Fiction: The Wheeze Machine

Deepak Sharma

Author: Deepak Sharma

Translation from Hindi by Dhiraj Singh

As soon as Pa’s back from work my aunt covers him like breath on a mirror. “They’ve announced a job. It’s for women only… at the clothes factory. Morning shift, starting 7 till 3. The salary is also good. Three thousand rupees. It is a job made for Kartiki…”

“Made for her? That wheeze machine?” Pa says in mock surprise.

Pa keeps inventing new names for Ma. “If only she could get a hold of her breathing!” Pa is right. Ma is a chronic asthmatic but that doesn’t stop her from playing seamstress to the whole damn locality. The result: we don’t know when her wheezing stops and when her sewing machine takes over. Sometimes, in the night, I can hear her struggling to breathe. I fear that maybe this might be her last breath.

Dhiraj Singh
“Who else?” my aunt says trying to make light of Ma’s wheezing, “you people think I have the time?”

My aunt is the undisputed queen of our house. She’s been that for the last 17 years. She came to this house as a new bride—because my grandfather had wanted a wife for my uncle who was 23. My uncle was more keen on getting a job than getting a wife but my grandfather, who’d just lost his wife, insisted that the house needed a woman’s touch. A woman who’d take care of a house full of men. His own 15-year-old daughter was a mental case. Someone had to take charge of the kitchen. But pity, my grandfather couldn’t enjoy my aunt’s cooking for long. He died within a year-and-a-half of my aunt’s arrival. My poor uncle also died four years later. 

“What will she have to do?” Pa asks her.
“Bleaching work,” says my aunt.
“Then Ma shouldn’t be allowed nowhere near it,” I can’t help myself, “bleaching is done with liquid Chlorine, which is dangerous for Asthmatics…” This fact I’ve picked up from my class eight Chemistry book.

“Like you know everything,” Pa glares at me, “do you know how hard it is to make ends meet? There are five mouths to feed here and only man earning…”

I don’t want to cross his path so I keep quiet. But I want to tell him that he isn’t the only one earning, besides his teaching job Ma’s stitching also brings in money for the house. 

I am the only one who cares about Ma’s health. Pa together with his mental sister don’t much like Ma. Compared to the way they treat my aunt, Ma’s like part of the furniture. But my aunt herself is all lovey-dovey with Ma. Ma says it’s because she knows how much she’s dependent on Pa. 

“I can go and work there,” Ma calls out from inside her stitching room, “I don’t have a problem taking up that job.” My aunt and Ma are cousins. In fact my aunt was the one who got Pa and Ma married, 13 year ago, soon after my uncle died.

“I’ll go and check out the place,” Pa says, “and when she can start work.”

Ma joins work at the clothes factory the next day itself. And because of that I don’t get to see her in the mornings. Mornings without her are filled with silence. Like the silence of her sewing machine. When she comes back at 3 in the afternoon she’s dead tired. She is neither able to go back to her sewing machine or sit down and talk with me. It’s as if her wheezing has gone out of our lives. And because I can’t hear it I feel the silence grow between us. I begin to feel Ma going far away from me… going into the arms of an impending death. I sometimes get these nightmares where I see her dead or dying. 

One day our school breaks up after recess. The man who rings the bell has suddenly died. He fell from the perch from where he rang the bell daily. When our class teacher broke the news to us he did so in a mixture of grief and anger. “The old man had been ill for the last two years. We kept telling him to just take retirement but he kept coming back every day. He said he could do it… that ringing the bell was as easy as picking his nose.”

Ma’s job keeps her extra busy. One day I decide to go to the factory to see how she’s coping. I am told she’s in the big hall where there are only women workers. I can’t help myself so I sneak in. The hall is divided in two sections. In the first part big heaps of cotton is being rolled into spindles of thread. And in the next the thread from the spindles is being looped together into thick rolls of fabric. All the workers here are men. 

In the next hall I am assaulted by the sharp smell of Chorine. My eyes begin to hurt and brim up with tears. After getting used to the smell I realise that the thick vapours are coming from a square pit into which are dipping rolls of freshly woven cotton. This hall has only women. Some of them have their mouths covered with masks the kind that doctors and nurses wear during surgery. I try to look for Ma among the hidden faces. I move to a corner for a better view. Ma is at the other end of the hall, where a group of women are unrolling the bleached cotton. I recognise her by her sari not her face because it is covered in a mask. In that masquerade she is like a stranger to me, a strong and active stranger. Someone who has no cares in the world except the job at hand. Her eyes are fixed on the bale that she is unrolling. The muscles of her face are tightly clenched. As if her face has become a fist about to strike someone. As if she would strike anyone who stood between her and her cloth. 

She hasn’t seen me walk towards her. “You laugh too much, Kartiki,” a bossy woman says to her. Ma starts to giggle. And then breaks out into a full-throated laugh. I’ve never seen her laugh like that. Perhaps, it is this laughter that she has for so long kept under wraps, so long that it had begun to come out of her like a wheeze. 

“Quick, move it,” the bossy woman shouts, “faster. And be careful. Make sure there aren’t any creases in the cloth. We have to send this consignment today…”

“God help us,” these three funny-serious words I recognise. It’s Ma’s voice. It’s the way Ma expresses herself… many times over in a day… when Pa rains fire and brimstone on her, or when his mental sister rats on her or when my aunt gives her some armchair advice. 

“God help whom?” a woman next to her asks Ma, “help this lady Hitler?”
“Help everybody,” says another, “except Kartiki’s sister-in-law, who sent her husband to heaven only to make life hell for her…”

“But now it’s all over,” Ma says laughing, “that hell’s not mine anymore. It’s hers now. I’ve found my heaven. Here.”

I am gripped by a strange sensation. A strange hesitation at approaching my own mother. Suddenly she feels so different from the wheeze machine I’d known all my life. She hasn’t seen me but I have seen her, or a part of her that I’d never known she had.

I turn to go, knowing that I needn’t worry about her anymore. 

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Translator: Dhiraj Singh is Director, School of Media and Journalism & The Idea Lab at MIT-World Peace University in Pune. He is also a TV personality, short-story writer (writing in English), journalist, abstract artist and translator. Currently he is a former consultant to the Speaker, Lok Sabha. He lives in Delhi and his art and writings can be seen on his blog:

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