In Miss Mamta’s Hands
Illustration by Rabia Kapoor
MISS Mamta’s house felt small in spite of the big windows overlooking the sea. The sun was hanging ripe and heavy over the cityscape, about to drop into the water. Ruhi sat in the living room, ankles pressed tightly together, waiting for Miss Mamta to come out of the shower. She wiped her palms on her skirt. The walls of the house seemed to beg for some breathing space. The windows were shut and hardly a bare inch was spared in between the frames and mirrors in the room. Miss Mamta had large prints of old Hindi film posters and paintings of amorous men and women hung all over. Dozens of eyes watched the centre of the living room. Ruhi averted her gaze from them all.
She didn’t fully understand why Miss Mamta had asked her to come to her house. Extra revision, Miss Mamta had said, pulling her aside in the school corridor, you need to put in a little more time before the test.
Ruhi felt no moral obligation towards attending class in general. She’d linger on the school grounds after recess had ended, sneak her phone into the toilet and plug her earphones in. She’d sit at the back of the class and read novels hidden inside textbooks, she’d take naps at her desk, or carve doodles into the wood. Sometimes she’d send emails from her father’s computer, asking the school to excuse her absence, and skip school altogether. But Ruhi always worked hard for Miss Mamta. Miss Mamta brought it out in her, and up until recently Ruhi had never even entertained the idea that she could have done anything to upset her.
Mondays were Ruhi’s favourite because she had history first thing in the morning. Miss Mamta would float into class draped in floral print sarees, her hair coming undone as she glided towards the blackboard, little white jasmine flowers leaving a trail on the floor behind her as they fell from her gajra. Every once in a while she’d drop a small gift on Ruhi’s desk as she passed by it, a bookmark with a clever quote on it, ‘tell the truth but tell it slant’, Emily Dickinson, a pretty pen, an old fashioned tin box of mints, a collection of poems or a book she thought Ruhi would like. Ruhi would sweep the presents, the smell of rosewater and tobacco still lingering, quickly into her bag in an attempt to be discreet, and then study them carefully during the short break. She’d look them over in her hands, take in the colours and the textures, hunt for hidden details, inside jokes that perhaps Miss Mamta had intended for her. Ruhi didn’t want to let her down.
She would respond in kind, in hidden codes like smiles behind closed mouths. In an essay about the Holocaust, Ruhi wrote about Anne Frank, about the young girl’s personal accounts of misery and terror and what we can learn from her testimony. She ended with a comment on the young girl’s relentless belief in the goodness of people, concluding her paper, perhaps a little inorganically, on a note of hope, which is, as Emily Dickinson rightly observed, the thing with feathers that perches in the soul — and sings the tune without the words — and never stops at all.
When the tests were graded and returned, Ruhi would look for the little doodles of smiling faces and words of warm acknowledgement looped red in Miss Mamta’s large handwriting. Ruhi would feel a quiet glow inside her. Miss Mamta would smile at her from across the classroom.
She heard the bathroom door unlock. Taking that as her cue she reached for her bag and pulled out her books. Miss Mamta came out of the bedroom and the living room filled with the smell of rosewater. She sat down by the writing desk across from Ruhi and reached for a silver cigarette case with the image of a bird singing in a cage engraved on it. Miss Mamta offered her a cigarette and Ruhi blinked blankly at Miss Mamta, shaking her head meekly, “Oh! No…Thank you.”
Miss Mamta shrugged and held it to her lips, lit it, inhaled deeply, and sighed, filling the space between Ruhi and her with smoke. The dark fabric of Miss Mamta’s saree clung to her like an ill-fitting second skin she had refused to shed. Ruhi held her breath until the smoke settled. She watched its coils twist in the air in front of her.
Miss Mamta gave a short laugh and shook her head,“You remind me so much of myself sometimes.”
Ruhi looked at Miss Mamta, confused.
“The books. You can put them aside for now. Relax.”
Ruhi obliged. Without the books to hold onto she felt like her hands were in the way, sitting stupid in her lap. She tucked them under her thighs and looked down, acutely aware of Miss Mamta’s eyes on her, the weight of her gaze so much heavier and stranger than it had ever felt in school. In school, in the classroom, Miss Mamta’s eyes focused on things with a light, almost disinterested gentleness, like sea foam. This look, burning into Ruhi as she sat in her living room, this was one that Ruhi had seen only twice before.
The first time was when Ruhi had been late for school. She had missed the bus in the morning. The auto rickshaw she had had to take pulled up in front of the school and Ruhi scrambled out. As she struggled to pay the fare with her hands full, she caught sight of Miss Mamta leaning against the boundary wall. Her arms crossed, she was smoking under the blazing summer sun. She didn’t notice Ruhi. She didn’t seem to notice anything. Ruhi rushed past.
It was only later, after she’d gone through all the formalities of arriving late, when she’d finally settled in at her desk, that she felt the delayed chill run up her spine.
In her mind, Ruhi saw Miss Mamta standing on an empty street, her leather bag cracked and faded by her feet. Clouds of smoke rose from her lips and coiled around her. Every puff of smoke she exhaled was thicker than the last, until finally the smoke blotted her out, spread around her body like ink on paper, and absorbed her completely. All that was left then was the outline of her hands, dragging the cigarette to and fro, and a set of eyes Ruhi didn’t immediately recognise. They hung in the smoke like two wrecking balls, swinging – at nothing, at the gloom that was spiralling around her, that she blew more darkness into every time it dared to try and dissipate. Miss Mamta accomplished a terrible feat, building walls as she broke them, standing alone outside the school building, staring into something black that no one else could see.
The image made Ruhi shudder. The girl sitting next to her in class raised an eyebrow, half concerned. Ruhi ignored her and opened her book, pretending to write.
When Miss Mamta came into class later that day, she floated in as she always did, the usual mellow light in her eyes, a pleasant way about her, a close-mouthed smile in Ruhi’s direction. The woman from the morning was nowhere to be seen. Miss Mamta conducted her class the way she did every history class, like nothing was wrong.
Ruhi watched on warily but by the end of the lesson she had begun to tell herself that maybe she’d made a mistake, that the woman she’d seen in the morning had to have been someone else, just a stranger. Miss Mamta was clearly fine.
“How are you?”
Ruhi’s throat had gone dry. It had been fifteen minutes since either of them had spoken. They sat quietly in the hot living room that was filling up with smoke the way a sinking ship fills with water. She cleared her throat, “Fine, Miss.”
Miss Mamta didn’t react, as if she hadn’t heard Ruhi speak, hadn’t seen her lips move at all. She looked around the room distractedly, then got up and began to search for something.
The sun had started to set outside. The room lost light and, Ruhi thought, Miss Mamta started to lose form.
“You know” Miss Mamta said without turning around, “When anything happens to your throat, an infection, a cough, even just an itch that you have to clear, it means that you’re suppressing something.”
The shadows that began to throw themselves higher and larger across the room seemed to pull at Miss Mamta. She dug a bottle of gin and two glasses out of a dark corner, “It means that your body and your mind, in some capacity, is feeling oppressed.”
As she walked, the shadows unravelled her like a ball of yarn and she seemed to come undone. By the time she sat back down, her face looked thinner, older. She leaned forward and sighed. The smell of alcohol already on her breath took Ruhi by surprise. She felt a tightness in her chest. She resisted the urge to recoil, to scream.
She turned desperately towards the windows, half hoping that she could push them open just by looking at them. But they remained as they were, jammed shut. The sea beyond sloshed without grace, the waves slipping and falling over themselves like slurred speech.
Miss Mamta poured gin into both the glasses. “You have this sadness about you, Ruhi.”
Ruhi didn’t say anything.
“What happened? No more boys to kiss in school?” She offered Ruhi a glass.
Ruhi accepted, numb.
The second and last time she had seen that look in Miss Mamta’s eyes was two months ago, in the school’s back, often empty, stairwell. Ruhi had skipped class to see a boy from the year above. They were sitting on the steps and he was telling her about a song he was writing. Ruhi later found out that the lyrics were from a Red Hot Chilli Peppers song, but at the time all she could focus on was the heat in her palms, her racing heartbeat, and the way he smelled.
She should have guessed that Miss Mamta would be the one to find them there. She never sat with the other teachers. When she wasn’t teaching a class she would roam the corridors absentmindedly, or find secret places on the premises to smoke in, or stand outside the building and stare into nothing.
She walked in on Ruhi and the boy just as their lips touched. The boy pushed Ruhi away immediately, running up the stairs and out of sight within seconds. Ruhi stood up, sheepish. It took her a few of seconds to summon the courage to look Miss Mamta in the eye. When she finally did, her heart dropped in her chest and she shrank back.
A shadow had come over Miss Mamta’s otherwise expressionless face. And there they were again, wrecking balls swinging in the middle of the darkness. Only this time they weren’t swinging at nothing, they were swinging, swift and harsh, in Ruhi’s direction.
Before Ruhi could say a word, Miss Mamta said flatly, “You’re always left alone in the end.” Then she stepped around her and walked away. Ruhi stood frozen in place.
Miss Mamta didn’t tell anyone about Ruhi’s misdemeanour. Ruhi waited anxiously for a call to the principal’s office, for a reprimand from her parents, but nothing came. Ruhi didn’t get into any trouble. But the presents stopped arriving at her desk before class. The close-mouthed smiles disappeared. When Ruhi asked a question in class, Miss Mamta looked at her with a vacant expression on her face, her eyes blank, like she didn’t recognise her. It made Ruhi’s voice evaporate in her throat, her tongue shrivel up inside her mouth. It made her want to disappear.
Ruhi stayed up several nights, studying for an upcoming test on the Great Depression. She began one of her answers with another quote by Emily Dickinson. The Grieved – are many – I am told – There is the various Cause – Death – is but one – and comes but once – And only nails the eyes –
Ruhi had butterflies in her stomach when they got their results. She scanned the paper for the familiar red loops of approval and praise. She went through it once, then again, and the butterflies fell heavy and lifeless inside her. The only red markings were circles around a few misspelled words, the word ‘disappointing’ written in the margin, and a ‘Can do better’ by her final grade on the last page.
In the living room, Miss Mamta stubbed out her second cigarette. “You remind me so much of myself sometimes.” she said, shaking her head, “But there’s this sadness about you.” She put her glass, already almost empty, down on the desk. “Show me your hands.”
Ruhi hesitated. Miss Mamta reached out slowly, as if she was approaching a rare bird, but when her fingers brushed against Ruhi’s she pulled away like she’d been burned. Miss Mamta hugged her chest and looked at Ruhi with wide-eyed, drunken fear. Ruhi didn’t move, she focused on keeping her hands steady.
In Miss Mamta’s living room, caught in the light of the collapsing sun, the nauseating smell of tobacco and rosewater pervading, under the scrutiny of framed paintings and posters, sweating and suffocating, Ruhi finally understood why she was there.
Miss Mamta shook her head still more vigorously. “Let me help you.” She grabbed the gin bottle with one hand and Ruhi’s hands with the other. Hunched over, she looked up at Ruhi, the whites of eyes gleaming, her lips contorted into a deep frown. Her wrinkles carved themselves thick into her skin, a dying candle of a face.
Ruhi sat still. Miss Mamta poured alcohol all over her hands, slowly at first, in dashes that grew quickly into a steady stream of gin. It made a dull sound as it splattered on the floor and sank into the dari. “Let me help you.” She rubbed Ruhi’s palms —so hard Ruhi thought they’d catch fire— some stain on them only she could see. “There’s so much sadness. Let me help you.”
The room was almost completely dark. Shadows slithered and crawled across Miss Mamta’s face like poisonous insects as she continued to pour gin on Ruhi’s hands, to scrub the stubborn spot out, muttering to herself as she did. Let me help you. She threw the empty bottle aside. Let me help you.
Ruhi didn’t look at her hands. She watched Miss Mamta slide off the chair and fall to her knees into the puddle of gin. Her shoulders tense, her body shaking with silent, hiccoughing sobs, she sat huddled on the floor, head bowed, hands held up as if in prayer. She didn’t let go of Ruhi’s hands, she clutched them tightly in her own, her nails digging into Ruhi’s skin, her knuckles white with the strain of holding on. Let me help you.