AS YUSUF began to choke, he smelt strawberries. He was caught in a traffic snarl when, impossibly, he smelt strawberries. At first he thought the dreams had begun again. But as the squeeze set in, emptying the distant edges of his lungs, crowding his ribs like cane hoops, he knew this was no dream. These strawberries were real.
They rushed on him, thrust in at the car window in a not-there plastic shell. They were right in his face, tight red neons, blinking from a loose bed of leaves. Air was running out. His lungs rolled up like toothpaste tubes, leaving a shallow puddle of air at which his thickening windpipe sucked noisily. The turgid walls of his throat chafed, raw and pitted, a purple bruise of strawberry flesh. The strawberry vendor took Yusuf to hospital. Yusuf was very nearly dead. Anaphylaxis — the body’s vehement ouster of the intruder — had throttled him. His brain had sunk its static to a twitch. His heart was on its final thud when the scalpel’s swift twist unlocked
A week later, a sandpaper hoarseness and a pink snail track across his neck were all that remained of his tracheostomy. Yusuf was disappointed. He had toured the suburbs of death and would have liked more lasting souvenirs. “It won’t happen again, will it, doctor?” A wasted question! Still, he waited as she weighed her lies. He did not expect honesty. They weren’t equals. He knew nothing about her. She didn’t lie. “Stay away from strawberries, that’s the only way. You know you’re allergic to them. Just stay off them, no matter how ripe and red they are.” She knew nothing about him, nothing! She had held his life in her hands, and she understood nothing.
Stung to sudden fury he shouted, “Strawberries are white!”
Strawberries haunted him. He wheezed at the very thought of them. A hoarding for jam could make him break out in hives. Several times a day his hand sought the comfort of a plastic teat that promised a puff of steroid. The house was dotted with inhalers and sprays. He kept a small cylinder of oxygen beneath the desk at work. He didn’t know how to use it, but felt safer knowing it was there.
“Strawberries are white,” he told the psychiatrist.
But that was not till his fifth, perhaps his sixth visit. The psychiatrist tapped a milky film of prescription paper. “Like this?” “No! Dark white.”
Something in Yusuf’s choice of words made the psychiatrist lumber across the room to a cupboard — he was a young man, but he cultivated slowness. He placed before Yusuf a box of crayons and a rough sheet of brown paper torn from an X-ray folder. Yusuf chose a fat white chalk. He pressed hard on the paper. It tore, but he worked around the tear till he achieved a thick white bar. Coconut shreds of crayon snowed the table with each intent breath. He kept on till the white stood solid on the dun plane.“There! Dark white!”
For Yusuf’s sixth birthday, his best gift came from the gardener. Dhondiba was not their gardener. Besides, they were enemies. Their enmity, begun over peas, had taken an ugly turn over Dhondiba’s custardapple tree. Yusuf, who had apprenticed with squirrels, knew how to core out the scented custard. Dhondiba’s tree was hung with green pendulums swinging emptily, marking the last hot hours of July.
It was strange, and a little frightening, that Dhondiba should appear at the gate on Yusuf’s birthday. Dhondiba held out his cupped hands. “Here, Baba, look what I’ve brought you.”
Yusuf backed away. It might be a toad, a tiny tree-toad, slick as a lollipop, with hard peppercorn eyes. It was a strawberry. It was, perhaps, the biggest strawberry in the world. Certainly, it was the biggest strawberry in Panchgani, where strawberries are sweet and squashy and numerous, but not very big.
This one was humongous.
It was the red eye of danger at the level crossing, glaring above the black rails that raced close, then sprang apart on the gardener’s muddy palm. It beat, hot and tumid, a heart that had lost its rabbit. It had shed the fuss of fur and sorry bone and stepped out peeled and clean and ready for the world. Slippy as clotting blood, hard as glass, red with a brooding light burning inside, it was a drowsy drop of sunset. It was a gas balloon. The drift of its redness was more than Yusuf’s eye could bear, but he was still looking when it rolled into the waiting chalice of his hands.
NOT IMMEDIATELY did Yusuf learn the strawberry. Not until it was too late did he understand its softness, its heaviness, its pitted skin. As yet, all he knew of the strawberry was its redness as he ran with it still flaming to his secret place.
The next few days were black with terror, lit only by the baleful red eye of the strawberry. He hid it, changing its refuge every hour from dread of discovery. Away from his eye’s governance, it vanished. Memory did not hold it, except as a black map of air within the fruit’s luminous outline. When he was not looking at it, his fingers sought the blackheads on its plushy cheek and worried its crown of green feathers. He dared not sleep, lest the dark usurp it. From the hot nest of bedclothes, its watchful eye metered the blue dark.
It travelled to school in his shorts. He suffered long stretches of sums and sentences while it stayed unseen and unfelt, a polyp in the woody womb of his desk. Between lessons, a little shakily, he lifted the desk lid. A sparrow struggled in his throat before he looked. But the strawberry was always there.
Paroled, he slouched home the long way, in solitary converse with its redness. He was ambushed by the boy who sat next to him in class, and had peeked in the desk when Yusuf was called to the blackboard.
There was a fight over the strawberry.
At the touch of Yusuf’s fist the boy’s face unfurled like a scarlet hibiscus, in a bright splat of poster paint. It dripped a long and sticky stigma down his chin, and lost itself, in a frayed tassel of anthers, on his chewed school tie.
Both boys stared at the blood in holy wonder, but the strawberry was safe. On the third day, its satin had dulled a little. Around the stem was a brown suspicion of marsh. Its bedraggled crown had slipped off. There was only one way to keep it forever. Yusuf ate it, and was sick.
Two weeks later, Dhondiba took him to the strawberry farm. “Act surprised,” Dhondiba said at the gate. “Mind you pretend you’ve never seen such big ones before.”
So Dhondiba was no better than him! He had actually felt sorry about the custard apples, and all the while Dhondiba was sneaking strawberries! Yusuf’s ears were red hot with shame. He didn’t hear the quiet “Hello Yusuf” the first time. That’s how he almost didn’t see Peter Patrao.
But Peter Patrao said hello again, and this time Yusuf saw him.
He was a stocky man in floppy khaki shorts and a string vest. He was completely bald, but his bat ears sprouted stiff grey antennae of hair. He had the saddest eyes in the word, transparent like hot chikki, deliquescing with sweetness. Yusuf, trapped in those eyes, felt his own burn with tears.
“You’re interested in strawberries, Dhondiba tells me.” “What strawberries?” Dhondiba prompted. “He hasn’t seen any yet.” Yusuf followed Peter Patrao round the house — and walked into a nightmare. The earth had broken out in blisters. The earth had chickenpox. Blebs and blisters glistened wetly in the sun.
Each blister had a fire-coal in its heart. The burning earth had scratched itself furiously around the itchy blebs, and rucked its skin into small mounds.
Yusuf began to cry.
Yusuf followed Peter Patrao round the house.
The strawberry field was just a field. There was nothing to see, really. But then the clouds broke and a sly glance of sunshine made Yusuf catch his breath. It had rained bataasha, and he hadn’t noticed! Pearly bubbles of sugar beaded the field. Before he could take another breath the sugar had melted on the earth’s soft tongue, and left blisters.
Peter Patrao did not move. He waited patiently till Yusuf felt safe to look closer at the field. They weren’t blisters at all. They were small clear domes of plastic or glass. Beneath each was a strawberry plant. Each plant had one giant strawberry ripening in the sun.
“It’ll all be wasted in jam,” Yusuf said stupidly.
Peter Patrao laughed. “Not one of these goes to the jam factory! I don’t grow them for jam.” Yusuf waited. “I grow them for Qatayoun.” Yusuf didn’t know what Qatayoun was. It sounded like a distant planet with rings spinning like hula-hoops, and a moon or two for company. “Qatayooon,” Yusuf breathed. It sounded like a place meant for strawberries.
“There! I knew you’d understand. We will be good friends, eh Yusuf?” “Oh yes!” “I don’t tell others I grow them for Qatayoun. I tell them I grow strawberries for the Taj Mahal.” The familiar white cupola toppled and became a crockery bowl filled with strawberries. “You know Taj Mahal? The Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay? Twenty-five rupees for one strawberry. Put it in a glass with a blob of cream for the pretty ladies. But none so pretty as Qatayoun.”
So Qatayoun was a lady.
Peter Patrao squatted and raised a glass dome. Yusuf held his breath. He crouched nearby, bony knees knifing his heart. Peter’s hand came up holding a scarlet head like a rose. Yusuf shuddered as Peter tweaked the fruit off the stem. Peter held out the fruit to Yusuf.
“You shall take it to Qatayoun.”
So that was how Yusuf, no longer aware of the strawberry steaming in his clasp, was led into the cool dark house, through the hushed verandah and sleeping furniture, past the flat black intelligence of the shiny piano, into the corridor where Qatayoun waited for her gift.
She had her back to Yusuf. There was a round cushion trapped in her tight green skirt. Without looking, Yusuf knew her hands were busy with flowers. He expected flowers as one expects feathers with birds. Her busy elbows and tight round calves were white as tubelights. No room could be dark with Qatayoun there, not even at night. Even before she turned around, Yusuf knew wordlessly why Peter Patrao grew strawberries. “This is Yusuf.” Qatayoun turned and the blankness in her face filled quickly at the sight of Yusuf.
“For me?” She took the strawberry. She seemed to expect it. Yusuf’s heart banged once, hard, at his disloyalty, but he didn’t care. She was going to eat that strawberry, and he didn’t care. Her pale lips curled back and her square teeth sank into the strawberry. They fitted neatly, as though they had been made to measure
for slots in the plump cheek of the fruit.
“Sweet?” Peter asked anxiously. Yusuf, too, grew tense. The strawberry was sweet. Qatayoun said so, and the day became a holiday. Later, they had Shrewsbury biscuits and tea. Yusuf sat on a leather pouffe so close to Qatayoun that the white heat of her legs steamed up to him. Peter sat across the room, looking fit to cry. When Dhondiba returned for Yusuf, Peter said earnestly, “Yusuf wants to learn how to grow strawberries. You must bring him again next week.” Yusuf hadn’t voiced his need. Somehow, Peter knew.
SO DID you see mad Peter’s wife?” his sisters jumped on him the minute he got home.
Yusuf’s house was full of women. Women grew like trees and buildings, there was no escaping them. Yusuf’s grandmother was carved out of wood, thin and hard and strong.
Her elbows opened like clasp knives. His mother, pillow soft, eyes knowing as pins.
Sisters, monkeys, every one of them. Girls, waiting to grow into pillows first, then trees. “He went mad when he married her, didn’t he? Mad Peter! Go on! Tell us Yusuf! What is she like?” “I only saw strawberries,” he said to the questioning tree, the cuddly pillow, the teasing monkeys. “Only strawberries.”
Next week, Peter took Yusuf to the strawberry patch and began teaching him about soil and moisture and sunlight. Then just as Yusuf got really interested, Peter stopped in mid-sentence, avulsed a thick red berry from its swathe of green and sent him indoors to Qatayoun.
Yusuf’s heart pounded in his ears as he went up the steps. He would find her hands full of flowers, her legs dazzling the day. The house was a cold shell. In the hall, the furniture had turned minatory and the piano’s knowing gleam made Yusuf want to run back into the sun. There were whispers beyond, but first there was the glass curtain he must swim through. Tiny tubes of glass swung in ripples of cold light — blue, lemon, green. Water-light that drowned Yusuf as it striped his arm. He pushed past, as he’d seen swimmers do.
The glass whispered and slid back, but with its whispering, something ceased. It was dead quiet beyond. The air smelt of old clothes, closed spaces. Thunder rattled the wickerwork wrapped in his shirt. The room beyond was dark as a dream, without angles. Qatayoun’s legs gleamed again like tubelights, crossed tight in a toffee-paper twist all along the length of the sofa.
A strange man hovered like smoke above the cigarette’s blood drop dripping to the floor. His voice came out of a well. “What’s this?” “Oh. Yusuf!”
She held out her hand to Yusuf, and gathered him into the dry vinegary air of the planet Qatayoun. His heart scudded against her white arm. The glass bangle she wore seemed carved out of the morbid crimson of strawberries. Yusuf leaned against his planet and felt safe. The strawberry rolled to the floor. The man laughed and picked it up, and Yusuf saw him for the first time.
He was white, like Qatayoun, but his white was the whiteness of dead things. There was no light in him. His mouth was pink and slack and a bubble of spit bulged and broke at one corner. His eyes were small and grey and flat with certitude.
Yusuf hated him. Even within the sheltering ring of Qatayoun, the man was an alien to be feared.
“Yusuf, this is my cousin Feroz.” Yusuf didn’t give the strawberry to Qatayoun. He clutched it and wished fiercely that Feroz would go away. Quite suddenly, Feroz leaned forward and brushed a limp wrinkly finger up the length of Qatayoun’s leg. Yusuf, within the planet’s ring, turned into stone. Qatayoun’s arm slipped off him, and she sighed.Yusuf saw that she was helpless, entangled in a spell, unable to move, for Feroz did it again.
This time she said lazily, “Stop it Feroz.” Feroz ran his finger back and forth playfully. “Time for Anne French?” Qatayoun giggled. “Think so? Yeah. Almost. Almost time for Anne French.” Yusuf stayed longer than usual, delaying as much as he could, but Anne French didn’t turn up.
After that, every time Feroz was around, Peter scuttled Yusuf into the house. He never said anything to Yusuf, but it was understood. Yusuf was meant to protect Qatayoun.
ONE SUNDAY, Yusuf went with his family to the cinema. He didn’t notice the movie, because of what came before.
The commercial was black and white, the print grainy, but Yusuf would have recognised it anywhere — Peter Patrao’s cottage with the little turrets growing out of its roof like kitten’s ears. Here was the hushed verandah with the sleeping furniture. The camera passed the piano’s intelligent gleam, and they were there.
Qatayoun sat in a tall armchair, skirt drawn up to her knees. She was thin and fragile like a porcelain vase and her face smaller and dreamier. But her legs were the same, dark white and effulgent as tubelights. Around her were ghosts who laughed and sipped tea, but Yusuf didn’t notice them. His throat had a sparrow beating against his skin.
The camera zoomed on Qatayoun’s legs and brushed them lazily back and forth, like Feroz’s finger. Qatayoun sighed. And then — did he hear it? Did she say it? — there was Anne French. It was some stuff in a bottle that made her legs dark white. It was not a person at all.
Yusuf knew now for certain that Feroz had found the bottle of Anne French and polished her legs till they gleamed. The commercial went on. Three weeks later… Yusuf was back in Peter Patrao’s cottage. This time, too, the camera dragged along Qatayoun’s leg. But it was Qatayoun’s finger, not Feroz’s that moved lazily up, up, up, till the edge of her skirt.
Yusuf wanted it to stop, but he couldn’t make it. He wanted to jam one fist between the wickerwork hoops in his shirt and make it stop. It thrashed and thumped and banged so loud, they could all hear it in the dark. But they were all watching Qatayoun, and nobody minded Yusuf’s heart. Then Qatayoun made it stop. She picked up a gauze scarf, faint as moonshine and slid it down down down her long white legs. It trapped her feet in a sorcerer’s web, and Qatayoun sighed. Yusuf’s heart took up its weary beat again. Anne French, the screen said, in grownup girly writing. Anne French.
YUSUF COULDN’T wait to get to Peter Patrao’s farm again. On his next visit, he carried a white dupatta crammed in his shorts. It was nothing like the cloudy scarf, but it was the best he could find. But when the moment came, when he could have sent it sliding down her legs, he lost his nerve.
Feroz was there, but Yusuf no longer noticed him.
As usual, Qatayoun lounged in the settee, her long legs packed close, stretched before Yusuf. A faint sprinkling of pepper dusted the dark white skin.
After that day, Dhondiba was gone a whole month. Peter’s farm was too far away for Yusuf to venture out alone, even if he managed to escape his mother’s eye. He did try once, but lost his way.
When Dhondiba came at last, it was with a tragic face. He pulled the angles of his mouth down, and swallowed his chin. “Gone,” he announced. “All gone for jam! Not one strawberry left. No strawberry, no farm, no memsahib.
Only sahib, gone mental!”
Peter would never sell those strawberries for jam, crush their hearts, bruise and pulp them into purple smears. Peter would never do that. The strawberries were for Qatayoun. How could Dhondiba ever understand? “Peter Sahib went mental the day Memsahib left.”
Planets don’t leave their places in the sky.
This was no talk for children, Dhondiba grumbled. Memsahib had disappeared like smoke, gone with that good-for-nothing Feroz, three days ago. Peter Sahib had been picking strawberries all morning. He was taking them right this minute to Mala’s Jam Factory.
He must have left by now, but if Yusuf wanted, they could go up to the Jamun Point, and look out for his van. Everything inside Yusuf knotted up. He set off without replying.
The day had darkened. Dhondiba said the storm wasn’t far away.
It was a hard climb and Yusuf refused a ride on Dhondiba’s back. They made it, sweaty and breathless, to the giant mushroom rock on top of the world.
Far below, Kudal Valley waited with wolfish throat. The air turned black and pungent with the coming storm.
Clouds wadded close, dirty like wet newspaper. If Peter’s van didn’t come now, very soon the road would be gone. “Look! There he is, Baba! The blue truck!”
Peter’s dark blue van inched into visibility below them. It was the only vehicle on the hillside, a gleaming beetle halfway down the valley. “Let’s go, Baba, the storm will hit any minute now — ”
Yusuf shook off Dhondiba, his tongue sandpapered with terror. Peter was taking that curve too fast, too near the edge, too —
Dhondiba’s arm was an iron hoop around Yusuf’s middle, stronger than the ring of the planet Qatayoun. He kicked, butted his head on Dhondiba’s bony chest, but that arm did not relent.
Riding above the black spatter of trees came the storm. It blinded the old gardener, but Yusuf saw.
In the flash of lightning the blue van toppled. In it went Peter, brave and unseen. The back of the van swung open and strawberries spewed in a blur.
There was something else.
Breaking free from the red web of strawberries out swirled the brilliant trajectory of the planet Qatayoun. Trailing a fiery drift of strawberries she fell, dark white and effulgent. First one arm, then another, then the rest of her, wheeling in a white scatter of light, faster and faster into the closing chink of the storm.
Kalpish Ratna is the pseudonym used by surgeons Ishrat Syed (born 1958) and Kalpana Swaminathan (born 1956) when they write together. Writing science is their passion, and they believe science has its true place in the arts. Their newest book, Uncertain Life and Sure Death — Medicine and Mahamaari in Maritime Mumbai, is a medical history of Mumbai. Kalpana Swaminathan writes fiction. Venus Crossing is her next novel. Ishrat Syed is a photographer fascinated with the titanic upheavals of nature. His last exhibition was Elementals, images following the ravages of Hurricane Katrina.