The Writers' Union of Canada holds an annual Short Prose Competition for Developing Writers to encourage emerging writers of fiction and non-fiction. This year's judges-Erna Paris, Olive Senior, and Rudy Wiebe-awarded the first-place prize of $2,500 to "Jassie", a short-fiction piece by Shauna Singh Baldwin. Books in Canada is pleased to publish the winning entry.
I'll be sixty-five this month and now I know I will die in a foreign land. The nurses are all very cheerful, and my daughter and her husband who has blue eyes come to visit me every day. At least, I think they come to visit me. My son-in-law's mother shares my room and there are times when I am not certain.
Elsie is a Christian woman, very frail, very pale. Me, I am brown and my skin is not as wrinkled. She tells me stories from her past but I have none to give her that she could understand. I only smile and mostly we share silence and the magnolia tree outside. She calls me "Jessie" though my name is "Jassie", as all my teachers did, and does not seem to know there is a difference. And in the evenings Ted, the big smiling black man whose talk I do not understand, comes to help us walk down the hall for the usual spiceless dinner.
On Sundays, they have mass on the loudspeaker, and I say the responses with Elsie, out of habit. "The Lord be with you. And also with you. Lift up your hearts. We lift them up to the Lord." But afterwards, I unwrap my old gutka with its leather binding and I say the Japji. When I am bitter, I say it loud as if I do not know the strange sounds bother her. Sometimes she asks me how it is I know the mass so well, and I answer that I went to a Christian school. Perhaps one day when she is forgetful, I may tell her some of my story to bring it into words.
We have little in common, Elsie and I. Only that we are both mothers, and our children are married. But motherhood is a word with many meanings.
In those days, many of us had two mothers, and some had more. The more mothers you had, the more rich and powerful your father must be, for each woman-wife or concubine-was expected to be housed and clothed and jewelled. And we, their children, must be schooled in the best of schools-missionary schools, with uniforms and English lessons.
My birth mother was a full wife, married with all the rites of the Anand Karaj ceremony, at sixteen. My other mother was the wife whose failure no-one ever mentioned, out of kindness. I was raised to show respect and love for both mothers, and I did so gladly, for both women loved me as their own. This was difficult for white women who had never known the love of children to understand.
Oh, they meant well. I would not have you think that I did not respect my teachers-but they wanted us to follow their ways. I remember most particularly how important was the filling in of forms.
"Mother's name" was written in one box. But for this, I had devised a fair solution. I would give my mothers turns. I had only two, so this was easy.
"Mother's Maiden Name" was more difficult, for our custom was to change a woman's first name to one of her husband's choosing. But the last name of a Sikh woman remains the same, from birth to death-"Kaur", meaning princess. I knew the maiden name of my birth mother (it was tattooed midway up her forearm, and she wore a watch with its face turned inward to cover the blue smudge when in the company of Europeans, out of respect for their customs and sensibilities) but I knew not the maiden name of my father's first wife, she being married too young to remember it. So when it came her turn, I would write her married name, Krishnawanti, as her maiden name and hope she would forgive the lie. I would not have anyone believe she had kept a name not of her husband's choosing.
It wasn't as if they did not know and practise our customs, for were they not the several wives of a dead and risen God? And how were they different from the thousand consorts of Krishna, the God of the Hindus? Their senior-most wife was always given most respect; she was called "Mother Superior". But my senior mother could not be acknowledged. Oh it made me angry, then and now.
But I would not say this to Elsie, for I would have her think I am ungrateful for the teachings of these women. I wondered often if their families had cast them out, or if they, realizing their sin of barrenness, had exiled themselves in shame and penance? In later years they told me they chose their exile, but I am not convinced. Widows, even widows of Gods, are not the ones who choose.
In their church on Sundays with the chants that sounded all the same, burning foreign-smelling incense in the land of incense, they asked us to pray for the health of the Pope and all the Bishops and Archbishops, although these men were not their husbands. I felt these men were those who had power over my teachers, so I prayed-but not to their God-that they would be generous.
I like to watch the soap operas; they are like the Ramayan and the Mahabharat-they go on and on. There are some days when I want to be sure there are stories that never end. Elsie likes classical music and says the TV bothers her; it has too much violence.
I say, that is not the kind of violence one should fear. The kind of violence one should fear is always quiet and comes all wrapped up in words like Love until you live with it daily and you value only that which is valuable to the violator.
We were taught to speak like proper British ladies. "No sing-song," said Mother Francis, as we chorused speeches from Shakespeare and poems by Kipling. On the streets our people sang Bande Mataram and the truck drivers carried explosives from roadside teastalls to the Indian National Army. "My Lord, child. Can't you learn to say `victory', not `wictory'?" Mother Mary of Grace said, while in the temples, the Brahmins received a family's lifelong savings as prayashchit-penance for having fought the white man's war. At assembly we would sing, "Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so," while the Tagore poem that was to become our national anthem was whispered by poor wretches in prison, "Jana Gana Mana". We learned that we should be grateful for the telegraph and the trains and two hundred years of civilizing rule, while Shiva danced the dance of death on trains that carried Muslims one way, Hindus and Sikhs, another. We learned ballroom dancing from Mother Agatha, the red ribbons in our long heavy black braids flying out behind us, while the British packed away their brollies and shipped home rent-free.
Ted says he is not black, he is African-American. And I am slowly beginning to understand him. I have read about Martin Luther King and how he had a dream and then how he was killed, but Ted says his people are still fighting for their rights. I told him it would be easy if the only fight were against a conqueror, against history.
If you believe that everything that ever happened had to happen or you wouldn't be here, then you would believe that ballroom dancing led me to betray my husband before I met him. And then you would know that I deserve my pain and even to die in a foreign land. Mother Agatha said we should have a "social", to practise. And so I met Firoze. Blue-blazered, with his Eton-like school tie, a "proper gentleman", said Mother Agatha, approvingly. When she said we came from the same background, she meant we both knew English history and none of our own, that we both expected servants to have darker skin that our own. But this is not enough, even today, with which to arrange a marriage in India. The ballroom dancing stopped when Firoze's family left for Pakistan.
The man my father chose for me instead was a good man, slight of build, quiet and kind. He was the son of Sikh landowners, had a missionary education, but no connections. I thought he had no business sense either, when he opened a shop to sell Khadi cloth. I told him no-one would buy cloth made in India; everyone wanted cloth made in Manchester. But he believed Gandhi had been his best salesman, and he was right. Every newly-elected Indian politician came to our shop to buy Khadi.
My father gave my husband a house in old Delhi as my dowry, and my husband gave me first this daughter for my old age and then two sons. I named my daughter with a Muslim name, Yasmeen, in memory of Firoze. Yasmeen Kaur. My Sikh family blushed for me and ever after called her Minni.
Minni comes to visit and she has brought me gulabjamuns-those big, fat, perfectly rounded light brown sweets. But my arthritis is so painful today I cannot hold them in my hands and she has to feed me as I used to feed her. Her husband stands at his mother's bed and jokes how he will take us both dancing next weekend. I feel pain just to think of it and Elsie smiles faintly. He reminds me of a movie star, big, white, and unafraid. Minni is small and quick and dark next to him and her voice reminds me of Mother Ursula's clipped English tones. My husband, thinking to please me, sent her to England to study, but now I am irritated when I realize it is her accent my son-in-law finds so attractive.
Elsie was married many years but she talks very little about her husband. She says he was a policeman and she worried every day of their marriage that he would be killed. I didn't worry about my husband, only about my sons. They were both in the army when the second war with Pakistan broke out. They were the first to be sent to the front, perhaps because they were Sikhs and not Hindus. I wonder sometimes if they fought with Firoze's sons.
It doesn't matter now; they are both gone.
After we had given two sons, we sold the Khadi store and came away as far as we could fly. Minni welcomed us both, as a dutiful daughter should. But it is cold in America. A coldness of the soul that my husband never became accustomed to. I was cold to him, too-I had never been otherwise. My warmth was left in India, where I earned this pain, ballroom dancing to the convent's Steinway, with Firoze.
Despite my son-in-law's joking, Elsie is not going dancing next weekend. In fact, I had to strain to hear her breathing last night. Ted came in and helped the nurse to put an oxygen mask over her face but it hurts her and she tries to do without it. I am able to sit up today and her voice is very faint. "Jessie, will you sit next to me? I think I am having an anxiety attack." I have to manoeuvre my walker over to her side of the room and then lower myself into the chair next to her bed. She is "perspiring profusely," as Mother Conrad would have put it.
"I'm glad you're here, Jessie," she says.
And then, very faintly, she says, "Jessie, will you pray with me?"
I want to say, "My name is Jassie, not Jessie. You would not understand my prayers and you don't like to hear me speak Punjabi, and you need Christian prayers, not mine.."
But this is not the time and she is not the women to whom I want to say the words. I take her rosary from the bedpost and say, "Our Father, who art in Heaven.."
I wonder, could I have learned the namaaz as
easily as I learned the rosary?
Shauna Singh Baldwin was born in Montreal and raised in India. Her fiction has been published in Fireweed (Canada); Calyx, Rosebud, hum, Cream City Review (U.S.); and Manushi (India). Her awards include India's international Jawaharlal Nehru Award for Public Speaking in 1973, and the national Shastri Award for Journalism in 1974. Her first collection of short stories, English Lessons and Other Stories, will be published by Goose Lane in the spring of 1996.