By Rhea Dhanbhoora
My mother had been an entomologist. It seemed almost fitting, for a small, wiry woman who looked like an insect herself. She saw herself as a 20th century Maria Sibylla Merian, but apart from her fondness for insects, had nothing in common like the formidable, accolade equipped naturalist from Germany.
Instead, she was a mildly respectable professor, who often came home with a stack of papers that she insisted were ‘all rubbish’ — going back the next day to a disgruntled classroom of students, half of whom dropped out instead of trying to impress her enough to pass the class. I knew a thing or two about trying to impress my mother. I spent much of my childhood trying to be good enough for her seemingly high standards. I looked up to her, blind to her faults and deceptions. Until I was around 12 that is, when she caught me with her translated copy of The Metamorphosis. We had never been allowed to read it.
I remember tugging at the thin book, trying to wrench it out of her hands. I hadn’t even gotten halfway through and I had to know what was going to happen to Gregor. I was mature enough to read, absorb and understand the mystic tale, I insisted. Her pinched face had scowled down at me and she had finally agreed, leaving me to finish it, much to my delight.
Of course, I spent the next few days waking up to a series of night sweats, checking my extremities to ensure that I hadn’t turned into some sort of unidentifiable creature.
“You cannot define it," mother would say when I asked her, and the translation I held refused to go further than gigantic insect.
“The original German is a better read, but Kafka is unfair to the insect.” I had looked up at her, still shuddering inside at the thought of being stuck in a single bed, all insect-like, and wondered at her foolishness. My mother knew five, maybe six words in German and a few phrases strung together that would have been useful on a layover at the airport perhaps, but nowhere further than the immigration queue.
She may have been caught up in the idea that she had everything in common with her favorite German entomologist, but she often took it too far. Saturday nights, for example, were spent exploring the German cuisine she insisted that she had grown up enjoying. Since both my sister and I had spent several hours with our grandfather when we were younger, we knew that this was a lie, since he spent most weekends with his head in a bowl of Dhansak after his morning prayers.
We didn’t like the lentil-heavy Dhansak gravy or the accompanying brown rice, and we never got around to our morning prayers either. Instead of winding our kusti's three times around our waists, we would tie them both together and drop them out of the window to see if we could swing them into the apartment on the second floor. The sacrilegious activity did nothing to perturb my mother, but we’d been shipped off to the agiary anyway, for a lecture on the faith that did nothing to draw us any further into it. Between my grandfather’s extreme ideals that he insisted were an integral part of being ‘good members of the faith’ and my mother’s own strange customs, we grew up following nothing and believing in even less.
Every Saturday, my sister and I sat down to this fake tradition my mother had created for us, exploring more of this German cuisine than either one of us cared to. Instead of the ‘Yasna’ and the ‘Avesta’, my mother would talk about insects, something we had found fascinating as children but were quickly disillusioned by as we grew older.
In the midst of a meal of Bockwurst, in between large gulps of Weissbier, her stringy frame would lean over the dining table and rap my knuckles, admonishing me for rolling my eyes when she spoke about the million-year-old moth she was studying and then rambling on about how Kafka was unfair to describe an insect in such unflattering terms. We were never interested in the insect identification she busied herself with in her study. Even now when I think about the prismatic wings stretched out across her drawing board, the little sketches in her notebook — I have no idea whether she had just placed them there to feel as though she was part of the little group of naturalists she identified with more than the endangered community her father, our grandfather, wished she had more interest in, or was really on to something.
While other children in the colony celebrated their birthdays in fancy restaurants and big birthday halls, she would take us to see baby worms emerging from little eggs in the garden, or show us how to follow cockroach trails. Instead of the delightful giveaways at the end, we had to hand out picture books about the stages of insect life. After a few years, everyone was busy to attend our parties.
I hated the cockroaches. My sister would kill them by dunking them in cold water. I would scream and run, haunted by a childhood memory of one crawling over my palms in the middle of the night, hearing that twitch and click as it scurried over my skin.
The last memory I had of my sister was her standing by the lift in the stilts of our biscuit-colored building, punished with no dinner for killing dozens of these intelligent insects in buckets of cold water. “You can learn so much from the cockroach,” my mother was saying, as our neighbors tiptoed away from the lift towards the staircase, just to avoid us. The strange family where the girls didn’t wear their kustis and the mother made Brötchen instead of traditional Ravo for birthday breakfasts.
The next morning, my sister choked on her breakfast and died, face down in her scrambled eggs.
Who would kill the cockroaches for me now?
My mother’s funeral was a somber affair. Mostly because I was one of five people in attendance. Through my teenage years, I had seen the gated colony crawl from a cheery, eccentric little space isolated from the big city it was situated in, into a cold place, often hostile to those who didn’t agree with closing ranks to preserve purity.
Perhaps it was because I had spent so much time outside it, first at my grandfather’s house outside the big red gates and then in my own apartment in the chaotic city center. Perhaps the dismal show was my own fault. Perhaps I hadn’t organized it well enough for our neighbors to want to attend it. My mother would have told me just how badly I had put everything together.
Clearing out the house I had grown up in was unemotional. My mother and I hadn’t spoken much over the past ten years. I’d used my sister’s death as a fitting excuse for my distance, my smoking, my drinking, my promiscuity.
“Come up to the room,” a man would whisper during the years I wanted to erase from memory. We’d travel, on trains, in rickshaws, walk on platforms, to dingy little flats and hole-in-the-wall houses. “Come to bed,” he would whine and I would pull him towards the kitchen counter instead. No need to make it personal. No need to pretend it was enjoyable. I would turn around after we were done, real life ruining the daydream I’d be stuck in, caught unaware by just how regular his gaze was. Whoever he was.
No fireworks when his intense eyes peered into mine.
“You should go,” I’d nod, turning over to light a cigarette after another encounter, one hand casually pulling a blanket up to cover my chest. The man I wouldn’t remember a few hours later would smirk a little, flicking a wavy curl of hair off his sweaty brow and nod, but then sigh and roll over, attempting a classic spoon. When I managed to wriggle out of it, escaping the short gasps of hot air blowing past into my ear and reaching over to find my dress, he would pretend to be offended.
“You’re really kicking me out? Dinner tomorrow? Maybe…”
The lines were always the same, even though the men were different. I could cut them all off with just the slight lift of an eyebrow. That was amusing. They would lean over, little tufts of hair falling into big, brown eyes, small dark eyes, insipid grey eyes… Like puppies, begging for attention. When I reached out to tousle the hair back they would mistake my need to have everything in its place for some sort of deep-seated affection.
“I’m really into you, you know,” they would try that zealous gaze. Looking into my eyes, deep into my soul and all that jazz.
“I’m not kidding. I didn't think it was going to feel this good.”
“That’s pretty insulting,” I would try to keep it light. Breezy. They would be trying to play that game they always did. Telling me that I was special, making me feel like they wanted more. It made them feel better about themselves somehow. More like gentlemen.
Standing outside the prison gates of the colony I didn’t want to let the smoking, drinking version of me into, I stubbed out another cancer stick I had been smoking, with a watchful eye for orange flags that would protest the very idea of a woman indulging in such a masculine vice.
Contemplating who to call tonight and staring down at the prismatic wings of one of mother’s last projects that I had just thrown into a trash pile by the pavement after the funeral, I could feel someone’s eyes on me. I was uncomfortably aware that they were doing the once-over. I wondered if they could see my panty line, or the outline of my legs silhouetted through my thin dress.
A skinny visitor in his late 20s who I’d known in school. The skinny boy with the wavy black hair who had been so uninteresting we had never walked home together even though we got off the train at the same platform every afternoon. The skinny boy with deep-set eyes who had a crush on my sister when they were little, but had never managed to break through her barriers. The skinny boy I had a crush on as a 16-year-old but who spent the only week we had ever known each other talking to me about my sister as we listened to music in his apartment by the station, trying to be ‘friends’. My sister had been influenced by older, more orthodox members of the faith and was more comfortable with the idea of dating within the community for the greater good — to increase the numbers.
This skinny boy hadn’t passed the purity test. He gave me a sympathetic nod and moved past, but I could feel his eyes still on me as he backed away slowly.
The skinny boy and I would be friends again, I decided. He didn’t want to sleep with me. He had never wanted to sleep with me. He just wanted to talk. To help me work through things.
Like the knight in shining armor I needed.
He was here to help me kill the cockroaches.
“We’ll fix you, baby,” he said to me a few nights later, as we tumbled into bed.
The skinny boy I had never intended to date left the morning after I caught him with his ex-girlfriend. Nothing dramatic. No big plot twist in the story of my life. After years of me being the flirtatious flight risk. Here he was, six years into our fairytale marriage, pants around his ankles and that affronted look on his face when I had walked in. Like I was wrong for having interrupted.
“Sorry,” I said, backing out hastily as I closed the door of his study. Perhaps it was my fault. For being emotionally unavailable. For being so open about the promiscuous past — how could I have been trusted.
It was a strange thing, being right. I wasn’t used to it.
I didn’t know how to handle the aftermath, so when he finally emerged from the study and she slipped out the door, I busied myself with dinner.
“Are we going to talk about it?” His elbows were scraping back and forth on the kitchen counter I’d just wiped down, red-faced and sweat-soaked from all the fornicating.
Fornication. That word seemed fitting. It was harsh and cold. It was what he’d made it.
I continued to stir the stew, a smorgasbord of everything I had found in the kitchen cabinets and way too much salt. “I need that potato.”
I pointed at the pile next to him, watching as his eyebrows rose up in disbelief.
His round face, chest heaving — that sense of righteousness. I didn’t want to hear how it was my fault. Was I supposed to feel crushed? Broken? I felt the relief washing over me in waves. The illusion was broken. The knight didn’t exist.
Our hands brushed as he handed me the potato, opening his mouth to say more. I felt nothing.
A flutter of little legs, a brown haze hurried past just as he was begging me to stop, to talk, to ‘work through it.’
I ignored him, following the roach as it scurried out of the kitchen into the passage.
Suddenly, I felt no fear. I didn’t need him to follow it for me, slipper raised to defend me from the vile creature.
I watched its lifeless body writhe on the floor for a second before it lay still. A sack of insecurity and dependency dropped to the floor with it. Just like that, in one fell swoop.
The slipper hung limp in my hand as I made my way out, leaving the stew boiling over and the skinny boy who was now a stranger simmering besides it. “You can learn everything about growing up from the cockroach,” mother would have said.