Bucket of Cherries by Rajni Mala Khelawan (New Asian Writing Short Story Competition 2017 Prize Winning Entry)

“Bucket of Cherries is a story about Mira, a South Asian woman living in Vancouver, Canada, who attempts to redefine her identity after her husband of thirty years, passes away. She forms a relationship with Amir, a young Indian single father living across the street from her.”

The ashes had grown cold a long time ago. But that was all that was left of Mira Thakur’s husband of thirty years. Deciding on the urn where Dharma would rest was one of the first decisions Mira made without him. She let her two children, Sital and Raman, decide on the coffin. After all, he would only rest there briefly before the ceremonial cremation took place and his cold body succumbed to the heat of the flames. Choosing the urn was more significant. It would be where remnants of what had once been her whole world would remain for perpetuity. Mira went to buy the urn alone. She changed her mind several times before deciding on a plain brass one that she thought he would have liked. She recalled her Dharma quietly reciting Om before and after meals, his palms pressed together and eyes tightly shut. He had been a simple man, choosing only to eat vegetarian curries and roties arranged delicately on a stainless steel plate, waving a hand of disapproval at those who devoured meat. After her marriage, Mira had followed his footsteps and sworn off eating meat too, even though she had always liked the taste and tenderness of flesh. To prepare two separate meals for one household would have been the same as two people living apart under the same roof.

In the first year after his death, she would lie alone in the corner of her double bed and close her eyes, concentrating on the quietness of the house. Sometimes, in the blackness of a still night, she thought that she could hear the hum of his voice saying Om. Hurriedly she would sit up and, holding her breath, she would focus on the sweet sound. But all she would ever hear back was the rustle of the leaves outside or the ceaseless dripping of the kitchen tap. Then she would give herself over to an uncontrollable grief, sitting at the edge of the bed in her white nightdress. When all the tears were drained from her core, she would lower her aching head onto the feather pillows and wrap her arms tightly around her shivering body, letting sleep find her. For months, this hollow descent into numbness was sometimes her only escape. In the waking hours, staring at the dim gray walls of her empty house was a way of passing time.

In the second year, when the well of her tears ran dry, she took up knitting. She knitted blankets and toques and mittens, donating them to local charities. When her friends—Indian women—called to invite her out to dinner, or to a play, or to the cinema to see some Bollywood flick, she would politely tell them that the urge to mingle might arise within her another night. After a while, the phone calls stopped coming, and the only time she saw her friends were when they met at the supermarket. She would crack a half-eaten smile and say a quiet hello, then turn away. She could see the question and pity in their eyes.

In those days the only company Mira sought was that of her children. Every holiday break they got, they came home from their universities abroad. But the third Christmas, Sital came alone. Raman had gone to his girlfriend’s house instead, and Mira hadn’t tried to stop him. Anyone’s home would be more festive than hers had been these past two years.

Sital went through her mother’s closet and took out her father’s clothes, shoes, belts, and toiletries. Mira protested. There was no need to clean house; there was plenty of room for everything.

Sital, her eyes clouded, continued without a word. Finally, Mira quieted her arguments and watched blankly as Sital squeezed what was left of Dharma into moving boxes.

Sital set the taped boxes near where Mira was sitting. Mira looked at them and shook her head. “Just put them in the attic,” she said curtly.

“Mom . . .” Sital gave a drawn-out sigh and started to speak, but Mira interrupted her.

“It’s not like we don’t have space for them in this house. Your father built us a big house. Put them in the attic.” Mira abruptly rose from the hard chair and went to her room.

When she emerged she was panting from the exertion, dragging forward several boxes of her own things. Vibrantly coloured saris, glittering bangles, bindia, rouge, lipstick, and vermillion powder: all the common belongings of a new bride. The last box she dropped on the floor, making a loud thump. “This, you can give away to the needy,” Mira said, breathless.

“This is Canada, Mom. Nobody wears saris and bangles out here.”

“Then burn it. I don’t care what you do with it. I have no need for it.”“Mom,” said Sital softly. “I miss him too.”

“Mom,” said Sital softly. “I miss him too.”

Mira collapsed on the living room sofa, curling her legs into her chest.

Sital moved Mira’s boxes next to her father’s belongings in the attic.

***

Vidhwa. She first heard this word spoken by a little boy, about eight years old. “Vidhwa!” he yelled from his side of the yard across the street, locking his piercing, dark eyes onto hers. He stood there in khaki pants and a white cotton shirt, unkempt and untucked, swinging a broken tree branch in his hand. “Vidhwa!”

The hollow ring of that word stung her. It was the truth. She was a vidhwa, a widow. In the two years since Dharma had left her, she had never come face to face with it. All conversations had carefully avoided the idea, as if the word itself was some ancient disease, contagious and incurable.

Mira remained silent. The chilly spring air pierced her skin.

A dark-skinned man emerged from the house, yelling at the boy to go indoors. The child dropped the branch in the middle of the yard and kicked it, and then he shot by the man and ran straight into the house, crying.

The man hurriedly walked over to Mira and apologized. “He’s a child. No problem,” said Mira automatically. She shifted her weight slightly.

“He hasn’t been the same since his mother . . . you know . . .” The man paused briefly.

“Since she left us four years ago. Sometimes he becomes hard to handle,” he said.

Mira took a deep breath in and tightened her grip on the fence. “She died?” She looked at the man intently.

He moved his gaze to the ground. “No, she’s alive. She just up and left when Julian was four.” He shrugged sadly. “She found someone else to love.”

“Oh, I am sorry.” Mira didn’t know what to think.

“After she left, I spent the first year believing that she’d come back—even though she’d moved in with the other man. I thought she would come to her senses eventually.” The man paused and moved his gaze back to Mira. “That never happened. She seemed happier with him than she had ever been with me. I spent the next year feeling angry, and then sad.” He sighed.

“To make things better, we moved our life from Boston to here—to the beautiful British Columbia. That was six months ago. I like it here now.”

Mira’s eyes widened. “Boston! That’s quite a move.”

“I thought the distance would help me forget . . . her. I thought it would make things easier.”

Mira squinted. “She’s still alive,” she said, and shrugged her shoulders.

The man looked up at Mira. He saw the emptiness in her face, and his eyes softened. “It’s still a loss,” he said gently. He reached out and briefly touched Mira’s hand.

Mira flinched slightly.

“My name is Amir.”

“Mira,” she said and smiled weakly. A lump of snow melted off the roof and fell to the ground. Birds chirped on a nearby branch. “Well, I better go inside.” Mira pulled her afghan closer to her chest. She went into her house and closed the door.

***

It was a cloudy Sunday when Amir knocked on her door, carrying a bucket of cherries. Mira stumbled to find words to send him away.  She was a vidhwa, after all. A bucket of cherries? She squinted. Who brought a bucket of cherries? Did he expect her to entertain men in her house? The ashes hadn’t even cooled yet. Not proper. Definitely not proper! Oh Lord Rama! “What will the Indian community think?” she protested.

Amir smiled. The only Indian houses nearby were theirs. And who cared what the Indian community thought? He swept away all her excuses as swiftly as she delivered them.

Mira slid the door open a slim crack, shutting it quickly the moment Amir stepped through. The door felt heavy. The brass handle was cold. The air in her house seemed thick with Amir standing in the middle of her tidy living room. The hair on Mira’s arms rose stiffly, creating goosebumps. Bucket of cherries?

Flustered, she hurried to kitchen to make some masala chai for her first visitor since Dharma’s sudden passing. The square tin that had always been full in her house now held barely a half teaspoon of the dark brown tea leaves. If she had only a teaspoon of sugar left in the house! Then she could sweeten his tea and take hers unsweetened. But what excuse could she bring in this situation? At most, so few tea leaves would brew just one very weak cup of tea. Mira stood in the middle of the kitchen, interlocking her fingers together, shaking her head. What to do? What to do?  What would Dharma have done?

She looked at the cabinet above the refrigerator. Dharma would never drink alcohol himself, but he had kept what seemed like every kind stored there for his male guests. Mira reached up and opened the door. Dust had settled on the bottles that lined the top cupboard. She placed her left hand on her chest and stood there, numbly staring at them.

“Do you have orange juice?” Amir’s voice came from behind.

Her heart jumped out of her chest. Her body trembled as she turned around.

“I am sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

Mira gently raised her hand in the air, motioning that she was fine. Of course, she should have thought of that herself. Orange juice! Why did it have to be Indian tea?

“If you have orange juice, then we can drink screwdrivers.”

“Screwdrivers?” Mira was confused.

“Here, let me show you,” said Amir. He put the cherries on the kitchen counter and reached into the cupboard, taking down a bottle of vodka. Mira put a carton of orange juice on the counter, watching uncertainly as Amir grabbed two glasses and placed them side by side. He asked her to get ice. She watched his biceps move underneath his beige knit shirt as he slid the cold cubes in first and deftly poured the clear liquid into the glasses, crackling the ice. She studied his smooth jawline as he tilted the orange carton and let the juice flow on top.

“Screwdrivers,” said Amir, handing her a glass.

“Oh, no, no, no. Not for me, Amir. I’ve never had alcohol in my life! Screwdriver? Why do they call it a screwdriver?”

“Just a name, Mira. Here. Try some today.”

Mira looked at the glass. It seemed full of orange juice and ice. She couldn’t see the liquor, or even smell it.

“One sip,” said Amir.

Mira cracked another half smile, shook her head, and said, “Sure, why not? One sip.”

What harm in drinking just one sip?

It tasted like nothing more than a glass of iced orange juice, aside from the slight burning in her throat. She drank several sips, and to her surprise she found herself asking Amir to make her another glass. Why not? What harm in drinking just one more?

A sense of warmth enveloped her entire being, creating a strange sensation that coursed through her limbs. Was it relaxation, carefree carelessness, or just plain numbness, an abandonment of all emotions? She couldn’t describe it in concrete words or measure it with exact precision.

“How’s your son doing, Amir?”

Amir shook his head. He had been suspended from school for three days for lashing out at his teacher.

“He misses his mother,” said Mira.

“I can’t bring her back,” said Amir.

Then quickly and abruptly he bent down, suddenly interested in the Bollywood movies organized so carefully in Mira’s living room cabinet. They began talking about the latest Bollywood films and their favourite Hindi songstresses. They dipped into the bucket of cherries that Amir had brought over, enjoying the lushness of the juicy fruits, spitting the pits into a crystal dish.

That night, after Amir disappeared into the shadows of the moon, Mira descended into sleep quietly and peacefully.

                                                                             ***

The following week, Mira abandoned her knitting and looked carefully at her house. She rearranged the furniture and bought a new cherry-colored dining table and matching chairs with velvet cushioned seats. She disassembled the old oak table and chairs and moved the pieces into the double garage at the back of her house. She changed the dark green drapery to a lighter shade. And she spent a weekend painting her bedroom walls an orange-red hue, making the far wall at the foot of her bed several tones darker than the rest of her room. There, she hung a marble-framed painting of Krishna and Radha embracing in the grove. She stopped briefly to study the painting with an openness and alertness for detail, noticing the vulnerability in which Radha’s head rested on Krishna’s erect shoulder and the stiffness with which he clutched her outstretched arm. Then she gazed away.

Her gray comforters clashed with the new colours of her bedroom wall, so the next day she went shopping and bought new bedsheets and bedcovers. Next, she bought candles: a slim, tall red candle and a fat, short orange one, each with a wicker string holding two long cinnamon sticks in place. These she set on a clear glass tray on the nightstand beside the head of her bed. She lit the candles and let the aromatic scent of cinnamon calm her senses as she rearranged everything in her room. What she no longer wished to see she moved to the attic.

While upstairs, Mira noticed few of the stored boxes that Sital had placed in the corner. Dharma’s clothing still held his scent. His wristwatch ticked on, keeping the elapsing time. A strand of his dark hair was tangled in between the teeth of his black comb. Mira picked the hair from the comb and watched it fall gracefully to the dusty attic floor. She sighed as she closed the boxes shut and slid them back into their dim area. Then she opened another box and found her own belongings that she had packed away. She noticed a pair of gold dangling earrings with ruby studs in them and held one against her ear, but shook her head. She gently placed them back in the box. She pulled out strawberry lip gloss and touched it to her pale lips. How long had it been? These, with kajal and some gold and red bangles, she carried down to her dresser.

Mira looked out her bedroom window and saw Amir standing in the middle of his porch, smoking a cigarette and gazing toward the setting sun in the orange sky. The ground was bare. All the snow had melted. The trees were birthing new leaves.

She telephoned one of her friends and suggested that they go to a movie the following evening: not a Bollywood flick, but a Hollywood one. Her friend stuttered in amazement. “What Mira ji, you want to go and see Sex in the City?”

A few Sundays later, Amir was speechless when he returned to Mira’s home. He silently stood in her living room, gazing around her now more vibrant house. This time he had brought over tiramisu.

“Tira . . . what?” Mira squinted.

“Italian cheesecake,” Amir said.

“No bucket of cherries?”

Amir smirked. “I am trying to stay unpredictable, Mira ji.”

“What’s it made of?”

“Oh . . . mascarpone cheese, lady fingers, some coffee . . . brandy.”

“Brandy!” She gulped. “Amir ji, being around you I will get to know the taste of every alcohol out there.”

“There’s no sin in that, Mira ji,” Amir laughed.

Mira hurriedly made her way to the kitchen, with Amir following close behind. Opening the liquor cupboard, she pulled out a bottle of Baileys. It made a loud thud on the counter.

“Amir, what do you do with this? I am just curious.” She relaxed her small body against the kitchen cabinet.

“Simple, Mira ji. Simple.” Amir carefully removed two wine glasses from the cupboard. Mira observed his every move, every gesture. Her heart raced, even though the Baileys had not yet touched her lips.

“We can drink it straight on ice, like this.” He handed a glass to Mira and drank from the other. Mira noticed the groove in his neck and shoulders as she took the drink from him and sniffed it. “Or we can make some coffee and use it as a substitute for cream,” Amir said.

“For cream?”

“Yes. And in coffee they call it B-52.”

“B-52! Who comes up with these names?” Mira exclaimed.

They ate tiramisu and drank Baileys, agreeing that it was the perfect indulgence. Then Amir gladly accepted Mira’s invitation to join her for dinner the following Sunday.

 

Mira’s heart skipped a few beats in anticipation. On the day of the dinner she changed the colour of her sari several times: from gray, to beige, to brown, until finally she settled on a pale yellow one with a gold border. She was still a widow, so it would be unacceptable to wear pink or red or maroon. Tradition ordered that she would always wear white. In the end, she chose yellow. It was closest to white yet somehow still festive, and it signified a celebration of sorts. She put kajal in the waterline of her eyes with grace and ease, blinking away the tears that emerged from being out of practice.

Amir was on time.

“Pink shirt?” said Mira, clinking her gold and red bangles together.  She smiled widely at him as he stood in her doorway. He was holding a bottle of Merlot and a bunch of cherry blossoms tied together with a thin white ribbon. Mira thought he looked dashing, his dark hair slicked back with gel, a gold necklace resting around his neck.“Nah,” said Amir. “It’s not pink, Mira ji. It’s salmon colour.”

“Nah,” said Amir. “It’s not pink, Mira ji. It’s salmon colour.”

He handed her the cherry blossoms. She paused briefly to smell their faint scent, nervously licking the strawberry gloss lining her lips.“They are in bloom . . . in abundance,” he broke the silence.

“They are in bloom . . . in abundance,” he broke the silence.

“Yes, at this time of the year they do bloom in abundance, Amir. But the season is short-lived.”

While Mira filled a crystal vase with water and placed the blossoms in it, Amir unscrewed the cork and poured two glasses of wine. Mixed aromas of lamb curry and bhaigan bharta filled the air. A tray of roties, little dishes of mango chutney, and raita lined the table.

Mira wrinkled her nose at the taste of Merlot.

“It’s an acquired taste, Mira ji. You need more practice.”

“You think, Amir ji? Maybe I would like white wine better.”

“Nah. White wine is for amateurs.” Amir waved his hand expressively. “My advice, stick to red.” He chuckled as Mira took another sip.

Amir raved about Mira’s cooking. The lamb meat held perfect tenderness, he said. The Indian desserts—gulab jamun and barfi—were delectable. They sat together after dinner, sipping the remaining wine in the living room.

When Mira asked him for a cigarette, Amir stopped in mid-stream. He put down his glass of wine on the coffee table, raising both of his eyebrows and looking at her intently.

“Just one cigarette,” said Mira.

“I regret ever starting, Mira ji.”“Oh, just one, Amir ji. What harm in that?”

“Oh, just one, Amir ji. What harm in that?”

Hesitantly, he offered her a slim cigarette.

“How do you . . .” She placed the cigarette in between her forefinger and middle finger. Dharma’s friends had smoked in front of her many times.

“You light it and inhale at the same time.”

Mira slipped the cigarette in between her lips. Amir leaned toward her and lit it. She inhaled and immediately coughed.

“This is one request of yours I should have denied, Mira ji.”

Mira coughed harshly as the cigarette smoke filled the small space in her living room. “No. No. No. I wanted to know what it was like.”

She took another slow drag, coughing again. And another drag. Calmness and dizziness enveloped her whole being. The coughing ceased. “Now I understand why people smoke,” Mira sighed. “It gives you a buzz.”“Now is a good time to quit, Mira.”

“Now is a good time to quit, Mira.”

“Amir, quit! I just started,” Mira giggled.“The buzz never lasts more than two months. After that, you just do it out of habit and dependence. Nicotine attack, as I like to call it.”

“The buzz never lasts more than two months. After that, you just do it out of habit and dependence. Nicotine attack, as I like to call it.”

There was a long silence as Mira sat there, holding her cigarette tightly. She half-feared that it might slip from her fingers onto the carpet and cause a big flame. What would Sital think of her own mother sitting right in the middle of the living room, smoking a cigarette with a male companion? How things had changed. She drew another drag deep into her lungs. Amir sat an arm’s length away, his intense gaze fixed on her.

“Do you ever miss her?” said Mira.

“I did a lot in the beginning. I felt anger, pity, and loneliness all at once. But time has a way of making you forget about things, and people. What about you?” Amir looked at her carefully.

Mira looked away. “In the beginning I used to wish we still burned vidhwas with their husbands,” she said slowly. “What use to stay alive when a big piece of you has been taken away? What does the one that has been left behind do to survive?”

“Time heals, Mira ji. Time heals. And people come into our lives to serve some divine purpose, and when that’s done, they leave. Others come in their place and the circle continues.”

He looked into her eyes. He spoke softly when he told her that he was glad that she was here. And he was glad for all women when they stopped burning widows. After Amir departed, Mira took off her bangles, loosened her sari, and prepared for bed. Under her maroon covers, her eyes closed, she found herself imagining Amir’s hands discovering the gentle curves of her body. She pictured the warmth of his breath against the hollow of her neck and the roughness of his hands grazing the softness of her skin. A thrilling sense of electricity passed through her entire being. She moaned and surrendered to her desires in the quiet darkness of her room.

But when she opened her eyes a few hours later, she found that the haunting emptiness around her had returned with the fierceness of a lioness circling her prey. Mira’s eyes welled up with tears. She pushed the new bedcoverings away from her skin, as though they burned. With a sense of urgency, she sat up straight and punched the pillows, grunting and screaming to Dharma. And to Lord Rama, Vishnu, Shiva, Sita, Parvati . . . If Dharma had not gone away . . . if they had not taken him . . . if it was all different and she wasn’t a vidhwa, she wouldn’t have to think these thoughts, take pleasure in them alone. She sat in the hollow darkness, crying the night away, awaiting for the day to finally break. Her head ached.

***

Sital came home alone during the Thanksgiving weekend. As quickly as the cherry blossoms had enveloped the plains of British Columbia in their vast whiteness, they had once more succumbed to the changing seasons and disappeared. Orange leaves covered the front lawn and backyard of Mira’s house.Sital was surprised to see her mother cooking a small turkey and hovering over recipe books, learning to make mashed potatoes with roasted garlic and parsley. She watched curiously as Mira stirred cranberry sauce in a small pot.

Sital was surprised to see her mother cooking a small turkey and hovering over recipe books, learning to make mashed potatoes with roasted garlic and parsley. She watched curiously as Mira stirred cranberry sauce in a small pot.

“I didn’t think you liked meat.” Her daughter’s brows furrowed in confusion.

“People change,” Mira said, and continued stirring.

“I wish you weren’t all alone, Mom.” Times were different, Sital told her mother. Suttis, burning widows, were a thing of the past, and young men found affection for older women and nobody batted an eye.

Mira nudged away her daughter’s comments. Marriages demanded sacrifices and adjustment from both parties. She had spent thirty years being married, and now it was necessary to spend some time being alone.

Sital dropped the conversation and diverted her gaze to the new neighbours across the street: the young man smoking and the small boy sitting on the porch steps, quietly reading a book. Mira smiled, noticing them as well, but then the talk swiftly moved to Sital, her life at university, and her plans for the future. Mira filled her living room with the festive aroma as she basted the turkey, watching it slowly brown. A Bollywood movie played in the background.

***

Once when Amir knocked on her door on a wintry Sunday evening, claiming that he had two pieces of cherry cheesecake in his hands, she sat still by her dining table, dipping into a bucket of cherries placed in the center. As she spit the pits into a crystal bowl, she listened to his pleas to come in, but pretended not to be home. Yet some evenings through her bedroom window she would see Amir across the street, smoking a cigarette on his porch, and she would gaze upon the dark, shadowy figure enveloped in the evening sun. Mira would smile a little but stay seated, quietly sipping from a glass of wine. She preferred Sauvignon Blanc.

Once when Amir knocked on her door on a wintry Sunday evening, claiming that he had two pieces of cherry cheesecake in his hands, she sat still by her dining table, dipping into a bucket of cherries placed in the center. As she spit the pits into a crystal bowl, she listened to his pleas to come in, but pretended not to be home. Yet some evenings through her bedroom window she would see Amir across the street, smoking a cigarette on his porch, and she would gaze upon the dark, shadowy figure enveloped in the evening sun. Mira would smile a little but stay seated, quietly sipping from a glass of wine. She preferred Sauvignon Blanc.

Glossary: 

Barfi – an Indian desert made from powdered milk and sugar

Bhaigan bharta – Spicy eggplant curry

Gulab Jamun – An Indian desert made from flour and syrup

Om – A sacred mantra in Hinduism that is recited at the beginning and end of Sanskrit recitations

Raita – A side dish made from grated cucumber, carrots, cumin and yogurt

Roties – Flat bread that accompanies most Indian meals

Suttis – In ancient India, widows being put on their husbands pyres and burned alive

Vidhwa(s) Widow(s)

Author’s Bio: Rajni Mala Khelawan is an emerging Canadian writer who was born in Fiji Islands in 1974. In addition to being a visiting writer at The University of the South Pacific, Fiji Islands in August 2011, Khelawan was profiled on hit Canadian TV and radio shows such as Bollywood Boulevard, CBC Radio, Omni South Asian News, Asian Magazine TV, and NUTV. She was the Writer in Residence at Fiji National University in 2014. Her short story “Still Standing” was published in The Voice Magazine. Her two novels are The End of the Dark and Stormy Night (2008) and Kalyana (2016).

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