Five glasses of lemon squash are placed in front of us. Mummy has taught me to never be the first one to reach out for a glass. So, I wait. Sasha goes first, Tony next, Piku, and June each take a glass. June passes me hers. I take a quick sip. The lemon coats my mouth and an ice cube swirls inside, which I swallow whole. I don’t want to crush it with my teeth as Tony does. It’s rude, Mummy says, to make noise while you eat. I watch Tony as he reaches for the sandwich that comes alongside and chews it with his mouth open. Chomp, chomp, chomp. For the next five minutes, that is all I can think of. “Eat it before the rats get to it,” Sacha narrows her eyes, motioning towards the sandwich. Only one remains.
It is the summer of 1992 and we are in our Kalimpong home for the holidays. We arrive in air-conditioned train-bogeys, with our hats, sunglasses, tantrums and holdalls. It is a yearly tradition, the Roy family comes together under one roof, for a month, suffering load-sheddings, mosquito bites, popsicle coloured tongues, swimming in the pond and eating guavas. I never liked guavas anyway, but my cousins make a big deal of plucking them from the tree in the garden. They are hard and have a strong smell and make my tongue feel heavy. I can never say this to Piku or Sasha with whom I spend exaggerated afternoons plotting the next haul, with ammunition of sketch pens, notes on timings of Grandma’s afternoon nap and a keen eye on Susanna, our cook and head of the house.
Mummy says that she is the real head of the house, after Grandma, because she is the wife of the eldest son, but it doesn’t seem so. I know better than to tell Mummy that, it will only make her sad.
Papa is playing the Perry Como record today, which means that he is in a good mood. The record player is dusted every summer and Papa takes out the records one by one, his dearest possession. Sometimes I sit with him as he goes through the pictures of moustached men wearing oversized glasses, women in flashy clothing with lion hair, on the covers. Everybody looks so fair and glamorous. Bridge-over-troubled-waters, I read aloud from one of the records. Papa pats me on my head. A tumble of utensils and a shriek cut through the air. “These bloody rats,” Papa mutters under his breath.
I am soon motioned to come to the adjacent room by Sasha. The GiJoes are lined up. Snake Eyes and A.W.E striker are preparing for an afternoon face-off. Tony is obsessed with them. He even sleeps with them lined up by his pillow, June once told me. We laugh about it behind the pickle cupboard but never tell him anything to his face. After all, he is the closest to being an elder. We simply can’t.
June is reading detective books these days. She has brought seven books to finish in Kalimpong. Famous Five, the book reads in yellow squiggly letters. “Maybe it’s time we all went on an adventure,” she says as she pushes back her rimmed glasses. With two braids and a running nose, June is my favourite from the lot. Despite being a year older than me, she never tries to boss me around and make me look stupid. When I come back to my room, I try reading some books too. Mummy finds me an Enid Blyton, but I cannot read more than a few pages. It is too hot, the television plays too loudly outside and the mosquitoes make big red blotches on my arm. I hear Sasha celebrate a trade on her Hulk Hogan card, in the next room.
Susanna is always around. She lives in a small cottage next to the house, separated by a field. When we are not here, she takes care of Grandma. She cooks, cleans, maintains the house, oversees the gardening, gets all the bags from the market. She also keeps the keys – to the main gate, to the terrace, to the little room on the outside. She sways when she walks, the keys of the house tied to one end of her sari that she throws over her shoulder. She chews paan and on some days I see her sit with Romy uncle and share a paan after a cup of tea. They giggle in a way that makes me want to look away. She eats from the plates we eat and drinks water from the fridge too. She also has Roohafza when it is made for us, despite being a servant. I think secretly she too knows that she is the real head of the house. “Ser-vent,” Ruby aunty stresses on the ‘t’.
Mummy says Susanna is married to a drunkard, that’s why she never goes home. I see Bodon come home staggering some evenings. He always waves at us cheerfully while singing loudly. He seems happy. But he doesn’t keep Susanna happy and from time to time there are sounds of Bodon bellowing from their cottage. Ruby Aunty sniggers. “I think she is getting a dose today.”
Susanna spends most of her time in this house and also brings her daughter now that we are here. Putul is nice to play with. She listens to everything I say. She is the only one who listens to anything I say. She even knows how to work the rat trap, while none of us is allowed to go near it. Romy uncle gets flowers tucked in a newspaper today. Jasmine is Susanna’s favourite.
By the end of three weeks, Sasha has convinced everyone to go on an adventure. June’s idea has caught on. We have all conquered Super Mario once by now and watched the VCR tapes that are there in the house. “I’ll be back,” Tony keeps saying when he leaves the room. “There are already five of us. And we need to go on a big adventure, then we can become famous Gameboy The Famous Five,” Tony nods. Piku looks up from the gameboy. “We have to help someone, that is how you become famous.” June says, “Whom shall we help?” “We can help Putul, give her some money.” “That is charity, dummy. It’s not an adventure.” “Wait, I have an idea,” Sasha says. We look at her. June wipes her nose with the back of her hand. “What is the one thing that is a problem in the house?” “Load shedding.” “The water tank upstairs.” “The cable connection.” We hear some squawking and Let’sttering noise from the roof and collectively say “Rats!” “Let’s kill them all.” Tony fidgets with the arm of the Skeletor figurine. “But how?” “Rat Poison,” Piku’s eyes gleamed. “But the elders keep it locked away.” “Sussana has the keys,” Tony smiles.
On a sleepy afternoon, five of us crawl into the living room like any other day. We call Putul to one side and ask her to get the keys that are lying in the kitchen. She looks scared. “We are just going to the terrace to get guavas.” She shakes her head. “We will give you some too.” She looks at me imploringly. I smile and hold her hand. “Please, Putul.” She slowly nods. The keys are fetched, Piku stealthily walks to the outside room, opens the rickety lock and gets the rat poison can with a look that smells of victory. “Let’s pour some in a bottle and keep the can back.” We quickly get to work. A glass bottle is sourced from the kitchen.
The can is returned, the door is locked again, the key replaced and the House pulls a blanket over its head and goes back to sleep.
The clear liquid can be mistaken for water, Sasha realises. “Go, keep it safe somewhere. We can later pour it in some food and leave it out for those scoundrels.” She hands it to Piku who takes it from room to room, eager to find a resting place for it.
“What is that in your hand Piku?” Romy Uncle is up from his afternoon nap unusually early. “It’s water… from the fridge,” Piku mumbles as she slowly makes her way to the fridge, past the trunk, the writing desk, skipping over the wires of the video game console connected to the television. The door of the fridge creaks as she pulls it open. Romy uncle’s gaze follows her. She sheepishly closes the door and looks at us. We all look away. Sasha sneezes three times. “Tch, bad luck.”
Susanna makes her way to the fridge. She smiles at Piku and touches the top of her head fondly. “Move, my darling, let me get some cold water, this heat will kill me surely.” Piku steps aside as if in a daze. Romy Uncle comes towards the fridge. Susanna bends down, looks to her right, pulls out the first bottle which is there. It is our bottle. It is Piku’s bottle. “Should I pour you some water, my darling?” Piku freezes. Susanna throws her head back and gulps down some liquid greedily. After five gulps her eyes become large and she puts down the bottle. “It’s something else…” she says as she collapses to the floor. Romy Uncle watches in shock. Piku has stopped breathing. We have left the room a long time ago.
Susanna lies on the floor, her eyes staring straight at the ceiling, her breath becoming short and faint. The elders huddle around her. Piku tries to wake her mother softly. Mummy comes into the room and starts shouting. “Someone call a doctor, she can’t just lay here.” The ambulance is called and Susanna is taken away on a stretcher. The flashing lights, the shrill siren has woken the entire neighbourhood. Romy uncle stays back, takes hold of Piku by her arm and shakes her violently. “What happened there?” he asks through gritted teeth. Piku bursts into tears. We watch everything from behind the curtains of the dining room.
The rest of the day is a blur. Mummy cries hysterically, Ruby aunty resorts to crochet, Romy uncle paces the length of the living room, waiting for an update from the hospital. Putul has been sent back home. Ruby aunty whispers that the drunk husband must have done something. After all, wasn’t she having an affair? “Who told you?” Mummy shoots her a look. “These lower-class people are capable of anything. Anything.”
Grandma waits by the olive green phone, changing channels on the television. Bodon comes tearfully to the front door with folded hands, lips quivering, shirt torn at the arm, reeking of a fruit. “You are our mother-father, you tell us what to do,” he says meekly. Romy uncle offers to take him to the hospital. Now only the women and children are left behind in the house. Putul sits on the front porch, forlorn. Grandma calls her inside but she refuses.
Papa comes back in the evening with the uncles. He shakes his head from left to right. “Susanna is no more,” he says quietly. Mummy is crying now. Grandma looks pale. “She was poisoned, so now it’s a police case. They will be coming here tomorrow to ask us if we know anything,” Romy uncle says as he walks away. The five of us look at each other.
“We can never tell anyone what happened. It was an accident,” Sasha says as she takes a sip of the orange squash. “Maybe it was not us. Maybe she was poisoned from before.” Piku slowly adds, “Sasha don’t be a dumbass. We mixed a litre of rat poison in water and she drank it. It has to be us.” My lips feel numb. Tony runs out to the living room and opens the door of the refrigerator. The bottle still stands there. Chilled. Waiting to be mistaken again. He snatches it from the shelf and brings it to us. Sasha takes it from him and empties the contents in the toilet. I throw up.
“What if she is poisoned, like Susanna?” Mummy looks defeated. I am lying in our room now, running a fever. Papa is staring at me intently. I get up from the bed. “Papa I have something to tell you.” I proceed to relay the events of the day to them. His eyes widen, but Mummy remains calm. Her deep breaths seem more alarming to me. Papa starts pacing the room. He turns to look at us and leaves.
Romy uncle comes into the room with Tony and Sasha. “Is it true, kids?” he asks us. Sasha nods, Tony glares at me. “We didn’t mean it. It was meant to kill the rats. We didn’t think….”
“What is done is done. But I hope this is a good lesson to you all,” Papa says.
Romy uncle looks at Tony who by now has his head lowered. “Dad, it was all June’s idea…” Romy uncle pulls him by his ear. “After all this, don’t speak out of turn, son. Now let me make this very clear to all of you,” he grits his teeth. “Never, ever mention this to anyone. Do you understand?” We nod in unison. “Ever!” he thunders.
At night we see the lights of a police vehicle outside our lane. A team of uniformed constables hurry into Susanna’s house. We hear Bodon screaming and we hear the tumble of utensils. We can hear him cry into the night. No one goes to help. I wonder what Putul must be doing then. I ask Mummy but she shoots me a look that makes me want to disappear. In a few minutes, we see Bodon leave in handcuffs. “I knew he had something to do with all this. To imagine that she just toppled over and died, there had to be some mischief involved,” Ruby aunty says. I look away. “These drunks,” she mutters under her breath, as she watches her husband pour himself the fourth drink of the evening. I see Papa and Romy uncle go outside to talk to the officer in the car. My eyelids get heavier, the events of the day weigh down on me.
The last week of that year’s summer holidays is deathly quiet. We spend most of our time watching Crystal Maze with Grandma who takes more frequent naps now. Her snores drown out some dialogues. The rats reduce drastically because Susanna had put in rat medicine the week before she died. Their dead bodies are being discovered at various corners. Mummy says ‘Passed away’ is a better word than dead, deceased, poisoned. I can’t wait to go back to Delhi. My convent school, uppity friends, tuition classes were things I no longer loathed. Brown paper to cover new books, labels on the notebook with my name on it, in cursive.
A day before leaving, I go to the market square with Papa and buy a Barbie with my entire pocket money. I call Putul to the house. She seems quieter than before. Her grandmother has come to live with her, she says. I give her the Barbie in the box, smiling. Her hair is a golden halo, her eyes are blue and large, matching her gown, her lips are parted in fuschia. Colours that will buy me forgiveness, I hope.
She looks at it and looks at me. She says nothing. Her face betrays nothing. She puts the doll on the cold stone slab on the porch and walks back home.
We leave the next day, our tickets in our parent’s pockets. Papa, Mummy, Ruby aunty and Romy uncle do not bring up Susanna even once. The only reminder of it is Grandma, who now will stay all alone until a new maid is found. “She has to be trustworthy and respectful. She should know her place in the house,” Ruby Aunty gives instructions to Robin, the gardener. “Once you find the right person, call my husband. He will send the money by the Post Office,” she points at Romy uncle who puts out his cigarette against the wall.
The car starts and the house gets smaller as we chug towards the station. Tony sits with the Skeletor beside him, Piku is humming a song, June is reading. It is almost like none of it ever happened.
Mummy hands me Citra in a glass bottle at the station. “Let us try and forget this unfortunate incident.” I ensure that she hears as I slurp the drink through the straw.