Take Me Back
written by: Appadurai Muttulingam
translated by: Priyamvada Ramkumar
He had only meant it as a casual question, but Mithila didn’t care for it. As usual, she didn’t say a word, but her face contorted so much she looked like a stranger. Fastening the fourth button of the overcoat with her right hand, she picked up her handbag with her left. If she stepped out, the fight would not come to an end. It would languish in this manner for two days.
He wasn’t supposed to ask her anything. Even though she knew everything about him. “What do you study at the university?” he had once hazarded. It was an ordinary enough question. They had been living together for six months in a one-room apartment on the seventh floor of a towering twenty-one-floor building smack in the center of Toronto. Could he not ask what she studied? She replied, “I’m researching the property of wetness in water.” She was mocking him. That he works as a commonplace assistant in a supermarket instead of studying further is a matter of shame for her, and this was her way of letting him know. It didn’t matter that it was his pay that covered the rent for the entire apartment. Or that she was footing only half the bill for food and other household expenses.
Do they at least share equally in the task of cooking, you ask? No luck there either. He would cook whatever he was familiar with. How was he to know what kind of food she liked? He would rustle up something fresh every day, for he hated leftovers. Mithila knew that. After all, before moving in with her, he had run away from home, miffed that his mother had served him the previous day’s food. It had dawned on him only later that it wasn’t reason enough for a nineteen-year-old boy to leave home.
She had placed her hand on the doorknob. Her backpack hung on her back. “What have I said to make you so mad? You’d better answer before you leave. I only asked why you stuffed a bagel bought ages ago into a Ziploc bag, only to thrust it into another Ziploc bag and then into another, just to leave it in the fridge? How difficult is it to answer this simple question? Why should we increase the sale of Ziploc bags on our paltry income?”
The first month of living with her was one of immense delight. When she raised her hand and scratched herself, when she yawned, when she brushed her teeth, she shone with rare beauty. Their first fight occurred in the second month. In the third, there were three fights. When they made up at the end of each fight, it was a great celebration. In the fourth month, the fights grew to two a week. Now the fights had pretty much become a daily affair. She would respond instantly to anything he said with a barb. In the midst of reconciling after one fight, the next one would begin.
When they started out, they had made a list of chores and divided them equally. He was to cook. She was to wash the dishes. He was to keep a tab of expenses and stock up on groceries. Doing the laundry was her responsibility. He was to take out the trash. She was to clean the house. She had discovered ten different uses for the broom. Despite having divided the chores in this manner, fights broke out. Who should be the last to put the lights out at night? Who must change the burnt-out lightbulb? Who should water the flowering plant? Who will open the door when the bell rings?
“I am leaving,” she said, just as she was about to open the door and step out. “Where to?” “Outside, of course.” “Will you not be coming back?” “At night. To take my things.” “Are you leaving forever?” “Yes, forever.” “Because I asked why you keep a bagel inside three Ziploc bags? Is that a valid reason? I thought it was only water that had lost its wetness. Has your heart turned dry too?” “I’ll explain at night. You need to drop me off at eight.” “Why should I drop you? You can take a cab.” “You think I don’t know that? You have to take me back to where you found me. To the very same spot.” He opened his mouth to say something. The door shut with a bang. And he shut up too.
He did not like his boss at the supermarket, and he presumed his boss did not like him. When his manager started yapping, he wouldn’t stop. Words would stream out like ribbon from a magician’s mouth, stringing into a never-ending monologue. That would make him sneak a peek beyond the manager’s shoulders. There! A full stop, invisible to everyone but him, would be chasing after his boss in breathless gasps. The manager regarded himself as a “certified five-star” taskmaster. And so it fell to him to predict the questions, think up responses beforehand, and be ever ready. His pay was $11.40 an hour. Needless to say, the manager wished to pay him less than that, but it was impossible. This was the very nadir the law in Toronto permitted one to reach on the pay scale. The manager had even addressed him as “half-brained” on occasion. The law permitted that too.
There was a really tall actor who used to star in the English-language horror movies of old who went by the name of Boris Karloff. The manager looked exactly like a Boris Karloff whose cheeks had swollen from toothache. He had been working under this manager for two years now. In these two years, on four different occasions, it had occurred to him to bring his gun and shoot him. He hadn’t yet gotten down to it, though.
Twelve cashiers worked in the supermarket simultaneously. Before each of the cashiers, there would stand a long queue of people led on by their shopping carts. Various items would arrive on the conveyor belt, and magical eyes would find their barcodes and register the prices automatically. Money was to be collected after packing all the items into their bags and handing them over to the customers. Some would point their cell phones and settle the dues. Some would flash their credit or debit cards. Some would pay in cash. And that is when problems would crop up. He was a bit iffy with arithmetic. There were times when the cash would not quite add up when he handed in the accounts for the day. He’d make do by paying out of his pocket.
One day a green-eyed beauty came by, pushing along her shopping cart. Green eyes only for the day. Sometimes she sported gray eyes. On an earlier visit her eyes were blue. Matching her outfits to her eye color was her specialty. Such a beauty it was impossible to take your eyes off her. She had made quite a few purchases that day, and when he arranged them in the bags, a mistake occurred. Items that could leak were to be put in a separate bag. A refrigerated product had to be kept with other refrigerated products. Chemical products must not be mixed with food items. There were many such rules. Sometimes he would remember them. Often he would forget. “Thanks,” she uttered charmingly and wheeled her cart away. When she reached home and checked, she found that one of the eggs was broken. She drove back the six miles and complained about the broken egg. The aching-tooth demon of a manager took him to task. He would be punished the next day, he declared.
And that’s how he ended up in customer service. There can be no greater punishment than that. There would always be a long queue of people returning things they had purchased. It was only after asking, “Why do you wish to return the item?” and registering the response on the computer that it would be possible to return the money. Or to grant permission to exchange it for some other item. The reasons the customers offered were often quite amusing. ‘The expiry date has expired.’ ‘It’s broken.’ ‘The pumpkin is not working.’ There was even this one guy who brought back a half-eaten pizza with teeth marks in it on the pretext that his girlfriend did not like it. Others would try to return goods not purchased at that store: “Sir, we do not sell this brand of butter here. You must have purchased it somewhere else.” “No, I indeed purchased it here.” “We do not sell butter of such poor quality nor butter this cheap.” Some would be annoying. Some would yell. Still, he must always hold his lips in a smile. There were times when he wished to bring his gun and shoot these fraudsters. But that’s when he would remember that he did not own a gun.
There were 6,340 items at the supermarket, each with its own magic code. People would arrive night and day to make purchases. There was no need to cook most of the food products on offer. Heat them in the microwave oven for two minutes, and the food would be ready. Ten thousand years ago, man went in search of food as soon as he woke up. And he would search until the sun set. If he found food that day, he would eat. If not, he would starve. Now he gets to the store in a madrush, buys five-minute-food, and dashes off. What a luxury! Even so, there’s no dearth of complaints.
It was two weeks ago that Mithila arrived at eight in the night to take her things away. When she moved in with him, all she owned was a slim suitcase. When she left, there were two suitcases and four cardboard boxes. He had given her many gifts in these six months, and bought her many outfits. They were in there now, filling out the boxes. He helped carry the luggage out and received the respect a servant would. “Where to,” he asked, getting into the car. “That restaurant,” she said. “Which restaurant?” “The one I left to get into your car.” “And are you going to stay at the restaurant from here on?” She did not answer.
They arrived at the restaurant. As though she was fleeing from fire, she leaped out of the car, and without taking her handbag or even closing the door, crossed the road and sprinted to the other side. There was a man standing there—his face so gaunt it looked as if he hadn’t eaten in days, with unkempt hair and wearing an unwashed shirt. She scurried into his outstretched arms like a little chick and hugged him. Mithila had never ever run to him like that. Or hugged him. He stood frozen in shock. Gathering himself, he unloaded her luggage by himself and started the car. The image of her leaping and crossing the road played in his mind like a movie scene on repeat.
When the manager summoned him, he thought he knew why. Another complaint must have been lodged. What else would he call him about? As though his boss would ever say, “The honourable governor of Canada will be presenting you an award for your hard work, dedication, and brilliance.” The manager’s name was written on the door. He entered and stood there with his head hung low, like a murderer awaiting judgment. Without looking at his face, the manager spoke at great length, all the while spinning a glass sphere on the table. Two minutes elapsed before he got to the point. Since he had put tomatoes at the bottom of a customer’s bag and placed heavy items on top of them, the tomatoes were squished. In this supermarket, it’s the customer that matters the most. Not him. Not even the tomatoes. “You can go home,” he said. “Home?” “Yes.” “Now?” “Yes, now.” He could not believe it. Because of tomatoes worth the grand sum of two dollars, they were letting him go. He unpinned his nametag, Maayan, from his shirt and placed it on the table. From now on, he would have to remember his name without its help. Boris Karloff stood up and extended his hand. He walked out without paying it any attention.
His mother used to say, “Your name should not be pinned to your shirt. It should not hang as a garland around your neck. It should be written on the door.” Amma did not like it in the least that he worked at the supermarket. “If you are to do justice to your abilities, you must have an office of your own. Come back home and study further,” she had entreated many times. He felt like calling his mother right away. She would often say, “Even if everyone else in this world forsakes you, the one soul who’ll never desert you is your mother. Don’t forget that.”
He got in his car and drove fast. There was a huge vehicle ahead of him. On the back of the vehicle, was written “If you are able to read these words, you are way too close. Get lost.” The vehicle moved ever so slowly. He was unable to get ahead. Waves of frustration swept through him. Just then this thought arose out of thin air: “What will I achieve by rushing back? Mithila isn’t at home and I needn’t cook for her. She must be sharing that bagel with her boyfriend.”
While driving down Lawrence Avenue, he came upon the hospital where he was born. His mother never failed to point out the building to him whenever they passed by. It was a blue eight-story building. He swerved the car and turned into the hospital parking lot. A couple of uniformed women were seated at reception. Another woman, sitting a little further away from them, was typing something on a computer. He went up to one of the seated women and stood in front of her. She looked up at him and flashed a hospital smile.
“I have come to return myself. Take me back.”
“Sorry, I don’t understand.”
“I was born here. I want to return myself.”
“We are allowed to return damaged goods, aren’t we?”
Everyone’s attention was on him now. The woman who had been typing on the computer looked up at him. “Yes. But only your mother may return you,” she said, suppressing her laughter. The women exchanged furtive glances.
What had come over him? Why had he rushed in there as though possessed? He heard someone laugh and was gripped by shame. “You’ve gone crazy,” his mother used to chide him when he was younger. He wondered if he should call and tell her he had lost his job. Invariably, he ended up calling his mother only when there was sad news, he thought. Why not wait until there’s some good news this time? If he managed to land another job soon and then called her, how happy she would be. At that very moment, there was a call from his mother. If he thought so much about her, she knew somehow. It happened to him time and again.
“What is it, Amma?”
“Why haven’t you called?”
“My cell phone fell into the water, and some of the numbers were washed away.”
“And you don’t remember my number?”
“I didn’t. But I have it now. I’ll call you without fail from here on.”
Lying to mother felt awfully odd. He wondered if this was retribution for having tormented her. He recalled having once celebrated Mithila’s birthday instead of visiting his mother, who was in the hospital. Mithila had said, ‘The eighteenth birthday comes but once.” His mood changed instantly and a great sorrow enveloped him. He left the hospital, head down, and walked swiftly to his car. To forget his grief, he mimicked the sound of a galloping horse as he sped away. His mind eased a little.
A tall woman was walking by with a dog on leash. What a lovely sight. Perhaps it was her turn to walk the dog that day in accordance with the pact made with her boyfriend. He thought of Mithila. No matter where a mistake occurred, she would somehow twist it, turn it, and dump it on his head. She had every qualification to make an excellent lawyer. His inadequacies were magnified when he stood beside her. He parked the car and entered his flat. With nary a sound, it was the essence of peace. He took off his jacket and hung it up. He shook off his shoes, left the car keys on the table, and plugged the charger into the phone. His shadow fell on the wall. What a beautiful shadow. What grace. But there was no one to see it.
He noticed something lying on the floor—a letter had been slipped through the mail slot. Surprising indeed, for he never got any letters. It was a yellowed envelope—government mail? It was from the attorney general of Canada. His hands trembled a little. He hadn’t committed a crime, had he? Could it be the one occasion when he hadn’t accounted for some small sum of money at the supermarket?
He opened the envelope with trepidation. His eyes widened. They had invited him to be a juror on a trial. When God closes a window, he opens a door, they say. He’s opened not one but four doors now! A matter of tremendous joy, worthy indeed of celebration! There were no details about the case, but it said he had to report in two weeks. The pay was fixed at forty dollars a day. If the trial happened to lumber on, it would be revised to a hundred.
He couldn’t contain his joy. When he thought about who he could share this happy news with, he could think of no one. What could be the case in question? Murder or smuggling? Would they write out the names of the jurors and pin it to their shirts? Or would they suspend the name tags around their necks? Perhaps, they would place nameplates on the jurors’ table. If the trial went on for more than a month, he would receive a handsome sum of money. He would tell his mother about the jury job and make her proud. Maybe he would buy her something she liked. Something expensive.
He wondered what it’d be like if, say, Mithila were the accused. Even when she stood in the witness box, she’d speak rapidly as though brandishing a sword. And when her voice hit a crescendo, she’d sound like a yelping dog. What if she were a thief? She could have hoodwinked the government. She could very well be the murderer of the man who looked as if he hadn’t eaten in days. And then if he were to, say, lift his hand to pronounce her guilty, ah, how his joy would multiply! For nothing in this world can surpass the high of vengeful delight.
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