Project x Project: Pressing the Record Button

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A project that I have wanted to launch for a while, but have not yet dared to test out, is to read some of my work aloud and read them as podcast-like posts for this blog. Today I am taking the plunge. I will start with a story* that I wrote for a creative writing class I did last semester, since that seemed related to the previous post I put up about academics and creativity. Enjoy, and be sure to tell me how I did in the comments!

*This story will also be posted after the jump for people who choose to or can only read it rather than hear it. Yay!

Kari learned to knit at age 32.
Her mother decided she needed this lesson. Her mother had been ill for years by that time, and was so old that she could barely make the motions anymore, but she still carved out an hour every night when she struggled and strained to teach Kari how to make each stitch. Kari would cup her fragile hands as they shook and say "Amma, slow down, repeat the last step," until she finally got it. When she got home, the ball of yarn and needles would sit in a tangled mass next to her bed, waiting for the next night when she would touch them again.
Kari's mother had known how to knit since she was 7 years old - it was just one of the many womanly skills that she was required to learn. It was like a checklist had been made and knitting was right in the center of it, between cooking and herbal remedies. But, unlike the other domestic tasks she had to perform, Kari's Amma actually enjoyed knitting and spent every free moment she had attending to it. The feel of the yarn between her fingers, the click of the wooden needles as they churned out fabric, and the look of the finished garment, ready to be displayed to the parents of any potential suitor, were what gave her the greatest happiness.
Now, as she was dying, she felt the need to impart that to Kari.
Born Karuna Rahman, Kari had always been a distracted child. Her shortened name had come about from teachers repeatedly snapping at her when she talked out of turn or was staring dreamily out of windows. She had a short attention span for anything that involved sitting still. Consequently, all the traditional Bangla things passed her by.
She had passed up cooking and singing for roller skating lessons and tennis. The weekend courses on Bengali script (always held at some "auntie's" house) ended when she started flinging pencils across the room. As a last ditch effort, they tried traditional dance classes - after one lesson, the teacher dismissed her for "lack of effort." But now, as her mother reached her final days, Kari was finally making the effort.
When they met in her mother's bedroom each evening, it was often lonely. Her sister had usually left and the caregiver had seen to her mother's nightly medication. The house would be dark when she let herself in, but a little reading lamp with a warm yellow glow from her mother’s room would alert her that her mother was still awake. The floors would creak in the silence, but Kari always gave a customary knock, knock on the door to alert her presence. Her mother would rise out of bed with a little strain and whisper, "Kamon acho?" in a wheezing voice. Kari would reply - "bhalo achi" - and take her seat in a red chair near the bed. They would begin in silence while Kari tried to figure out where she had left off in the scarf she was making, which was really just a sampling of patterns on a long strip. When she had it sorted out, her mother would take measure of her progress, feeling the fabric rather than putting on her glasses to see it, and tell her whether her stitches were too tight or loose, whether she had dropped one in the middle. Then she would begin on the lesson for the night. It would be slow and her mother would model the stitches first before unraveling them for Kari to try. Kari thought her mother would have been a remarkable teacher if she was given the chance - she forced you to work with that gentle smile of hers. But Baba would never have let his wife lift a finger. Not in this country.
Sometimes, after a particularly frustrating knot or a difficult pattern stitch, her mother would insist that she put the needles down. Being stubborn as well as impatient, Kari would try to protest. "No, Amma, let me finish this one row. I'll be done quick quick." But her mother's hand would come to her struggling fingers and snatch away the needles abruptly. Sometimes stitches would fall off, but she made no fuss about it. Almost to distract her, Kari's mother would then launch into a story.
"When I met your Baba, he was a lot older than me. He went to a private school and he already knew English pretty well. All the school girls admired him because he had the grades that made his family boast when they were published in the paper. We were small then and we thought that marriage was a far, far thing. We didn't know our parents were planning it from the start. They put us near some families and took us away from others purely out of tact - you know how they say some children make influences? We were looking for influence."
"Amma, I think you mean that some kids are bad influences. Influence has two meanings..."
"I know, I know, yes. What I was trying to tell you is that your father had good influence. The kind that my parents wanted. So when I was finishing my high school, I saw him hanging around our house more often. He was already nearing the end of his university work, so I didn't pay any attention. A year or two after I graduated though, we got the letter. Baba was already here and he already had a salary coming in! My parents were very excited. Our wedding in the village was very big, very colorful. But the part I remember the most was weeks afterward at the airport. All your aunties and uncles were there to send me off. And I was so scared, you can't imagine..."
She would break off into silence, lost in thought. And when the silence ended, the mess would be fixed.
"There!" she would cry, "Now you can start on the next row."
It was only when Kari left that she would remember her mother was sick. Driving back home, the headlights of passing cars would flash into her own windows, illuminating her pile of knitting for a brief instant. Tears would well up in her eyes, but she would choke them down, hoping that when she got into bed she would be able to sleep right away. Most times, sleep didn’t comeso easily.
Into the early morning, she would lie awake thinking. About Amma, about Baba, about how different their lives were than hers. Though she had been back to Bangladesh a few times with them, she hadn't seen what they saw. She had seen dirty children and meat with bones and colorful saris, but she had not seen it with the nostalgic wonder that her parents always did when they went back. She did not feel the instant connection with all the strange relatives. She felt curiously alone.
But when she listened to her mother speak about the days when she was a girl, a spark jumped inside her. She wanted to be part of it. She would clutch her pillow tight and pray to God to let her sleep, and in the morning she would forget everything.
On Saturday night, she came to the lit room and her mother was already asleep. Kari sat down beside her and stroked her grey hair, listened to her breath rattle a bit in her chest. She turned off the light and slipped out of the room, leaving her needles and yarn on the red chair. That night she slept easily, dreaming in vague colors and shapes.
The next morning, there was a message from her mother's caregiver on the answering machine.
"Kari, your mother has been taken to the hospital. She was in the emergency room early this morning, but they've moved her to a room. They don't think is doing too well. The doctors instructed me to call you and Shachi right away."
She was out the door before the message ended. As she fumbled for her keys, she thought of the million possible things that could be wrong. She tried to reassure herself: her breathing hadn't been that shallow last night. But the drive to the hospital was still agonizing; in the same way she prayed for restful nights, she prayed that the drive would be over and that she would be there already.
When she got there, she met Shachi outside the door.
"I canceled all my plans. I'm going to stay with Amma today. I don't know if you want to too, but..." Shachi was looking anywhere but her eyes.
"Of course I want to. How's she doing?"
"The doctors say that she might not make it through the day."
Her skin went cold. Kari nodded and looked down at the floor tiles.
"I'm going in there," Kari finally said.
"I'll meet you in a minute."
Her mother looked more fragile than ever, attached to an IV and a breathing tube. She was sleeping then, drawing in little puffs of air. Kari came down by her bedside, scanned her wrinkled face. For a moment, their lives seemed to have barely overlapped, like she was looking at an old photograph. She reached out to touch her mother's hand, and it was cold.
Beside the bed, a little bag had been packed with emergency supplies and some of her mother's things. Kari examined it for a moment, caught by something poking out through the top. Carefully, she extracted the knitted scarf she was working on, a mass of cerulean blue yarn and bamboo needles. The caretaker must have assumed it was Amma's, she thought.
Kari sat down on a chair and started wrestling with the tangled yarn. A few stitches had slipped off in transport, but she stuck the needle back through them and was careful not to add any more. With a calm hand, she started to do a basic stockinette stitch, watching the fabric curl around itself in a protective cocoon as it grew. Kari thought of her mother's life in the little anecdotes they had shared over knitting. She thought of the young girl that learned all the womanly tricks that became the smart girl shipped off to America. To a place where she didn't have to work, and where she found little company. She was as lonely as Kari was when she returned to Bangladesh.
The needles clicked together as Kari got to the end of the strand of yarn. Binding off, she looked at the hodgepodge creation that she and her mother had made. Throwing it around her neck, she leaned back in the chair, and promptly fell asleep.

More writing and stories are also available for your reading pleasure.
You may also be interested in my post The South Asian Question.