‘The Teeth on the Bus Go Round and Round’ was shortlisted for the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
About a week after he died, Appa sauntered towards Amma’s closed second floor window and whistled loudly with his fingers in his mouth. Still whistling, he clambered up the ladder, leapt lightly into her dreams and began to do improbable things: mixed martial arts fights to the death in a cage; driving a blood red Ferrari through a stop light with a hooker on his lap; sitting in the audience of a reality TV dance show, cheering and clapping as young children on stage, with excessive makeup and bling, sang, danced and thrust their hips suggestively at the camera. He rested on his haunches while gnawing at the entrails of a groaning, dying deer, pausing from time to time to look up, smile and wink at her through blood-soaked bifocals.
“It was disgusting,” Amma woke me up and told me. “Your father is now a repulsive man.” Then she went back to sleep, the pills quickly pulling her under. I lay awake and uncomfortable. The Appa I knew had been very different.
He had been fifty when he passed away. A physics professor at the University of Pondicherry for the last twenty-three years of his life. He spent Monday to Friday living alone in Pondicherry then came home to us in Chennai for the weekend. He had wanted us to stay back in Chennai because it was a bigger city — the schools were better and his family was close by. He was a simple man with simple needs: a good book, South Indian vegetarian cooking, intelligent conversation with a few close friends, and visits to his mother and brothers on Sunday.
Squinting at me through thick lenses, he would bleat out long lectures on the dangers of smoking and drinking. He was forever chiding me to master high school physics, chemistry and mathematics because there was no future in the world for a middle class Indian boy who did not excel in these subjects. He wouldn’t buy a scooter and brave the roads of Chennai because he did not want to die from a head injury. How ironic that he died from a brain tumor in the end.
You would think that such a man would, in his younger days, have quietly waited for his parents to find him the right girl from the same community and then marry her. Instead, he ran away with my mother much to the displeasure of her parents and to the surprise of his. After doing one bold thing in his life, he felt he had used up his quota of luck. His life after his wedding was completely devoid of risk.
Now he was dead.
Later that night he visited Amma again — this time with a Panama hat placed at a rakish angle on his head, smiling and winking as he smoked a cigarette. He blew a heart of smoke in her direction and followed it up with an arrow. He then squatted and ground the glowing tip on a used condom that lay on the floor. The burning latex smelt of everything forbidden. Middle class vegetarians in Chennai never did anything forbidden. Amma woke up and nestled close to me.
“Hold me,” she whimpered, and then told me about the condom. I blushed. She placed her head on my chest. I put a self-conscious arm around her shoulder and executed the series of instructions that my brain gave: raise one hand, place it on her shoulder and gently pull her in. I stared at the ceiling fan.
A car growled softly as it entered the street, its headlights directed momentarily at our second floor bedroom window as it negotiated a speed breaker. The beam projected the shadow of the window grill onto the opposite wall — a black lattice on a yellow background. Nine along the length and six along the breadth made fifty-four squares. There was a time when I would have counted each individual square. Now I simply multiplied the row and the column and felt evolved.
Who was I kidding? The holy trinity of physics, mathematics and chemistry made me feel like an idiot. The board exams were less than three weeks away and I still knew nothing. My classmates would blaze down the runway and takeoff towards countries with clean roads, low but educated populations and high standards of living. I would splutter towards the end of the runway and then sit there blinking, dazed and confused in the sunlight.
As the light of the car faded, I noticed a curved smudge of dirt on the face of the ceiling fan. As the fan whirled it looked like a brown street dog furiously chasing its tail. My perfectionist mother, the one who spent her weekends up on the stepladder cleaning the fans with gritted teeth, was now shaking soundlessly in my arms.
She had always been the more alive of the two of us. She quivered at the world’s injustices like the plucked string of a sitar. She was sensuously aware of life’s pleasures and equally horrified at its capacity to maim and hurt. She would fight and demand what was rightfully hers; be triumphant in her success and bitter in her failures.
I led a more anesthetized existence, unwilling to thrust myself into the world. I preferred the shadows where I was less likely to embarrass myself.
I remembered when I was not more than eight; a man had thrust his hand into my mother’s purse on a crowded bus. She caught hold of his wrist, boxed his ears, kneed him in the groin and tore his collar while I stared at the floor embarrassed by the unblinking stares of other men. Then she yelled at the same men while the other women roughed up the pickpocket a little more and kicked him off the bus.
I remembered an earlier time, perhaps when I was six, when my mother was up on the stepladder cleaning the blades of the fan in the hall. I was in the bathroom watching with strange fascination as my grandmother’s maroon nine-yard sari churned inside the top loading washing machine.
The nine-yard sari is different from the more common six-yard sari. The six-yard sari is a multipurpose miracle. It can be worn to high-power meetings at the office, to tend to the pressure cooker in the kitchen, to go shopping at the market or to work in the fields.
Worn a certain way, it can play havoc with the male mind: a gossamer curtain fluttering coyly over the navel; draped sensuously around the body, outlining the bosom and the buttocks while revealing the delicious curve of the waist. The nine-yard sari on the other hand, sent out only one message: I am a respectable, pious woman with only God on my mind.
My father’s mother wore nine-yard saris. It wrapped around the body and shoulders completely obscuring the curves beneath. Too large to be washed with the other clothes, it had its own private forty-five-minute cycle. I watched the sari — thick, wet and heavy — as it groaned and drowned in a barrel of soapy water. There was something hypnotizing about the hum of the washing machine and the slow, weary revolution of sodden cloth. On an impulse, I dipped my arm up to the elbow into the warm sudsy water of the barrel. The bubbles fizzed on my arm. I smiled. Then the sari, so placid until then, suddenly gripped my arm like an anaconda. It slithered and coiled around my fingers, my wrist, my forearm and then slowly but surely began to twist. I screamed as the cloth wrenched my arm. Amma fell off the ladder in shock and twisted her ankle.
“Aiyyo!” she cried.
“Aiyyayo!” I yelled as my grandmother’s sari began to swallow me.
She scrambled to her feet, limped hurriedly to the bathroom and yanked the plug. The machine stopped with a jerk. I whimpered, shoulder deep in my grandmother’s sari.
“Are you okay?” she gasped.
I nodded. She stroked my cheek and then tapped me lightly on the side of my head. “Idiot!”
She hopped on one leg and uncoiled the sari from my arm. I shook and inhaled a mixture of snot and tears.
Now, as I held her, I could feel a nameless dread snake its way through her body. The keening desperation of loss. The total annihilation of her life as she knew it. I sensed it all and felt weak inside. There my mother was, a child crying in my arms. I was at the moment protector, provider and navigator. The role felt uncomfortable — artificial. A mask of responsibility pressed against my unwilling face. Seventeen is not a good age for manhood.
There was a ceremony on the thirteenth day after Appa’s death, a ceremony that signified that he had finally left earth to join his Gods and his Brahmin ancestors at Vaikuntam. Amma had stumbled through it in a daze, clutching the hands of those who came, weeping by herself in the balcony or silently staring at the clock in the hall. Then the day after the ceremony ended. Everyone who had remained left muttering excuses about work, children and exams. Each departure caused Amma heartache and tears. The last one to leave had been Govind Chitappa, my father’s younger brother. His departure had particularly disturbed Amma. Govind Chitappa shared Appa’s mannerisms. He had his smile and his gait. He had been with us for over a month. She held his hand and asked him to stay longer. He shook his head sadly and picked up his bags. He was a dentist in Goa and he had patients waiting.
“Stay, stay another week,” she whimpered and tried to drag him back.
“I’ll visit soon; I promise,” he mumbled and pulled his hand away. The door closed. Then it was just Amma and me.
I went back to my room, opened a few textbooks and stared at the writing. I wanted to puree the pages and drip-irrigate the dry dusty plains of my brain. I was the son of a school biology teacher and a college physics professor, yet my intellectual inheritance was an empty wind whistling between my ears. My crotch stubbornly demanded that I masturbate. Masturbate because it was pleasurable. Masturbate because it could be done on autopilot. Masturbate because for five minutes it let me forget my difficulties. Therefore I masturbated, willing imaginary attractive women to bend and curve to my pleasure. They came hesitantly and flickered the entire time they were there.
When it was over, I washed my hands and dried them as best as I could on the damp towel on the rack that had not been changed in weeks. The eyes that stared back at me from the mirror were dull. Reality started throbbing at the back of my head. Death. Death. Death. Exams. Exams. Exams.
My mother taught in the same school I studied in from the sixth standard all the way to the twelfth. It was pure torture for us. Nothing my teachers told me seemed to get through or feel important enough to retain. Paralyzed by doubt and insecurity, I drifted listlessly towards my final board exams.
For a brief period, my parents sent me to tuition classes. That did not help. I wafted along, embarrassing my mother — whose colleagues made comments behind her back — and scaring my principal with the very real prospect of being the first student in the long glorious history of the school to fail the board exams. In the past, similar students had been shoved towards the door and roughly asked to try another school, but because my mother was beloved, I was reluctantly allowed to carry on.
Did I miss my father? I did not know. The question seemed too large, too complicated to answer. Was I going to disappoint him in the board exams? Most definitely so.
The evening before I returned to school, my grandfather sent for me. Relations between my mother’s parents and my father’s had always been frosty. They had wanted her to marry the son of a prominent industrialist and she had run away with a small town physics professor. I was the idiot product of that union.
My grandmother had stayed home but my grandfather had come to the cremation and not uttered a word. He was a thin stern man with an erect military bearing, who believed that discipline and hard work were all one needed to manage the difficulties the world threw at you. Orphaned at the age of three, and passed from relative to relative until he was sixteen, he found a job at BSNL and climbed the government corporate ladder until he headed the local telephone department. When he built his house with his own money, he did not trust the mason with the cost of the raw material. He bought the cement and sand after negotiating with the wholesaler himself, and would travel fifteen kilometers back and forth each day with the sacks piled up on his bicycle carrier until the house was completed. He had no patience with people who dilly-dallied, made mistakes or did not follow orders.
Now he sat me down.
“How are the preparations for your exams coming along?” He stared at me with his piercing eyes that sat below two formidable wiggling cotton caterpillars that he used for eyebrows. A deep groove ran between his brows. I grinned uncertainly. He did not smile back.
“Do you expect to score a hundred in each subject? Because nothing less than a centum will do.”
I made a non-committal noise. He rubbed his palms and looked up at the ceiling fan. “I’ve been thinking about your mother.” He stood up and went to the bedroom window. He wore a blue cotton shirt and an elegant veshti. He gazed outside and said nothing for a few minutes. Then he turned around. “Your mother needs a distraction, something to do so that she does not go out of her mind.”
My grandfather stuck his hand down his throat and pulled out his teeth. I stared at him horrified. His face had deflated in front of my eyes. He was an old man with a soggy, spent balloon for a mouth.
“Does not fit as well as it used to,” his mouth gulped, slurped and quivered gummily. “Hurts to talk or eat.”
The skin below his jaw hung slack then jiggled. He put the dentures back into his mouth and it was like watching a video of a collapsing building in reverse. Once again his face had lines and edges.
“I had my dentist fit me out for a new pair.” He rubbed his jaw and winced. “Bloody expensive. I looked at the bill and asked him whether my teeth had been cast from melted gold!” He grimaced and shook his head.
“I want your mother to pick them up from the dentist this week. It took him over a month to get them ready. I want her to pay me a visit with my teeth. Then we will talk about what she wants to do now with her life. Can she run the house on a teacher’s income? Can she pay for your college? Your father was not a rich man. I do not want her to suffer.”
“I never knew you had dentures,” I blurted. He paused and considered my question.
“Have had them for twenty years. With these I can gnaw the bark off a tree if I want to.”
“Can I see them?”
“Here.” He pulled them out again, wiped them with a towel and handed them to me. I took them in my hand and examined them closely. Each incisor, canine, premolar and molar was a work of art, each tooth a white gem set in a roseate foundation. I wanted to ask him how he brushed his teeth and whether he could tell if there was a strand stuck between them. Why did he never smile even when in possession of such perfection?
“Very nice!” I looked at them one last time and, as I handed them back the dentures slipped from my palm, fell soundlessly through the air and shattered on the ground. Lacquered pieces of pink and white littered the floor. A single jagged tooth scooted out of the door and into the hall where my grandmother stepped on it and yelped.
My grandfather looked somberly at the floor, his mouth a dour listless mass of flesh. He shook his head and mumbled. “Please ask your mother to hurry.”
I relayed the request to my mother and it was as if a tiny ray of sunshine had been allowed to penetrate the gloom. “Appa,” she whispered, “my Appa will help me.”
“There’s nothing worse than the sympathy of married women!” she spat, the next evening after her first day back in school after Appa died. I looked up from the practice test paper and gave up trying to answer the question it posed.
She simmered for a few minutes and then went to freshen up. She had her coffee and then took the bus to the dentist’s office. She picked up the wrapped dentures, thanked him and walked to the bus stop. She got into the bus, stared listlessly out of the window, missed her stop and then got off the bus. She walked back home in a daze, prepared dinner and opened the handbag. The teeth were missing.
When at home, my father would wear a faded white vest with faint stains and a white veshti below. The veshti was almost transparent from overuse and it gently brushed the floor as he shuffled around the house.
“Shall I ask the maid to stop coming?” my mother would hiss through gritted teeth. “Why pay her salary when you can walk around the house and swab the floors clean?”
In response, Appa would shrug and attempt to tighten the veshti by lifting his vest, tucking the bottom edge under his chin and flashing whoever was in the house as he opened the veshti and gave everyone a brief glimpse of his underwear. He would then wrap the veshti higher and tighter around his stomach. Then he would let go of the vest. The veshti would hold for a few minutes before making a slow but determined journey back towards the ground. I never dared to wear a veshti as I associated it with a certain middle class, middle-aged tiredness. I also carried a deathly fear that it would unravel around my pencil waist, slither down my legs and leave me exposed in front of an unimpressed audience.
Yet when Appa came to me to my in dream that night, he wore a black cowboy hat, black cowboy boots, shiny leather pants, white suspenders stretched over a taut muscular body and a tattoo on his back, of a winking hooded cobra whose tongue pleasured a woman.
On his ears were concentric rings that jingled in unison with the spurs on his boots as he walked around the house. I heard him and felt comforted. He came into my room and sat down next to me. This ridiculous caricature was now my father. It felt good to sit next to him. Perhaps that is how I knew I missed him.
“Ah! Have to use the bathroom!” he grinned and left. I did not want him to go away so I stood outside the bathroom door.
I heard him unbuckle his belt and sit down. He whistled and then stopped.
“I often wondered you know…” his voice came to me muffled through the door. “Is a good satisfying shit the same as anal sex? ”
He came out and I knew he had not bothered to wash his hands. He walked back into my room, picked up my mock physics exam paper and studied it with a sardonic smile on his face. He pursed his lips, dropped it on the floor then stood up and began to walk out of the room. “You’re going to fail…”
Darkness began to swirl around me. I called out to him and beseeched him to come back. He turned around and smiled evilly. His teeth glowed white and the darkness dissipated “unless you make a simple phone call.”
The telephone rang the next evening and I heard my grandfather’s voice snuffle wetly through the speaker. “I drank a dosa chutney milkshake for dinner because of you. Do you know what it is like to consume something that is meant to be hot and crispy through a tumbler? Where are my teeth?”
“Tomorrow. She will come tomorrow,” I quavered.
My mother blanched.
The telephone rang again the evening after. “Your grandmother is limping around the streets telling the neighbors that I bit her foot. Where are my teeth?”
My mother sagged. She stared intently at the floor as if trying to make up her mind. Then she stood up straight. “Come with me.”
“The physics exam is tomorrow.”
“What are you going to accomplish in two hours that you haven’t in seven years? Come. I cannot do this alone.”
I went with her.
Depending on how you looked at it, Amma’s plan was either bizarrely straightforward or straightforwardly bizarre. She had taken the 23C bus from the dentist’s office. Therefore, she would board every 23C bus in the city and search both over and under the seats until she found the teeth.
I tried not to turn away when she explained her intention in strident tones to the bus conductors and drivers taking their rest at the terminus. They scratched and shook their heads. She turned around before waiting for their permission.
The driver closest to me caught my hand as I began to make my exit. “Listen brother. How do you know it is on the bus in the first place? What if there had been a pickpocket on the bus that day? Some rash idiot who did not know what he had stolen?”
“I don’t know,” I mumbled and pulled away.
His voice followed me on the way out “The numbers on the buses are not fixed. You could stick your head under the seat of a 23C sitting in the Adyar terminus right now but someone could be having his ass bitten on a 47A in West Mambalam as we speak…”
I walked to the 23C bus and climbed inside. Passengers stared curiously at Amma as she crawled on her hands and knees. I joined her.
We crawled along the dusty length of the bus and prayed for a skeletal smile to greet us in the darkness.
“What has my life come to?” she whispered to me as I craned my neck. “Why am I here?”
“No. Where is your father now? What is he doing? I need to know!”
The passengers stared at us.
“He was supposed to retire in a few years! Supposed to stop this mad back and forth between Chennai and Pondicherry! Twenty years spent sitting on a government bus. He should have come home. He should have lived in a house where he could have been looked after. We had plans to travel, buy a car — to finally start living our lives after two decades of living apart. And now what is left? Where did all that slogging take us? He is dead and I am alone!”
Perhaps I should have held my mother, maybe given her a hug, but she was so fierce, so angry, so bursting with rage that it made more sense to hug an exploding gas cylinder. I sat there on the floor and screwed my face into an expression of virtuous understanding.
The conductor boarded the bus and threw us out. We walked back home slowly and now I thought of what Appa told me in that dream.
The next day we took the evening bus to my grandfather’s house. My mother was nervous. I held her hand, stared out of the window and felt a strange fierce joy in my heart.
My grandfather sat outside, hidden behind the evening paper. The headlines read: “Papers leaked! Board exams across the country to be postponed by six months!”
In tinier font: “Late last evening the Central Board of Secondary education received an anonymous phone call that all copies of all the papers had been leaked.”
We heard the sound of grinding and chewing. My grandfather abruptly folded the paper and saw us. He smiled and dazzled us with his teeth. He nodded at the two chairs next to him. We sat down confused.
He offered us a plate of murukku. “Freshly made by your grandmother. Nice, hot and crisp. Enjoy!”
“The dentures…” I began.
“Left at the counter of the dentist’s office. I went and picked it up myself. The state of mind your mother was in, I don’t blame her.”
My grandmother limped out of the house and looked at us with approval. My mother leaned into her father.
He put his arm around her and together they were silent.
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