A new story by Gargi Mehra
The problem with suicide, Mrs. Gupta decided, was the utter lack of a convenient time to plan and commit the act. One or other of her grandchildren always had their teeth sunk deep into the holidays, exams or illness. And even she considered it bad form to off herself in the middle of a family vacation.
On their first day in Scotland, her entire family had slipped on their walking shoes and strolled through the cobbled streets of Fort William. Mrs. Gupta ambled behind her daughter Priya and son-in-law Vijay, who pushed the pram carrying their two-year-old son, while their older daughter Myra hopped and skipped her way beside them.
The day had ended on a pleasant note, but Priya insisted they visit the zoo some time on their trip. She foisted upon her mother a series of navy brochures parading something called the Blair Drummond Safari. The glossy photos promised an abundance of peacocks, alligators, and most worryingly, a close view of lions.
Mrs. Gupta pleaded with them to let her be. She promised to stay behind and look after the baby, while the three of them enjoyed their travails.
Priya laughed away the idea.
That night Mrs. Gupta jolted awake from feverish dreams of predators tearing apart her family.
Indian tourists found Scotland achingly beautiful, but she found it miserable. The drive through the winding roads that curved between vicious mountains covered in shrubbery left her heart sinking. For the first time she missed her husband. He would have taken the entire tour off her hands. When he set his foot down, Priya listened.
The drive through the country filled with Glens and Bens did not gladden her heart. Priya kept turning back to point things out to her mother. Myra sat at the edge of her seat, her nose pressed to the glass, marveling at every feature of the landscape that crossed her line of vision.
A sea of clouds accompanied them on their journey, as they drove along the edge of the lake. The blue waters of the Loch Lomond stretched out on one side.
“It’s one of the largest lakes in the UK, Ma!”
This failed to excite Mrs. Gupta, sending her into tizzies of alarm instead. She pursed her lips, missing the roar of her husband that would have shut her daughter down and exchanged the lions in her future with warm cups of tea and a bottle of pills.
They drove for what seemed like hours. Even Vijay’s arms were drooping. Mrs. Gupta wondered if she might have prevailed upon him to turn around and head back to their resort, but the resolve writ large on her daughter’s face stilled her tongue.
A large signboard proclaiming their destination consumed the horizon. A thundering rose in Mrs. Gupta’s heart as they drove through the gate. They continued up a concrete pathway that wound through the park, a carpet of greenery flanking them on either side. The baby had woken up and was now bouncing on Priya’s lap, making war cries. Mrs. Gupta just wished she wouldn’t.
They drove deeper into the zoo, stuck behind a number of chartered buses ferrying schoolchildren and their teachers.
Vijay said, “Look! Lions, up ahead! On the right!”
Mrs. Gupta’s insides turned to ice. She couldn’t see them, but she desired nothing more than to crawl into one of those huge buses the size of a house. What else could protect her from the canines of the king of the jungle up close?
The baby jumped on his mother’s lap using it as a trampoline. Myra too was banging her hand on the glass window. “Mamma look! There’s a lion prowling around on the grass!”
Mrs. Gupta wished she would stop her banging. She wished the toddler would stop his bouncing, and she longed for Vijay to conclude his monologue on the eating habits of lions. Did he really believe that they never hunted prey when their stomachs were full?
Terror gripped her heart as she watched the lion cut across the track and press its muzzle to the window.
She covered her ears as its claws screeched down the window and the door of the car. They all let loose blood-curdling shrieks.
Only the baby’s delight shot up. Mrs. Gupta couldn’t be sure what he was saying but it sounded like “Party, party!”
She felt a sudden uncontrollable urge to laugh. But the next instant, the glass window shattered. The lion stuck his head through the window. Myra, pinned to her seat, issued a silent scream but Mrs. Gupta had no time to notice that as she watched her hand disappear into the lion’s mouth. Its blatant greed appalled her. Where would she find another gold bangle like the one he was chomping on right now?
The pain rose in her chest. The world turned black before her eyes.
Cool drops of water splashed on her face.
Mrs. Gupta blinked, and found the space before her filled with a light blue. This must be heaven, but the hard wood poking into her back was hell.
“Are you ok, Ma?”
She sat up with a jerk. They were somewhere in the middle of the park. The landscape appeared free of those infernal lions.
“What happened? Did I have a heart attack?”
Priya laughed. “No, Ma! You just fainted! I don’t even know why! You missed the lion marking his territory around the cars in front of us!”
This puzzled Mrs. Gupta. “How does a lion mark his territory?”
Priya laughed even harder. “By urinating around it! Oh, Ma! The lion sprinted so far away. The buses ahead had moved, and we did too.”
The last time Mr. Gupta called his wife to his deathbed, he had said, “Don’t keep talking about suicide, Urmila. It is even a sin in some religions.”
She folded her hands in prayer, and touched them to her forehead.
Behind the Yellow Wallpaper: New Tales of Madness.
Ed. Rose Yndigoyen.
New Lit Salon Press, 2014.
Review by Sarah-Jean Krahn, Managing Editor, don’t die press
This quirky, ultra-readable collection, riffing off the quintessential madness fiction by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, opens with a piece that alludes to madness as an act of defiance for women. There is something appealing about madness when it means you tear your body out of the current realm and present it to The Gaze as unintelligible. Each remaining story tampers with this motif via some unique twist that confuses the spectrum of feeling, from insidious numbness in “The Safety Pin Patient Test” to traumatic intensity in “The Color of Nothing.”
When emotional ferocity seizes women consumed by husband or children, at first glance some feminist readers may be turned off. However, with careful consideration we can see that, for the most part, this is the choice that has been presented to the characters as most meaningful. For example, in “Waiting for Jordan,” the single sentence “This is all her fault” reveals the double-bind of women locked into a nuclear family life, yet who themselves earn the blame for apparently locking men into the same patriarchal ultimatum. Meanwhile, the protagonist’s dreams of the 72 virgins calling to her hint at an unfulfilled queer curiosity that won’t allow the reader satisfaction with the suggestion that she is irreparably depressed at being separated from her husband on military tour.
The stories that recreate women characters responsible for murder reveal a frantic need in the feminist imagination to destroy the smelted, inflexible and punishing casts of patriarchal rule. Still, some readers may find these, like some of the photographs depicting the bloody saturation of madness, disturbing. The allure of the photographs is that they have been designed to match each story, and so reflect the desperation, obsession, downfall; the grit, ingenuity, sincerity of the characters. So, keep reading, and notice the overlay of trip wires and drone strikes that drive the characters to their betrayal or brutality. The later story “Thread,” while starring a character of innocence in action but acumen in human agony, unwinds these stealthy tricks of the patriarchy and lays them bare for reckoning.
The collection would not be complete without those pieces which implicate, as Charlotte Perkins Gilman does, the noose that madness itself can be when it is fastened to women by men. Men who doctor, men who mind-doctor, men who dictate women’s futures; men who abuse, men who slut-shame, men who extol women’s obedience—they are the origins of true madness, and the patriarchy benefits when women comply with lobotomized tranquility. In “Behind the Yellow Wallpaper,” women find comfort in a madness all their own when the straitjacket of patriarchy fails to conform to their bodies. Madness is a homecoming, a relief, a joy, as the characters alter not their bodies but the time-space around them to provide habitat that better suits their needs.
Excerpt by Colleen Donnelly — read more in Issue 4.3, coming soon!
Felicia momentarily pulled her glasses down, seeming to stare dutifully, sympathetically, peering into Ms. Levine’s heart. She made her voice waver just a tad, as she lowered her tone to utter the always terrifying edict, “You have cancer.” She could hear the whistle as Ms. Harding gulped back air. “Colorectal cancer. Stage III. I’m sorry to say the prognosis is not good.”
She watched Ms. Levine intently as she delivered the sentence. Ms. Levine seemed to shrink in the chair, head dropping, shoulders caving, as she tried to draw herself into a protective ball. Felicia held her hand out across the desk, Ms. Levine took it. Felicia squeezed and then gently stroked it – limited tactile contact indicating compassion. The desk was the court they’d play across. Sitting in adjacent chairs or together on a couch next to the fountain would invite soulful pats, perhaps a reaffirming hug or two that could complicate the negotiations. Collaboration was a necessary tightly-controlled, staged illusion.
Ms. Levine withdrew her hand, took a moment to compose and draw herself more upright once again and asked, “And what exactly are my options?”