Nobody with his head screwed on would consider visiting a tiger reserve with family and friends on his honeymoon. I know. But my husband-to-be is a man with a difference. As they say, you get to know the guy after it’s too late to wriggle out of the commitment. I should have known; this is my second go at matrimony.
Until last month, things were cruising along perfectly. Pun intended. We were debating between an Alaskan and a Mediterranean cruise for our romantic getaway. You get the picture—why I want to hitch my wagon to his, that is—DK is loaded, and my mission is to help him make the best use of his money. Then he drops the bomb, over lobster thermidor at the Otters’ Club.
“Darling, did I tell you Mahee is coming for our big day? Although the poor child is burdened with coursework, she requested the school to give her a fortnight off for her grandfather’s wedding, and guess what, they agreed!”
Ranjana is a rummy fiend.
She is eyeing her cards with the smile of a sphinx.
Soon her fingers will wield magic, and she will complete, with a flourish, her fourth consecutive run. Natasha will throw her hands up in surrender. Sara will curl her lips. Mrs. Sawhney, a veteran member of the Prometheus Club, will wink at her, with a rakish grin only a septuagenarian can pull off. Four decades ago, Mrs. Sawhney was pretty much like Ranjana herself, only slightly more voluptuous. The coterie of women in the club yearned to be like her, although they wouldn’t admit it even at gunpoint.
Ranjana, daughter of a celebrated diplomat and wife of the Honourable Commissioner Surendra Raghuvanshi, evoked similar emotions amongst her peers. The genteel curve of her brows, arched over eyes twinkling with an adamantine sheen, her high patrician nose, and her plummy, sophisticated voice made her the mascot of an aristocratic lineage. Surendra was quite a dark horse in his circle. His burning ambitions only added to his boyish charms and pushed him higher up in the ranks at a dizzying speed. Forty-three and at the top of his game already! Everything about him exuded a heady animal magnetism people found hard to resist. He was a connoisseur of art, music, and vintage collectibles. It was no big surprise that he chose a wife as delectable as everything else he possessed. If Surendra was a dark horse, Ranjana was a chestnut gazelle. Her slender frame moved with fluidity and grace. Her kohl-lined eyes were dark as absinthe and equally intense. So was she. Strong-minded and opinionated, men found her airs hypnotic. Women had a more visceral reaction, a melange of awe, envy, and resentment.
“Dadi, please stop throwing methi leaves on the answer sheets.” From where I was perched, I could watch over everyone in the courtyard. I had one eye on them, the other on the open pages of my history textbook.
The Indian Renaissance:
Social Reforms and Women Empowerment
Half of these words sat in the shadow of my head. I sat on the steps that went up to the roof of the house, a few peanuts in my fist, head resting ever so slightly on the iron railing through which I could see everyone if I rolled my eyes to the left.
It was difficult to concentrate with all the chatter. Everyone drags their chores to the centre of the courtyard, around our holy tulsi plant, during winter months. Whatever can be done in the sun is done in the sun. My grandmother was settled comfortably on a jute charpoy in this courtyard. The shadow of a towel hanging above her, on a clothesline that ran from a nail on one wall to the water pipe in the opposite corner, fell on her face. Like a starving cat with a heavy coat, her crisp starched puffy saree didn’t give away her small-boned figure. From up here she looked like a bundle of clothes, her back rounded and one knee pulled close to the chest, as she craned her neck into her work. She was sifting through small heaps of coriander, dill, and fenugreek, separating fresh leaves from the thick stalks. A quick pinch —and into a large dish with tiny holes they went. The stalks were thrown into a pile on the floor right next to her; they would later be disposed, into the flowerbed in the corner, where purple periwinkles bloomed scantily.
The first time Arun and I go out after I lose my voice is to Niti and Kevin’s house. The evening of December tenth, their wedding anniversary. Eight years they’ve been married, eight years we’ve been friends. If I skip their party, they won’t hold it against me. Our friendship is stronger than that, but Arun won’t let me test it.
“You’ve got to get out of the house” —his answer to everything I say.
When the argument tires me out, I give in. The other guests have already filled up their lawn when we arrive. I peer at the crowd from inside the car. Panic pins me to my seat. I can’t breathe, can’t stretch my arm out and reach for the door. An avalanche of sympathy is about to hit me. Condolences are the last thing I want, but condolences will bury me alive when I go out there.
It had happened again. He could hear it in the flatness of her voice. He felt that familiar rage taking shape inside his head, but forced himself to concentrate on her voice. “Yes,” he said, “I have noted down the list. Shall I repeat it, Didimoni?”
“No, no need, just bring it over when you have the time,” she replied, her voice flat and exhausted.
If he could, he would have rushed over with the groceries right away. But that would not help. Making a tremendous effort, he kept his mind on his work, on Barun da’s endless chit chat and instructions. He even managed to smile at one or two of his jokes. As they shut down the shop, Barun da helped him to load the three or four grocery bags, for the home deliveries Rongon would make before he went home. And, as every day, Barun da called after him—“Go home straight after the deliveries, Rongon—those boys are not good for you! And come on time tomorrow.”
As Rongon cycled away, he thanked the Universe for bringing him to Barun da’s doorstep, and as he did unfailingly, as he thanked the Universe, he remembered to register his complaint against it. But there was no time— here was the Banerjee house, and he got off his cycle to deliver the bag of groceries. As he completed the next three deliveries, his heart began to quicken. He slowed down as always, his emotions slowly spooling away from his control, slowing his cycle, tightening his voice, clamping down on his soul.
“Chikki called in the morning,” Amma begins, seated at the dining table.
Dinner conversations at home have always been severely orchestrated, progressing into a chaotic crescendo. It always begins with the most neutral subject, me. And usually Achan sits silent, regarding his food with empirical interest. He is on standby for his cue.
“She’s had fever for two days now,” Amma continues.
“Has she been taking medicines? Ask her not to self- medicate.”
“Why would she self-medicate?”
“Alla, isn’t that what everyone in your family does?” Achan asks.
“I’ll be grateful if Chikki doesn’t inherit your arrogance.”
“You should be grateful if she turns out like me,” Achan responds grimly. “God forbid she becomes like you.”
There is very little light in this cell. I stare at her through the iron bars. She looks angry. There is no remorse in her eyes. She is tired, I know she is. I am tired too, like her and Siraji and the two other porters in our small team. But why is she angry? Her smile is gone. Why does she look at me like that? Like I am a stranger? She is the only mzungu here, and people are staring at her.
My name is Lucas Mtui and I have spent the last five days with her. I am not a stranger to her. I am an assistant guide of the Kilimanjaro National Park (KINAPA), but after this I am not sure if I will be, because she has taken away my name and given me a number. She says I am a thief.
She remembers the conversation like it had happened yesterday.
“Is the trip going okay, Ma? You sound tired,” she’d said on the phone, from her hotel room in Kochi.
“Yes, yes, everything is fine. The weather’s been acting up a little. And the helicopter rides were not available. We had to take mules, instead, for the climb to Kedarnath. It was drizzling throughout. But we’re here now.”
“Have you found accommodation?”
“Oh, yes, yes, everything has been arranged by the tour company. We’re staying at a comfortable guesthouse. It’s not far from the shrine. We will go for the darshan in the morning. Don’t worry about us. We’re fine. How is your dance tour coming along?”
“There’s no poison in this,” Grandma said.
The teacup rattled, sending spurts of black liquid onto the saucer. Grandpa grunted. He ignored the wafts of steam that curled out of the cup like fine strings floating in the air. He kept his eyes on the typewriter as his fingers drummed on the keys, weaving crisp black letters on paper. Grandma shook her head, knowing that there was no way Grandpa was going to inch away from the machine.
For as long as I could remember, it was the same routine every morning at ten. Grandpa, or Tok as my siblings and I fondly called him, would crouch on a stool in front of his butter-yellow Remington typewriter. He would take a Good Morning towel and rub the machine until it gleamed like Aunty Noh’s marble table. Satisfied, he would load a sheet of paper and turn the carriage knob. After adjusting the paper arms, he would set his fingers free to do the jig on the keys, competing with the sound of Grandma’s ladle on the wok as she busied herself in the kitchen.
I figured I must have fainted and dropped the phone. Probably I got a bump on the head, and that was the cause of the change in my eyesight. I hurried to pick up my phone before anyone could step on it. I saw my arm reaching out—but somehow my hand couldn’t pick the thing up. I tried several times, thinking I had bumped my hand as well as my head and numbed it, like when you hit your funny bone. The feeling was different, though. Not a flash of painful sensation in my elbow or tingling in the wrist. Just—nothing. I was puzzled. How could I have hurt myself so badly that I didn’t even feel any pain?
Thinking I’d go and find some help, I stood up slowly, my feet on either side of the smartphone to keep it from being stepped on. That’s when I noticed that there was no one nearby. Turning carefully, I saw that a small crowd had congregated in front of a train which had stopped on the other side of the platform. The light and the colours were still blinding, but the sounds from the scene came up only gradually. I began to hear exclamations, and one or two women screaming breathlessly. Suddenly, a brilliant flash of white rushed past me—two men in white uniforms, with a stretcher between them piled with blankets. A group of policemen followed closely behind. Like the light and the colours, the movement of the men was so intense it made me dizzy. The policemen hustled the crowd aside while the men in white jumped down in front of the train and busied themselves with something there.