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My name is Layla and I was born under an unlucky star. The time and place of my birth makes me a Manglik. For a young girl growing up in India in the 1940s, this is bad news. The planet Mars is predominant in my Hindu horoscope and this angry red planet makes people rebellious and militant by nature. Everyone knows I am astrologically doomed and fated never to marry. Marriages in our society are arranged by astrology and nobody wants a warlike bride. Women are meant to be the needle that stitches families together, not the scissors that cut.
But everything began to change for me on April 7, 1943.
Three things happened that day: Boris Ivanov, the famous Russian novelist, slipped on a tuberose at the grand opening ceremony of a new school, fell and broke his leg; a baby crow fell out of its nest in the mango tree; and I, Layla Roy, aged seventeen, fell in love with Manik Deb.
The incidents may have remained unconnected, like three tiny droplets on a lily leaf. But the leaf tipped and the drops rolled into one. It was a tiny shift in the cosmos, I believe, that tipped us togetherBoris Ivanov, the baby crow, Manik Deb and me.
It was the inauguration day of the new school: a rainy-sunshine day, I remember well, delicate and ephemeralthe kind locals here in Assam call "jackal wedding days." I am not sure where the saying comes from, or whether it means good luck or bad, or perhaps a little bit of both. It would seem as though the sky could not decide whether to bless or bemoan the occasionquite ironic, if you think about it, because that is exactly how some people felt about the new English girls' school opening in our town.
The demonstrators, on the other hand, were pretty much set in their views. They gathered outside the school gates in their patriotic white clothes, carrying banners with misspelled English slogans like: INDIA FOR INDANS and STOP ENGLIS EDUCATON NOW.
Earlier that morning, my grandfather, Dadamoshai, the founder of the girls' school, had chased the demonstrators down the road with his large, formidable umbrella. They had scattered like cockroaches and sought refuge behind the holy banyan tree.
"Retarded donkeys! Imbeciles!" Dadamoshai yelled, shaking his umbrella at the sky. "Learn to spell before you go around demonstrating your nitwit ideas!"
Dadamoshai was an advocate of English education, and nothing irked him more than the massacre of the English language. The demonstrators knew better than to challenge him. They were just rabble-rousers anyway, stuffed with half-baked ideas by local politicians who knew what to rail against, but not what to fight for. Nobody wanted to butt heads with Dadamoshai. He had once been the most powerful District Judge in the state of Assam. With his mane of flowing hair, his long sure stride and deep oratorical voice, he was an imposing figure in our town, and people respectfully stepped aside when they saw him coming. To most people he was known simply as the Rai Bahadur, an honorary title bestowed on him by the British for his service to the crown. There was even a road named after him: the Rai Bahadur Road. It's a very famous road in our town and anybody can direct you there, yet it appears unnamed on municipal maps because it does not lead to any place and deadends in a river over which there is no bridge. The Rai Bahadur Road is just that: a beginning and an end unto itself.
When I arrived at the school that morning, the demonstrators were a sorry lot. It had rained some more and the cheap ink from their banners had run, staining their white clothes. What was even sadder was that somebody had tried to hand-correct the spellings with a blue fountain pen. Somewhere down the line, they had simply lost heart. They sat listlessly on their haunches and smoked cigarettes while their limp banners flopped against the wall.
One of them nudged the other when he saw me coming. I heard him say, "It's her, lookthe Rai Bahadur's granddaughter!"
I must have rekindled their patriotism because they grabbed their banners and blocked my entrance to the school. "No English! India for Indians! No English!" they shouted.
I was wondering how to get past them when I remembered something Dadamoshai once told me: Use your mind, Laylait is the most powerful weapon you have. I continued to walk toward them and pointed my mind like a sword. It worked: they parted to let me through. The gate shut behind me, and I continued down the graveled driveway to the new school building. It was an L-shaped structure, freshly whitewashed, with a large unpaved playground and three tamarind trees. Piles of construction debris lay pushed to one side.
The voices of young girls chirruped on the veranda. Students aged nine or ten sat cross-legged on the floor, stringing together garlands of marigold and tuberose to decorate the stage for the inauguration ceremony.
"Layla!" Miss Rose called out from a classroom as I walked past. I peeked through the door. Rose Cabral was sitting at the teacher's desk, sorting through a pile of printed programs. There was a large world map tacked to the back wall and the room smelled overwhelmingly of varnish. Miss Rose, as she was called, was a young Anglo-Indian teacher with chestnut brown hair and pink cat's-eye glasses with diamond accents. The small fry of the school swooned with adoration for her and wanted to lick her like a lollipop.
Miss Rose was about to say something when she sneezed daintily. "Oh dear," she said, wiping her nose on a pink handkerchief edged with tatting lace. "I don't know if it's the varnish or this fickle weather. Layla, oh my! How you have grown! What a lovely young woman you are. Are you still being privately tutored by Miss Thompson, dear?"
"No, not any longer, Miss Rose," I said. "I passed my matriculation last year."
"So you must be all ready to get married now, eh? Suitors will be lining up outside your door."
"Oh nono, I don't plan to get married," I said quickly. "I want to become a teacher, actually." I did not tell Miss Rose that marriage was not in my cards. It would be hard to explain to her why being born under a certain ill-fated star could negate your chances of finding a husband.
A tiny, round-shouldered girl with thick braids appeared in the doorway, pigeon-toed and fidgeting.
"Yes, what is it, Malika?" Miss Rose said. "Miss
"Speak up, child."
"We have no more white flowers, Miss Rose."
"The tuberose? I thought we had plenty. All right, I am coming." Miss Rose sighed, bunching up her papers. "I better go and see what's going on. Oh, Layla, there's a packet of rice powder for you lying on the secretary's desk in the principal's office. I suppose you know what it is for?"
"It's for the alpana I am painting in the entryway," I said. Miss Rose looked blank, so I explained. "You know, the white designs" I made curlicue shapes in the air "the kind you see painted on the floor at Indian weddings and religious ceremonies?"
"Ah yes. They are so intricate. Boris Ivanov will like that. He loves Indian art. I hope you have brought your brushes or whatever you need, Layla. We don't have anything here, you know."
"I don't need any brushes," I said. "I just use my fingers and a cotton swab. I have that. Miss Rose, is my grandfather still here?"
"The Rai Bahadur left for the courthouse an hour ago. He said to tell you he will be home for lunch. Boris Ivanov's train is running three hours late. Let me know if you need anything, Layla. I am here all afternoon."
It was close to lunchtime when I got the alpana done, so instead of going to the library as I had planned, I went home. Dadamoshai's house was a fifteen-minute walk from the school. I passed the holy banyan tree and saw that the protestors had abandoned their wilted banners behind it. The tree was over two hundred years old, massive and gnarled, with thick roots that hung down from the branches like the dreadlocks of demons. In its hollowed root base was a collection of faded gods surrounded by tired marigold garlands. I walked past the stench of the fish market, the idling rickshaws at the bus stand and the three crooked tea stalls that supported one another like drunken brothers, till I came to a four-way crossing where I turned right on to the Rai Bahadur Road.
It was an impressive road, man-made and purposeful: not like the fickle pathways in town, that changed directions with the rain and got bullied by groundcover. The road to my grandfather's house was wide and tree-lined, with Gulmohor Flame Trees planted at regular intervals: exactly thirty feet apart. Their leafy branches crisscrossed overhead to form a magnificent latticed archway. On summer days the road was flecked with gold, and spring breezes showered down a torrent of vermilion petals that swirled and trembled in the dust like wounded butterflies. Rice fields on either side intersected in quilted patches of green to fade into the shimmering haze of the bamboo grove. Up ahead, the river winked over the tall embankment where fishing nets lay drying on bamboo poles silhouetted against the noonday sun.
I adjusted my eyes. Was that a man standing under the mango tree by our front gate? It was indeed. Even at that distance, I could tell he was a foreigner, just by his stance. His legs planted wide, shoulders thrown back, he had that ease of body some foreigners have. I was curious. What was he doing? His hands were folded together and he was gazing up at the branches with what appeared to be deep piety. Oddly enough, it looked as though the foreigner was praying to the mango tree!
The man heard me coming and glanced briefly in my direction. He must have expected me to walk on by, but when I stopped at our gate, he looked at me curiously. He was a disconcertingly attractive man in a poetic kind of way, with long, finger-raked hair and dark and steady eyes behind black-framed glasses. A slow smile wavered and tugged at the corners of his mouth.
When I saw what he was holding in his cupped hands, I realized I had misjudged his piety. It was a baby crow.
"Do you live in the Rai Bahadur's house?" he asked pleasantly. He spoke impeccable Bengali, with no trace of a foreign accent. I figured he must be an Indian who probably lived abroad.
"Yes," I said.
The man was obviously unschooled in the nuances of our society, because he stared at me candidly with none of the calculated deference and awkwardness of Indian men. I could feel my ears burning.
The crow chick struggled feebly in his hand. It stretched out a scrawny neck and opened its yellow-rimmed beak, exposing a pink, diamond-shaped mouth. It was bald except for a light gray fuzz over the top of its head. Its blue eyelids stretched gossamer thin over yet unopened eyes.
"We have a displaced youngster," the man said, glancing at the chick. "Any idea what kind of bird this is?"
"It's a baby crow," I replied, marveling how gently he held the tiny creature. It had nodded off to sleep, resting its yellow beak against his thumb. He had nicely shaped fingernails, I noticed.
I pointed up at the branches. "There's a nest up that mango tree."
He was not looking at the tree, but at my hand. "What's that?" he asked suddenly.
"Where?" I jerked back my hand and saw I had traces of the white rice paste still ringed around my fingernails. "Oh," I said, curling my fingers into a ball, "that's
that's just from the alpana decoration I was doing at the school."
"Are you related to the Rai Bahadur?"
"He is my grandfather."
"Is this the famous English girls' school everybody is talking about? What is the special occasion?"
"Today is the grand opening," I said. "A Russian dignitary is coming to cut the ribbon."
"Boris Ivanov?" he asked.
I stared at him. "How did you know?"
"There are not many Russians floating around this tiny town in Assam, are there? I happen to be well acquainted with Ivanov."
I wanted to ask more, but refrained.
He tilted his head, squinting up at the branches, then pushed his sliding glasses back up his nose with his arm. The chick woke up with a sharp cheep that startled us both. "Ah, I see the nest. Maybe I should try and put this little fellow back," he said.
"You are going to climb the mango tree?" I asked a little incredulously. The man looked too civilized to climb trees. His shirt was too white and he wore city shoes.
"It looks easy enough." He looked up and down the branches as though he was calculating his foothold. He grinned suddenly, a deep crease softening the side of his face. "If I fall, you can laugh and tell all your friends."
I had no friends, but I did not tell him that.
"There's not much point, really." I hesitated, wondering how I was going to say this without sounding too heartless. "You see, this is very common. Baby crows get pushed out of that nest every year by
" I moved closer to the tree, shaded my eyes and looked up, then gestured him over. "See that other chick? Stand right where I am standing. Can you see it?"
We were standing so close his shirtsleeve brushed my arm. I could smell the starch mingled with faint sweat and a hint of tobacco. My head reeled slightly.
He tilted his head. "Ah yes, I see the sibling," he said.
"That's not a siblingit's a baby koel."
His face drew a blank.
"The Indian cuckoo. Don't you know anything about koels?"
"I am afraid not," he said, looking bemused. "But I beg to be educated. Before that, I need to put our friend down someplace. I am getting rather tired of holding him." He looked around, then walked over to the garden wall and set the baby crow down on the ground. It belly-waddled into a shady patch and stretched out its scrawny neck, cheeping plaintively.
I was about to speak when a cloud broke open and a sheet of golden rain shimmered down. We both hurried under the mango tree. There we were all huddled cozily togetherthe man, the chick and me.
A cycle rickshaw clattered down the road. It was fat Mrs. Ghosh, squeezed in among baskets and bundles, on her way home from the fish market. She looked at us curiously, her eyes bulging slightly, perhaps wondering to herself: Am I seeing things? Is that the Rai Bahadur's granddaughter with a young man under the mango tree? This was going to be big news, I could tell, because everybody in town knew that the Rai Bahadur's granddaughter avoided the opposite sex like a Hindu avoids beef.
The cloud passed and the sun winked back and I hurried out from under the tree. To cover up my embarrassment, I launched into an involved lecture on the nesting habits of koels and crows.
"The koel, or Indian cuckoo, is a brood parasite," I said. "A bird that lays its egg in the nest of another. Like that crow's nest up there." I pointed upward with my right hand and then, remembering my dirty fingernails, switched to my left hand. "See how sturdy the nest is? Crows are really clever engineers. They pick the perfect intersections of branches and build the nest with strong twigs. They live in that same nest for years and years."
"Are their marriages as stable as their nests?" The man winked, teasing me. "Do they last as long?"
that I don't know," I said, twisting the end of my sari. I wished he would not look at me like that.
"I am only teasing you. Oh, please go on."