The novel centers on one hundred and eighty-five year old recluse, Pushpanayagi, who is on the brink of a transformation, and finds herself traveling back in time to 19th century and 1940s Malaya where she visits people from her past, including a British lepidopterist, Charles Tanner, his wife, Mary, and their servant Abu. Running parallel to her adventures in the past is the present timeline where we meet her neighbor, 18-year-old Maxim Cheah, who has run away from home and subsequently moved into Yalpanam—the old lady’s home—and the vegetable seller, Hadi, who visits Yalpanam from time to time.
The excerpt below features Pushpanayagi’s encounters with Charles and Mary Tanner in the 19th century, and Maxim and Hadi’s burgeoning friendship in Yalpanam during Pushpanayagi’s jaunt back in time.
‘The Monarch chrysalis hangs down, you see, Deborah. The swallowtails attach sideways.’ Charles points at rows of little cocoons behind a glass cage on the floor. He leans forward, lowers his spectacles and inspects the pupa more thoroughly. Some cocoons dangle from the horizontal branches of a potted plant that sits like a miniature jungle in the middle of the cage. Others stick to twigs, leaves, vertical branches.
He clenches his lower back and rises, grunting. ‘I dare say, my dear, I am far too young to be feeling far too old.’ He straightens his back, pushes his chest out, forces his shoulders back. ‘Stiff as a pole, my mother used to say. One must have one’s back as stiff as a pole. Good posture is a reflection of good character. Wouldn’t you say, Deborah?’ He struts towards a large teak table in the centre of the room. Leafy plants cover the length of the table. He removes a stained handkerchief from his pocket and gathers with it little brown droppings scattered on the table’s surface. He twists the tips of the handkerchief, makes a small bundle of his collection. Pushpanayagi eyes the potted plants lining the wall by the windows. There, the caterpillars are fat; they wriggle on leaves and shed bile-coloured liquid droppings.
‘My little worms will soon be migrating to those plants by the window.’ He flashes a paternal smile at the bundle. ‘They really are clever little creatures. They know precisely when it’s time for them to hide in their cocoons to gestate for the final production.’ He chuckles to himself. ‘My sweet little caterpillars. Look how much they eat. Hearty appetites! Look how fast they grow.’
Abruptly, his thin lips tighten and almost disappear into his mouth. He lowers the hand holding the bundle of droppings and adjusts his thick black-rimmed spectacles with the other. ‘And I’ll tell you one other very important detail, Deborah,’ he says, suddenly serious, ‘they take every care in the world to live for a mere few weeks. Except the Painted Lady of course. Oh, She! She is the Queen itself. Why would she be called anything other than Vanessa Cardui? Elegant, august creature. No, she must live for twelve whole months to state her superiority. There is no other way for her.’
His attention is diverted to a wall where a black green-spotted butterfly perches close to the ceiling. It flaps its wings and tucks them back in. ‘Oh, Nymphalidae of Papilionoidea! How you live in exquisite ancestry. Your bloodline is strong and pure. If they could contemplate their condition, they would be filled with pride. Don’t you think, Deborah?’
Pushpa nods enthusiastically. ‘Yes, yes, Charles. There are clearly butterflies that are better made than other butterflies. And—
‘And the better butterflies should be treated accordingly.’ He laughs joyously, the way people are when agreed with. ‘You do listen to me pontificate and ruminate and gush about these winged creatures! I dare say, Deborah, only other lepidopterists listen with charmed ears the way you do.’
‘My dear Charles.’ She stands still, hands folded at her back and looks around the room as though also searching for newly emerged butterflies. ‘I understand the importance of the work you and all these men are doing on the island. My eyes are always watching.’
‘I do wish Abu felt the way you feel about my work. My deepest desire is that today, that poor foolish man will return with the correct eggs. Abu really does behave like a buffoon sometimes. I suppose I have to expect this sort of thing from a boy raised in an illiterate village. But, really, Deborah…’ He rips off his spectacles and presses them against his chest. ‘Is it so hard to follow simple instructions? Perhaps he doesn’t understand the gravity of the situation. How would he know just how important my discovery is going to be in the world of lepidopterists? A pure red butterfly, Deborah! The world has never seen it. I shall name it the Red Tanner. One has to keep the family name going.’
A shrill muffled scream enters the room. Charles swings his spectacles back over his eyes and hurries to the wastepaper basket in a discreet corner of the room. He empties the bundles and gazes into the bin as though he is not regarding the bin at all but contemplating an object in his head. Another scream, softer, turns into a barely audible sob.
Pushpanayagi’s eyes dart from the caterpillars to Charles and back again.
‘My dear Charles. You need not trouble yourself about Mary.’ Her voice, soft, shaky, even nervous, is enough to call his attention.
He turns around, cheeks strangely bloated as though several tongues are pushing against the walls of his mouth. The blues of his eyes are firm, cold behind the thick lenses of his spectacles, watery glints flashing through the blue.
‘Oh, I am always assured when you are around, Deborah.’
‘Oh, I know. We both understand—
‘We most definitely do, despite—
‘The nonsense the island is saying—
‘Oh, they know nothing, my dear, absolutely nothing—
‘It’s easy for people to spread lies about things—
‘They know nothing about. But we are wise—
‘Very wise. In this situation, we have no choice—
‘But to be wise. It’s impossible to explain to people that Mary is only—
‘Listen to me, Charles. Mary is like a child, if you don’t mind me saying—
‘Why would I mind when even you can see that the spirits have left her?’
‘It’s true, Charles. She is like a princess who cannot see the palace she is in.’
‘What more could I want in this situation? You and Abu are doing a fine job—
‘Only one thing, Charles. Abu, he has got it in his head that somehow…’
‘Mary is simply, what’s the word you used the other day, Deborah?’
‘Oh, Mary is a passionate—
‘That’s the one. Passionate. Mary is a passionate woman who requires the company of herself and the creatures of her inventions—
‘Her imagination is big enough so she’ll never be lonely. What women like her…what people like her need is to be left alone. The best thing, Charles, is to not—
‘Encourage her. Yes, Deborah, I have been listening to your wisdom—
‘I have been going upstairs with Abu, and checking on her so you really need not trouble yourself.’
‘That’s a mark of your generosity of spirit,’ he says, his words clipped, his voice flat. He glances over at the glass cage, his face immediately softening. ‘Enough of that for now. Come, look at these beauties. The precision and order in the world of Lepidoptera have the capacity to break one’s heart when one takes the time to ruminate over the matter.’
Pushpanayagi walks towards the glass cage and kneels before it. ‘The cocoons look like the candlenuts people in the village used to use in Ceylon.’ She taps on the glass with a finger. ‘We…they put it in big pots of watery curry. That one pot could feed the whole village.’
Charles folds his arms over his chest and beams at her as though he has heard something spellbinding. ‘Surely you were the aristocrat of your village.’
She beams back. ‘Close enough,’ she giggles, tapping the top of the cage. The chrysalises hang static from branches and twigs. ‘Maybe you also are like these cocoons. When you first came to see me, you were so frightened.’
‘Those were terrible days.’ He closes his eyes and sighs. When he opens them again, the blues of his eyes are soft, dark. ‘What luck Mary had. And, indeed, me too.’
She turns towards him and watches him carefully as though checking for signs of change. He stares at the ceiling, hands in the pockets of his beige trousers, his eyes blank, lost in the image of the ceiling. He looks as though he’s sunk deep into a thought and the thought has birthed other thoughts, a whole generation.
Someone knocks lightly on the door, then knocks again, louder.
‘Come in,’ Pushpanayagi says.
Abu stumbles in holding a glass jar, his face shimmering with sweat. Bits of grass and weeds stick to his dark brown arms. A leaf the shape of a miniature boat sits on his head, close to the forehead, on the verge of falling. He shifts his head and the little leaf-boat floats downwards. ‘Tuan, so much I collect already.’ He points the jar in Charles’s direction. Tiny terracotta-coloured eggs coat parts of the jar’s interior. Charles rushes forward, takes the jar, removes his spectacles and squints. ‘I suppose so. I suppose so,’ he murmurs. He holds the jar so close his eyes begin to cross. ‘Good, good,’ Charles says, ‘now you can prepare Mem’s lunch. I’ve a lot of examining to do this afternoon.’
When Abu catches Pushpanayagi’s eye, he glowers, raises his eyebrows, and flashes a look at Charles. Pushpanayagi shakes her head, puts her palm out as if to say, ‘wait’, and, promptly, Abu clenches his fingers into fists.
‘Well, what are you waiting for, my man? The fowl isn’t going to roast itself,’ Charles says to the jar of eggs.
‘Yes, Tuan.’ Abu turns around, ambles towards the entrance and lingers by the door. ‘Whisky, Tuan?’
Charles looks up from the jar. He smiles and says, ‘your timing is always perfect, my man. The day has been far too long.’
Maxim squeezed through a gap in the wire fence close to the well and pushed out onto the grassy stretch opposite the mouth of the jungle. She stepped into a slushy pool of something. Mud, could even have been shit. She rubbed a foot against the grass, got some of the slime off, not nearly enough. What the heck. She squatted, stretched the sarong out over her knees, made a cosy tent of it. The cloth was too soft, scoured to death over so many years it was almost transparent.
Ooot. Ooot. Heee. Heee. A bird in the jungle called and called, its poor lungs. Perhaps it was a nice sound, maybe even beautiful. Sing again, sing, sing. But the bird was quiet. Sulking in a tree probably. Glum and morose. Pull face for what? Who going see you?
Why must Auntie go into those epic sleeps? At least when she was awake, the ball of silence would come. Every time Auntie slept, stuff burst through Maxim’s head like a frenzied volcano…but thank the vegetables, there was the weeding and the cobwebs to dust off from the ceiling and there was the tray to prepare in case Auntie woke up. Then there was The Practice, talking to Tomatoes and Company. Are you ready to go down to the market? Did you enjoy last night’s rain, Cucumber? How does the soil feel today, Cabbage? And when Hadi came, mucked about the house and stayed till dark, the crashing waves inside her head went down, cool and mute. Auntie said thoughts are nothing, as empty as air. Empty like time. Just ignore them. But sometimes they swirled like one of those twister tornados and who could ignore that?
She broke the squat and sat on the grass. She couldn’t ask him for more. But if she just had two more T-shirts, another pair of shorts, a pack of panties, she’d be fine. A bit of money to get some of the meals. Already, he’d bought cutlery, crockery, detergents, dinners. The dinners were cheap, from his favourite ‘mamak’ stall, but still. Ever since he realised she wasn’t leaving Yalpanam, he always came with a packet of something. After Day Ten, she stopped counting. Time didn’t seem to matter anymore. But he kept count. Yesterday was Day Twenty, today, Day Twenty-One.
We don’t take charity from people, Daddy used to say when Auntie Bonnie wanted to buy a blow-up garden pool for the family or when one of his sub-contractors dropped a shiny TV at the front gate. Self-sufficiency is the root of success. The moment you start depending on others, you’re finished. He’d never told her directly, but it was as if he meant for her to eavesdrop on his conversations with his workers, her mother, various assistants over the years.
And the charger. The stupid charger. Why had she asked Hadi for it? Obviously his phone didn’t use the same charger as hers. His was cheap, the kind Bangladeshi and Indonesian workers used. Made In China. Mother had bought hers, made sure it had all the latest functions. Of course Hadi had to get the charger specially ordered. And now she couldn’t even use the daft thing. Only later she’d realised it. When people went missing, they checked for pings. And if the Police didn’t, Mother would be sniffing on her own tracking device. Maybe, after three weeks, they would have stopped trying to find out the location of her phone but it was too risky.
She picked at the grass, plucked a nice long stalk and stroked her chin with it. She peered into the blackish green jungle. So thickly foliaged, crammed with all kinds of creatures, crawling things. Daddy talked about leeches once. How when he was younger, he hiked through a jungle and his legs were covered in blood and leeches. That was before politics absorbed him, way before his business made him big.
A silver light flashed through the dark green leafage and disappeared. It was too faint. Could have been anything. Maybe even her eyes. It had to be her eyes. Lately, she’d been seeing things, stuff moving in her side-vision. Shadows, bits of light. The light flickered again. Or maybe it was something Auntie P was creating, somehow, as she slept. The few times she woke up, the old lady looked like she’d been passing time with a ghost. But she never said which ghost or where they’d been meeting. She just looked wonderingly at the walls and smiled mysteriously as she ate and often, she ended her meals with four, five sequential burps and, ‘You’re a good girl. Thank you, child.’ That was enough. She let the old lady rest again. It didn’t seem decent to probe about the letters in the Box of Things or about the locked room on the top floor. And Hadi apparently didn’t know much at all about the house or about Auntie’s past. Five years he’d been coming, and nothing. Didn’t even know there wasn’t detergent in the house.
But he was too good, too nice so far. Visiting every day, bringing things, soaps, face creams, a tiny broken radio, including his big mouth. He always seemed a few words short of what he really wanted to say. On the brink, the edge of the cliff. Down below, words, stories, gossip, swimming in a pool of swampy gook. She didn’t want the gook, didn’t want his mouth, his knowledge. Something lived underneath his surface, very close to it, a force maybe, yes, a force with spumes that made her feel she was doing the wrong thing.
She leaned back and pressed her palms on the muddy ground. Something somersaulted in her belly, and stopped, and the old ball of silence slowly grew around her. The ball warmed her, as though she was soaking in a bath of treacle. It embraced her—Auntie must have woken up.
‘There you are. Looking for you everywhere.’
Wet rubber slippers squeaked against crunching soil. It seemed like only hours ago when he said he’d be back tomorrow.
‘Doing what here, Max?’
‘Simply lah. Wanted to see what’s out here.’
She turned around. He stood behind the fence, still in Yalpanam’s compound. ‘Come back in,’ he said.
She didn’t feel like moving. The ball of silence hugged her, tighter, warmer.
‘I have something for you,’ he said.
She looked at his hands but they were empty. ‘Not dinner?’
He pointed at the house. ‘Dinner I left inside. This one,’ he said and took a phone out of his pocket, ‘I have an extra one. Since you’re not using the charger, better you use this. Got data already.’
She stared at the phone, her heart pounding frantically. ‘But I cannot take that from you.’
He pushed his hand through the fence. The phone glared back at her. ‘I’m not using it. At least you can use it to play when you’re bored.’
Somehow, she felt that he was lying, that he’d bought the phone. If he’d had it all this while, why did he wait three weeks to give it to her?
Her throat tightened. A cold tingle spread up her neck, her cheeks and paused at her eyes. Tears fell. They fell so quickly she had no way of stopping them or wiping them off before he could see.
‘Come.’ He gestured for her to take the phone. Very slowly, she touched it but he nodded and she took the phone. ‘Good,’ he said. He kept his hand through the fence as though waiting for her to take it.
‘Are you coming back?’ he said.
Her voice had gone into the black space within. She nodded.
‘Take my hand. I’ll pull you up. If you’re hungry, I bought roti canai.’
She grabbed his hand. In one swift motion, he pulled her up. She squeezed through the hole in the fence and went with him back into Yalpanam’s compound.
Pushpanayagi hesitates at the bottom of the spiral staircase, one foot on the first step, watching Abu trudging his way up, his back hunched. The crockery on the tray in his hands clatters. He pauses, grips the railing, attempts to stop the rattling by trying to remain still but the cup and the saucer and the spoons tremble and he turns his head, beckons her. The light from the oil lamp in her hand is bright enough to illuminate his pained face. He pleads with his eyes. Come, come, they say, come quick. She follows the curves of the steps, spiralling, swirling, twirling, whirling upwards.
A meek voice from above calls out, ‘Abu, sweet Abu?’
The tray in Abu’s hands quivers so violently that he has to place it down on a step. He raises his arms and folds them against the back of his head as if to quell the tremor.
Pushpanayagi taps him on the back and he picks up the tray and together they tread lightly up the staircase.
‘Charlie, my love, have you come?’ The voice almost chirpy, like a bird about to burst into song.
Abu nudges the half-open door with his foot. ‘Sorry, Mem. Sorry.’ He walks quickly to the four-poster bed and sets the tray on the table beside it. He slaps the edges of the mattress as if to dust it.
Mary raises a blanket over her chest. She tugs at it, pulls it close to her body. Locks of golden curls fall over her shoulders. She sits up, brings her knees close to her chest and tightens her grasp of the blanket. At the foot of her bed, balls of crumpled paper lie strewn. ‘I’m ever so pleased to see you,’ she says. Her voice quavers, soft, polite.
Abu relights a candle fixed in a tall, finely embossed candlestick. The candle flame strong enough, he tips another candle over the flame, lighting it also. Pushpanayagi steps away from the door, one foot in to the room.
‘Pushpa, my love, is that you?’ Mary dips her head, attempting to catch a glimpse of Pushpanayagi’s face.
Pushpanayagi abruptly raises the lamp to her face, bares her teeth in a grin, and just as abruptly lowers the lamp.
A dusky shadow falls over Mary’s face. She gasps for air, clasps her neck. Abu extends a teacup over the bed, but as the gasping quickens, he hurriedly places the teacup back on the tray and fumbles in his shirt pocket.
Mary turns to face the heavy dun-coloured curtains covering the windows. ‘All day yesterday, when nobody came, she spoke to me.’ She caresses her throat as if coaxing the words to the surface. Her eyes linger on the curtains that resemble swarthy ominous cloaks, then, with a slight shake of her head, she looks up at the stained glass window above the curtained windows. The Virgin Mary’s face, cast in the shadows of the night, still bears the daytime gaze of sorrow.
‘Pushpa,’ Mary whispers. She fidgets with the blanket, snivels as she gazes at the stained glass window like a person bereft of hope. One fast tear falls down her cheek, a second one follows. She reaches for a handkerchief lying squashed beside her on the bed. ‘Our Lady of Sorrows listened to me all day.’ She dabs her nose with the handkerchief and wipes her eyes in deft, gentle strokes. ‘When Abu only deposited the trays and both times said he was in a terrible hurry, I knew it was going to be one of those days. Abu, you mustn’t think I am chiding you. Only, I get so frightfully lonely and frightened up here. The mouse…’ She squeezes her eyes shut and shakes her head like a child rejecting instruction. ‘The mouse,’ she sobs, ‘even the mouse has died and left me. He used to poke his sweet little twitching nose through the sheets and even permitted me to touch his darling head with a finger. What happened to him? I sense you want to ask, Pushpa, but you are far too dignified and respectful to do such a vulgar thing. But I will tell you. In the end, we are all compelled to confess, aren’t we?’ She half-heartedly flings the handkerchief beside her, makes the sign of the cross and looks at Pushpanayagi. ‘Bless me Sister for I have sinned. It has been one quarter of an hour since my last confession. Yesterday, I committed a grave sin. In the morning, I heard the sad sound of crunching gravel. At first I thought it was Charlie going out, leaving me once again. Then I realised. Those were no ordinary horses. The Four Horseman had come. I could smell it, Sister, my holy Sister. The pungent force of death. The dawning of the Apocalypse. I screamed and screamed but no one came.’
‘Not true, Mem,’ Abu says, ‘I come five time yesterday. All time Mem ring bell, Abu is coming.’
Silence ripples through the room.
Mary hugs her knees and rocks herself back and forth. ‘And so,’ she says, ‘I knew the Devil had cursed us all. That we had faltered when we dirtied this land with blood that was not ours to spill. We denied God’s grace when we murdered the elves and angels of the jungles. The Lord has abandoned our mission. The Lord has abandoned us!’ She pulls the blanket over her head.
Abu leaps to her side, perches on the edge of the bed and gently removes the blanket from Mary’s head.
‘Mem is ok. Drink tea, Mem.’
‘Oh, dear Abu!’
Pushpanayagi puts the lamp on the floor, and heads for the tray of tea things. Abu watches her encouragingly, but she does not look at him, only forward, at the glinting floral teacup, at the little copper spoon, at the ball of opium the size of goat droppings. She spoons the pill into the teacup, stirs as soundlessly as she is able to, and holds the cup over the bed.
‘Drink this, Mary.’
Mary, eyes fixed on the Virgin’s face, absentmindedly picks up the handkerchief beside her on the bed, daintily dabs her nose with it and as though she has seen or heard something inaccessible to the other two in the room, she stops sobbing and starts to laugh. A noiseless laugh, accompanied by heaving shoulders, strains her face until the strain reaches an imperceptible limit and the laughter becomes a shriek and the shriek gradually dies into a knowing smile. ‘And so,’ she says, ‘to appease my Lord, I spoke to the Mother of His Son. Thus it was. Therefore, thereafter, it was so. And the Lord said it was so. I stabbed the mouse with my penknife and tossed him out the window. Then I wrote letters to Charlie.’ She points a shivering finger at the balls of paper at the foot of the bed. ‘Our Lady said to me, Blessed Child, if your husband is a true husband, he will not follow the Devil’s plan. He will not murder butterflies so that they may be pressed into books, their ghosts trapped in the astral sphere with no salvation for their souls. He denies life. Most Blessed Child, if your husband is a true husband, he most certainly will not tear you away from your three daughters, their sweet young souls alone and frightened in England. If your husband is a true husband, he will at least…’ She pauses and clutches at the neckline of her nightgown, her eyes glinting with tears. ‘He will at least sit by your side and soothe you. And so it was. Therefore, thereafter. The Lord hath spoken through the mother of his son. When Charlie is asleep, one aims well with the penknife. It is the heart one must target after all is said and done. The heart is the seat of this life and the one after.’
Abu nods at Pushpa and swiftly, she makes her way around the bed and hands over the cup.
‘Mem, you stop now. Drink tea.’
But Mary’s attention is fixed on the sorrowful, compassionate face of the Virgin. She whispers, ‘Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you as yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend; that I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me.’
Pushpa glares at the soft golden curls, at the sky blue eyes glittering with tears, at the small, perfectly aquiline, perfectly pink nose and, as though she cannot stand any longer to look at Mary’s trembling, sniffling, whimpering form, blurts out, ‘Stop feeling sorry for yourself, Mary, and drink the tea!’
But Mary, momentarily deaf or unaffected by outbursts as spiced with emotion as hers, blinks at the face of kindness on the window, at the face that knows exactly what is in her heart, and averts her gaze only when Abu tugs at the sheets, his habit of gaining her attention which she has early on learned to respond to.
Regaining her composure, Pushpanayagi says, ‘It’s best you drink the tea and rest, Mary. You shouldn’t be talking too much.’
Abu taps on the mattress, another method he has invented to communicate with Mary, and slowly, she lowers her eyes; her mouth relaxes, and her breathing resumes its natural rhythm. She smiles, nods at the cup, and whispers to Abu, ‘Yes, I think I shall have tea now, and then I shall sleep. I am ever so tired. Have you been this tired, Abu?’
He takes the cup from Pushpanayagi and holds it to Mary’s lips. ‘Mem, I know this kind of tire. Tire like never sleep for many, many year.’
‘Yes, yes,’ Mary murmurs sleepily, ‘it does feel like that. It feels like my eyes have been open for centuries.’
‘Like that, Mem.’ He lifts the cup to her lips and she drinks thirstily.
‘It’s the fatigue,’ she says, delicately licking tea off her lower lip, ‘of coming this far and realising that something has been missing all this time, taken from you without your knowledge. Something that feels so far, far away and yet, without it, life is so devastatingly empty. What is one to do?’
Published with permission from Penguin Random House SEA.
Shivani Sivagurunathan teaches creative writing at the University of Nottingham Malaysia. Her first book, Wildlife on Coal Island, was published by UPM Press in 2011 and republished by HarperCollins India in 2012. Her short stories and poems have been published in numerous international journals including Cha: An Asian Literary Magazine, Agenda, Construction Literary Magazine, and many others. Her first novel Yalpanam is due for publication in 2021.