Short Story: Nanima and Roger Toilet

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They walked quietly past the TV-room, which was now also Nanima’s bedroom, and climbed the staircase up to Svasti’s room. Nanima was getting old. A few months ago, Svasti’s family managed to get her a visa to Norway so she could stay here with them. Roger moved in only a few weeks ago.

 

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She let her eyes wander across the paintings. Abstract, they had said. When her daughter told her that they were worth a bit of money as well, she was happy. At least they would be a sort of insurance for her daughter and grandchild. One of the paintings was dark and had some red in it. It looked rather scary at night. Suddenly, she remembered her father standing with head bowed down and hands folded before Saheb. As if he was a God. That was how it was. As if they were Gods. Saheb hit him with a cane. Soon after that was Ram Navami. In the upper caste section of the village there was a well-known Ram temple. People of her community weren’t allowed in. But during the celebration of the god’s birthday, Saheb treated everyone to a meal with fruits and sweets and snacks. They sat at some distance from the upper caste people and were served last. She really shouldn’t accept anything from him. On the other hand, it was so seldom that she got to taste these sweets and snacks. She couldn’t help it.

Afterwards she climbed up the large banyan tree along with some friends. From there they could see the Ram temple. They speculated out loud about what was inside. Someone told a story about a person from their community who had once managed to sneak in. That is when she had the idea, that she wanted to do it. There was a large mass of people there – many of them strangers from far away – so it shouldn’t be too difficult.

Not even having passed through the main gate to the temple, she heard a loud voice and saw Saheb’s furious eyes. He called for some boys from her own community to come and drag her out onto an open space. She begged for mercy. The boys held her tightly. She called for her father. Upper caste men and women gathered around her and called her names. Some even spat on her and threw dirt and pebbles and sticks at her. She feared the men would do more. She had heard stories. She vomited up the fruits and sweets and snacks. At some point, she glimpsed her father squatting in the circle of people surrounding her. Someone held onto him, keeping him from doing something stupid or just comforting him. Then she passed out.

 

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They were lying on their backs, holding hands, their breathing audible in the room.

‘Oh my god, this is so weird,’ Roger said. ‘Having sex directly above your grandmother. Do you think she realises? Does she even know that we are boyfriends?’

‘I doubt that Ma has told her. She probably wouldn’t understand even if she did. But now I have to sleep, Roger. I have to get up early for work tomorrow.’

Svasti kissed Roger on his cheek – the goodnight sign – and turned around to sleep. Roger embraced him. He looked at the delicate skin on Svasti’s neck and sensed a subtle smell, the smell of his skin, the smell after sex.

Svasti was the first boy he had kissed. And he was the first he had told, just after the kiss, that his grandmother had been a Tater, a member of the Norwegian Romani community. She had died while Roger was very young. He only had a vague memory of her lying in a hospital bed. His mother rarely talked about her. For a long time, it was a well-kept secret that there was Tater blood in the family. After he met Svasti, he started reading up on the Tater culture and history. His father tried to beat it out of him, both the homosexuality and the interest in his Tater background. That had been his father’s solution to everything. But now Roger was stronger than him. His mother said that his choice, his lifestyle and passions, were against the Bible and God, and that they couldn’t have any contact with him if he continued like this. He already knew that he wanted to live with Svasti. Beyond that he didn’t know what he was going to do. He had just finished senior secondary school.

 

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She heard what must have been a train in the distance and remembered when she first saw Gandhi together with her husband. People had come running to see the Mahatma at the train station. He spoke about untouchability being an evil and that the so-called untouchables were children of God, Harijan. Her husband became a Gandhian. Eventually, she herself became more interested in what Ambedkar had to say, identifying more as a Dalit than a Harijan. This created some tension among them, but images of both Gandhi and Ambedkar were put up near the murtis of Ram and Sita. Later Ambedkar encouraged Dalits to reject Hinduism. Her conversion to Buddhism was too much for her husband. What would his family say? How would they raise their children? So she kept the murtis and continued doing puja, but now she also had an idol of the Buddha, a very small idol that she kept to herself.

Later, when she visited her father, she told him what she now knew, that everyone is equal; that Saheb, her husband, her father and herself, they were all caught in a chain of suffering; that oppression was limiting for the oppressors as well, and that Saheb and the upper caste Hindus were not free either; that it was possible to break out. Her father couldn’t believe it, that Saheb and he were equal, that Saheb wasn’t happy and free.

Her gaze rested on the small Buddha that she had kept all this time and brought with her here. She smiled. She exhaled slowly through her mouth and could hear the outbreath in the dark night.

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When Roger woke up, Svasti and his parents had already left the house. He put on some clothes and went downstairs to Nanima.

‘Roger Toilet!’ she said.

He smiled. He didn’t mind his new nickname.

‘Toilet jana hai?’ he asked, still smiling.

It was one of the few phrases he had learnt. Sometimes he would help her to the toilet in the hallway.

She shook her head and smiled.

‘Chai?’ he asked.

‘Please.’

Svasti’s mother used to make chai that she poured into a thermos before she left for work. Roger poured two cups.

Nanima gestured with her hand that she wanted him to sit on the bed next to where she was lying, and he did. They spent some time blowing on their chai to cool it a little. Roger saw that a thin skin formed on his. They smiled at each other and sipped the chai.

‘Roger, I also up rest,’ Nanima said after a while, taking his hand.

Did she want to sit up?

‘OK,’ he said and tried to rearrange pillows and lift her up slightly.

‘No, no, up rest,’ she said.

‘Upset?’

She continued talking. He wished he understood more of what she was saying. Then he heard the word Dalit several times. He remembered that Svasti had told him that this was the community his family belonged to, that historically they had been oppressed in India.

‘Oppressed?’ he said.

She smiled and nodded.

What was she talking about? Perhaps Svasti had told her that his own grandmother had been a Tater, that they too had been oppressed. He had read that originally they may even have been Dalits emigrating from India. Or maybe she did know about Svasti and him, that ‘our people’ as he and Svasti often referred to queers also had been and were oppressed. He was thrown out of his thoughts by a sound.

‘Ahhh.’

At first he was worried, but then he noticed her smile and recognised another familiar word: mantra. She made the sound again. It seemed to be a sound of exhalation, letting go and opening up. She pointed to her mouth and then him. She was trying to show him something perhaps.

‘Ahhh,’ he exhaled as well.

She smiled and nodded. They continued breathing like this for a while, especially aware of the outbreath. He let go now. It was OK that he didn’t understand everything she said. He looked at her – the brown skin, some wrinkles around her eyes, the smile and lips – sensed her hand in his, a warmth and weight, listened to the sounds and sensed the breath moving through his own body.

Jenny Emilie Pettersen, also known as Tater-Milla (1886-1976). Photo from Taternes Landsforening / Christoffersen

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Almost every morning he would come and sit with her for a while. She knew that Svasti and he were special friends, and that he had problems with his family, that this was the reason he lived here now. Svasti had said that he wasn’t just a normal white Norwegian but you couldn’t tell by looking at him. He looked like a hero in a foreign film: fair skin, blue eyes, blond hair, tall. Sometimes he talked with her in English and sometimes in his Norwegian language, and she listened to the sounds and watched his face and body. He had also learnt a few phrases in Hindi. She tried to speak very slowly and simply to him. And even if he didn’t understand all the words, it didn’t matter.

When she noticed the tangerines that her daughter had placed in a bowl on her bedside table, she thought of a story she wanted to tell him.

Every morning some village children came with food for Siddhartha in the forest. One morning they saw that something was different about him and called him Buddha and asked him to share of his insight. While they were all eating the tangerines they had brought, Buddha told them how he was aware of the orange colour of the fruit, its light weight in his hand, how he peeled it, how he separated off a piece and put it in his mouth, how he bit so the thin skin burst against his teeth, and then the taste of its sweet juice. He told them that he didn’t forget the fruit while eating it.

She took a tangerine and gave one to him. It was almost like prasad. When there was a festival, they had been given fruits and sweets and snacks but weren’t allowed into the temple. Here the two of them had created their own temple. With awareness, she ate the tangerine, did not forget it.

 

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He watched Nanima, how she slowly and gently peeled and ate the tangerine. He also started peeling his, took a piece and put it in his mouth, closed his eyes, chewed slowly, sensed the sweet and fresh juice in his mouth, swallowed and sensed how it moved down his throat and into his body. He opened his eyes and saw her smiling. She held out a small idol of Buddha. Then with her other hand, she pointed at him and herself.

 

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After a while he got up to have a shower and leave for his part-time job. He was on his way out when he noticed that Nanima had a hand on her chest and was making some strange noises.

‘You OK?’

‘Paining,’ she said.

He tried calling Svasti, but he didn’t pick up. He tried calling Svasti’s mother as well without any success. She should be back soon. She was cutting down on work now that Nanima was here. But he didn’t want to take any risks. He decided to call an ambulance.

‘Everything OK. Hospital now,’ he told her.

He sat down on the bed next to her. He didn’t know what to do while they waited. She seemed afraid, something in her eyes, breath coming and going.

‘I expire,’ she said.

‘Breathe together,’ he said. ‘I also breathe. Just one breath at a time. In. Out.’

He sat next to her, breathing in with her, breathing out with her.

‘Inhale air and light and imagine Buddha,’ he said since she seemed to like Buddha and he didn’t know how many more breaths she had.

‘You Buddha,’ she said.

Was she losing her mind?

‘I also Buddha,’ she continued.

‘OK.’

 

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The ambulance arrived, and the paramedics brought a stretcher into the room.

‘What’s her name?’ one of them asked.

‘We just call her Nanima, grandmother,’ Roger said.

The paramedic looked at him, the white skin, blue eyes and blond hair, but he accepted the name.

‘Nanima, you are safe now,’ he said.

‘Roger?’ she said and looked at Roger.

‘Can I come along?’ Roger asked.

‘Of course,’ the paramedic said.

Inside the ambulance Nanima lay looking out of the window.

‘You OK?’ he asked.

‘Pretty,’ she said and nodded towards the green tree tops that flew past outside. ‘You OK?’ she continued.

He smiled, nodded and held her hand. He too looked out the window, at the green tree tops flying past.

There was only the sound of sirens.

 

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Nanima seemed to fall in and out of consciousness. Roger, Svasti and his parents sat by the hospital bed. They spoke very little. Through some large windows Roger could see the blue sky and the clouds drifting across it.

After several hours Svasti and he went back home to get some sleep. They noticed the empty bed in the TV-room. Roger thought about his own grandmother, wondered whether she had died alone in the hospital, that he hadn’t really known her, that he didn’t really know his parents either, that he had known Nanima a little, that he knew Svasti and that he wanted to know him even better.

 

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Later that night – or early in the morning – the phone rang. They awoke with a start at the first ring, being in high preparedness and probably only half asleep. They got a taxi and rushed to the hospital. Nanima had said that she wanted to say goodbye now.

‘She says that she loves us. She wants me to tell you too,’ Svasti said.

He cried and held one of her hands. Roger held Svasti. Svasti’s parents sat on the opposite side of the bed. His mother held Nanima’s other hand. His father held his mother. There was a symmetry in this.

Nanima uttered something with a low voice, pulling Svasti and his mother close. Then she kissed them both on the forehead.

‘You too,’ Svasti said.

Roger leaned closer to Nanima. She kissed him on the forehead. He started crying, out of sadness and joy, and he kissed her back on her forehead.

‘Ahhh,’ she said and smiled and closed her eyes.

 

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Later Svasti and his mother would often ask him to recount the details of that last morning with Nanima: how they had chai, the skin forming on it, how they ate tangerines, their sweet juice, how they smiled and breathed together, the sound of exhalation, how they held hands and watched green tree tops fly past.

 

(A previous version was first published in Norwegian as ‘Nanima’ in Bøygen 3 & 4, 2014.)

 

Vikram Kolmannskog

Vikram Kolmannskog is a man of many interests. His work is focused on therapy, law and society, writing, teaching and researching. More of his work can be found at www.VikramKolmannskog.no

 

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