Jan FitzGerald (nee Coad) is a long established NZ poet and writer, with publication in all the mainstream NZ literary journals since the 1970s, and in The London Magazine, Orbis and Acumen, UK. Jan works as a full-time artist.
“A certificate won’t make you a writer, nor will writing courses or your friends’ appraisals. Reading helps, if you want a writing distraction, but the only thing to do is listen to editors and write, write, write”
All the paper hoops I’ve had to jump through, just to get my husband’s ashes on the plane…. Lucky the crematorium’s tag inside got me through security and they’ve notified cabin crew. Imagine having to open them! Hasina rolls her eyes. I am losing my brains.
She pushes hard against the headrest to relieve the tension in her neck, resting her hand on the box wrapped in brown paper on the window seat beside her.
The flight attendant strolls down the aisle checking seat belts.
My heart is like a moth fluttering.
The flight attendant looks across to the window seat, crouches down and whispers, “We need you to secure your husband, please.”
Hasina nods and locks the seatbelt around the box, blushing. She wraps her sari around herself and sinks into the seat with a sigh.
I should not have given in to the pressure to pay for a separate seat. I won’t have this kind of money in the future. But it gives Asrani dignity. Asrani’s brothers would say it is not right for an Indian woman to hold her husband on her knee.
Hasina looks across to the far window in time to see the last mountains of the South Island as the plane banks away from the coast of New Zealand. The woman in the aisle seat leans forward, blocking her view. She beams at Hasina.
“You know you can put your present on the aisle seat and sit by the window. They don’t mind.”
Hasina doesn’t answer.
There is a slight change in the thrum of the engine, as the plane drops below a layer of dark cloud. The captain makes a brief explanatory announcement. The woman takes the silence afterwards as her cue.
“Going to a wedding, are you? That’s a lovely white sari.”
Hasina fossicks through the brochures in the seat pocket. “Land of the Maharajahs,” “Down the Ganges,” “Essential India.” Even “Emergency Instructions” will do….
Perhaps I should have worn black for mourning. I am a New Zealand citizen now. Both of us. No, that would never work for a Hindu widow attending her husband’s Antyesti rites. She feels a tear trickling behind her sunglasses. She fumbles to put back the brochure and dabs her cheeks with a handkerchief as if feeling the heat.
The man across the aisle lays his hand on his wife’s arm.
“Sharon, leave it … The woman obviously doesn’t speak English.”
I am like a mad woman. One minute calm, next minute crying.
Hasani pulls the sari across her chest and rolls the beads of the greenstone necklace her friend Karen has given her for good luck.
Why did I email Amrita? Was it not the right thing to do, to notify Asrani’s family? She shakes her head. I should never have told them I was bringing his ashes back. If Asrani’s wishes had not been to have his ashes buried in the park where we met, I would not be doing this! And there would never have been all the paperwork if he had died on a visit to India and I am taking his ashes back to New Zealand. Oh what am I saying? I am surely losing my brains. Why did I agree for them to meet me? I have made a big mistake! Even Vishnu cannot help me now, no matter what my prayers.
She pulls at a thread on the seat beside her. They will talk among themselves and in front of me, as they always do. They will talk as if I am not there. They will take over everything. Asrani, why are you not here to stand up for me as you always did? She glowers at the box. Even your patients crying at the hospital say it wasn’t fair that their doctor should die and they still live.
Sanjeev is drumming his fingers on his knees when Hasina emerges from customs. She puts her arms out to embrace him but he bends down to the bags and boxes.
“Follow me. You were a very, very long time!”
Hasina follows the white shirt and dhoti through the jostle of bright colours.
I have forgotten how tall is Sanjeev. He is head and shoulders taller than these other men. She dabs her brow with her handkerchief. Oh, so many lovely cooking smells, smiling faces.
A beggar gives her a flower when he sees the white sari. Hasina smiles and thanks him. She has no rupees.
Sanjeev wrestles Hasina’s luggage into the boot of his old taxi. One box, covered in old paper with a white ribbon, he removes and locks between his feet. It had not come all these miles to be stolen in India! Finally, wiping his brow with the back of his hand, he slams the boot shut, weighs the gold parcel in his hands and places it tenderly on the front seat. Hasani notices he still wears the pair of sandals Asrani bought him. They have been repaired and resoled many times. His hair, not quite all tucked up into his turban at the back as it should be, is grey and wiry. He smells of cigarettes.
“Get in!” he says to Hasina, opening the back door and thrusting back a man who tries to push his way into the taxi. “And don’t talk! I never want to hear your voice. Ever! You will never, never talk while you are here. You understand?”
How can such a man possibly be Asrani’s brother? Hasina’s eyes fill with tears. Sanjeev tries to start the car a second time.
“You thought you were so fine marrying a doctor and living in New Zealand, didn’t you?”
The car fires and a cloud of oily smoke makes Hasina cough.
“You got above yourself, I think. And how did becoming NZ citizen make you better? Without Asrani you will be a nothing again! If you hadn’t taken away my brother he would never have caught that stupid disease.”
At breakfast Amrita sits across from her. A big woman, she does not have the high cheek bones and looks of her sister-in-law. Her face is pitted and blotched. Her eyes are dead. Sanjeev has already announced that Hasina is not to speak, so Amrita ignores her.
Hasina notices Amrita’s white sari has a smudge of jam near the neckline.
I am not going to tell her. This is one good thing about being silenced. Let someone else lean forward and drop the news in those big, ugly ears while the priest is performing the Antyesti.
They eat without a word.
“So, tomorrow is the day,” Amrita says, pushing her plate away and looking slyly at her husband.
Hasina continues stirring her tea. She has heard their plans in the night, not that they were trying to hide any of it from her.
I am caught in a spider’s web, but I will not show tears in front of them. Asrani would not want that. I will pray to Vishnu for help.
“Tomorrow we travel to scatter Asrani’s ashes on the Ganga,” Sanjeev says to Hasina. “Everything has been arranged with the priest and the elder members of family, prior to your arrival. You may come with us, Hasina.”
“I don’t think so,” Hasina says. “I don’t wish to stay here any longer. My duty is finished in bringing Asrani’s ashes to you.”
“So,” Sanjeev smirks, lifting the last of Hasina’s luggage on to the weighing machine. “I will now bid goodbye to my brother’s wife. I do not want another wait for customs. I have my brother’s ashes to attend to.” He nods at her, turns quickly on his heel, pushes aside some young children and hurries out the exit door.
The plane lumbers away from the terminal and across the tarmac, turning to face into the wind. It pauses, shuddering, as the engines begin to roar.
Hasina strokes the box on the window seat beside her.
I am on the back of a tiger!
The plane accelerates.
Hasina’s tiger leaps into the sky.
As land tumbles away beneath her, she leans across to the window and whispers goodbye to India.
Sorry, Sanjeev, that you have to scatter my gift of bhuja mix on the Ganga!
First published takahe 85