A Perfect Cracked Doll
The next day was Saturday and Valerie could go with her again to Salinas. Elisa and Valerie arrived early at Grace’s place. There was no one outside and the curtains were drawn as usual. When Elisa rang the bell, it opened immediately, almost like Blue was waiting at the door. When the door opened, Elisa and Valerie were surprised to see Grace sitting up in an old wheelchair, in the living room, facing the door. She looked lost in the wheelchair because she was so shrunken. Her thin, gray, scraggly hair was brushed back and she was wearing a faded red sweater and an old pair of not so white trousers. She looked like she had made some attempt to look presentable. Blue looked tensed and anxious. She surprised Elisa and Valerie by offering them coffee and even smiled a little nervously.
The two women from San Jose were surprised because neither one had actually seen Blue smile, not even Valerie. She was always either sullen or angrily tearful. The closest she had come to smiling as far as Valerie could remember was when she had seen Blue’s mouth sort of twitch a little at the sight of Diego, a short, cherubic seventh grader in school, break into a ridiculous jig when Mr. Mitchell had announced that he was going to go back to the mainstream school at the end of the school year. Since the memory of their previous visits was still fresh in their minds, both Elisa and Valerie were a little cautious when approaching Grace. The darkness of the room and the thick silence made them a little more nervous.
“Sit down,” said Grace looking directly at Elisa. This was the first time she had ever really said anything directly to her and that too something that sounded remotely polite. Elisa gingerly sat on a lumpy sofa, the only place available to sit, doing her best to avoid a large brown stain. Valerie sat close to her. Both of them looked expectantly at Grace, waiting for her to speak first. “What do you want?” asked Grace curtly as soon as they sat down, looking directly at Elisa. Elisa, a little embarrassed by the unflinching stare and the directness of the question, shifted awkwardly in her seat, trying to move away from a spring that was poking into her. “I thought your grandmother made it clear that she didn’t want me anywhere near your family. So what do you want now?” repeated Grace, wheezing a little. It was clear that the spunk that she tried to show was fading as she grew tired. She probably had not sat up for this long in a while.
Elisa was too stunned to respond. She simply returned Grace’s gaze. A strong smell of some sort of disinfectant was in the air. As ridiculous as it was, given the dense tension that pervaded the air, she couldn’t help trying to identify the smell as she tried to make sense of what Grace had just said. “Pinesol… must be lemon,” she thought to herself, sniffing and frowning a little. “I don’t think this woman knows who I am,” she continued to think and cleared her throat. She was just about to speak when Grace cut in. “When I had Blue, I wrote to your cousin about her. I did not receive a reply. I then gathered up all the money I had and went to Singapore with Blue and I met Raghu. He had his father and your grandmother with him while I was alone. It was just my baby and me. Your uncle offered me money while Raghu and his mother watched. I took the money because I needed it for Blue and came back, I still have the money because that is all I have for her,” said Grace, in a tone completely devoid of emotion.
Elisa’s mouth was slightly open now. Completely confused, she was still trying to convince herself that Grace had mistaken her for someone else. Raghuraman had suggested to her that he had not seen Grace after he had left India. Or, did he say that? Maybe she had got him wrong. She couldn’t quite remember. And, who was that grandmother that Grace was referring to, Savithri? No, it couldn’t have been. Savithri was the kindest person she had ever known. She would have never done this to Grace. It could not have been her. But who else could it have been? It must have been Prithvi’s mother. But Prithvi’s mother lived in India and she hardly ever came to Singapore. Deciding that Grace was confused she began to speak, “Look, Grace, I don’t know who…” Once again Grace cut in, “Your grandmother’s name is Savithri and my girl looks a lot like her.” Grace was looking at Elisa squarely, willing her to believe what she said.
The gaze that Elisa now returned was weak. Her heart was sinking. With the little money that she could scrape together, Grace had gone to Singapore in search of Raghuraman when Blue was little more than a baby of three months. Initially, Raghu had been overjoyed to see her and little Blue and had been willing to marry her. He had rented a room for her and had even moved in with her for a couple of days. They had made plans to marry and return to the US where he had agreed to live with her. But after a few days, he had stopped staying in the room, choosing instead to go back to his father’s home. He had claimed that he had to explain things to his family so that his relationship with them would not end in an unpleasant way. Grace had believed him and had even offered to talk to them. She had even offered to stay back in Singapore for a few months so that his family could get to know her and Blue.
One day, Raghu had simply stopped coming back to the room altogether. And, when she had gone in search of him, his father and grandmother had met her. His father Natarajan had been rude and derisive, while his grandmother, Savithri had tried to be conciliatory. Grace had sensed from the conversation in Tamil that the two had had, that Savithri wanted to pay Grace. The meeting had turned ugly when Raghuraman had appeared and it was clear that both Savithri and Natarajan had wanted him to leave the room for fear that he would have a change of heart when he saw Grace. Raghuraman had just stood watching the scene helplessly. Elisa could quite clearly picture Raghu standing around, wringing his hands and looking on hopelessly. “I left when I realized that your uncle and your grandmother didn’t want me, and your cousin was not going to do anything to keep me. I took the money because I felt it was Blue’s right,” finished Grace flatly.
The silence that followed was deafening. Grace continued to gaze at Elisa like she was challenging her to say something that would negate everything she had just said. Valerie sat quietly observing the two women from one to the other while Blue stood in the shadows. Elisa just sat defeated even before she had begun. Words seemed inappropriate to all who were in the room. Elisa sighed as she stood up abruptly. Grace’s raw revelation had not been something that she had even imagined. She knew Grace had been abandoned by Raghuraman and she had wanted to make amends for that. She could believe Natarajan’s role in the neglect of Grace and Blue because he was completely capable of callousness as he had been in his treatment of Savithri. But what she could not accept, or come to terms with, was Savithri’s role in all of it. It was like she had suddenly found a hidden crack on a perfect porcelain doll. As beautiful as the doll still was, her hands and her eyes kept finding their way back to that imperfection that she had obviously been blind to, but that had undeniably been there. Simply said, what she had come to offer seemed inadequate to make up for the injustice that had been meted out to Grace. She had come to say that she would like to take Blue with her and take care of her, as she would have a daughter. She was going to offer Grace a monthly maintenance payment, just so that Blue could have a chance at life. How could she now make any offer to Grace when her family had wronged her so much? But for what it was worth, she had to at least try to give Blue a chance to live a better life. She had to at least try to make up for what her family had done to Blue. She walked up to Grace hesitantly. She was sure that Grace was going to abuse her and throw her out but she had to say what she had come for. Valerie stood up and followed her, slightly fearful for her. “Grace, I am sorry for what my family did to you. But I am here to ask if I could have Blue come live with me…” Blue wouldn’t let her finish. “You’re kidding! I am not leaving my mom and I am not going with you,” she barked. Elisa looked at Blue pleadingly. “Blue, you need a life. I can’t let you live like this…” she began. “I think you need to leave now,” interrupted Grace firmly but with uncharacteristic quiet. “Please, Grace...” tried Elisa again. Grace looked at her steadily and said categorically “Leave now.” Quite plainly, there was nothing more to be said. Grace was painfully making her way back to her room while Blue stood with her arms folded across her chest, smoldering at Elisa. Elisa knew that her time with them was up and that there was no way she was going to convince them. She weakly stood watching Grace as she made her way back. And when she turned to look at Blue, the girl turned away and looked at the floor. She continued to stand there hoping for some miracle to happen and change the situationn until Valerie gently tapped her on her shoulder. “Let’s go, Eli. There is no point being here,” she said.
Grace closed her eyes as she lay back on her bed, the memories crowding her tired mind. She relived the scene that was now almost eighteen years old when Blue had been just a baby. She thought of the humiliation and the condescension in the eyes of Raghu’s father. He had even gone so far as to suggest that she was lying and that she was using the situation to make some money. The anger overwhelmed her when she thought of this and her own gentle and loving parents, who had both been hardworking teachers. They had been so proud of her and so completely trusting that they had even agreed to support her when she had decided to travel to India, based on a talk that she had attended with some friends. She had longed to yell back at Natarajan and tell him that she too came from a respectable and good home but had stopped herself for fear that she would damage the shred of a chance she thought she had had with Raghu’s family. She thought of Savithri trying to be nice but not succeeding because she did not want her grandson to be married to some white woman. She could still feel Raghu gently prying off her fingers that grasped his arm, as he hesitantly reassured her, “We will find a way, Grace, don’t worry. Go home now.”
What he had meant was that she had to find a way for herself. Savithri’s interest in Blue had been limited to her gently stroking the baby’s head. Natarajan had been indifferent. Grace had come back to the US distraught and broken. Her own parents had been supportive and she had stayed with them for a while. But they had both died, one after the other, of old age and illness, leaving her to fend for herself and Blue. In the beginning, Grace had worked at raising her child by herself and had almost succeeded in doing a good job. But as the years went by, without the strong and solid support of her parents, she had found it difficult to hold everything together. Soon disillusionment with herself and her failure to hold on to jobs and relationships nudged her towards an old and forgotten habit that she had picked up in India, smoking grass. “Just to get my mind off things,” she would say to friends. Slowly but surely, a drinking habit that had begun as a social habit provided better refuge and finally became a constant companion that soothed her.
The truth was that Grace herself was not a very strong person. She had been an only child and had been entirely dependent on her parents while they had lived, for emotional support. Unused to fending for herself and afraid of what the future held for her, she had gradually crumbled. Friends, who had grown up with her in her small town, had started distancing themselves because the once sweet and amiable Grace had slowly started to become loud and quarrelsome, and worse, dishonest. Her habits completely destroyed her chances of even getting a job, leave alone holding on to one. So she had to resort to borrowing from friends and neighbors, who were initially willing and helpful because they remembered her as a sweet girl. But that was not for long. Lonely and isolated, she began to drink more and unload her anger and frustrations on Blue, who was beginning to remind her of Savithri. Blaming Raghuraman for her situation became a habit and an excuse to push her further and further into ruin. She hated the fact that Blue looked so much like that woman, Savithri. The child reminded her every day of her rejection, of her humiliation, of her failures. It drove her wild just to look at the girl. It was the memory of Savithri that made her most angry. Raghuraman had talked so much about his grandmother’s kindness and her compassion. She had been kind and compassionate in offering Grace money but not in accepting her. “I know it is hard for you to take care of the child by yourself. But we only have one son to carry our name. You must understand that. We will pay you,” Savithri had said.
Unknown to Grace and even Raghuraman, Savithri had tried talking Natarajan into accepting Grace and Blue. But goaded by his wife and incensed with his mother’s partiality towards Lalitha and her family, Natarajan had vehemently dismissed her pleas. “You are used to living with people from all sorts of backgrounds, my family is not. We don’t want some gold-digger in this family. My wife will never agree and her family will look down on me if I do.” It was then that Savithri had insisted that Natarajan at least provide for the child. Unfortunately for Savithri, no one would ever know that she had tried unsuccessfully to help Grace. No one would ever know because she could not bring herself to reveal the wrong that her grandson and son had done to a young woman. She could not talk about the child that they had abandoned. What was worse was that her English speaking skills had simply not been good enough to communicate to Grace that there was not much she could do for her since her own relationship with her son and his family was weak. The truth was cremated with her. And so even people who knew her well, people like Elisa, Lalitha, and Dharmishton, would forever wonder if they really did.
The silence that hung like a heavy canopy in the shabby house after Elisa’s and Valerie’s departure remained for the rest of the day as mother and daughter said little or nothing to each other. Grace drifted in and out of sleep and when she wasn’t sleeping, she lay silent, calling out to Blue when she needed something. Blue wandered around the house listlessly, brooding at times about what she had heard and seen. On and off, she stared at her sleeping mother, sometimes with pity and sometimes with anger but rarely with the affection she used to feel. The resentment she felt was unmistakable. Grace was drawing her life out of her. For most of Blue’s life, Grace had needed Blue more than Blue had needed her and Blue had initially given, happily and willingly, like a puppy hoping to be loved. When the love never came and the hope died, bit by bit, what was left was a habit. Blue had simply got used to caring for her mother and didn’t know what else she could do if she didn’t have her mother to nurse. Blue had learned to hate her father through her mother and increasingly, she was finding it difficult to hate someone she could not even visualize. Her will to hate her father and be loyal to her mother was straining to be stronger than the hatred itself.
Elisa and Valerie drove back in silence. It was about 1 pm when Valerie and Elisa had left Salinas after a light meal, which Valerie had eaten and Elisa had toyed with. As the car sped through the afternoon, Elisa simply sat staring at the cars, the greenery that whizzed past and the flawless blue sky that stretched endlessly ahead. Despite the gloom that pervaded the air inside the vehicle, it was difficult to ignore the picture-perfect beauty of a radiantly sunny Californian afternoon. Valerie glanced occasionally at Elisa. It was hard to guess what she was thinking as she wore the mask-like expression that she sometimes did when she was upset. There was clearly nothing either one of them could say to convince Grace, who seemed steadfast in her decision to reject Elisa. And, what was worse was that Blue did not show the slightest inclination to reach out to Elisa. Valerie had applauded Elisa’s attempt to make up for what her cousin had done but right from the start, she had known that the chances of Grace relenting were slim to non-existent. Valerie was well-aware of how much Grace hated Blue’s father and his family. Blue had told her enough.
Elisa and Valerie reached Elisa’s hotel just after 3 in the afternoon. Sighing gently, Elisa reached for her bag as she opened the door. “So I’ll see you, Val,” she said glancing at Valerie and looking away quickly. “Thanks so much for everything.” Valerie nodded. “I am sorry, Eli. I guess you can go home at least satisfied that you did your best.” Elisa smiled weakly before returning the nod and getting out of the car. “So what are you going to do now,” called out Valerie leaning forward to catch Elisa’s eye. “I think I‘ll try and get a ticket back for tonight. There doesn’t seem to be much point in my staying on here.” “Okay dear. You take care and stay in touch. Things could change. You never know.” replied Valerie shrugging. Elisa merely smiled before shutting the door and walking towards the hotel. She turned around once to wave to Valerie. As soon as she got to her room, she got on the phone to change her return date on her ticket. She made one more call to Valerie as soon as she managed to get a seat on the midnight flight back to Kuala Lumpur. She left her phone number and address in Kuala Lumpur with Valerie. “Just in case…” she said hesitantly. “ I know, dear. Like I said, you never know,” was Valerie’s reply.
As soon as Elisa returned to Kuala Lumpur, there were several large productions that kept her busy for a few months at a stretch. The work and the tight schedule of her life gently nudged Blue to the back of her mind. While she thought of Blue several times during those months, it was hard for her to feel the same fervor that she had felt when she had first discovered her relationship with the girl. “It was not your fault, child,” said her mother to whom Elisa had told everything soon after her return. She had to because her parents had made it clear to her that they were unhappy with her “crazy disappearances.” “We are your parents. We would like to know if something happens to you. You can’t just take off and expect us to understand,” her father had scolded as soon as she had entered the house upon her return from San Jose. “This is not a guest house or hotel for you to just walk in and out whenever you please. As it is we’re tired of explaining this strange friendship that you have with that Daljit fellow.”
Elisa had been a little taken aback by his anger and his outburst about her relationship with Daljit. Her parents had never really said anything about Daljit although they were aware, it was clear to her that they disapproved. They showed it by not saying who it was when he called. They simply placed the receiver on the table and said, “It is for you.” Or, when he left a message asking that she return his call, they would simply say, “You had a call.” Her relationship with Daljit was a blip in an otherwise smooth and easy relationship that she shared with her parents. They wanted her to marry again, while she was completely comfortable with the arrangement that she shared with her old schoolmate, who was crazy about her.
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