“Before Mom died, she became a Christian.’
They were all at dinner at Radha’s home and Pushpa absorbed the shock without making it apparent. “Was that before I came out to see her?”
“Four, maybe five weeks before she died. I talked to her and then the minister from our church went to see her and she accepted Jesus as her saviour.” Radha passed her the mashed potatoes. Pushpa said nothing.
Pushpa was here for Leela’s wedding. She had last visited some ten years before, just a few weeks preceding her sister’s death. She had heard nothing of the conversion then, not even from her sister. And she couldn’t believe it. At the time, Luxmi, who had had a tumour removed from her brain, was reliving her childhood in the Asiatic Bazaar in Pretoria and making little connection with the present. Why would she convert? She and her husband, Ashok, had lived lives free of religious dogma. Why would she change? Was it because she knew she was dying? It couldn’t be.
Pushpa thought back to the weeks she had spent with Luxmi before her death. Her sister had been eager to share with her videos of the musicals starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy that they had loved as children. But Luxmi hadn’t had the energy to watch for more than a few minutes. And though she was often disorientated - there were times when she mistook Pushpa for Radha - she was always aware of her impending death, but had never once referred to any conversion.
A year or two after her death, Ashok married again - into a Christian family. On the day of her arrival from South Africa, Pushpa learned that Ashok’s wife, Dora, was seriously ill in hospital. Subash, who had fetched her from the airport, told her that his father wanted her to meet Dora, if she didn’t mind. So she went to the hospital with Subash, his wife, Mandy, and the children. They found Ashok seated at the bedside of a very frail looking woman with tubes in her nose and a catheter hanging at the side. Subash and Mandy greeted Dora with loving compassion. Pushpa shook hands with her and murmured a wish for her quick recovery.
“I was so looking forward to the wedding,” Dora informed her, tears glistening in her blue eyes. “Leela is such a beautiful girl. She is like a daughter to me and now I am going to miss her wedding.” Ashok leaned forward, took her hand and squeezed it to comfort her and share her pain. Pushpa felt like an intruder in this intimate family circle. She stood outside herself watching herself watching instead of participating. But being on the outside came naturally to her. Having lived alone for so long, more than half her life, she had lost the capacity for intimate relationships and demonstrations of affection.
So what was she doing here in the midst of a wedding celebration, especially when she regarded all rituals and rites as superstition? Leela had wanted her there, to stand in for her mother at the ceremony. Pushpa, thoughtlessly, had agreed. She had believed that she could do it. Thirty years before, she had been part of the family, had helped to bring up her sister’s children and had been the indulgent aunt who adored and spoilt her nieces and nephew. But they were grown-ups now, not the little kids she used to kiss and cuddle, and they were strangers. It was only when she got to the States that she fully realised that she was completely unqualified to be her sister’s surrogate.
When Subash took her to Ashok’s home the day before the wedding, they found Leela waiting for them. Ashok was at the hospital. Pushpa was to help Subash baby-sit while Mandy went off with Leela and Radha to decorate the church. As soon as the children realised that their mother was leaving them, they began a loud tearful protest. Pushpa tried to comfort them, but the children looked quite through this stranger trying to insinuate herself into the family. Little Joshua eventually allowed her to hold him but three year old, Deborah, saw her as an outsider and would have nothing to do with her. Fortunately, Subash, who was wonderful with his children, gentle and attentive, saved the day and they were soon playing together happily.
When Ashok, who had spent the whole morning at the hospital, came back, Pushpa sat down to chat with him and silently registered the Bible in his hand. She enquired after Dora and commiserated with him on having to minister to yet another patient. Her sister, Luxmi, had been completely helpless after the brain surgery and Ashok had had to tend her like a baby. Now here was Dora, fairly helpless but fortunately, in good mental health. While they were talking, Pushpa, who had been priding herself on being totally civilized and behaving quite like a human, suddenly found herself on the verge of losing her temper.
“When you go back to South Africa, you must tell Vishnu about Luxmi’s death.” Pushpa stared; she could feel that her look was hostile. Luxmi had died ten years before. What was this sudden need on Ashok’s part to send a message to Vishnu?
“ I live in a different province. I never see Vishnu. I haven’t seen him for thirty years. I have no idea where he is.”
“Yes, but he should know.” Pushpa said nothing. She was trying to get beyond her annoyance in order to understand her brother-in-law’s need to communicate with a man he had never met; a man who had been his wife’s lover over thirty years before. Charming, handsome Vishnu was a married man and Luxmi had been the other woman. He had kept her on a string, making the usual promises of leaving his wife and children, and when Luxmi finally admitted that she was just being used, she applied for a teaching post in England and left the country. In London, she met Ashok, a student from Bombay, married him and went to live in India. When their first child, Radha, was two years old, they emigrated to the States. That was over thirty years ago. So why dredge up the question of Vishnu now? Pushpa didn’t even know if he was still alive.
Pushpa thought it must be her fault. Perhaps Ashok was uncomfortable with her because he could feel that she was merely an observer and had translated her detachment as disapproval. Besides, he had not informed her when he married Dora. So perhaps he was feeling guilty about that and had brought up the ghost of Vishnu to even the balance. Because Pushpa was not demonstrative, he couldn’t see that she really was very happy that he had married again. If he had converted and that made him happy, she was glad. Dora’s people had taken Ashok to their bosoms and he had more than a wife now, he had an extended family and a very caring one from what she could see. Ashok was charming and personable but she had always regarded him as selfish and felt he could have been a better husband to Luxmi. She could see that he was a better husband to Dora. Was it because he was now a Christian? Perhaps his concern for Vishnu was also Christian compassion.
That evening, they went to the wedding rehearsal at the church. Leela was in charge of operations and Pushpa, who had very little experience of Christian weddings, of any wedding ceremonies actually, was surprised to see how much the whole responsibility fell upon the bride. She was impressed as she watched Leela giving instructions to all the bridesmaids, her fiancè, Alan, his attendants, the parents, the flower girls and ring bearer, and even to Subash, an ordained minister, who would be performing the ceremony. Pushpa, standing in for Luxmi, was to light the mother’s candle for the bride. It was a coordinated activity that she had to perform with Elizabeth, Alan’s mother, who would be lighting a candle for her son. After all the participants had walked through their functions and understood where they were to be seated, they all went off to a reception. Pushpa wondered why they had to rehearse the reception.
The next day, the day of the wedding, a couple of things that everyone else took for granted surprised Pushpa. She was not aware that family members were escorted individually down the aisle to their seats. When her turn came, she took the arm of a very obliging usher and, smiling regally to hide her embarrassment, walked with him to her seat. She hated being on display. What a poor substitute for her sister! Here she was, conscious of her own embarrassment, when she should be thinking of Leela. Then came the moment to light the mothers’ candles and she and Elizabeth stood up together as they had practised. Elizabeth was very nervous. As they took hold of the taper, she looked Pushpa squarely in the eye and said, “We can do this.” Pushpa immediately realised that unlike Elizabeth, she was empty of the kind of feeling and connectedness that a mother would have at such a time. Hers was simply a mechanical performance.
The bridesmaids and groomsmen entered next, followed by a stunning trio: the ring bearer, Radha’s six-year old, Timothy, and the two flower girls, Radha’s four-year old, Sylvia, and Subash and Mandy’s little Deborah. After Deborah had duly emptied her tiny basket of rose petals, she looked about a little confused and was about to return the way she had come in when Geoffrey, Radha’s husband, rushed forward and brought her to her seat. Pushpa wanted to hug and kiss the children as she used to hug and kiss Radha, Subash and Leela, but she couldn’t. Ashok then entered with Leela on his arm; she was an exceptionally beautiful bride and as she met her groom at the altar steps, the ritual turned into an oratorio. Leela, a musician, had interspersed the ceremony with musical interludes performed by a choir, soloists, and a duo. Pushpa, observing everything, wished she could shake off her objectivity and become involved. She knew she was letting Luxmi down very badly.
In the middle of proceedings, Leela and Alan suddenly left the altar and went to honour their parents. Pushpa was taken aback to find Leela in front of her holding out a rose. Then Leela went to embrace her father. Pushpa bit her lip; she should have hugged her niece. When the bride and groom returned to their places, the ceremony continued with Subash adding light-hearted comments about being the bride’s brother and reminding Alan that Big Brother was watching. Luxmi was probably watching her sister!
After the wedding, the couple together with their parents took their places in the foyer to receive the congratulations of the guests. Pushpa pulled out her camera, an attempt to become involved. She was a notoriously bad photographer and joked that she would have been useful in the French Revolution because she was very good at beheading people. But still she went clicking away, capturing one headless person after another. She did not go to the reception that evening. At the previous night’s dinner, she had sat silent and alone at a table full of strangers. She couldn’t do it again. Luxmi was probably shaking her head.
The next day, they all spent the afternoon at the ‘opening of presents’ party at Alan’s parents’ home. Pushpa’s present had been an incredibly inappropriate one. She had brought a statue of Sarasvathi, Goddess of Music and Education, and hadn’t for one moment thought of the impact that would have in a Christian environment. For her, the statue was simply a connection with music, Leela’s field, and a decorative object. Leela had opened the present the day before the wedding at Ashok’s home and the family’s polite enthusiasm had suddenly made Pushpa see it as a pagan object; not that she had anything against paganism - that was just religion at a different level. Her present did not surface with the others.
After the party, they left for Radha’s place. And it was at dinner that Radha made the startling announcement, startling only to Pushpa, that Luxmi had converted before she died. Pushpa accepted Ashok’s conversion but she could not accept Luxmi’s. Later, when Pushpa asked Subash about it, he was reticent. Perhaps he was embarrassed because he knew his aunt was not a believer. All he said was, “Radha belongs to a different church. In my church, we don’t believe in proselytising. I don’t know exactly what happened. But it seems Mom agreed to accept Christ.”
Sensing her nephew’s discomfort, Pushpa did not pursue the topic. But she continued her enquiry in her head. Why hadn’t Luxmi mentioned it to her? Had she suddenly become superstitious because she was dying? At the time, Pushpa had thought she had entered into her sister’s interior world but now she realised that all she had seen had been the external suffering - a woman enduring the humiliation of an illness that had reduced her to total dependence and robbed her of her dignity. Pushpa had loved her sister more than anyone in the world, but could it be that she had never really known her?
It was a devastating realisation. Had she been as perfunctory a sister as she had been a mother at the wedding? A mysterious and tortured soul had lurked behind Luxmi’s remote look and Pushpa had not seen it. Radha must have and had responded to it as a daughter and a devout Christian. Suddenly, the image of her niece as the little child she had helped to bring up, disintegrated. Radha now stood as an independent person, a woman with values and commitments totally divergent from her own. Had she known her mother better than Pushpa knew her sister?
Pushpa fought the idea. Luxmi had spent her life suppressing her own interests and needs in order to become the quintessential mother. Privately, Pushpa had deplored this. When Luxmi was dying and Radha asked her to become a Christian, it was possible that she had been in no condition to understand what was going on. If, however, she had understood and acquiesced to her daughter’s request, Pushpa felt quite certain it was in pursuit of her role as mother supreme. Luxmi had always done what she felt was best for her children. She had never imposed her own beliefs or discouraged them from pursuing their own. She had done everything for their happiness. Or so she had thought. Coming from apartheid South Africa, a racially segregated society, she had not experienced xenophobia and racism at the social level, that is, within the racial ghetto where people were all of the same background.
But her children, living in a mixed society, had been subjected to prejudice from the time they were toddlers. They had spent their childhood years unconsciously fighting for a place in the mainstream. Involuntarily, they had known that they did not want to be part of a despised minority culture and had adopted mainstream values and beliefs. They had become Christians. When she had first heard of their conversions, Pushpa had accepted with her usual objectivity - objectivity, she realised now, that covered condescension.
She looked down on all attempts to bring the glorious mystery of the creation under human control, to name it, totemise it and project anthropomorphism on it. These were reactions of fear, not a willingness to embrace the wonder of it all. She loved that it was a mystery, that it had inspired awesome human efforts and that it would always withstand religion’s attempts to contain it. She regarded religion as a pragmatic means to keep people civilized and was proud that she did not need external inducements to be a decent human being because she understood that it was essential to be one. But had her beliefs made her a decent human being? Had she not looked down on those with different views and withdrawn into herself? In addition to being a pseudo sister and mother, was she also a pseudo aunt who had not understood her nieces’ and nephew’s needs?
For the first time, she was being made to recognise fully, her nieces’ and nephew’s angst. They had struggled against prejudice all their lives and didn’t need her intolerance as well. As she looked at them now, she was filled with gratitude and admiration. They could have been driven in destructive directions. But they had found the church. Religion had provided them with answers to real emotional and psychological needs. And when Luxmi was dying, Radha had ministered to her mother’s pain in the same way as she had ministered to her own. Pushpa knew that Luxmi had never undertaken a spiritual quest. Her religion had been motherhood and she had remained its devotee until the very end. If she had become a Christian, it had been for her daughter. Not for herself. Her conversion had been complete acceptance of her child as an individual. Luxmi had known how to be a decent human being.
Before dropping Pushpa off at the airport the next day, Radha, Subash and their families took her to the hospital to say goodbye to Dora. They found Ashok steadfastly at his wife’s bedside. Pushpa watched the children embracing Dora with filial affection and Dora responding to them as a mother and grandmother. They were all devout Christians together. And Pushpa saw that she hadn’t been required to take Luxmi’s place. Dora had more than filled that gap and should have been the one to light the mother’s candle for Leela.
Holding hands, Ashok and his family formed a circle around the bed and Radha prayed for Dora. Pushpa watched from outside the circle as Radha asked Jesus to heal and bless Dora. After the prayer, as the group was leaving, Pushpa went up to Dora to say goodbye and wish her better health. “Leela gave me this rose during the wedding service. It is meant for her mother. You are more her mother than I could ever be. This is for you.”