.
Suddenly I am pulled from the glue beneath, my feet make a wet slapping noise as they escape from the hands of the bog. My Aunt has pulled me free – she is balancing on two planks of wood, and drags me onto the rotting wooden boards. Local crowds begin to gather. My aunt shouts to them “Quick, throw the gulal at the pigs! We have to chase them away!”
An explosion of colour riots across the landscape as revelers throw handfuls of heavy pigment across the barren landscape; it skitters over the decay. Colour catches the pigs eyes, they become disoriented and back off, they gnash at each other. Colour falls all around me, onto my aunt, my scratchy dress, across the naked burnt trees, over the stagnant waters, covering us in emeralds, teals, crimsons, cornflower and burnt orange.
Time stops for me – I am transfixed. An infinite amount of coloured dust motes travel through the air, silently floating over the stench; covering the landscape in its infinite glory….
My aunt carries me home in her arms…..
I am back in the courtyard, under the iron pump as the warm rusty water collects the colour from me. It trails through the garden into the lush vegetation, the dropped branches of the mango tree drinks the rainbow.
My Aunt looks at me, and smiles, tugging at my plaits, trying to wash out the last remains of dye and pigs guts. “Beta, it is all going to be ok. I promise.” She cups my face the way my Mother used to, “Laksmhi will have plenty of mangoes anyway”.
Rajeena’s previous life was spent living in London working within the TV industry on programs such The Bill, Family Affairs, Silent Witness and Holby City before moving into producing TV and radio commercials for clients such as Strongbow, Littlewoods, Very and Majestic Wines.
She returned to her love of writing, when she moved to Wales in 2013 to raise her young family to live in the freedom of the oceans and mountains and trees. Her first short story in over ten years Underneath the Mango Tree was Highly Commended by judges of the Manchester Fiction Prize 2014. Rajeena Holland has recently completed an A Level in Creative Writing gaining an A, a feat she did in one year whilst maintaining duties of child rearing, housewifing, spider cleaning, wine quaffing and cheese guzzling.
She lives in Llandudno, North Wales, with her husband, two young sons and Charles Bronson the 3inch wolf spider (whose domain is the pantry).