An extract from Balli Kaur Jaswal’s new novel, The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters, published by Harper Collins in the UK on 15 June 2019
Rajni and her sisters were expected to bathe in holy water once they got to the Golden Temple. It was one of those pilgrimage duties that Mum had stipulated, preceding a quote about bathing in God’s immortal nectar that did not further clarify the difference between nectar and water, nor the figurative nature of this instruction. The power of metaphor was largely lost on Mum anyway. She had wanted physical proof of the presence of God when her symptoms first appeared, as if she could already sense the dire diagnosis. Wanting to help, Rajni had printed glossy pictures of all ten Gurus and pasted them around the house, which became a shrine of its own. Kirtan songs floated through the hallways, choral and sorrowful. Incense and birdseed and fruit platter offerings became commonplace. It was all too reminiscent of the days after Dad died, when superstitions and rituals became Mum’s insurance policy against further misfortune.
In the hospital as well, everything was done in the spirit of making Mum more comfortable when they knew that a painful end was upon her. Do whatever she wants had been Rajni’s mantra since returning from her last trip to India, and now it was even more pertinent because denying Mum any hope was akin to torture. Rajni even began feeling guilty for resisting Mum years back, when she tried to prescribe religious rituals and herbal remedies for her fertility problems. ‘I’m telling you, it worked for me. After eleven years of thinking I couldn’t have any more children, out came Jezmeen and then Shirina three years after her,’ Mum insisted. Unable to deter Mum, Rajni finally resorted to the humiliating revelation that she and Kabir had stopped trying – stopped having sex altogether, in fact. The last thing Mum said on the matter was: ‘Well, at least you’ve got a son. At least you don’t have to worry like I did, with three daughters.’
At least that.
Rajni looked down at the water and took a small step towards it. Her feet were still bare and as they made contact with the small puddles that other pilgrims had left on their way out, she felt some relief. The water was cool and it protected her soles from the sunbaked tiles. She took another step, and then another. Now her toes were touching the murky water. The ghostly bodies of fish curved and shot off. The man who had drunk the water was now taking slow strides across the length of the pool, his knees lifting high like a soldier. Rajni remained on the edges for a long time, the heat prompting her to inch closer to the water until her entire feet were submerged. She closed her eyes. Spots of light darted across the darkness and then eventually, they faded. The din of traffic – those angry, insistent horns – could be heard in the distance. A child’s high-pitched squeal rang out, shattering Rajni’s inner calm before she even began to summon it. She sighed and opened her eyes.
She didn’t want to be here. Especially not now, with everything happening at home, but not ever. India did not suit her and not least because of the memories it evoked – physically, her body rebelled against the country: an itch from the soot-filled air was beginning in her throat, the bumpy car rides made her stomach turn and a bout of indigestion was inevitable, no matter how staunchly she abstained from potentially contaminated food. Jezmeen and Shirina didn’t understand Rajni’s aversion to India because by the time they came of age, a wave of multicultural pride was sweeping over England and all of a sudden, it was trendy to have an ethnic background. While Rajni had waited by the radio with her finger poised over the deck to record her favourite Top of the Pops song, Jezmeen’s speakers played Hindi song remixes. At sixteen, Rajni had spent Saturday afternoons dancing frantically at those nightclubs which opened in the daytime for Asian kids whose parents wouldn’t let them out at night, while Shirina’s twenty-fifth year saw her gladly uploading her picture onto a Sikh matrimonial website. Rajni had done her best to pave the way for her little sisters to be more English, and instead they went ahead and embraced their culture, proving Mum’s point that Rajni had no business having an identity crisis in the first place.
There were other reasons behind Rajni’s complicated history with this country, reasons she could not explain to Jezmeen and Shirina. When they were planning this trip, Jezmeen had wondered aloud at why they never visited India when they were growing up. ‘Mum couldn’t afford it,’ Rajni reminded her. ‘Single mother with three kids? There was no way she could make that trip.’ The steep price of a holiday had always been a convenient excuse, and it stopped her sisters from asking any other questions. I can never go back there, Mum had cried one afternoon when Rajni was sixteen, and despite knowing better, she couldn’t help feeling that this was her fault. She still felt responsible for Mum’s banishment from her family.
In the rippled water, Rajni’s reflection was distorted. Her chin multiplied and overlapped, and her cheeks sagged. She withdrew her feet from the water. The sight of her pruned toes filled her with sorrow as she remembered Mum’s bare feet poking out from under her blanket at the hospital. Her slow and laboured breaths were painful to listen to. ‘Why isn’t she wearing any socks?’ Rajni had demanded of the nurses, who scurried around the foot of the bed, eventually finding Mum’s socks. Rajni dismissed them from the room and she rolled the socks onto Mum’s feet herself. Her skin was ice cold to the touch, and Rajni had massaged her feet gently, hoping to ease those hard, heaving breaths. She had pressed her hands into Mum’s bony heels and high arches until her own shoulders ached. She had waited for something divine to come from all this effort, all this wishing, and it didn’t.