Conversant of Nâtaline’s mercurial temperament, expecting hostilities in peacetime, Salvador was battle-ready no matter what. Yet, this true Gestapo-style ambush caught him unawares while leaving college. Emerging from behind the fat pillar shouldering the ornate arch of entrance, Nâtaline caught him by his collar and, before his brain transmitted shock signals to his facial muscles, gave him a livid wink to get into the car right away. Buckling the seat belt, he heaved a sigh for, having ducked her for four months, he literally expected brutal consequences, including public thrashing. She looked stern but not menacing and, propitiously, pressed for no instant explanations. Salvador meekly gazed at her. Drunk with anger, she threw a voltaic look, a streak of electric current charged through him; a Faraday Suit was a necessity to deal with such eventualities in future, he thought. For the present, casting a second but a disdainful look at him, lighting a cigarette, stepping it on, Nâtaline clocked tornadic speed in a flash.
The traffic patrolman reminded her of speed limit and, looking for the missing seat belt, gaped at her cleavage exposed by the slack t-shirt not tucked at waistline. And then, spotting the cigarette in her left hand, he turned haughty. Nâtaline landed a wholesome slap on him for ogling and demanding a hundred bucks, and yelled, “Do you know who Anton DSilva was? I am his daughter.”
Reversing and turning in one go, she whizzed past the sergeant only after he gave up his fumbling effort to note down the number. Grieving the dizzying consequences of his grave mistake, the pleasure-starved sergeant grasped that the combination of ogling and graft is perilously explosive but, on their own, separately, each action was usually worthwhile.
As she zigzagged through the typical old Goan maze, Salvador squinted at her; she looked a little different. With an adorable new glow, she was as plump as buxom women look after putting on a few pounds. He threw a number of glances at her, in quick succession, but the difference remained indecipherable. Catching him off guard, with her right hand on steering-wheel, slapping his thigh with a force of a thud, Nâtaline said, “You can’t get away honey…I can track you down even if you are holed up in Lisbon sharing white wine with your long lost cousins.”
Storming out of the car before sudden brakes ground it to a complete halt, she lobbed keys at him that meant, “Park it as it should be and reach upstairs in a jiffy”. As he scurried up the flight of steps, she tossed an empty bottle of Coke that hit his forehead. “Thank god, it’s just a pet bottle,” he told himself and eased into the sofa that caved in despite his flyweight build. Within minutes, she gulped down the third bottle, wobbled his way and stood before him, hands on waist, her belly almost touching his nose. Almost.
“Can you see the difference?” she asked. He was quiet.
“Can’t you make out something different in there my dear doggy?” she probed. He was perplexed and looked around the living to see what was amiss.
“Your seeds of sin are growing inside this pot,” she said, pointing both hands at her tummy, and before he grasped the thing fully, she continued, “I am not like my mother to suffer goddam pregnancy all alone. Five more torturous months, oh my god…we are partners in the crime, bloody well share half the pain with me… half the culpability is yours.”
Salvador was stupefied, eyes unmoved and goggling: she shook his head bringing him out of the daze.
“Be a man, man. Come of age, tell everyone in Goa, Portugal and São Paulo about your accomplishment, about your goddam fatherhood,” said Nâtaline stuffing her credit card into his pocket, “Don’t worry, swipe this card to take care of all the payments until the baby is out of me.”
He heard sort of rumble akin to one produced by hooves of buffaloes passing by en masse. Tramping up the wooden staircase, super-obese Zâbel and her two daughters tumbled in, fighting for breath. All three of them touched Nâtaline’s tummy and, giving gasps of surprise, began clapping, jumping and circling her in a boisterous celebration that seemed an age-old ritual with an unmistakable nomadic hint to it. As they hopped, skipped and twirled, Salvador felt the floor under his feet quaking. And, as their joy knew no bounds, beginning with guffawing, they began swaying, tumbling and kicking effects. In the most physical of outbursts, they threw pillows at each other, ripped the sheets and curtains. The aftermath of the jamboree resembled a house ransacked by a minute-long typhoon. This was one of their most subdued indulgences resulting in manageable damages.
Quickly sobering up, while one ran her hand over the belly, the other slipped hers under the skirt and cried, “My gosh…it’s too big, too big, it’s a girl…definitely a girl.”
Impatient and anxious, Zâbel, nudging the girls away, put her left ear to the belly and, after a careful observation, with a triumphant smile of a discoverer, said, “Jeez…a sort of scuffle is going on inside, maybe there are two, or more. It is twice as important to give up cigarettes right now sweet darling, it hurts the babies you know.” And, before Nâtaline could react, the girls began hurling packs of cigarettes out of windows.
Turning to Salvador, running her eyes up and down, raising eyebrows, Zâbel said, “Skin and bones but strong enough…well, well, well.” As he grinned bashfully, jabbing her forefinger into his chest, Zâbel insisted, “Now it’s your responsibility young man…take care of her throughout the gestation. None of us would be around until the babies come home. All the best.”
The three, after kissing Nâtaline all over, waving their thick hands, waddled downstairs as if pressed for time, triggering another seismic tremor.
A two-hour drudgery of restoring effects to their rightful places was followed by Nâtaline’s order: handing him an obstetrician’s slip, she cried ‘right now’. On the way, in the treacherous humidity of Goa, wiping cold beads of sweat, he sat for a tea, and a breather. With every sip of the third cup, with every breath, things began to sink in.
But the word ‘father’ was hard to swallow. A father had to show paternal care, show compassion and be worthy of receiving filial obedience and reverence in return. With progenitorial responsibilities, a father propagates a family, a race and acts as a head. And, in time, a father evolves into a good father-in-law, evolves into a good granddad, then a great granddad and eventually a good patriarch of an extended family dispersed across continents. In Christmas-time, all the descendants, some with their lusophone wives, scores of grandchildren in tow, will descend on Goa to receive his blessings.
“All impossible donkey’s burdens even to imagine for a twenty-year-old undergraduate,” thought Salvador.
And then the ease of becoming a father baffled him, and that fatherhood could be an unintended consequence was something he was wholly unprepared for. He had imagined fatherhood to be an exalted state that exacted years of sweat, sanity and sacrifice. One had to be pretty behaved, candid, pensive and, above all, sincere. Furthermore, such a charge beckoned mature men with anchored egos, fortitude and, vitally, a spiritual bent. Take, for example, his own father, who, at thirty five, was not only a divisional manager but also, as a devout Catholic, capable of being a subdeacon to assist a high mass much before Salvador was born.
Bereft of such sagacity, social status, and other essential wherewithal, he hardly deserved to be a father. And, surely, the fatherhood that is an outcome of a misadventure must be nipped in the bud, but what can you do when Nâtaline’s Catholic spirit forbade induced termination?
Twenty is too inadequate an age to handle kids as father and, tragically, if his own kids follow suit, Salvador would be a granddad by forty! None of his classmates would believe this and, besides, he would be a butt of their jokes until next year, until the last minute of farewell. And what would happen to his more-pious-than-the-pious mother? A Hindi movie buff that she was, she dreams of her son hailing her with a mock salute as a police commissioner. Has a momentary lapse ruined his future? And that of his parents? Forever?
As he handed over medicines, that very moment, Nâtaline asked him to get a dozen pictures of cute toddlers. “I don’t want my kid to have your looks, your skeletal build, your nose, your widely set-apart eyes and even your pallid complexion. My kid must look great, the less I see of you during gestation, the better it is. Now get the best pictures in town and pin them all over the house, including kitchen and bathrooms.”
Hopping from shop to shop in search of pictures, as sun dipped into Arabian Sea, almost resigned to the inescapability of paternal tasks, in a little while, it was clear as crystal that this was something he would never get out of unscathed. And that he was here for a long haul, possibly, all his life. If that’s the case, what about legitimacy? Is it moral to see his own progeny being labelled ‘born out of wedlock’? Should he not buck up and take the plunge before the child is out?
But no woman had married in two hundred years in Nâtaline’s family, which was entirely made up of members of fairer sex. Men were highly disposable brutes, or, in Zâbel’s words, expedient animals to satiate the inescapable carnal wants. And children were inadvertent offshoots of consequent concurrences. Marriage was too solemn a relationship to keep men in it, and pragmatism lied in keeping them at bay until abstinence becomes unbearable, because women have to be discerning consumers, spending time and energy sensibly.
In a few months, Nâtaline systematically purged patriarchal ideas of Indian manhood from his mind. Apart from getting used to sooty vessels, smelly drains, and garbage, Salvador bathed her every day: as she sat on a wooden bar-stool, stark naked, he showered mugfuls of hot water, washed her with soap until bubbles emerged. His fingers quivered as they ran over the big belly in which his junior was growing. He could perceive the growth of foetus by the growth of her girth, every few days. It was simply surreal. Then he marvelled at her towelled beauty in the morning sun, only to wonder how a little bit of concealment conjures up gorgeousness out of plain looks. Getting the dress specified by her, he would hold it in such way that she had to lift her legs, and then arms, very little. The routine of combing, weaving dreadlocks and setting them free began giving him pleasure. As she griped like a child, he would tweak away the ringlets that blinded her. At times, when motherly instincts softened her, mighty pleased with his paternal potential, she would unleash intense kisses—even if suffocating. In such exuberant moments, she would insist to be handfed and, in the end, taking pity on him, she would force a few morsels into his mouth. But on ordinary days, after arranging breakfast in simple but elegant way, as she began devouring, he would dash to college without breaking his fast.
Every so often, as the baby began thrusting, what she called, ‘free kicks’, in a thrill of ecstasy, she hugged him in a tight but rough grasp; those were the moments he felt as a family—he, Nâtaline, and the one inside.
“Can we preserve pregnancy?” she asked. He was nonplussed. Handing him a high-end Kodak Easyshare, she wanted him to focus on her pregnant belly from different angles.
“Now get them printed black and white,” she said.
“Black and white? In this hyper-connected digital age?” asked Salvador.
“Unlike the coloured ones, they will always remain timeless,” she said.
Before long, she was so huge that she resembled an elephant in the family way. With no signs of contractions, he dreaded whether she would take twenty one months to deliver like the pachyderms. But she went into labour within weeks and the doctor talked of a possibility of Caesarean.
As she was taken into maternity ward, since Salvador was a greater escape artist than Harry Houdini, Nâtaline insisted that he be allowed inside to be by her side. Looking at a petrified Salvador, waving to come closer, holding his head in her hands, Nâtaline whispered, “Fifty-fifty my sweetheart, come inside, come into the theatre and share half the cries of pain, the travails and see how Caesar the Great was delivered. Don’t you want to be the first one up to see your junior coming out in the flesh?” Nudging her hands away, like a wet, panicked lamb, he wagged his head to shake off what he heard.
As he was taken inside by a nurse, terrified by the steely scalpels, knifey forks, and masked doctors with their hands in gloves, giving a brilliant excuse, Salvador rushed out of the theatre and made a tiptoe approach towards the exit; Zâbel caught him by his slack shirt. He was trembling and, as Zâbel dragged him towards the theatre, he wobbled. She knew ways of composing men in such states.
Asking him to sit between her daughters, handing him a bottle of water, Zâbel proposed four names, “Eduardo, Benedito, Francisca and Leticia, in that order, remember the order.”
“But why four names?” asked Salvador. “If it’s a boy, Eduardo. If, touch wood, its twin boys, Eduardo and Benedito. If it’s a girl, Francisca. If, luckily, its twin girls, Francisca and Leticia, and if it’s a boy and a girl, Eduardo and Francisca,” said Zâbel. Salvador was utterly confused and began gulping down the remainder of the water; being an effective coolant was one of the myriad manifestations of the liquid.
A Malayalee nurse rushed with a pad and said, “Id iz going do be Zezerian and doo weegs in hosbidal. The husband haaz do zign on dhis paber…here, here and here.” Zâbel and her daughters looked too appalled and distraught. After signing the papers, as three of them absent-mindedly waddled behind the nurse, Salvador slipped away to prepare for the final exams.
Ram Govardhan’s first novel, Rough with the Smooth, was long listed for the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize, The Economist-Crossword 2011 Award and published by Leadstart Publishing, Mumbai. His short stories have appeared in Asian Cha, Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore, Muse India, Spark, Asia Writes, Open Road Review, Cerebration and several other Asian and African literary journals. He works, lives in Chennai, India.