The tall handsome man got down from the Jaguar convertible. His sunburnt face and bleached blond hair was as sleek and shining as the surface of the car he was driving. He bent his head to open the door on the passenger side of his car. His companion, a tall brunette with a mass of curly black hair, did not appear to think that a figure-hugging Dior dress teamed with blood-red stilettos was an incongruous selection of attire for the Australian outback.
The Jaguar, a flashy yellow, infused some color into the bleak vistas of land, which stretched to the horizon in all directions. Andrea, who had been busy feeding the horses, wiped her dirty hands on her jeans, smoothed her hair and started to contemplate how to get inside the farm without being seen.
Creak. The bus shuddered as if its body was finally giving way and would crumble into bits and pieces of dull rust-colored metal. It was a particularly vicious pothole; the havoc that the perpetual rain wrought on the road was difficult to camouflage, even when the weather was balmy and the sun was benign, bestowing warmth and hope.
Sneha almost fell off her seat. In her intense concentration on the book, she forgot to hold firmly to the metal bars of the seat in front of her. The bus had turned into her road. The ride from school to her house had taken hardly any time. She could see the tall wrought-iron gates that stood like sentinels to the hospital campus where she lived.
“What are you doing? the bus conductor tut-tutted, as he helped her brother down the rickety steps that gave up halfway before reaching the ground, coming to an end in mid-air. “You always jump down before the bus stops properly. Can’t you wait, you will get your lunch,” he admonished.
The school bag weighed heavily on Sneha’s back. It was filled with books: geography, history, physics, and English textbooks, and her half-eaten tiffin. The physics book was half open. The last period in school had been physics. Mrs. Mehra was the physics teacher, whose three jowls with their minute bristles fascinated all the girls and had enlivened the atmosphere, even though it was the last class of the day.
“Now children, think of it, Newton is sitting under a tree, when ping, an apple falls on his head,” Mrs. Mehra had intoned, as she moved ponderously from one end of the room to the other. Her heavily starched sari bristling, as she tried to convey the solemnity and significance of the occasion. The apple presumably had imparted a bolt of intuition and knowledge that changed the course of modern science. But even Newton and his shenanigans were not enough to hold her bench-mate Ajita’s attention.
“Ajita, I will tell ma’am that you are reading a book under the table. You have to give me those romances, I saw in your bag. Promise, I will finish them and give them back tomorrow,” Sneha had told her friend.
Sneha had come to the bus armed with three of Ajita’s Mills and Boons romances and was looking forward to an afternoon of faraway places, populated by fascinating men and women. If only she could shepherd her brother home fast.
“Saurabh, Mini is not coming today. She will stay at her sister’s for a few more days,” Sneha shouted at her brother, who was lingering near the candy shop staring as usual at the bright display of chocolates.
I wish he looked more like the other boys in school, she thought. Sneha’s brother, with his thin wobbly legs and big head, always filled her with a vague sense of uneasiness.
“Pick up your bag from the ground!She is not coming, I just told you,” Sneha tried again.
She waited impatiently at the gate of the hospital campus, where they lived, for her brother. It was like entering a fortress. Even the space that connected the main road to the narrow inside road was filled with six rounded iron rods. They made a terrible metallic clanking noise when a car moved over it.
Now with the afternoon looming tantalizingly in front of her, Sneha was growing impatient. There were sixty more pages in the Mills & Boon she was reading to ruminate over. Reluctantly, she picked up her brother’s bag from the ground and grabbed his hand. “Hold my hand, and don’t try to run, remember what happened the last time you ran over it.”
Her brother was fascinated by the metal rods, shiny and perfect in their alignment, with ominous gaps in between. Sneha was always careful when she crossed the bridge but she was not sure of her brother.
Her mother’s constant, “You will get caught in them, then no one will come to get you out,” had no effect on her brother. Saurabh, with his clumsy ways, was capable of putting his feet into the gap rather than on the rod and Sneha did not want to lose precious minutes trying to extricate him. Today was going to be especially tiresome, and she silently cursed Mini.
“Our home is much better than the family with whom Mini’s sister lives, don’t you think so?” she asked Saurabh. But Saurabh was distracted; he had begun to count the rods loudly as he walked over them. He crossed the rods, safely reaching the other side.
Sneha trudged behind her brother on the asphalt road, hot in the afternoon. Her brother’s bag was heavier than Sneha’s own. Perhaps he had carried his marbles to school. He was running now. His spindly legs were almost flying in the air. “Ma, school is over, school is over,” he screamed and ran with all his might.
As soon as she entered her room,she spied Mini who was sitting in the corner on her murha.
“Hey Mini, when did you come back? Why didn’t you wait for us at the bus stop?” Sneha threw the bags on the bed; after all, Mini was back. She would take out both her and her brother’s books and put them neatly on their desks. She would open their tiffin boxes and fuss over their discarded food, humming some strange tune in her language.
But Mini just sat in her corner. Her habitual red sari, the one she always wore, covered her body like a shroud. Her thick face, with weary, heavy eyes and bloated lips, had a solemn, shuttered look about it. Her skin, oily and glistening, exuded the usual shimmer, suggesting the vivacity of the possessor.
Mini’s home was twenty miles upstate from the town Sneha lived in a small tea plantation.
She was small and dark, and painfully shy. When she had first come to their house, she would linger for hours in their backyard, where Sneha’s mother grew vegetables. Once or twice, Sneha had spied Mini sitting on the branches of the old guava tree that struggled to survive in their garden. The tree’s limbs were gnarled and bent from the exertions of the neighborhood boys and her brother who mistook the tree for an obstacle course that had to be conquered.
Still the tree bore fruit, tiny green guavas, dull pink inside with almost invisible seeds. Sometimes, Mini hitched her sari high, climbed to the top armed with a stick and hit and shook the branches. Soon a shower of guavas would fall to the ground. Green balls, some slightly cracked to give a tantalizing glimpse of a pink interior. Her mother, who always took an afternoon siesta, pretended that she knew nothing of Mini’s digressions.
“Mini, my tiffin is still in the bag,” Sneha said.
She looked at Mini again. “I had a great time at school, Anthony smiled at me today, when I was going to the toilet. Let’s go to the garden and I will tell you all about it.”
In the week that Mini was away, there had been no one to chit chat with while Sneha ate her lunch. Usually, she lowered her voice and talked about Anthony and his friends who studied in class 12. She made up stories of how the tall and handsome boy went out of his way to smile at her. How he had said hello when Sneha and her friends were standing in the line for the morning assembly.
Mini mostly kept quiet, but her eyes glittered as she savored the idea of school. She had never been to the government school at the tea plantation she grew up in.
“Looking after my brothers and sisters was fun,” she said with a determined look on her face. She had never been to the ramshackle thatch-roofed cottage, which functioned as a school in her basti.
Mini’s mother had come to collect her salary two months ago, a tiny baby suckling at her breast. Mini was surprised to see the baby. “When was it born,” she had asked, unable to decipher whether the newest addition to her family was a boy or a girl.
To Sneha, it was slightly blasphemous to see a tiny baby gorging on the body of Mini’s emaciated, stick-like mother.
“What to do, memsahib, God’s blessing,” Mini’s mother had guiltily told Sneha’s mother.
“Just look after my Mini, she is a good girl.” She had gently patted Mini’s head, proffered her a ten-rupee note and gone back.
“Have to return before dark, memsahib, a tiger and a rogue elephant have been prowling in the tea estate. The cicada-infested forests that surround the tea estate and our village always gets dark at night,” Mini’s mother had explained, while refusing to stay for the night.
Now Mini was back from her short holiday with her sister. Sneha had missed her. “Oh Mini! What is the matter with you? Why are you so quiet?”
“What are you doing here? Go and eat your lunch.” Her mother had silently entered the room.
Sneha’s mother did not like her talking too much with Mini. “What do you, a convent-educated girl, have in common with Mini?”
Except for the afternoons, Sneha did not get much opportunity to do so. In the evening, she would sit at her desk to study, while Mini would be in the kitchen to help the cook.
Her mother’s presence surprised Sneha. Her mother rarely missed her afternoon siesta. Sneha could not remember her ever forgoing one. She waited long enough to see Sneha and her brother get out of the bus before retiring to her bedroom. The cooking and cleaning she insisted on doing despite having three helpers tired her by mid-day.
“Tell Kancha to cook,” her father would say, when her mother complained about being tired.
Sneha loved the food that her mother cooked. There was something infinitely satisfying about chewing a mound of rice dunked in the light fish curries that her mother cooked, invariably flavored with a pungent sauce of yellow mustard.
While her mother safely slept, Sneha savored the afternoons, the calm and quiet between the active socializing in her school and the long study-filled evenings. She and Mini would head to the small patch of grass under the guava tree, spread a bamboo mat to keep the damp out and for a change, sit side by side. The sunlight caressing their faces in small yellow round patches after piercing the thick foliage of the eucalyptus trees that formed a wall of protection around their garden.
Sneha wondered what could have kept her mother from her siesta. Her afternoon was taking a different shape. From the dining room where she was having lunch, she could hear her mother talking to her father on the telephone. It was her father’s operation day. He was still in the hospital. Every Thursday and Friday, her father skipped his afternoon siesta and went back to the hospital after lunch.
“I tell you, I am going to telephone the scoundrel’s home and tell his wife. She is only sixteen, I am responsible for her.” Sneha heard snatches of the telephone conversation between her mother and her father.
There was some silence and then her mother’s voice again. “He pushed her to the floor, after sending her sister away to the market to buy fish in the middle of the afternoon. I will expose him to the world, push the veneer of respectability from his face. It will come as a surprise to his snotty wife.” Sneha’s mother was definitely angry. The afternoon was spoiled.
Sneha darted into her room. Mini was still sitting on the murha. Her face was stony, and slow reluctant tears were making their way drop by drop from her eyes to her lap. Oh, why did Mini have to go on a holiday to that pediatrician’s house with his Fiat-driving wife, where her sister worked as an ayah, Sneha cursed.
Mini of the earthy, vibrant sarees, with a fat, vivacious smile. Where are you?
“Mini, no need to cry. Go and change, from now on, you are not going to the shops or out in the garden. You have to be inside the house all the time, you hear me,” Sneha’s mother said. She had again come silently into Sneha’s room.
“You girls are all the same, quiet in appearance but with all sorts of devious tricks. Enticing men and forcing them to do things,” Sneha’s mother snorted.
Mini began to sob.
Sneha went to her bed. The afternoon had taken a different color. She did not want to hear any more of the conversation. She did not really comprehend what had happened, but there was a tinge of imperceptible loss in the air, of something irrevocably lost. She fumbled among her books, and took out the Mills and Boon that she had been reading.
She had carefully wrapped its cover with a newspaper. There was a picture of a man and a woman entwined on the front cover; her mother would get very angry if she saw the picture. She wanted the Australian outback to beckon to her again, away from the guilty feeling that enveloped her whenever she looked at Mini.
Based in Mumbai, Angana Bharali Das is a financial editor.