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Excerpt: 'Muslin fluttered around his still little body'

Last updated on: January 08, 2013 12:11 IST
Tower by Mumbai-based author Avan Jesia is a "haunting saga of love and loss, spanning three generations of a Parsi family".

A gripping, eloquent narrative sees the book unravel over the course of a century, its many interconnected tales and characters indelibly and eternally linked to a house built in 1920s Bombay.

With all the ingredients of a powerful piece of fiction, Tower is a compelling read, heart-wrenching in places and hilarious in others.

Here we bring you an excerpt from Chapter 12 of Part I, The Fates - Clotho:

Mitha had been a young wife of nineteen, married barely three months when she discovered that she was expecting a child. When she told Dinshah, he was elated, and the next nine months were a private celebration between husband and wife, the joy they felt growing every day along with their unborn child. And what a sweet, considerate baby it was already. Mitha never had a day of sickness, never once did she need to take to her bed, for days on end, like so many other women did. Her sweet child spared her all the troubles she had been told to expect by anxious aunts and other doomsayers, all the dire warnings, all the stories she had heard about not being able to keep down a meal, the relentless swelling of the limbs, the dark moods that invaded without warning. She had the perfect pregnancy.

Dinshah had said that he hoped it was a girl, as beautiful as her mother. But Mitha had known in her heart that she was carrying a son, a lovely strong boy who would grow up to be her little hero. Each day he claimed a bigger piece of her heart till it was filled to bursting, and she worried that her love for him would leave no room in her to hold anything else dear. She imagined little scenarios where they were in a garden, playing with other children, and how he would stand out like a prince; little fantasies of furiously fighting his battles for him; dreams of him as a fine young man, the source of all her pride.

Mitha and Dinshah spent many happy hours deciding on a name. Tradition dictated that when a child was born, the moon decreed the initial of his name depending on her whereabouts as she sailed across the sky, a welcome visitor in twelve different homes arrayed across the heavens. And so the moon made the rounds of her galactic social circle, looking in on the ram, stopping by for a couple of days with the bull before she left to call on the twins; thence to the shy crab who wept to see her leave in answer to the lion's call. She took tea with the virgin, hastened off to look in on the scales, sought shelter with the scorpion, rode with the centaur, visited the goat and the water-bearer, before sailing with the fish. At each stop, this bequeather of beginnings left a calling card engraved with two or three handpicked letters of the alphabet chosen by stars that had made up their minds, and the lunar calendar of the Vedas, five millennia ago.

Priests and preachers scried the skies when a child was born, and intoned the sounds of the universe that would name every Hindu and Parsi, a gift from the heavens awarded equally to princess and pauper, prophet and profiteer.

Mitha went into labour late one February evening while a new moon was rising. Again, her considerate child did his utmost to spare his mother any unbearable pain. The midwife was surprised at Mitha's fortitude; barely a gasp escaped the young girl's lips.

'What a strong girl! No fuss, no hysterics!' she exclaimed to Mitha's proud mother, as she wrung out scraps of cloth in hot water.

Mitha's body was contracting painfully and urgently now, in its eagerness to be a mother. The pains grew stronger and in the end almost sent her into a swoon. 'Push, push, push!' came the faint voice of the midwife, as though at a far distance. Finally, to everybody's great joy, the baby was out.

'It's a boy, it's a boy!' cried Mitha's ecstatic mother, a grandmother for the very first time 'Look at him, my darling,' she cried to Mitha, holding up the beautiful baby like a prize.

Mitha looked at her son, sleeping peacefully in her mother's arms. His tiny hands, pink and furled into themselves, his closed eyes laying a curtain of dark eyelashes on his cheek. Mitha gazed at her beautiful quiet baby, and fell asleep.

She woke with the striking of the clock, two, three, four, had she really slept that long? The baby must be hungry. Five, six in the morning already, and how dark it was outside. She sat up in bed.

'Mamma, bring him to me,' she said, aware of a gentle stirring in her breasts. The voices outside seemed too busy to hear her. Whispers and questions floated in from under the door and swirled in the darkness of her room. She slowly got out of bed, aware of a wet ache between her legs. Opening the door, she stepped out into the room that thronged with people whispering like bees. At the sight of her, a hush dropped loudly to the ground. They moved towards the walls, making a narrow corridor for her. She walked steadily down the centre of the room. There, in his little crib, slept her child. He did not seem hungry at all. They had covered him in many layers of muslin that fluttered around his still little body. He must be cold, she thought to herself as she stepped up beside him. And he was waking up, his eyes were half open, honeyed and placid. But he did not blink, she thought, at the same moment that she noticed everyone in the room had their heads covered, and a little oil lamp was burning softly beside him.

Outside, the moon hid behind the trees, not daring to show her face for the shame of it.

~

She sits by me, this mother fashioned of fading light who refuses my gifts of rainbows. My fingers are frozen still in her palm and will not be pried open. She whispers prayer after racked prayer into my ears and her head bears down damp on my chest. Three ancient women peer through the window, bearing a spindle, a measuring rod, a pair of shears.

The four days of mourning have passed. I have been surrendered to the towers. I cannot drive the birds away. The white cloth in which she wrapped me is still smoky from the frankincense and warm from her tears, and it fixes my arms. I smell her on the cloth as it flutters at the nearness of their wings.

~

Excerpted from Tower (Rs 399) by Avan Jesia, published by Penguin Books India, with the permission of the author.

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