Nursing god’s countries

In Quebec, the wind sings with a hoarse throat. It’s because it sings the same song all the time that it sounds like a moan. It’s my first winter.

In Munnar, rain sprays the fronds of the coconut trees, making them greener. The rain has settled down to a steady rhythm, the way it does after it has said its piece in one great burst of a downpour. Because the rain is calmer now, I can hear it better. Or I can make better sense of it. I can translate dripping whispers into words that wing from Munnar to Quebec.

Monsoon lullaby, coconut lullaby. The wet leaves come so close to me they make a blur of green. The green leaks into my head whether I am asleep or awake.

My little girl must be watching the rain, listening to it. What does the rain tell Binny Mol that it doesn’t tell me?

In the last photograph I got, she was not such a little girl. She is growing, she is now half girl, half woman. I prefer photographs to telephone calls or emails or Skype. I can look at the photograph alone at night and travel where I like. That’s the time I learn my child again, make her completely mine.

There’s a dream in her eyes; I recognise it because it lived in my head once, making me look like Binny Mol. I want to reach into the photo, tenderly spoon in a dose of bittersweet medicine: nurses should not dream too much.

Binny Mol pays no attention to me. I have to leave her with the rain, let her face dissolve into the leaves.

It’s another mother and daughter I see now. I have become the daughter, and Ammai’s words do not sound like rain at all. They are loud and clear as if she is still giving orders to the junior sisters though she is retired.

Ammai wanted, always, to go somewhere; at least as far as Delhi, Mumbai. But it never happened. Her cousins and sisters-in-law made their way to Muscat, Kuwait, Saudi, Manama, Dubai, names that slid down our tongues as easily as Munnar, as if these unseen places belonged to us or we belonged to them.

My going away was almost as good as Ammai’s living as she wanted to live. We dreamt our separate dreams together.

We woke up every time we counted our notes. Hers for Good Angel Private Institute, mine for the agent. The bits of paper, the certificates and the rupee notes, rustled in my hands like promises. Almost a ticket. Ammai’s ticket out of the country too, though she would stay at home. “Go alone, you’re a brave girl,” she said. “I’ll find you a good match later.”

But when she heard I was going to Bahrain, she said angrily, “Why Bahrain? It’s not a Christian country!”

Now, when she does not get angry, or ask sharp questions, I have an answer. Bahrain, Munnar, Delhi, Quebec, where are her Christian countries?

What I actually say to her these days is different, but also true. I sent her a picture of the church Annama, Sara and I go to most Sundays. We stood arm in arm for the photo. Sisters in arms, straight and serious, not laughing like the photos people send when they are on holiday, enjoying themselves. I described the inside of the church to Ammai because we didn’t want to aim the camera at the altar and stained glass windows like tourists. I find photos are easier than words though; they say what is not so easily said.

All those years back, I didn’t say anything when Ammai was worried about my going to Bahrain. Or when she put her arms around me before I left, saying, “May Jesus travel with you.”

But by then I was Flow-rens, not she.

The first time she told me about Florence, I was a girl like Binny Mol. My mother told me stories of the lady who travelled with just a lamp and a mission as luggage. Every time she unpacked her bag, she healed someone.

My mother’s stories always had something useful in them. I could pack them in plastic, seal them with a burning candle and take them with me. Like dried fish or pappadam or pickles, things that taste better when they keep. Or when you have made a vow to serve and send home the money they need.

“A nightingale is a bird,” my mother told me when I was a child. “It’s a little like a koel.” I imagined a koel, a nightingale in a white coat, singing a flowing lullaby. Tharattu pattu. A lullaby that can put a baby to sleep because she is at home, safe and loved.

Some years later, when I had become Florence in Manama, it was I who sang to the koel. I watched my friend Sumithra next door and learnt to coo as I rocked Binny Mol. Aaarero, raaro, raaro. Aaarero, raaro, raaro. Her eyes would glaze as if I had given her the right drug. She would stare at me as if she would never let me go; then her eyes would finally close. My heart swelled till I could hardly breathe. It didn’t matter whether I was nurse or mother or both.

The photos I send Binny Mol are different from what I send Ammai. I send her photos of myself, standing tall inside a snowy postcard of a wonderland, smiling and smiling. My smile may show her the future; for now, it is my unsung lullaby.

But sometimes I worry: is it easier to sing, or to be a mother, in a green place?

I have never seen so much white before, except on uniforms, or saris and mundus. On clothes.

Here it is skin; white skin. And it’s not just people who wear white skin. It’s the ground, the roofs, the trees. Some of the trees are naked under the white. Other trees still have leaves; hard leaves. Naked or clothed, they have to bear the weight of the snow. Their skin has to be thick enough for the layers of white, like the heavy makeup on a Kathakali dancer. Sometimes the doughy clumps make a pretend nose or false ears. The bush I see from my room has two flat piles of snow before it. A pair of floury feet. Any minute now, the bush may learn how to walk with those misshapen feet. It may walk slowly, as if recovering from an operation, take one small step at a time, swaying like a Kathakali dancer, and go in search of a warmer place.

I want that to happen by the time Binny Mol is here.

It’s too soon to tell Binny Mol when she can come here. But I can almost see it: we will have a spick and span little Canadian home with heating. She will go to a free school. She will learn nursing at a place better than Good Angel, or study something else, even medicine. A good salary for not working herself to the bone. She will be like me, a career woman. But please Jesus she will do better than me, much better and more easily. When we come home in the evening, we will find Munnar in the big bottle of coconut oil, the appam pan, the beef in the fridge ready to be turned to stew.

If Paulose were not under Bahrain’s brown earth, we would be a complete little family, the kind that laughs in Christmas card photos.
Paulose, I say to him sometimes in my head: I did it somehow. Our plan didn’t fail, even though I went home without you. Ammai wrapped her arms round Binny Mol. She blessed me when I went back to Bahrain alone. “You take god’s country where you go,” she said.

The second time in Bahrain: saving all over again, sharing a tiny place with sisters without families. But Paulose, Binny Mol and I shared the photo frame sitting by my bed like a guardian angel. The angel reminded me of the day Paulose came home from the power plant to say he had got a job. The look on his face then – that’s what I had to hold, like a photo, to prove our plan was beginning to work. It was no longer just my salary.

But too often that look of pleasure would slip in time, change into the look of a dying man. That actually came later, the pain, guilt, worry about me and the child, the irregular remittances home for months. Everything was getting gobbled up by his cancer, not just his body.

Sometimes I would pretend he was just another patient, another job to be done well. Bodies are all the same; so strange, because each body is different.

When Paulose and I met, two weeks before we were married, I could only see the difference. He was an engineer. He didn’t have a degree, only a diploma. But his family lived in a house with a compound, on a nicer street than ours. It was time for me to marry, Ammai said. And all Paulose wanted to do was emigrate. That is how we made a match. If I were not in Bahrain, his family may not have approached my mother. I used to tease him about this later. Though he never denied it, he laughed and took me in his arms.

Once he joined me in Bahrain, found a job, got me pregnant, he became less of a stranger. We had something between us. We found it, or it found us, and it grew like a strong tree with spreading roots. If he was the man of the family, I was the one who had got him to Bahrain. I don’t think he ever forgot that. But I did. I only remember it now because I have become the good match in place of Paulose. I still send money home to his parents and brother and sister, not just my mother and daughter. His family still calls me one of theirs. Once in a while, but only on a bad day, I think: remittance keeps even an in-law family together. The moment passes quickly. It’s too late to quarrel with Paulose. I have to forgive him for dying.

Most of all memory is what helps me forgive. It comforts me and lulls me to sleep in my single bed.

The memory I like, the one I have to ration and not take to bed every single night: it was one of those evenings when I got back from hospital later than usual. I let myself into our flat, the thought of cooking and bathing the baby making me feel even more tired. My back and legs were punishing me for standing or walking or bending all day. Then I noticed the fragrance from the kitchen that had reached the front room; dinner was waiting for me. And I could hear Paulose singing in the bedroom.

I tiptoed to the door and stood there, listening. He was singing one of the songs I had learnt from Sumithra. A royal lullaby, she called it.

The lullaby which once put a little prince to sleep in a palace in Kerala had made its way to Bahrain without a visa. It was now in the throat of the bear-hairy man who worked with machines all day and could still hold our baby with tenderness.

Omana-thing-al kidavo… Both Paulose and I loved this song because it said nothing about sleep, but always, like magic, it put Binny Mol to sleep.

Binny Mol must have been fast asleep by now, dreaming good dreams, but Paulose was still singing. He was asking her, of all the lovely things in the world, which one she was. Was she his full moon? His lotus? His doe?

Our streak of luck. Our sweet singing bird. Ours, then only mine. My tender green leaf.

Green leaf, Binny Mol, Munnar.

When I went back to Bahrain alone, I would work all day with the Malayali nurses I stayed with. Every night, I dreamt in only one colour: green, all the shades of green. It was like a sickness, but it let me go home as easily as sleeping. Then the dreams stopped.

There was green in Bahrain too, but it all looked like pictures to me. The palm trees were real, but they were all in a line, obedient patients for the Indian and Pakistani gardeners to keep beautiful. It was clean like a good hospital. You know the brown is there, the dry skin of a sick old man. But you cream it, make it look fresh, because you have to keep up appearances even if you are dying. It makes everyone feel better, doctor, nurse, patient, family.

In any case, the manicured green faded where we Malayalis lived. Huddled together, we could make believe we were home and not home. We could be in Kerala and stay away from it.

When the papers came through for my going to Canada, the old green-dream sickness came back. Maybe it was all the expense and worry of applying again, emigrating again. Maybe it was because that was the time the nurses were striking back home in Kerala. I saw the pictures of nurses I knew in the midst of strangers, strangers who looked like me, dressed like me.

For a day or two I wanted to go back. Not to grow old, or die in my ancestral village, but to be a sister among sisters, hold up placards like them, or shout slogans, demanding my rights. I have never shouted a slogan in my life, but maybe I could do that in Kerala, make up for all the things I can be in Bahrain or Canada but not at home.

I didn’t go back. I didn’t learn to shout slogans. But I went all the way across a map glistening with blue-gray water, and found Quebec. One more of god’s countries to nurse.

Some days, I feel I am in a strange dream alone. The dream is all white. It is quiet, or it speaks only French. But there are days when the work or the paycheck or the time spent with other sisters shakes this feeling off me.

Green, brown, white. The changing colours pile up, they go from place to place. Bodies remain the same. They have to be taken care of.
I will work at it, my first Quebec winter, as I worked through all those green winters, the clinics in Munnar and Kochi and Bangalore and Bahrain.

By the time I get the papers for Binny Mol, I will learn how to sing even when the wind blows hard, turning green to brittle orange, brown, then white. It will be like learning a new language. Only the meanings of words will still be in Malayalam.

My certificates have piled up; the hours I have to be in the hospital have shrunk. I no longer change sheets or clean skin with a wet sponge. I have learnt to draw blood so the needle is light as a butterfly on the vein. “Done already?” the pale young man asked me the other day. “I didn’t even feel it.”

I felt it though. I felt the glow of a woman even stronger than Ammai, and with a longer streak of luck.

First published in Garden and Spring by the Abraaj Group Art Prize 2014, and David Davidar (ed) A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces, Aleph Book Company, 2014.