Each morning at ten, Griselda Gomez Biswas leaves home with her weighed-down jhola for an arduous shift in the sun. Her enormous forearms wobbling, occasionally pausing to wipe the sweat streaming down her neck and temples on the edge of her saree, she waddles through the lanes of the suburban town of Mankundu, knocking on doors to coax one minute out of the lives of bored housewives to introduce them to the joys of homemade pickles and preserves. On a good day she manages to sell five or six jars. On a bad day there are doors slammed at her face, rabid street-dogs driving her down the next three lanes, not to mention taunts and abuses from sprawling lowlifes of all description. Griselda Gomez Biswas stares them down, keeps a straight face, stretches her lips into an obliging smile, and ploughs on.
On the rare very good day, a housewife is bored enough to invite her in for a chat, offer her a glass of water or ice-cold sherbet. What is your name boudi, she asks. What does the mister do, how many children. Name is Geeta Biswas, she tells her innocuous host, unsuccessfully attempting a coy smile through the prematurely blackened teeth. She talks about the girl — a darling girl, no mistake, studies in class twelve, we've been looking for a good match for her — and the boy, just a slow stupid boy, struggling with his academics although only in class five. The mister in these stories is always late. Oh is that so, sorry to hear that, must be so hard for you with the children, coos the doe-eyed woman of the house, convinced by the conspicuous absence of the shaNkha-pola-sindoor on Griselda’s person, quietly counting her own blessings behind the obligatory rueful smile. ‘One minute,’ Griselda lifts a quick squat forefinger, then rummages through her jhola and pulls out a small jar, ‘Special sweet potato pickle. Keep it, free for you.’
And so Michael has always been late. Late to puberty, late to clear out of college, late to the altar, too late to realize that people did not live their lives on dreams but the hard cash that brought home the rice and the dal when brandished at the grocer’s store. Nearly all her life had gone to waste chasing after Michael, yet Griselda has never managed to drag him up to time. When the first baby was born — a pretty little girl, combining all her father’s delicate physical features to the best advantage — she had silently nodded as he shamefacedly unveiled his plans for it; stared on without expression as they took away her baby, as Michael stood at the threshold of their derelict house counting the wads of fresh notes, more money than the couple had ever seen. She kept waiting, too, as the wads of notes slowly grew thinner — as the reinforced kitchen wall grew damp; the jewellery went back to the pawnbrokers; the homoeopathic-and-ayurved chamber and dispensary, the dream of Michael’s life, never managed to take off. And then five years later, when she found herself pregnant again, Griselda Gomez Biswas had decided to take matters into her own hands.
Let the plans for this baby be mine, she had informed Michael in no uncertain words, lying bloated next to him like a massive unwieldy hillock at eight months. He had squirmed, as always, as he heard her out. His cowardice made her sick at heart, but she loved him; she held his hand and smoothed out his doubts, as she had always done. It will be all right, there is no danger. You only have to sit in your chamber and dole out the medicine. Your medicine will be the only thing that will work. You will earn respect and money, and you’ll save their lives; your conscience will be clear. We shall be able to afford the kid, and send it to school, and give it a good life. It’s never too late to start. Everything will finally be all right.
She returns home after sundown, panting and vigorously rubbing herself with the edge of her saree, and finds him poring over a schoolbook under the dim light of the 30-watt bulb in the kitchen.
‘Good evening, Ma. How was your day?’
He peers at her over an enormous pair of spectacles, his eager face scrubbed, the hair on his head oiled and flattened down sanctimoniously — the model of the studious, obedient little boy — except that it makes her want to smash in that lying face with her fist. She knows for a fact that he was elsewhere less than five minutes ago, wasting his dearly bought leisure in some godforsaken worthless pursuit, but to her frustration she can never catch him at it.
And yet the boy isn’t smart in any practicable way. Thirteen years old and still struggling in class five, he has inherited none of the brightness or easygoing charm of his father, nor has his mother’s dogged diligence. Lazy, tongue-tied, bent-backed and severely myopic, little Bob makes Griselda Gomez Biswas feel singularly betrayed by fate. (Her dreams at night have come to be distorted by visitations from the beautiful, effervescent daughter — the one who would’ve been in class twelve now and had a long queue of young men eating out her hand; perhaps even in love with a sweet, charmingly inept fellow like Michael — infusing fresh life into all the fantasies her own mother had cherished as a girl.) Was this little piece of shit — this dull, despicable, third-rate specimen of humanity — what she had pawned the last bit of her conscience for?
Each time she prepares one of her special jars of pickle Griselda holds herself back severely from dunking a large spoonful of the tasteless, colourless, odourless magic concentrate into the boy’s glass of morning milk. She does it to preserve her own sanity, although a part of her suspects that even if she put it in, he would’ve found some indiscernible way to not let the concoction enter his system. These are the instances with the boy that creep her out — that kind of low, unrelenting, yet invisible instinct for survival that bears no semblance of intelligence or anything more positive. It does not pass exams or make friends or endears little Bob to his mother or other elders. At nights lying next to her blissfully unsuspecting, slumberous husband, it instead makes Griselda Gomez Biswas’s limbs grow cold with terror. And so each morning she wakes up, pulls on that obliging smile, and goes on another round of selling pickles.