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Lilac House, The
CYCLOGENESIS OF DESPAIR
A child, awake or asleep, has no sense of evil. No presentiment of what may happen in the time to follow. A child's brow rests smooth, unlined, untroubled, until knowledge descends upon it.
In the painting Infant Moses Brought Before Pharaoh's Daughter by William Hogarth, let us for once turn our eyes away from all the supporting cast - the maids and the Pharaoh's daughter; let us not dwell on the dark shadows or the building clouds. Instead, let us seek the child Moses who is a child as children should be, without the burden of a past or the knowledge of a future. It is that perfect moment when we believe all of us and all around us are in harmony. Only children know it, and the clouds and the seas.
But even the clouds and the seas are not untouched. For with no real warning, with neither portent nor omen, it is quite possible for a quiet wave to begin within what is considered a closed system. A stream is activated. When the wave turns counterclockwise, it does so by turning on its head all that is known and understood, causing a deeply intense and unstable atmosphere.
When despair strikes, it is the same. There is a mad scramble to make sense of what is happening. The mind whirls, turning every event over, seeking an explanation, a reason ... The only certainty about a cyclone or despair is the uncertainty it triggers. And as with despair, the cyclogenesis of a tropical storm is seldom announced. What is certain is the resultant turbulence.
Professor J. A. Krishnamurthy The Metaphysics of Cyclones
The scream pierces the house. The lilac house. A long drawn out scream of terror.
Meera wakes with a start. Her hand goes to her mouth. Has she been screaming? She waits for the lights to be switched on, doors to be opened. But there is only silence and darkness and hair that stands on end.
Meera gets out of bed, pushes her feet into flip-flops and creeps into the corridor.
A grove of shadows, where Meera who fears nothing can chase that shout of panic, shackle its goat legs and slit its throat. In all these years, Meera has forbidden panic entry into her lilac house.
When Daddy died leaving very little behind, when a silver oak came cascading down on the kitchen, when Giri was laid off work, when Nayantara left home at seventeen, when Lily's ankle broke, when the septic tank overflowed and the mushy sweet pong of faeces began permeating their every breath, when Lily's maid and Meera's anchor decided that henceforth every new moon night the goddess of Melmarvathur, Parasakhthi, would seek her out as an oracle, high priestess and repository, when nine-year-old Nikhil's class teacher called Meera to say that he had smuggled in a bra to school as part of a dare and Meera didn't know whether to laugh or cry or worry if the bra was an ancient one with frayed lace or an extravagantly sexy red confection of nipple net and underwire hoist, when silverfish chewed their way through all the notes she had been making in the hope that one day she would do her dissertation 'on the role of water tanks in American fiction rooted in suburbia', when she discovered a lump in her breast and in Giri's briefcase a secret sheaf of bills - lunches, drinks for two, a bottle of perfume - each time the furies and fates disturbed the quiet fabric of siesta that was her life, Meera strangled panic even before it made known its presence. Who dares panic in her home now?
She pauses outside the door of a bedroom. Her mother's. She can hear even breathing punctuated by a gentle snore. She smiles, a curl of grimness. Mummy, who actually claims that most nights she doesn't sleep a wink, and that's what causes the dark circles around her eyes. The next time she uses her sleepless nights as an excuse to get out of something she doesn't want to do, Meera will tell her. It just might wipe the smugness off her face for a second.
Next, she pauses outside her grandmother's door. Two sets of snores heave within. The old woman on the bed. The maid on the floor.
As she walks towards Nikhil's room, she hears the muttering. He is talking in his sleep. Meera opens the door and creeps in. The thin quilt he covers himself with is tangled around his legs.
She caresses his brow. 'Hush, hush, baby!'
Nikhil's eyes snap open. 'Daddy! Is Daddy home?'
'Go to sleep, darling. He'll be home in the morning, you'll see!'
'I dreamt Daddy's car was perched at the edge of a cliff. He was trying to get out before it went over. He was shouting for me to help him.' Nikhil shakes at the horror of it. 'I tried to run to him. But my legs wouldn't move. I really tried, Mummy, I did...'
'Ssh ...' Meera murmurs, cradling his head against her.
Sheela, the woman from the PR company, had arranged for someone to drop Nikhil and her home. A man who was at the party and lived in her neighbourhood, Sheela said. He was perfectly safe, even if he was a stranger. She and he had been friends from their college days.
Meera was relieved to hear that he was a stranger. She preferred that to going with someone she knew. A stranger would ask few questions and wouldn't speculate about Giri's going away.
She had watched Nikhil's eyes scan the road. He searched faces, parked cars, number-plates. When the scream resonated throughthe car, the blood drained from her face. What on earth? Then she saw Nikhil's grin and felt as if she wanted to burst into tears. How could he?
And Giri, she wanted to scream. What is this game you are playing? Where have you gone?
As if from a distance, she thought she heard the man say something. And she heard herself replying on auto pilot, 'Oh, what you need is a recipe for a quick cold soup! A gazpacho, perhaps.'
What had he asked?
The car pulled up outside their gate. Nikhil and she stood watching it drive away. A little blue car.
'Did you see the inside of his car? What a mess! He has groundnut shells in a paper bag along with a million books and files. Do you think he treats the back seat as his office?' Nikhil chattered.
She listened without registering what he said. All she could think of was Giri and his disappearing act. What was it all about? So when he suddenly asked, 'Did Daddy text you?' she said automatically, 'No.' Then, because she was afraid of what she might see in his eyes, she said carefully, 'Nikhil, don't tell anyone yet that Daddy went away without telling us. You know how they are...' she finished, not knowing what to say next.
'But where do you think he went, Mummy?' Nikhil asked, more curious than afraid.
Meera shook her head. 'I don't know. Maybe he had an urgent business meeting to go to.'
'Why couldn't he have just told you that?' Nikhil said, accepting her explanation and kicking the gate open in one swift boyish act of innocence.
Meera watched him walk in. She followed, wondering what excuses she could make for Giri's absence. Unless, of course, he was already home. She hurried in, the thought lending speed toher step. Maybe that was it. Something, the heat or the alcohol, had triggered a migraine and he had rushed home before it became unbearable and he couldn't drive. He knew, if he told her, she would have insisted on their leaving together and he wanted her to have a good time.
He must be in their room with the curtains drawn tight to block the light and with the fan whirring at top speed. He would be lying there reeking of Tiger Balm, his arm over his forehead, as if only by this careful arranging of his limbs would he be able to leash the pain. If she were to even exhale, he would growl, 'Can't you keep it low? I have a headache!'
The bathroom would bear the stench of vomit. That, too, was routine. The throwing up. Mostly, he cleaned up himself. He was a meticulous man. But if he was really unwell, then that too would be waiting for her.
For once Meera longed for the growl and the irritation, the bits of food and bile splattering the toilet bowl. For the stench and for her own insides to heave involuntarily. Poor baby, Meera thought, rushing to minister comfort to the migraine stricken Giri.
Meera walked into the house to hear Nikhil say, 'Dad's gone to the golf course.'
Her mother said, 'Your father doesn't play golf!'
'Actually, he doesn't play anything.' Her grandmother laughed.
Nikhil pushed his hands into his pockets. 'Did I say he was playing golf? He's gone with a friend.'
'What friend?' her mother asked.
'He has no friends,' her grandmother added.
She wondered if she should go to the police. The very thought was daunting. She had never been to a police station before. What did one do? What did one say? Then there was the matter of bribes. She could hardly slip notes into the policeman's waitinghand under the table or into his pocket while muttering, 'A little tea money!'
From the movies, she knew that twenty-four hours had to go past before a missing person complaint could be made. She was panicking for no reason. He would be back soon. She would wait twenty-four hours before she worried, she told herself as she removed her earrings, sitting in front of the dressing table.
In the mirror, she could see the bed with its coverlet stretched tightly across and the plumped up pillows resting against the bolsters. A pristine bed, strangely forlorn.
At seven her mother settled in front of the TV with a notebook and pen. 'Please Nikhil, no chit-chat!' she told the silent Nikhil who was plugged into his iPod maze of 1756 songs.
'Why don't you just ask me to shut up?' her grandmother said.
'Please Mama, it's my favourite programme. I have a library meeting next week. I need to know what to recommend!'
'Rubbish! Do you think that man reads any of those books? All he does is read the back of the book! How can you be taken in by him? And I think he wears foundation cream. Can't you see that line by his jaw?' Lily mumbled querulously.
'What do you know of books? All you do is watch movies or talk shows all day. I don't know how you can watch such mindless nonsense.'
'Better than those travel and living programmes you watch. Where do you think you are going? Or, for that matter, when was the last time you cooked anything? Ha!'
The bickering continued. Meera rubbed her forehead. Her head throbbed. She wished she could turn and snap, 'Shut up! Shut up! Can't you see that I am worried? I don't need this as well.'
But she couldn't. No matter what, Meera never lost her temper. She never flared or snapped. She was just not like that.
Hoping to restore peace and some calm in her head, she intervened with a 'Lily dear, can I fix you a drink?'
Lily dear gleamed. 'I thought you would never ask. And pour her one too. She'll say no if you ask and then steal sips from my glass when no one's looking.' Lily gestured to her daughter with her chin.
Lily pounced on the sigh. She scrutinized Meera carefully. The drawn face and the shadows beneath her eyes. Lily frowned. What was wrong, she wondered. Then she put it out of her mind. One of the benefits of growing old was this: being able to push aside any troubling thoughts that entered one's mind with, it will resolve itself or somebody else will do it! No need to get your knickers into a twist.
Nevertheless, Lily reached across and touched Meera's elbow. 'What about you? You look like you need one!'
Meera shook her head. 'I had plenty to drink at the party. Too much, in fact!'
She caught Nikhil's eyes on her face. What was he thinking?
Meera thought of the image they must make. Three women of three generations and a young boy, cast in a room of fading splendour. The pools of light, the shadows, the long convoluted histories of how they came to be where they were.
In the 1930s, when Raghavan Menon began working in Calcutta, he fell in love with a way of life. Calcutta reminded him of his Calicut in many ways but there was more. Art flourished in every home and in one of those soirees he had taken to attending, he met Charu, a Bengali woman. When he married her, he became a born-again Bengali. Charu died some years later and Raghavan Menon decided to send his daughter Leela to Santiniketan. 'I want culture to course through her veins. I'd prefer culture to blood, in fact!' he told his brothers who advocated that he send Leela to study in Calicut instead.
The brothers shook their heads in sorrow. If the girl had come to Calicut, he would have returned home perhaps and made a life there. Now, he was lost. Soon thereafter, they sent him a cheque as his share of the family estate.
Then a well-known Bengali director spotted Leela, and Lily was born. Hindi cinema already had a Leela and so it was decided that the name she was called at home would be her screen name. Lily the actress did only offbeat cinema and just as the movie-going world was getting interested in her, she married Sandor, a Hungarian painter. They came to live in Bangalore in this house that Raghavan Menon found them.
Saro was born. Saro was sent to expensive schools. Saro fell in love with her best friend's brother and married him. Sandor died, and a year later Saro was widowed when she was thirty-nine. It was to this house she came then, seeking refuge for herself and her nineteen-year-old daughter Meera.
A window rattled, shaking Meera out of her reverie. She ran a hand through her hair and leaned back in her chair, pretending to be absorbed by the breaking news on TV.
Lily and Saro had settled their differences and were sipping their drinks. The bickering was customary. Like Saro's book buying. One book of fiction preferably by someone who had just won an important prize, or was being hailed by the literary establishment that month as the voice of the century. And another of non-fiction, usually a biography or a historical account, preferably by an Englishman. Saro only bought books that had sold at least 100,000 copies or would post a major prize. And the books programme steered her towards these titles. It was completely beyond her to consider a book merely because the title excited her, a book no one had ever heard of. She couldn't take the chance. Her reputation was at stake after all. Saro liked to be thought of as a woman of taste, whether it was in clothes, jewellery or books.
In contrast, Lily picked her reading by the book jacket. 'Give mea book with a man and a woman searching each other's eyes. Or one with a knife and a red blob. Or some such thing. I assure you it will be truly unputdownable. Though she won't agree, of course! She is such a snob.' She cocked an eyebrow at Saro, her daughter, Meera's mother.
They quarrelled through the day. If it wasn't books, then it was a plant or a piece of furniture or a memory they both remembered differently, or a recipe that each swore was the authentic version. If they didn't, one of them was ailing or troubled. So Meera gauged the well-being of the old ladies by the vitriol they hurled at each other. That night, they were well enough. They didn't seem perturbed by Giri's absence.
Nikhil worried her, though. He was quiet. Too quiet. 'Are you all right, baby?' she asked.
He peered at her. 'Don't call me baby!'
Then he asked suddenly, 'Did you try his mobile?'
Meera nodded. 'Unreachable.'
'What will you tell them if he doesn't come home by midnight?' Nikhil whispered. They looked at the old ladies watching a programme that they both enjoyed. A talk show with a hostess who was sophisticated enough to satisfy her mother. And an ex-movie star, which made her glamorous in her grandmother's eyes.
'No whispering in public,' her mother said.
'Naughty secret, is it?' her grandmother added, speculation lighting up her face.
Meera sucked on a melting ice cube. She hoped it would freeze the scream that threatened to erupt from her mouth any moment now.
Her phone beeped. Nikhil looked up. Meera grabbed the phone. New Message. It would be Giri texting, explaining, apologizing, saying he would be home soon.
It was an advertisement for ring tones. Meera dropped the phone and reached for another ice cube.
'Can we order a pepperoni pizza?' Nikhil said.
'No,' Meera snapped. 'You had pizza three days ago!'
'It's not good for you to eat so much pizza,' Lily chuckled. 'All this junk food will show itself twenty years from now. You will be a very fat man.'
'And a poor one,' Saro added. 'Pizza doesn't grow on trees. It's expensive. Do you realize your mother could buy groceries for all of us for a week for that much money?'
Nikhil slammed the book down. 'We never have money for anything. What I can't understand is how we can afford to live in a house like this. Look at it!'
'Nikhil...' Meera growled. She looked beyond him and saw the stillness that had swept into the other women. She sensed it inch into her too. The house. The lilac house. Somehow it always came to that. The house.
Meera asked herself, if it wasn't for the house, would Giri have lingered that first day?
Had the house lost its power to enchant and keep?
Meera kisses the brow of her sleeping child. In the morning, if Nikhil remembers, he will be embarrassed by how he clung to her. He might even deny it outright. 'You must have dreamt it,' he will say defiantly.
But for now he is her little boy again. A little boy who doesn't know what to make of a father who disappeared mysteriously one Sunday afternoon, on a perfect September day.
It had been a perfect September dawn when he saw her first. He said he had been enchanted. He said he didn't know if he wanted to collapse with laughter or lean against the gatepost and watch her forever. Giri said that was when he fell in love.
'Imagine this,' he said, leaning forward to coil a strand of her hair around his finger, 'a girl in an ivory dress. The sun teasing glints of amber in her hair. A barefoot girl chasing a flock of geese through the grass!'
'A gaggle. Not flock,' she murmured.
'Flock! Gaggle! How does it matter? All I knew was, that's where I want to be. With that girl and her pet geese in their lilac house.' He sighed and leaned back in the chair.
His eyes swept over the house and the garden, the blossom laden trellises and borders, the trees and the carp pool with its little stone frog. She saw his eyes pause on her face with the same rapt pleasure. And she knew she couldn't tell him that the white dress was a faded nightie. Or that she had heard the geese in the front lawn and leapt out of bed and run out to chase them away before they trampled all over the newly planted aubergine plants. Or that the geese were merely biding their time as they were fed and fattened to be sold to Hamid Bhai in time for Christmas. (For every goose was worth its weight in gold or would at least help pay for changing the termite infested rafters of the back kitchen.) And that she didn't waste tears or sentiment over the geese as they were taken away to have their long necks wrung and their down plucked. That she feasted on the goose, with as much relish as anyone else. He would have been horrified. He called her his pet goose. Goose girl of the lilac house.
She smiled. She liked being his pet goose.
'All I could think of was, how am I going to get my foot into this door? I was the prince inching around the enchanted house, seeking to find a way in.'
'You just had to say hello and I would have hello-ed you back!' She grinned.
He frowned. 'You don't understand. A hello would have been way too ordinary. I had to discover you, my goose girl of the lilac house.
'So when the model coordinator suggested that we use this house for the photo shoot of Coconut Kisses, I didn't think twice. I said yes.'
She saw it in her mind then. The inward jerk of the elbow, the clenched fist, the explosion of a yes as it conveyed from deep within the desire to discover her. His goose girl of the lilac house. And she gleamed in reflection of that yearning.
The model coordinator couldn't stop beaming. She had never had it so easy. The location and props in one place, with a stylist thrown in for free. Meera had brought out the crocheted doilies and organza napkins with their delicate scalloped edges, the silver napkin rings and the silver tea service, the tiered porcelain cake stand and the Royal Doulton teacups. She had arranged the Coconut Kisses and even found a way to position the biscuit packet in such a way that it blended in, and then set the table. Meera heard the pleasure in the art director's voice. 'Gracious living! It's exactly what we had planned for!'
Meera smiled. She wondered how much she could pad her bill for the props. Gracious living doesn't come cheap, she wanted to say. Then she met his eyes and she saw herself there. And she didn't say anything. She would talk to the model coordinator on the side and she wasn't going to budge from the figure she had in mind.
But he had found reasons to not leave her alone. Again and again he lingered at her side, chatting between the shots. Could it be that a miracle had occurred? Could it be that he was drawn to her? When he came by the next day with a small basket of flowers for her, she laid out gracious living once again, just for him. It was her only weapon. Other girls showed the tops of their breasts or batted their eyelids. Meera had just this to offer and she wasn't going to shy away from it. And the old ladies, they played their parts.
They sat there, mother, daughter and granddaughter, each one of them wooing him, and he didn't even realize it. Lily with her lace fan, fluttering it ever so often with an elegant little movement of the wrist. Saro in her pearls and crisp cotton sari and 'Shall I be mother?'
Only Meera was as she always was. Uncertain, tremulous and hiding behind a façade of remote charm. She prayed her hands wouldn't shake when she offered him the cake. She so wanted it to be right. For Meera had utterly and hopelessly fallen in love.
She crossed her ankles, laid her hands in her lap and said little.
She could see he was charmed. Giri offered adulation as if it was a ginger biscuit on a plate. 'I love the colour of your house,' he said.
Lily widened her eyes and began, 'The painting contractor...'
But Saro cut in with, 'It is very pretty, isn't it? We have such trouble matching it each time we repaint.'
Meera swallowed convulsively. Lily, she realized, had intended to bring forth the story of the painting contractor who had offered them the paint for half the actual cost. He had made a mistake elsewhere and was trying to salvage some of the cost. And they didn't have to pay as much as they would have had to if they had chosen the colour themselves.
Meera rose. 'I need to check on something on the stove,' she said. Her heart wouldn't stop hammering. Would Giri be bored with them? She couldn't bear to see it when it happened.
Lily was silent for a few minutes. Then she set about playing grand dame of the house. 'Meera, wait. Where are you running away to? She's such a shy thing and so conscientious.'
Virtues any prospective husband would want.
'You must tell him about the time David Lean was almost here, when he was shooting A Passage to India!' Lily began.
Meera paused. 'Lily, it's your story... Go on, you tell Giri!'
And Giri said, 'Yes Lily, may I call you Lily, do tell me.'
And then Saro matched celluloid reels with stories of Meera's daddy's tea estates. Not once did they break the rhythm as anecdote followed anecdote.
Lily's brief career as a movie actress in Hindi cinema. The scion of a minor royalty family who fell madly in love with her. The cluster of rubies he set in a ring and had delivered at the doorstep. 'On a cushion held by a turbaned man who looked like a maharaja himself,' Lily giggled.
The meeting with Sandor, the portrait painter from Hungary. Their whirlwind courtship and elopement.
'Saro was a good girl,' Lily said archly. 'None of her mama's madness. When her best friend's brother proposed marriage, she accepted. Meera's daddy was a very handsome man. And the bungalow they lived in at Coonoor, what a splendid house it was!'
'There were four house boys apart from a butler and two cooks,' Saro added. 'The parties we threw...!'
'Meera picked it all up then. How to lay the table and do the flowers, plan a menu and seat the guests. Meera will make an exemplary wife!' Lily leaned forward in a stage whisper to Giri.
From where she stood by the garden door, Meera saw her mother talk in low tones to Giri. She could see that he was enchanted as the old ladies wove their spell around him. For a while Meera continued to worry. Any moment now, it would happen. He would see them for what they were. But Giri didn't. Giri sipped the tea and ate his cake. And Meera slipped into the chair alongside his.
When Saro rose, he jumped to his feet. She smiled her imperious I-am-the-queen-of-this-fiefdom smile and gave him her hand to kiss or hold, but not shake as the rest of the world might be inclined to do. 'Come again, young man. Meera is such a shy creature, it will do her good to meet more young people like you.'
Like you. Meera's heart trilled in joy. Mummy liked him. She actually liked him. And Lily, incorrigible rascal Lily, peered athim with a coy smile and said, 'And so handsome. Meera, don't let him go!'
He blushed then and looked at her. What now? Meera wondered.
'Such lovely ladies,' he murmured.
For now they were the keepers of the gracious lilac house. And protectress of Meera, his goose girl waiting to be discovered.
So when he leaned across and said, 'Would you like to go for a drive? We could stop for an ice cream at the Corner House!' Meera widened her eyes in pleasure, tried not to look at the remains of the tea tray, the sandwiches, patties and biscuits, cakes and crumbs. The thought of an ice cream sat heavy. But she wasn't going to let him slip away from her.
She wanted him. Poor Meera. She never asked what he wanted. Her, the lilac house, or together what they represented.
She let her lips flower. 'I would love to,' she said.
Love to place herself and all she had in his hands, Giri read.
Giri rose six inches high. What man wouldn't? He thought of the riches laid out before him. A bride with social graces and a beautiful old home. A grandmother who referred to Sir Richard Attenborough and Satyajit Ray in the same breath. A mother who breathed finesse. She even had a fork to extract meat ever so daintily from a crab claw.
Giri had never known such people before. He thought of his father in his yellowing banian and dhoti in Palakkad. He thought of the old decrepit house and relatives as stringy and penurious as his father. He had been fortunate in his brains and a Maths teacher, Sivaraman Iyer, who had shepherded him away from home. First the Regional Engineering College, where his eyes widened at a world he never knew existed. Then the IIM in Ahmedabad. Campus recruitment ensured that he found a foothold in the corporate world.
Giri had made careful plans about where he would be by the time he was thirty, forty, forty-five... thereafter would be the playing fields of his life. To accomplish this, he needed to round off the edges that still clung to him from the small-town, lower middle class boy he was. Meera would make this possible, he knew with certainty. Meera, who exuded upperclass-dom like the L'air du temps she wore. Discreet, elegant, and old money.
Giri, on his jaunts abroad, spent many hours in the duty-free area, filing away in his mind accessories to gracious living as epitomized by designer merchandise in international airports. Mont Blanc pens and Burberry coats, Louis Vuitton bags and the crystal world of fragrances. It was here that he almost gave up. The eye could remember patterns and shapes but the nose almost defeated him. The nose was easily tricked. In the end, he got around that too. Each time, he chose a couple of perfumes that he liked the most and persuaded shop assistants to spray them for him on white slivers of cardboard. He would sniff at them diligently, keeping at it until the top note was committed to memory. Giri knew he had to acquire that veneer of polish Meera seemed to be born with.
Giri exhaled. With Meera, he would be able to move on. Finally, he would be free of the yellowing past and the stench of making do. Meera. His. Like the lilac house. L'air du temps.
Meera was to know an occasional qualm. Was Giri in love with her for all the wrong reasons? She thought of the young women who were part of his professional world. Tall young women who wore their suitability like their hair. Shining, groomed and never out of place. Why does he prefer me to them? she asked herself. They are smart, competent, and have careers. Whereas all I have is a postgraduate degree in English and stewardship of this house.
'Don't be silly,' he murmured against her cheek. 'I don't want a journalist, a teacher, a brand manager - it's you I want as my wife.Let me assure you, it takes a really smart woman to be a corporate wife.'
Meera rested her cheek against his. She would be that. A corporate wife. The woman behind his success. It was what she wanted. To be there for him. They would build their lives together.
A few days before the wedding, Saro asked her, 'What now, Meera? Will you move out or will you live here? What does Giri want? Do you know? Have you two even discussed it?'
Giri wanted them there. 'In the lilac house,' he said. 'Why would we want to live elsewhere? It is your home. Our home. Besides, after this, how can I ask you to live in a poky flat?'
Meera felt another qualm. 'Giri, you mustn't get the wrong idea. I...we... don't have much. This house...' she began.
'Ssh. I know what you are going to say. This house is all there is. It is enough, goose girl! Just you in this house is all I ask for.'
Meera wrapped her arms around his neck. She knew what she would do with her doubts and suspicions. Pat them into balls like the tamarind they dried every year in the sun and put away with rock salt in a terracotta jar. Out of sight. Out of mind.
Meera stands at the window and looks out into the darkness. There is a streetlight by the gate. A blue beacon that would show up anyone who stood at the gate.
She is hopeful as she waits. Any minute now, the headlamps of a car will pale the blue light. Any minute now, a rattling, noisy autorickshaw will pull up.
Meera continues to stand there. Suddenly, the streetlamp near the gate splutters and crackles. She watches it for a long while, timing the intervals between each splutter and crackle. Maybe Giri went for a drive to clear his head. His car had a breakdown; she knows how hopelessly incompetent he is when it comes to cars. He doesn't even know how to change a flat tyre. Maybe his phone ranout of charge or there was no signal. The outskirts of Bangalore have many such pockets. This is the only explanation, Meera tells herself repeatedly. What else could it be? She grasps as desperate women do at any straw to prevent her thoughts from going down one particular, obvious alley. A narrow, dark, fetid lane called the other woman.
Had Hera sat thus? Meera asks herself suddenly.
Hera, who had a wedding night that lasted three hundred years. Hera had known how to core the golden apple, scooping a hollow in each half. Into it she had poured all of herself: her fragrance and breath, spit and mucus, milk and wellness, sweat and soul. She had cut a quarter off the half and run it along her limbs, gathering into its juice all the sweetness of her youth and hope, and fed it to Zeus with her lips. His tongue snaked out of his mouth, and fed from hers. They feasted off each other and Hera thought, what other woman will offer him this? What goddess, nymph, mortal creature can match the extent of all I have given unto him?
So Meera had thought when Neruda and then Pushkin first sat on Giri's bedside table where once Deepak Chopra and Thomas Friedman had. When Giri took to twilight walks out of her sight with his mobile hidden in his breast pocket as if it contained a rare pearl. She pretended not to see the changes in his wardrobe or hear his mobile as it beeped a spell first thing in the morning and last thing at night. The pink translucence of a youth rediscovered seldom lasts, she told herself.
I am not Hera, she tells herself. I will not panic. I will not spew venom or make known my rage. I will not lower my dignity or shame myself. I can live with these shadows as long as it is me he comes home to.
Besides, Giri is not Zeus. He isn't a compulsive philanderer, merely a middle-aged man who has had his head turned. Meeratells herself, don't panic, who else can offer him this cornucopia of elegance? Which other woman can lay his table as I do, or make a home for him as I do? The felicity of our lives may be shadowed, but will never be tainted or violated. Giri will not risk losing any of this.
And yet, where is Giri?
Meera squares her shoulders and decides to fill up the time until Giri comes home. There are books to dust in the living room. Hundreds of books Giri has accumulated with his Books & Periodicals expense account.
One by one, Meera wipes them clean. But Giri is yet to come home.
Meera switches on the computer. On a whim, she opens Giri's email account. He has forgotten to sign himself out and Meera enters his private world, heart hammering. But there is nothing for her to discover. All of it is empty. His Inbox, Outbox, Sent box... It is as if he has erased himself out of his own life. And then, in the drafts folder she finds an unfinished email.
When the developers called again last morning, my hand shook as I wrote down their offer. It was serious money. I would never again have to eat shit with that kind of money in the bank. With that kind of security, I could finally do what I want to do. Start something on my own. M mocked me when I tried telling her. 'Oh Giri, first figure out what it is you want to do and then we can talk of selling the house.'
You are being stubborn. No one will ever make such an offer, and for this old house? I said again.
Sometimes I think I could strangle her. She refuses to listen to reason. I tried explaining it to her: Listen to me, Meera, if we did this, our lives would change.
She stared at me with a strange expression. 'Why would you wantour life changed? It's perfect. I am happy. Aren't you happy? I thought you were happy.'
I wanted to reach across and slap her face. Her face that she has slathered with half a tin of fucking Nivea cream. That's her greatest fucking concern. Wrinkles.
Does she for one moment understand what I have to put myself through, day after day? Does she know what I have to do to keep my place on the corporate ladder? The endless dents to my self-esteem? The fear of being made redundant or, worse, passed over for a promotion? What does she know of any of this?
'We have growing children. Can't you see that? You have to stay on in your job. You can't risk everything we have. We owe it to them to provide them the best. Besides, you are too old to play hippy, Giri. Organic farming is all very well. But do you know a spade from a hoe?' she said as if talking to a petulant six-year-old.
Don't patronize me, I said.
But what I really want to do is shake her till her teeth rattle and tell her, Fuck you and your fucking old house!
But I can't stop seeing the figures the property developer quoted. There's nothing to be done but try again. She just needs to be persuaded. I will wait till I catch M in a more affable mood. There's nothing else to do. After all, it's Madam's lilac house.
Meera stares appalled at the unfinished mail. Who was he writing to? And who is this Giri? Where is such rancour and bitterness coming from?
Meera never dreamt big dreams. She had no desire for designer clothes, diamonds or expensive holidays. In those hard years after her father's death, she learnt to worship at the altar of enough. That was all she ever hoped for. Enough to keep the roof over their heads and food in their bellies. Enough to retain dignity and not have to ask reluctant removed relatives for a temporary handout. Enough to live as they did.
Then Meera had her moment of epiphany: Giri. He was thegod of her enough. She hugged her relief to herself. The enough she had always wanted was hers.
Only twice did she know pangs of anxiety that ruffled her sense of peace. Then Meera, the otherwise reticent Meera, bellowed out her pain in the labour room. The nurses had tried to shush her but she had screamed and shrieked to hasten the process whereby she could revert to her state of enough.
When the babies were laid in her arms, the fulfilment she knew drowned her in its completeness. How could anything else compare to this, she thought as her eyes sought Giri's.
Meera reads the mail again. She has been so blind. Giri had wanted more than enough.
And suddenly she is overwhelmed. Meera, goose girl, corporate wife, had forgotten that suspicion, like tamarind, never loses its sourness. It knows how to wait. And when to emerge as a humming swarm with a sting.
Suspicions swarm and hover, ready to sting. Is this the place? How could it be? Perhaps the taxi driver got it wrong...
Grey painted doors line the corridor. A regulation grey that makes the dirty cream coloured walls seem like watered down chicken curry. The mosaic floor is chipped and grimy. He follows the boy down the corridor, feeling his heart sink with every step. Why did she choose to come here?
'There is only one other deluxe room. But that is reserved for the doctor,' the boy says. 'He comes and goes but the room is always kept ready for him. Now this is a very good room too.'
The boy unlocks the door and pushes it open. A swash of warmfetid air rushes out. The boy switches the light on, and the fan. Jak looks around him.
At one end is a bed with a batik patterned sheet stretched across it and a pillow on top of which is a folded sheet. There is a mirror on the wall with a wooden ledge beneath it. By the main door is another door. The bathroom, he thinks, postponing the inevitable shudder at what he would find. A tiny cake of Medimix soap and a sachet of shampoo. A threadbare towel, a grimy bucket and mug. And a toilet he would need to exorcize all his acquired American standards of hygiene to squat upon.
'Tea, coffee, mineral water? Sir! Sir!' The boy's voice splices his thoughts. His eyes are expectant as he stands by the door.
Jak pulls out a fifty-rupee note from his wallet, knowing very well that he is over tipping. The boy beams. He will be useful, Jak knows.
He places his bag on a low wooden table. On the farther side of the room is another door. A grey door flanked on either side by windows. Grey window frames. Overhead, the fan whirrs, stirring air in the still room. He asks himself again, but this dump, why did she choose to come here? What on earth was she thinking of?
Then the boy walks towards the closed door and with the aplomb of an amateur magician pulling a rabbit out of a black top hat, he flings it open.
The tang of the sea. The boom and splash of the breakers. The salt of the spray. The skies. All of it gathers and rushes into the room. Jak walks out into the balcony. He feels his legs tremble. He sees the sea as she must have. And he feels that familiar crouching ache rise and stretch its muscles. She had come here chasing a memory. His memory of this little seaside town, Minjikapuram.
He begins to understand now. He had described to her his first time in Minjikapuram, dredging out the only phrase he remembered from his Perry Mason days: 'Out there what you get is a lungful of storm!'
He had painted a picture for her. The surprise of it, the grandeur. The overwhelming of the self by the sea and wind. She had wanted all that he had known. And so this.
The taxi driver had looked at the piece of paper he had written the address on. 'I'll take you to a better hotel. With cable TV and fridge in the room.'
He shook his head. 'No, I want to go here,' he said, stabbing the paper with his forefinger.
The taxi driver shrugged. Each to his own, but don't blame me if you hate it, the set of his shoulders bristled.
The hotel at Madurai had arranged the taxi for him. 'The driver is from those parts. He should be able to find the place you want to go to,' the reception clerk said.
Jak had nodded. 'Good,' he said. 'That will save me some time.'
'But sir,' the man's eyes had brimmed with curiosity, 'what is there in Minjikapuram? Why are you going there? Are you visiting relatives?'
Jak shrugged. 'Research! Just research work. I am a cyclone expert. And there are some interesting developments on this coastline that I want to study.'
'Ah, I see!' the man said, printing out Jak's bill. 'After the tsunami, some scientists came here. They were on a research trip and were going further south, they said. But you know what I think...' He paused expectantly.
Jak stood there silently, knowing he would hear it anyway. 'You can study nature as much as you want, but you can't ever predict it. Actually, there is nothing in life you can predict.'
Jak remembered this as the car turned onto the market road. Had he ever thought he would come back here again? It was almost thirty-one years ago that he had come to Minjikapuram. After the hustle and bustle of Madras, it had appeared quiet and provincial. He searched the road for some familiar landmark. All he couldremember was the bus stand with a façade of shops in front. And the temple on the hill.
'Do people still come to the temple here?' he asked.
'Not as much. Everyone's rushing to Tirupati or Sabarimala these days. But the people around here still pray to Minjikaiyan and Minjikammal for the welfare of their children. My wife comes once a year and she insists on dragging me along. When it is for one's children, I suppose you don't want to take chances. Our children are our wealth, after all.'
The driver's matter-of-fact pronouncement was something he had heard several times before. But now it had the edge of a gutting knife. It tore into him, eviscerating in one sudden turn.
Jak scanned the shop fronts that flanked either side of the road. The familiarity of it all. Aluminium vessels in one. Sacks of grain in another. A barber shop and an old newspaper and bottle shop. Rolls of fabric at an entrance and saris draped from hooks on the ceiling. The glint of gold from a secluded interior. The fragrance of coriander and coffee that filled the air. The row of flower vendors with huge garlands of marigold and jasmine. A pushcart vendor frying pakodas in a giant frying pan. Beneath a tree sat another vendor with an array of brightly coloured plastic articles spread on a tarpaulin sheet and further ahead, a fortune-teller with his parakeet in a cage. Nothing much seemed to have transpired in the last three decades. It was still a town that happened to be there, going nowhere.
Which was why Jak had been puzzled at first. Why had she even wanted to visit Minjikapuram?
The taxi continued down the market road, past a church. The shops began to thin out and Jak could smell the ocean.
'How far is the sea from here?' he asked the taxi driver.
'Behind the lodge,' the man said. 'But it is not a sea you can swim in. The coast is dangerous.'
'I know,' Jak said. 'I have been here before.'
'Then I don't have to tell you to be careful,' the man said.
'No.' He spoke quietly. If only someone had warned Smriti to be careful.
When the taxi pulled up outside an ugly bleached building, he asked, 'Are you sure this is the place?' The driver stared at him blankly, then shrugged. 'This is the lodge. Not at all suited for people like you. You want me to take you elsewhere? I know of a really good place...'
Jak held up his hand to pause the flow of words. He paid the driver and pushed open the metal gate. Somewhere in this dingy seaside lodge he would find the first clue, he thought.
The reception clerk made him wait as he filled a register. There was a wall-mounted date sheet. 30 September. A line of red plastic chairs stood alongside a wall. A few men sat there, idly flicking through different sections of the newspaper. One man was talking on a mobile phone.
He felt their eyes on him. The smoke from their cigarettes stung his throat. Were you here when it happened, he wanted to ask them. It was in the last week of February. On the twenty-eighth. Do you remember? Wasn't there something you could have done? Anything?
You sir, he wanted to ask an elderly man in a cream coloured half-sleeved shirt and dhoti who was reading a newspaper, you look like a father, a grandfather; an educated man. Shouldn't you have said something? Asked her why she was here. Damn it, isn't that what we do, poke our nose into everything, probe and question all we see? She wouldn't have liked it. She may have asked you to mind your own business. She may have walked away muttering, 'Indians!' But if you had asked her... Maybe.
As he walked away, he heard the elderly man ask the clerk, 'Who is that? Not the type we see here.'
He heard the clerk mutter a response.
'Who is that man?' Jak asked the hotel boy, feeling the elderly man's scrutiny brand his back.
'He owns the hotel. Dr Srinivasan sir. He owns everything here in Minjikapuram. Shops. The hospital. The theatre. Everything. He is a very important man.'
Jak nodded, feigning interest. He felt his thoughts crowd in on him again.
Jak shifts in the chair and puts down the book he is trying to read. He has read the same line twenty times over and it is still only a series of meaningless syllables. He lights a cigar but it tastes bitter and dry in his mouth. He decides to go for a walk. The reception clerk pretends not to see him as Jak walks past. Jak wonders at the hostility of the man's averted glance. It makes no sense at all. They don't even know each other.
He ambles slowly along the road. It is dark by the time he reaches the Minjikapuram main road. He looks at his watch. It is a quarter past six. He stands on the side of the road rubbing the bridge of his nose. What is he doing here?
The cinema theatre is where it used to be, ahead of the bus stand. Jak buys a ticket and enters the darkened hall. He has a seat in the balcony, right at the back. But the theatre is almost empty, so he chooses for himself a seat in the front row. He leans back, propping his feet on the parapet wall in front. He can't remember the last time he was in a cinema theatre.
Appa had liked going to the movies. They would go for the night shows - Appa, Amma and he. It was the one weakness his otherwise austere father allowed himself. Amma wouldn't say it, but movie nights made her especially happy. She would dress in her silks and braid jasmine into her hair. Her laugh would echo through the house and she would cook something special for dinner. As Jak sat there watching the story unfold, of caring husbands and patient wives rewarded, of villains being beaten to a pulp and ofa life blessed with fairness, he wondered if in the movies Amma had found hope, while Appa had sought something else - respite from his everyday. Escape from the life he was condemned to. Or perhaps what he saw in them was the banality that strengthened his resolve to abandon this life.
Late in the night, Jak approaches the bed. Did she sleep on it? Was she alone? Or was there someone else with her? Did they share this room that trapped the sea within its dingy blue walls? Did they make love here? Please god, he prays, let her have known what it is to be made love to gently, carefully and with tenderness. The horror of what happened will never be mitigated. But it makes it one fraction more bearable to know that someone loved her. And that she knew how to give, not just be ruthlessly plundered and violated.
He slams his fist against the wall.
He didn't mean to do this, go back to where it happened. Recreate each moment, examine and deduce. What is the point? Knowing the how and why isn't going to reverse Smriti's condition.
But what is Smriti remembering? He knows he has to find out the genesis of that scream, the source of that terror.
An undefined terror threatens to pull him deeper and deeper into the maze.
He wakes up shivering, cold. Icy fingers clutch his toes.
Smriti used to do that. Hold her hand under the cold water tap, come into his room, lift the bedclothes and grab his feet. When he woke with a start, she would crouch behind the footboard, trying hard not to giggle and give herself away. If he looks now, will she be there?
The sea breeze has an edge. He stares at the sky. The clouds are the colour of brushed steel. He can smell rain.
It has been a long time since he was in the field. But he has always had it. A stirring within him that warns even as the winds gather and collide. Kitcha, the reader of omens, the collector of warnings, the storm warning buoy, his professor called him, only half in jest. That was how accurate Kitcha used to be in his predictions. Then he became JAK. The guru of simulated cyclones. Shorn of his powers, deserted by that intuitive knowing, he didn't know that across the world, his child was being mauled and ravaged. Instead, he was in a Florida beachside home, fucking a colleague's wife against a wall.
'You've wanted this for so long, haven't you, you bitch?' he growled in her ear. And she murmured her willingness, biting down on his shoulder. Bitch. Cunt. Whore. He knew with that unfailing instinct of his that this one was definitely not a blueberry muffin, sweet darling, or mon petit chou sort of a girl. That inside the quiet academic wife lurked a slut only he could excite with his magical incantations of filth: Bitch. Cunt. Whore.
Did someone say that to Smriti? The thought wrenches itself out of his mind. He stumbles out of bed. From his bag, he takes out a blue denim shirt and a photograph. He swaddles the photo frame like he once swaddled her in a shirt, and takes it to bed with him.
You never wanted a child. It frightened you, the thought of being a father. We bring to our adult lives what we learnt from the adults we knew as children. How could you be a proper father? It terrified you that you would be unable to keep the commitment a child would demand of you. That you would fail the child somehow. Just as your father did. Who knew, when the time came, how you would be? Would an innate selfishness emerge? And then there was the responsibility. What did you know of how to bring up a child?
But Nina pooh-poohed your fears. 'You are not the first man to be a father; I am scared too. But this is what I want,' she said, pressing your palm to her still flat abdomen. 'In here is a life. Our life. Our child! Imagine, Kitcha!'
When Smriti was born, you spent all of that first night gazing down at the sleeping child. Your child. You had never known anything like it before: this liquification, this snagging of your heart when her tiny fist clutched at a finger of yours. Mine. My daughter. My life.
When she woke in the night, you would wrap her in an old blue denim shirt soft with many washings. She seemed to prefer it to the gaily patterned baby things Nina and you had bought at the baby shop. And you would take her into the living room. For a while you would walk her slowly, humming under your breath, and then you would sit in the rocking chair by the window and rock her to sleep. Slowly, ever so slowly, the softness of her baby cheek nuzzling the side of your neck, her baby breath of milk and sweetness fanning the skin, the warmth of her body seeping into you. In those dark solitary hours of osmosis you knew yourself to be one with the universe and your child. If her eyelid fluttered, you felt it in the beat of your heart. If her breath paused for even a quark, you felt your heart stop: My child. My daughter. My life.
His eyes feel hot and heavy. His throat aches. The dampness beneath his cheek spreads. In the grey dawn, he lies, a man felled by a thought: why did it have to happen to her?
He draws the sheet to his chin and turns on his side, cradling the bundle.
A sound startles him. He has never heard it before. He hears it again as it escapes his throat. A whimper, a low call of helplessness, a querulous note of fear. And then, because he can't bear to be strong any more, he cries. Quietly at first, muffling his pain andanguish. Only, he can't hold it within any more. The hurt wrenches itself out of him. Jak weeps.
In the morning, he wakes up with a thought: someone would remember. He would ask around. Someone would know. He leaps out of bed and rifles through his bag again. In the documents pouch is the printout. He had folded it into four and thrust it there. Now he draws it out and smoothens it on the table.
She had sent it to him two days before she arrived here. A smiling girl, and behind her, three boys. 'Papa Jak, these are my friends. Asha is not in the picture. The five of us are heading out on the "save the girl child" programme. I am sooo excited!' she had written.
Jak looks at the faces. Where are these children now? The three boys and Asha. Why didn't they come to see her even once? Guilt, perhaps. He could understand that. That they hadn't been there for her.
Yet, something niggles. A feeling of disquiet at such complete silence. There have been a few calls and even a couple of visitors. But none from those in the photograph. The invisible Asha hasn't been in touch either.
What happened here in Minjikapuram?
Lives changed. Smriti's, and his. That much he knows for certain.
The knots will need to be undone. The knots of silence that seem to surround the days before the accident. But how and where will he find that first slack in the string?
Jak unties the string carefully. He opens the newspaper wrapping and within, on a banana leaf, lies the masala dosa he ordered forbreakfast. A blob of red chilli chutney smears an edge of the dosa. A composite wave of memory and aromas rides up his nostrils. The hiss of the batter on the griddle, the dollop of ghee melting and turning the batter to a brown crispness, the onion and chilli from the chutney, the fragrance of food wrapped in banana leaf. Jak feels his mouth water.
Despite everything, despite the world falling around our ears, our bodies will never let us forget that we are alive and needy. That our hunger has to be appeased, our thirst quenched, our desires slaked; our lives spent. There is no escaping that, Jak thinks, as his hand reaches greedily to tear a piece of the dosa.
The boy peers anxiously at Jak's face. 'Is it all right? I had the sambhar and chutney packed separately!' he says, pointing to two plastic sachets brimming with a green and brown fluid each.
Jak nods. 'It's fine. What about you? I asked you to get yourself something too. I hope you did.'
Swami smiles. 'Shall I pour the coffee?' he asks, unscrewing the lid of the flask.
'How long have you been working here?' Jak asks.
'Some months now. Why?'
'Nothing,' Jak says, feigning indifference. 'Someone I know came here earlier in the year. I was wondering if you remember her. She was your age. Nineteen. She came from Bangalore.'
Swami shakes his head. 'There was some problem with that girl. A police case. They sent the clerk and the hotel boy who were here then to Tuticorin. But why? Why do you want to know?'
Jak looks at the floor, schooling his features to not give anything away. 'Just curious. I read about the accident.'
Swami begins cleaning up. 'I could ask Chinnathayi. She works as the sweeper here. She'll know, I am sure. She knows everything and everyone.'
Jak thinks of the elderly woman he has seen sweep the corridor and knows a flaring of something akin to excitement. A feeling that has evaded him for a long time now.
'Chinnathayi hasn't come in this morning,' Swami comes back to tell him.
What do I do now? Jak asks aloud of himself. But Swami has an answer. 'Sir, why don't you go to the government hospital? All police cases are taken there.'
The doctor at the district hospital glances at him as he walks into his room. He has the attendant call Jak in despite the long line of patients. 'Yes, yes, what can I do for you?' he beams, eyeing Jak with the rapacious hunger of a vulture waiting for road kill.
When Jak explains who he is, the doctor's eyes drop. The smile vanishes. 'Please wait outside. I have a long line of patients, as you can see. Actually, why don't you come another day? I am very busy now,' he says, ringing the bell to alert the attendant.
But Jak refuses to leave. He sits there, peering through a crack in the door each time a patient leaves, hoping to catch the doctor's eye.
'Naked. I remember now. It happened some five-six months ago, right? First week of March, if I am not wrong. How can I forget? How can anyone forget? We were all shocked by the state they brought her in. You know how it is usually... we have to cut the clothing off an accident case but in her case, someone had just flung a cloth over her. It was quite obvious that she didn't have a stitch of clothing on her when she had the accident. It makes you wonder what she was up to.' The government doctor turns the pages of the file in front of him, each flick of paper suggesting the contempt he feels for a young woman who is so careless of her modesty and her NRI father who brought her up so.
You stare at the man's bent head and want to punch his face. That's my child you are talking about. If it was your daughter, would you be as callous? Would you sit there exhibiting your disapproval and emanating this 'she deserved all that happened to her' attitude?
And it wasn't an accident. You know that just as I do. They paid you off to turn it into an accident. Is that what paid for the expensive watch you wear, the mobile in your pocket, the car parked outside? You bastard!
You clench your fist, restraining your impulse to haul the man up by his shirt and slam him against the wall.
'Please, sir,' Jak grinds the sir out with as much servitude as he can muster, hoping to evoke a slightly less guarded response. 'We, her mother and I, still can't understand how it happened.'
The doctor looks up and beyond him. 'Is her mother here?'
'No.' Jak wipes his forehead with the back of his palm. 'No, she is not here.'
'You see, that's the problem with you people. You NRIs. You don't understand that grown-up girls need to be with their mothers. You think this is America. You send your daughter back filled with all the permissive ideas you teach them in the West and then when something goes wrong, you blame India for it. She was here with a man, I hear. By herself.'
'She wasn't here with a man. She was part of a group. They were volunteers in an NGO programme,' Jak tries to interject.
The man shrugs. 'A man, a group... Would any Indian girl be so bold? They may have been classmates, but she was alone and who knows what transpired? Didn't you or her mother teach her what to do and what not to do? If you ask me, I would lay the blame at your feet. Her parents.'
Jak rises from the chair. He will not sit here, listening to this pathetic, corrupt creature lecture him on parental responsibility. What does he know about them? Or her? To him, she is just the naked accident case.
'How is she now?' the doctor asks suddenly.
Jak pauses. He stares at him. He sees the tapping fingers, the beads of sweat on his forehead; he sees the evasiveness in his eyes,the compromise he has made with his conscience. He sees a man who has doctored the case sheet.
'You do know the condition she was in when she left here. What do you think could have changed?' Jak says, feeling his shoulders slump.
'But hope is all we have. Don't you see that? You have to believe that somewhere in her, there is a part that is still alive. It tells her that things will change. It will bring her back to us. We have to cling to that thought, Kitcha,' Kala Chithi said in that low, measured voice of hers, which he knew so well and loved. All through his life, hers alone had been the voice of reason.
They were sitting in Smriti's room the day before Jak left for Minjikapuram. 'Look at this,' he had burst out, demanding she see what he did. The room was filled with all the little odds and ends Smriti had collected in her lifetime. Postcards and pebbles. Feathers and paper clippings. Photographs and books. All day they played her the kind of music she used to listen to. On a wall were shelves of her books. And on all the remaining surfaces, the dolls. Plastic, shell, bone, terracotta, metal, rubber, poly-fibre-filled velvet shod dolls... All of Smriti's dolls that had lain in storage in Nina's attic for the last four years. Nina had complained when Smriti packed them away, 'I wish she would let me give them to the Children's Hospital. Why does she want to keep them?'
Box after box of dolls from day one to age fourteen and two months, when Jak and Nina separated.
When Jak sent for them. Nina's voice had cracked on the telephone: 'What perverse idea is this, Kitcha? What are you planning to do with the dolls? You are not making this any easier for any one of us... to handle this... to deal with this tragedy.'
'Tragedy! You sound like one of those plastic women in a TV newsroom,' Jak had snarled. 'She is our daughter. You do not get past her or deal with her. Smriti is our child!'
Nina's voice was quiet when she spoke next. 'What about Shruti? Think of what this is going to do to Shruti. Do you remember you have another child? Think of her, Kitcha, for heaven's sake! You haven't even asked about her.'
But Jak had wanted to surround Smriti with all that she loved in her once picture perfect world. In every doll was a wealth of memories. Who knew what would bring her back? The boot black of an eye, a blonde curl, a gingham pinafore, a white rubber shoe...
'It's like the tombs of the kings. Everything she loved, all that was precious to her - except that she isn't dead. Do you know what we are doing? We are burying her alive.
'Look at these dolls.' His fingers trailed along a row of cabbage patch dolls. 'Her babies, she had a name for each one of them when she was just six years old. "I am going to have a houseful of babies," she'd say and we would laugh at the notion of our Smriti becoming a mother. Can you imagine our Smriti a mother, Nina and I would smile at each other.
'It kills me, Kala Chithi, to think that my Smriti's life is over. That she will never have anything of what she wanted... Nina thinks I have forgotten Shruti. That she doesn't exist for me. But I am scared to even think of her. How can I love again? How can I lay myself open to this again?'
He stared at the floor and as a glassiness entered his eye, he heard himself say, 'It would have been better if she had died.'
He waited for Kala Chithi to gasp. To tell him that he was a heartless creature, an unnatural father. What parent would say such a thing?
When she didn't, he raised his eyes and saw in hers only a deep sorrow. Did she, he wondered, feel the same? That despite all thereassurance she felt she owed him, there really was no hope of Smriti ever recovering.
In the shadows of the room, Kala Chithi seemed more gaunt than ever, the stubble on her head a million grey dots. 'You look tired,' he said.
'I am tired,' she said. 'I am tired of worrying about you. Will this never end?'
'What are you talking about?' He frowned.
'Look at her, Kitcha. If her life is on hold, it's because of an accident. But you, Kitcha? You too have put your life on hold. You behave as if to recover and move on would be an act of betrayal. Nina is dealing with this better than you are. What are you doing to yourself?'
He ran his fingers through his hair. 'I am all right. I just need to sort out a few things, then I will be fine.'
Kala Chithi touched his elbow. 'Why are you doing this, Kitcha?'
'Doing what?' He affected ignorance.
'I know you too well. Don't hide it from me, Kitcha. I know you have been going to Smriti's college, probing and questioning.'
He shrugged. 'I have to know. I can't believe it was a freak accident!'
'Would that make it easier to bear?'
'What I can't get past is a detail...' Kitcha spoke haltingly.
'That there was evidence of sexual activity before the accident. With more than one man... That my daughter, my Smriti was... The accident happened on the beach. Do you think she would...' His voice broke, unable to continue the thought - fuck on the beach like a bitch on heat with more than one man.
He straightened. 'I cannot accept what they say. If someone did this to her, they should be punished.' Jak spoke slowly. 'I am her father. I have to make it right for her.'
The old woman sat next to Jak, her Kitcha. 'This is not a book or a film, Kitcha. There will be no happily ever after when you have finished playing avenging father seeking retribution!'
'I know.' He sank his head into his arms. 'I know... the consequences. But I need to find out what happened to her. I am a scientist, Kala Chithi. It is my natural instinct to seek, to try and fathom, to make sense.'
Jak waited for Kala Chithi to speak. To refute his claim of scientific need with an exclamation of 'That's rubbish'. When he raised his head, he saw on her face a twisted mendacious smile of disapproval.
As he watched, the smile slipped. 'How will you know when to stop?'
He rose from where he was sitting. The need to get out tussled with his need to retreat into some back room where he could bury himself amidst books and long columns of data and graphs.
'I don't know. But it is the way of all scientific investigation to end in a conclusion. Perhaps then I will stop.'
'And Kitcha, what do you do with the conclusion you arrive at?' Jak shook his head. 'I am a scientist, but I am a father too. It depends on what I discover. I can't promise you anything now, Kala Chithi.'
He walked out of the room, deep in thought. He even forgot his customary tickle under Smriti's chin. A wiggle of fingers and 'You better wake up, little girl, in the next two minutes, or Papa Jak will be very angry!'
Jak sits in the balcony of his room and stares at the horizon. It is the hour that always causes in him an ache. The boy Kitcha had vested his hopes in the evening sky, but it only fills the adult Kitcha with fatigue. Yet another futile day gone.
Chinnathayi seemed to have disappeared, Swami said. 'She isnot at home either. I went there looking for her but the house was locked.'
'What about the doctor? Was he here then?' Jak asked Swami suddenly. 'The doctor who stays here at the lodge?'
Swami shook his head. 'He doesn't pay. He comes to Srinivasan sir's hospital with the scan machine every now and then. So there will be nothing in the register. I can ask Dorai sir at the reception.'
But neither Dorai nor anyone else at the lodge had anything to say. 'In fact, Dorai sir asked me to mind my own business. He asked if I was working for you or for the lodge. And did I want to keep my job or not?' Swami said, standing by the door and avoiding Jak's eyes.
And Jak knew he had come to the end of yet another road.
It was like trying to climb a translucent glass wall. On the other side was the truth, and on this side a hazy shaping of conjecture.
He waited all afternoon at the police station. A new humility had crept into him. These were busy people. He was the one who needed them to make time for him. He waited, every second an iron-shod peanut his tongue teased in his mouth, that he ached to sink his teeth into and crack.
'Come back later,' the policeman admonished. 'I need to look for the files. I need at least a week's time. We are busy this week. It is Gandhi Jayanthi tomorrow, or have you forgotten? The MP is coming for the celebrations!'
Jak stares at the sky, rubbing the bridge of his nose. What is he to do now? He knows the police file will merely corroborate the doctor's statement. Accident victim. Name. Age. Sex.
What of the others? The three boys and Asha. Jak draws the printout from his pocket and looks at it again.
Strange that the doctor at the government district hospital should say Smriti was with a man. No one seems to mention theother two boys or the girl. So where were they when the accident happened? Or, did Smriti lie to him? But why would she? He is not that sort of a father, to lay down the law or impose rules. They have always been able to discuss everything. Why then would she lie to him?
Jak stands up abruptly. The plastic chair jerks back, catches in a dip in the chipped mosaic floor, and topples backwards. He reaches to set it upright, then kicks it away. His daughter lies on her back, will perhaps never sit up again. What is he getting so uptight for, about a fucking chair?
From where he stands on the balcony, Jak can see the strip of sand behind the lodge. The sand bank. Did it happen here? Or was it further up the coast? Or, perhaps down in some secluded cove?
Would this self-inflicted torture never end?
Jak stuffs his still wet towel into a plastic bag and locks the door behind him. The coast is treacherous. Only fools and idiot tourists would swim out into the sea, he knows. But he cannot contain the restless beast that paces within him.
He strips his clothes off and in his boxer shorts runs into the sea. The waves break against him but he pushes through the swell. This isn't the gentle ocean he swims in most days of the year. This isn't the placid sea he has vacationed by. The violent rough seas here hoist him and throw him back towards the shore. But Jak won't turn back. He won't heed the sea's warning. I know you as well as I know myself. Do you think you scare me? What's the point? The worst that can happen has already happened. What do you think you can do to me now, he screams at the waves. And then, as he knew it would, the shelf of sand beneath his feet falls away. A bottomless abyss. He is on his own now.
He didn't mind being alone any more, he was used to it. Sometimes he feared he would never be able to live with another person again. His space had become important to him. In fact, some days it was almost with relief that he walked into the silence of his apartment. That afternoon, he had been glad that there was no one waiting as he turned the key in the lock.
He had whistled under his breath as he opened his apartment door and sauntered in. It was one of those irritating things: a tune without words. He'd forgotten the words but the tune had stuck in his head that first time after Lisa called, and stayed there ever since.
A week before, he had hosted a party in his home for a few of his soon to be ex-colleagues and their wives. He was leaving on an open-ended sabbatical to research the book he was going to write. If he didn't do it now, he never would, he laughed. From the corner of his eye, he saw Lisa devour him with her large blue eyes.
That was when it began. The wooing of Lisa Sherman.
He had enjoyed flirting with her. He did it rather well and effortlessly. All he had to do was stick to a pattern. Cyclones had taught him as much. That there is nothing random about life, ocean currents, clouds, or affairs with married women, even if they are the wives of colleagues. He had singled her out as the one he knew to be most vulnerable and hence most eminently fuckable.
She wore a single string of amber beads around her neck and her need on her face - twin creases of discontent at the corners of her mouth and hunger in her eyes. Her fingers teased and played with the amber beads while her eyes swooped on him from across the room. 'Come back Liza, come back girl, wipe the tear from me eye,' Belafonte sang on the stereo, his Bose speakers speaking only to her.
And then he brought out his Leonard Cohen. The only poetwho sang within him. Cohen, who had a line for every man, woman and moment. For Lisa and her sisters. For every woman who bore her loneliness like a sin.
She called him the next day. That too was part of the pattern. Good wives calling to say thank you. Two days later, the next call was to tell him about a documentary on Bangalore on CNN. Wasn't his daughter there? She thought he'd like to see it.
He had felt that familiar curl of excitement spiral in him; it was like spotting the eye of a cyclone through a cirrus canopy in a satellite picture. Once he'd seen it, he knew what was coming.
It was late afternoon and already the room was sunk in a shadow of dying light. Jak threw his keys on the table by the door. The clatter of the keys against the metal tray filled the hallway. Jak paused. The emptiness of the apartment, its silence, filled him. In two weeks he would be in Hawaii. At forty-eight, it was daunting to start life all over again, like when he was twenty-two and had moved to the States. If he could relive those years, would he have done things differently?
The tune wouldn't stop in his head and Jak felt it escape his mouth again. He went to the fridge and took out a carton of fruit yoghurt. And from a bag, a handful of carrot sticks. The fridge was almost empty. He would pick up a few things tomorrow. Then it would be time to close up and leave.
Jak leaned back in the sofa and flicked the TV remote on. The sounds of a ball game filled the room. He pressed the mute button and opened the carton of yoghurt.
Lisa's armpit. A cloud of strawberry with an undertow of a cheesy pong. Lisa, who hadn't been washed and deodorized and prepared for him. He had caught her unawares that first time with armpit stubble and lank hair, her jeans pulled over panties soft with many washings and the beginning of a fray in the elastic.Slatternly, ripe Lisa, hidden behind the façade of a proper wife. Feral Lisa with sharp pointed teeth and an insatiable hunger. 'Not here, not here,' the amber beads clak-clakked against the door as she moaned. 'Not in this house! Not in his house.'
You had wanted a fuck, a series of fucks perhaps. But you didn't want to break up Lisa's marriage. Yet, when she suggested that the two of you meet at a beach house a friend of hers owned, you agreed. What was the harm? She knew what she was doing. Between two consenting adults, etc. She had planned it all to the last detail. The babysitter for the kids and an alibi for herself. A hamper with little things to nibble at, wine, and even a corkscrew. Sexy lingerie, freshly washed hair and painted nails. As she sucked you on that hastily made bed, you wondered how long she had been thinking about this.
And then, as you latched the windows shut and locked the door, she clung to you. 'When? When can I see you again, darling?'
And you felt that curl of postcoital content crumble. 'Darling!' You saw how her fingers wrapped themselves around your wrist and ash coated your tongue. Didn't she know you were leaving?
Images flickered in front of him on the TV screen. What had he gone and done? He could hear Nina say, 'You never think. You never do. You just give in to that wild reckless impulse. Did you for one moment think of the others involved?'
Then the phone rang, echoing through the apartment, its ring soft but persistent. Lisa, he thought. That too was the pattern. They always called after that first bout of dammed hunger was released. No woman would call a fuck just a fuck. It had to be tarted up and sanctified with words of love. He sighed and picked up the phone. 'Jak here,' he said.
It was Kala Chithi. 'Kitcha.' Her voice was wary as it reached his ears. 'I received a call from the police station in Minjikapuram.'
And he felt the floor slide away.
Each time he thinks he has found a sand bar to rest on, it slides away.
The waves continue to slam into him. Jak fights the water, the heave and push necessitating every ounce of his strength. If he allows himself to slacken even a little bit, he will not be able to breathe. The water stings his eyes. His arms ache, his legs tire, but he cannot turn back. He needs to flee the guilt that haunts him. He was the one who created the magical land of Minjikapuram. In his telling of all that happened to him there, he planted a seed in Smriti's head. He thinks of that first time now.
She was seven. Leaning against him with a rag doll clutched in one hand and her thumb in her mouth.
'There is a temple on a hill by the sea. But it is not like any other temple. This one has two deities. Minjikaiyan and Minjikammal. They were born when Shiva's seed was split on that hill.'
'What seed? Is Shiva a fruit?'
Jak laughed. 'No, silly. The lord Shiva with the third eye. If he opens it, you and I, Mama and baby Shruti, and your Melissa and Sita, Tinkerbell and Kokila,' he gestured to the dolls she had brought into the living room, 'will be barbecued meat.'
'Oh, how do you know? Have you met him?' Smriti asked, her eyes brimming with admiration for her Papa Jak.
'I almost did. It is believed that if you swim in the sea by the temple at Minjikapuram and then climb the one thousand three hundred and thirty-three steps and make a wish, it will come true. So I leapt into the water. All I meant was to go for a little swim and make my wish. But the sea had other plans for me.'
'And then, Papa?' Smriti touched him on the shoulder.
Jak looked at his daughter's face and tried to laugh off the horror of the moment when he knew there was no escaping the current.
Besides, how could he admit that he had been terrified? To confess to fear would make him and his reassurances suspect: You are a big girl now, you don't need a night light. Papa is in the next room, what do you have to fear? It's just a bad dream, baby. Too much pizza. No monster will get you. Papa is here.
The waters off the coast were violent, the currents unpredictable and almost demonic in intent. 'What are you playing at, you silly fool?' the man had hurled at him as he pulled him onto his catamaran. 'This is the ocean, not some stupid pond for you to paddle around in. You have to understand the ocean, read the skies before you venture in.'
Fifteen-year-old Kitcha had lain with his head hanging over the side of the boat. His chest had hurt and he had felt the rasp of salt in his throat, the bloat of water in his belly. Dead. He could have been dead and his body would have washed ashore on the coast three days later.
He caught her searching his face. Her little fingers were wrapped around his wrist.
'Papa, did your wish come true?'
Jak smiled. He had been so afraid that he had forgotten to make his wish. 'I never feared the sea again.'
'You are not afraid of the sea! Really?' Her eyes sought his. They had been teaching her to swim then. 'All that water around you, over you, you were very afraid at first, right Papa?'
Nina came in from her study then. 'Kitcha, you know you shouldn't fill her head with your stories. As it is, she is a reluctant swimmer. And now you are going to scare her even further!' As if to erase the sting of her words, Nina ruffled his hair as she went past.
She hadn't yet got to the point when all he did, all he said, even the way he breathed, was an affront to her.
'Of course I was scared at first. But then I learnt something. Ilearnt to respect the sea and I was never afraid again. You must always treat water with respect,' he said. 'No silliness. No taking stupid risks. You see, that's why Minjikapuram has a very important place in my life. I learnt a lesson there. You don't run away from things that terrify you. The water scared me but not for long. If you understand it, it will never be able to dominate or scare you.' Jak was trying to be at his paternal best. A father imparting life lessons and guiding his child through the complexities of living.
He saw the intensity of Smriti's gaze. She was a child who took everything he said to be the holy truth. She would never allow him any fallibility or weakness. And so, feeling a sudden qualm of disquiet at how seriously she took him, he reached across and pulled her pigtail. 'Do you know when I was really scared?' He lowered his voice to a whisper. 'When I asked your mother to marry me. I was shaking. Now that was scary!'
Nina smiled at him from across the room. 'Liar,' she mouthed. 'Liar, liar, liar...'
Jak pretended to cringe. 'Do you know who she was?' He turned to Smriti.
'She was the Madras Girl. The only Madras Girl in all of Syracuse. And I was this really wide-eyed boy from a little alley in Mylapore. A little brahmin boy who couldn't even figure out which jeans to buy. But the Madras Girl knew everything.
'And that wasn't all. When I asked her to marry me, she gave me the Madras Eye. Do you know what that is?' Jak narrowed his eyes till they were slits. 'She looked at me through her sunglasses with her Madras Eye and said, "I don't know Kitcha, I don't know."'
'Kitcha, stop filling the child's head with misinformation. I don't know why you do it. Smriti, listen to me. Madras Eye is conjunctivitis. I don't know what Papa means by saying I gave him the Madras Eye...' Nina stirred her coffee and licked the spoon.
'But she knew, Papa, she knew she wanted to marry you. That's why you married each other and I am here and baby Shruti,' Smriticried, aching to be part of that moment when Kitcha and Nina, Papa and Mama had found each other.
Kitcha, Nina, Smriti and Shruti. When did it all change?
A wave breaks over his head.
The middle phase. It is this period that you need to watch for, Jak thinks.
He has seen it happen. How, sometimes, even a well developed wave, a young cyclone full of promise, will not grow into the mature one they had predicted it would.
Jak wonders why he didn't see it coming. As his life became more and more contained in classrooms and labs, he failed to sense the change. And Nina and he grew apart... until one day the marriage was over.
The embarrassment, the shame, the disappointment... You resorted to the God of the Gaps theory to explain the dying out of promise to your children. You felt the eyes of your older child trail you and Nina. You saw her gather her younger sister into the fold of her embrace. She didn't trust either Nina or you as parents any more. You tried logic; all the theories you knew, all the reasoning you could muster to make sense of the situation. That was all you had, to help her make sense of the constant bickering, the fault finding, the relentless criticism, the snapping and snarling that grew into cold quarrels that wounded and crippled. The palpable resentment when Nina and you were merely in the same room together.
Smriti became a child caught between two fronts. She wouldn't buy into the sometimes-people-grow-apart-it-is-inexplicable explanation. Was that what caused her to flee their warring world? And from a distance, she tried to instigate Shruti's relocation. 'We will be happy here,' Smriti wrote. 'This is our home. Here family means everything!'
Were Nina and you the perpetrators of what happened to her? Was that ass of a doctor right after all?
All your life, all you ever wanted to do was protect your children. From demons and heartbreak, big and small. From hurts and wounds inflicted by a careless, callous world. Even when all you could do was watch from the sidelines: when Smriti was not chosen for the school play, when Shruti's friends didn't turn up for her birthday party, when Smriti's boyfriend dumped her.
You shared with them all that life had taught you about life itself so they could avoid the mistakes you made. And yet, when they chose to make their own mistakes, you had no option but to be there for them.
How can you cease to be a parent even if your child is determined to shrug off the mantle of being a child?
When do you let go? Where do you stop? How does one draw the line?
Jak treads water and looks around. He can see the temple in the distance. How could you have not looked after my child? When she came here, it meant you became responsible for her. How could you have let this happen? Jak rages at the brother and sister duo and then abruptly ceases. What is he doing? Trying to shift responsibility to deities of stone in a derelict temple on a hill?
If he is swept into the sea, there will be no one for him to throw accusations at but himself.
And Smriti, what would happen to her then? Nina would have her put in a home somewhere. Nina is no longer the woman he knew. What was once a chitinous shell, easily cracked, has turned into stone.
Nina sat there by Smriti just before she returned to her life in America. An inert Smriti, for once. She often sat at her bedside, looking at her daughter's face, studying it for some sign of change.'You, Kitcha,' she snarled suddenly, 'I hold you responsible for this. You and only you. I don't want you to come anywhere near Shruti. I will get a court order if I need to. I won't lose another daughter to you, to India.'
'Nina.' He reached out to take her hand in his. But she flung his hand away.
'You wouldn't listen to me ever, the two of you. You ganged up against me. I was the stick in the mud. I was the gargoyle spitting advice, I was the one you had to defy and even spite. Fine! Now you look after her. You take the responsibility.'
Jak turns towards the shore.
Out there on land is Smriti. The responsibility of her life. The burden of the past. Her petrified future.
Meera's petrified future. It begins thus:
The raucousness of a rowdy flock of mynahs in the avocado tree by the bedroom window.
Just for a moment she knows respite as she stirs from sleep. A sleep she had lured in the early hours with a Restyl tablet. She had lain on her side reading the chemical composition of the little angel who would lull her nerve ends to repose.
She keeps her eyes shut and holds her breath. What if Giri crawled into bed while she was asleep? A movement at her side. A breath. A hand that snakes its way to drape around her hip. A clearing of throat. The presence of Giri.
She lies there with her eyes pressed tightly shut.
Meera lets her fingers crawl and encounters the unslept side of the bed. She knows then it is the morning after Giri's disappearance. In the span of sixty seconds, her mind leaps,vaults, hops, skips, tumbles, cartwheels, gyrates and contorts into a million possibilities of anguish in waiting.
Explanations. Nayantara. The police station. Mummy, Lily and Nikhil. The neighbours. Colleagues. Friends. The driver, the maid, the people in the park. Telephone calls. Credit cards. The bank manager. Hospitals. Telephone books. The morgue where bodies wait to be identified... Stop it, stop it, Meera tells herself. She catches sight of herself in the mirror and thinks, do I know that woman? Sitting with her arms wrapped around her knees, rocking ever so gently, as if to soothe herself. Do I know that woman with bereavement written in her eyes, face and limbs? A woman who doesn't know what to do next except alternate between grief and abasement.
There was a time when Zeus decided to punish Hera for her wilfulness. He hung her from the sky, shackled by golden bracelets at the wrist and an anvil at the ankle.
In the oceans below, Hera saw herself reflected. She quailed at the image of what she had been turned into. Worse was the knowledge that she would be seen thus: a woman petrified.
How could something like this have happened to her? Hera didn't know what hurt more, the pain or the humiliation. A cry escaped her.
And so Meera Hera cries as she opens her eyes to a dank September morning.
'Where's Giri?' Saro asks at breakfast, forking a papaya cube.
'I don't know,' Meera says. Her mother needs a whole papaya every morning, one half of which she cuts into cubes and eats. The rest she smears on her face. Meera gapes at her now, as if seeing her for the first time. This orange-faced silly woman, my peacock of a mother, is this the woman I am to turn to for comfort and succour?
'Isn't he having any breakfast?'
'I don't know.'
'What do you mean, I don't know? Is it too much to expect a civil answer?'
'Now now, Saro,' Lily interrupts. 'No need for you to get so upset! Meera means she doesn't know if Giri is in the house or in the garden.' Lily smears butter on her toast. 'He'll be here soon!'
The scraping of the knife on the crisp surface of the bread. Scrape. Scrape. Scrape. Meera feels it grate inside her skull.
'No, I don't know. That's what I mean. I don't know where he is. I don't know where he spent the night or who he is with. I don't know if he will be here for breakfast or back in this house ever again. I don't know if he is alive or dead or lying in some hospital in a coma... I don't know a fucking thing!' Meera snaps. Her eyes fill and she brushes the tears away. 'Satisfied? Does that satisfy your curiosity, Ma?'
Saro's eyes are round with shock. Lily's crafty old eyes narrow. Meera drops her head and rests her forehead on the table's edge. She wants to crawl into a deep dark hole and stay there. Away from their prying eyes, their questions, and the sight of Nikhil, a mute Nikhil pretending that he has heard nothing, trying to hide behind a tightly clenched face his perturbation at a suddenly foulmouthed, raging mother and a mysteriously missing father. His fingers alone give him away as they shred a piece of toast into crumbs.
'But he must have said something,' Saro begins.
'Did you try calling him?' Lily asks.
Meera rubs her forehead on the edge of the table. Each time the children or Giri fumed at the old ladies for making a fine art of stating the obvious, Meera had frowned at them.
'Then tell them to lay off. I don't need them telling me what I can see for myself,' Nayantara would snap back.
Now Meera wishes she could do as Nayantara does. Toss herhead and flounce off in a rage. 'What do you think?' she asks between gritted teeth.
Precisely eighteen hours after Giri disappeared, Meera's mobile lights up with a message from him: Check your email.
She stares at the screen in shock. Check your email.
She calls him. But there is no response. Either Giri is ignoring her or he is not being allowed to access the phone. Meera's hand goes to her mouth. Has he been kidnapped?
The papers are full of such stories. Of men robbed at knife point on their way home. Of missing 'techies' and murdered businessmen. Was Giri... Meera races to the computer.
Her heart pauses.
In its very baldness is a statement of intent. Meera speed reads the letter, unable to believe what she is reading. Then she reads it again, slowly, so that each syllable brands itself on her mind.
Meera, I know you must be worried by my disappearance. Furious even. I am sorry if I have caused you some anxiety over this. Please believe me, I didn't plan to do it this way. I wanted us to sit down and discuss it. If I told you how I was feeling, I knew you would understand. That our life together weighed on me.
But I didn't think it would come to this. That I would find the courage to just up and leave. I woke up this morning in Chennai asking myself, what am I doing away from you and the children? Then I felt a sense of relief. I don't know how to explain it.
I tried, I want you to know that I tried, but I can't go on like this any more. We have just one life to lead and I can't waste it.
I need to be more clear in my head about what I want to do. I will be in touch. Bear with me, Meera. Bear with me until then.
Bear with me until then. Meera reads the line over and over again. Until when, Giri, until when?
Meera looks at her hands. Shouldn't they be shaking? Shouldn't her mouth wobble and her eyes well up? But for a moment she feels nothing. Then a pulse in her forehead begins throbbing and in the pit of her abdomen, she knows a heaviness. A heaviness that envelops her in a chill. What is she to understand of this?
Has he left her? Or is he coming back? Is this an interim phase, a temporary madness, or is he never coming back? What does he mean by 'our life together weighed on me'?
Outside the windows, the sky heaves. The blue skies of September have turned. Dense grey clouds pile up, swamping the light and air. The room closes in on her, a giant beast squeezing the confines of space with its gargantuan paws. Thunder growls. Meera sits staring at the computer screen unseeingly. She knows she ought to get up and switch off the computer, pull out the plugs of all the electrical appliances. The electrician had warned her about the faulty wiring. 'Madam, we need to redo the wiring entirely. It can't take the load. Until then I suggest that you pull out the plugs during the rains. Or there could be a short somewhere.'
It begins as a hiss. Then sheets of rain. Meera looks out of the window. Nikhil will be soaking wet by the time he reaches home. Again she feels unable to rouse herself.
Meera gropes within herself, searching for some clue that will tell her how to react. Grief. Betrayal. Anger. Fear. Loss. Resentment. Hatred. What is she to feel?
She sits there, not knowing what to do. It would come to her soon, the knowledge of how to decipher the significance of this moment. It would reveal itself and take precedence over the hammering in her forehead that demanded with every throb: But what are you going to do? What are you going to do now?
What are you going to do? Meera asks herself, putting the phone back on the hook gently.
He was here for the day, Giri said. And he wanted to meet. 'Not there,' he said. She noticed that he balked at using the word home. Our home. The home he had fled. 'Not with those old bats listening to every word and interfering.'
Meera flinched. Her mother and grandmother were not easy to live with. But she couldn't bear for Giri to reprimand or ridicule them. The first time he jeered at them, Meera had recoiled as if kicked in the chest by his harshness, his irritability with them. She turned on him furiously. If he found fault with them, it was like finding fault with her.
'How can you, Giri? How can you be so nasty? It isn't done,' she said when he emerged out of the spell they had initially woven around him. Disenchantment made him acerbic. Odious even.
Giri looked at her as if he couldn't trust his ears. Meera, his goose girl, telling him that he was wrong. Meera met his stare even though she knew he was hurt. Perhaps she should have flung her arms around him, declaring total allegiance, and whispered in his ear, 'I know, they are rather hard to live with. They try my patience too!'
But how could she make such an admission of disloyalty? If she was so easily a traitor to her mother and grandmother, one day she would betray him too. Didn't he see that? But Giri didn't. Instead, he chose to remain aloof. When Meera went to him, wanting to share a moment of distress triggered by them - a careless word spoken, a thoughtless deed, wounds inflicted carelessly and with little malice, nevertheless painful - when Meera turned to Giri for handholding and comfort, he removed himself from her confusion and hurt. 'I don't want to get involved. They are your family. You won't like it if I say something. Just leave me out of this squabbling. Though civil war would be more appropriate a phrase.'
Only, now, Giri doesn't feel the need to be civil any more. He can say what he pleases. And if she doesn't like it, she can stuff it, his tone implies.
And yet, Meera can't help a fugitive thought from taking residence in her mind. He is here, isn't he?
Meera waited until the next morning before she mentioned the email. 'Darling,' she told Nikhil. 'Daddy is in Chennai.'
Nikhil looked away. 'When is he coming home?' he asked.
'I don't know. He didn't say.' Meera looked at her tightly clenched fingers. 'Time to go to school. We can talk about this later,' she said, injecting a breeziness into her voice. If she didn't show how perturbed she was, maybe he wouldn't be too worried.
Saro and Lily read the email together. They looked at each other without speaking. Then Lily began, 'I don't understand why he sounds so trapped...'
'Is it us, Meera? Are we the reason?' Saro asked tentatively.
'I don't know, Ma, I really don't understand what's got into Giri.' Meera found she couldn't put on a brave face any more.
'Call him. Tell him we'll leave,' Lily said. 'He can have the house and you to himself.'
'We'll tell him that!' Saro added.
Meera shook her head. 'I don't think it's that. Really. I think he just grew tired of us... this life!'
Lily snorted. 'He isn't a four-year-old. He is the father of two children. He has responsibilities.'
Saro put her arm around Meera. 'I don't think you should worry too much. It's just a phase. Most men go through it. Even your daddy did. A few days away, and he'll back here. You are a good wife, Meera, and he'll never be able to replace you. Trust me, darling!'
Meera wished she could.
Meera next called Nayantara. How did one tell an adult child about her father's flight? As a childish bid to escape the monotonyof everyday? But Nayantara snarled into the phone, 'If this is about Daddy, I already know. He called me late in the night after he reached Chennai. What have you done to him, Mummy? How could you? You were never supportive. That's why he had to run. You were stifling him. I can see it now....'
Meera clutched the phone to her ear. Her daughter's voice shrilled through it.
'He drove from the hotel straight to Chennai that afternoon,' Nayantara said. 'He couldn't bear it any more. He was crying, Mummy. Do you know what it is to hear a man cry? To hear Daddy say again and again - I am sorry, baby, but I had to leave. I didn't know what else to do... It broke my heart. You did this to him! I can forgive you anything but this. You stole his dignity. You did this to him!'
Meera thought, how is it that my life has never risen above a series of clichés: Big house, poor inmates; boy comes on work to house, falls in love with house and girl; they have two children - boy and girl; man rises in career, wife trails him, happy to be his helpmate; the crisis of middle-age; man abandons wife; family divides - boy with mother, daughter declaring her allegiance to the father...
'Shut up, Nayantara,' she hissed. 'You don't know anything about Daddy and me. He has always spoilt you and that's what you are - a silly spoilt brat sitting on judgement on her mother merely because she's been the one to lay down the law.'
She heard Nayantara draw in her breath. The enraged silence. And then the click of the phone.
One more cliché. Daughter hangs up on mother, unable to face the truth. Nayantara doesn't mean it. She is frightened, confused, and needs someone to blame, Meera told herself again and again when her daughter's accusations came back to haunt her.
Meera crosses her legs. Giri is late. She glances at her wrist. She would have liked to go to the bathroom, put on some lip gloss, andcheck her sari. But what if he comes then? She doesn't want him thinking that she failed to turn up.
Her eyes travel across the room once again, halting at the large floral arrangement of birds of paradise, ginger lilies and ferns on an antique round table. The plump cushions on the cane sofas, the glistening leaves of the indoor plants in gigantic brass planters and the sparkling floors. It is exactly the kind of setting Giri fancies himself in. She smiles, unable to help the bitterness that corrodes the stretching of her lips.
She goes to stand by the plate-glass window. Outside, it is an idyllic world. A butterfly hovers over a cluster of frangipani flowers. The breeze rustles the leaves. In the pool, koi carp frolic.
The perfect world as glimpsed from an air-conditioned room. Nothing to hint at the scorching sunshine or the grime outside. Neither sweat nor dust. Pretty much what my life used to be like until now, Meera sighs, and then catches herself in time.
She has taken to watching TV documentaries at night, these last few weeks. Stories of tribal women in Afghanistan dying in childbirth; the starving children of Darfur; the wounded, the maimed. The more suffering that is unveiled before her, the less isolated she feels. In her head echoes the refrain of a woman speaking about her seventeen-year-old daughter's death: The god who gives is also the god who takes.
Then the children found her one night. Nayantara, still unwilling to absolve her mother of blame and yet longing to comfort her. 'Mummy, why do you watch such depressing programmes?'
And Nikhil, poor Nikhil, who has appointed himself her chief cheerleader: 'I have a DVD of Heroes. Shall we watch that? It's all about people who discover that they have special talents - supernatural powers.'
Meera sighed. 'I wish I had supernatural powers. I don't. I am just an ordinary...'
'Please,' the children cried in unison, coming to sit by her side. 'Please don't start. We know what you are going to say.'
Nikhil slipped his hand into hers. 'Why do you sigh so much, Mummy?'
'It's depressing, that long intake of breath, the loud exhalation, I tell you, it's depressing.' Nayantara took her other elbow.
Meera looked away and said, 'Do you know what Keats wrote - There's a sigh for yes, and a sigh for no/ And a sigh for I can't bear it/O what can be done, shall we stay or run?'
Meera caught the children staring at each other with an almost comical look of horror on their faces. Mummy had taken to reciting poetry. What next?
So Meera resolved to never sigh. Or, at least, not as often as she seemed to these days.
She sees him come through the lobby doors. And it seems that he has seen her, for he walks straight towards her. Meera looks at the floor, trying to still her heart, trying to control her features from collapsing into a scream of reproach, trying to still her tongue from incoherence - accusations, reproach, pleas... In how many ways do I confront thee?
She raises her eyes to his. What can she expect? Remorse, perhaps. Petulance, too. She knows Giri hates to admit he is wrong. Even when his misdemeanours stare him in the face, he seldom apologizes. And when he does, it is with poor grace. Awkward, bitten down words giving away nothing but that which is absolutely necessary. Meera has learnt to accept these as his best effort. What will he say now?
She knows what she must do. She must make it easy for him. Meet him halfway. That is what marriage is all about, she will show him. A tree that will not be uprooted even if it has taken a ratherbad battering. Whatever happened is best buried, she will say. I won't ask you anything, unless you choose to tell me. I will not ever bring it up and no one else will either. We'll just go on as if you were on a business trip these six weeks. It is enough, Giri, that you are here and we are together. Nothing else is important, she will murmur, and slip her hand into his. See, I am not that cold unfeeling woman you accuse me of being, the warmth of her hand in his will tell him. See, see, see how important you are to me...
He stands there. And in that stance, arms tight against his sides, his feet at ease, his face clenched and his eyes obtuse, Meera reads a disavowal. Even before he speaks a word, she knows. She has lost him.
'Meera,' Giri says.
She stands up. The words dry up in her mouth. What is she to say? Hello? Goodbye? She feels wrung out. She wants to go home and lie down. Pull the quilt over her head and burrow herself in a warm, dark place where nothing will change and all is safe and restful.
'Come,' he says and leads the way to the coffee shop.
Something, is it a sob or a fishbone of anguish, shifts in her throat.
Doesn't he remember? When the Oberoi opened, they would come to the coffee shop late in the night. The kids, Giri and she. They would drive into town for ice cream at Lake View. Apricots and cream in winter. Strawberries and cream in summer. And then for coffee to the Oberoi. For cappuccinos in wide shallow cups with cinnamon dust speckling the froth. Enough, Meera had thought then, spooning the foam into her mouth, was this. What more could she want but Giri and the children and these quiet moments of content?
They sit across each other. 'What shall I say?' he begins.
She waits. What will he say?
'That afternoon, I hadn't planned it, I swear. I hadn't meant to disappear like that. Or frighten you. I had wanted to sit down with you somewhere quiet and talk to you. Tell you how I was feeling. You would understand, I knew. You were the one person I could say anything to. You know that, don't you?'
Meera moves the cutlery around, as if to get it right. She doesn't give a toss really. But if she doesn't give her hands something to do, occupy part of her mind, she will grab him by his collar and scream, 'What the fuck are you leading up to? What am I supposed to have understood? Just say it and let me go.'
'So there I was. Standing with a group. They were all young, the men and women. But it was the men who made me want to sit down and howl. Their confidence, their zest for life... Meera, I watched them. I smoked one cigarette after the other. I thought, if I could get that buzz, all would be well. I wouldn't feel so completely left behind. But I couldn't bear the taste of wine. I asked for scotch then. That didn't work either. I couldn't drink. I took one sip and left the glass on a table.'
Meera shudders at the word scotch. Whisky, single malt or blended malts, she aches to correct him. Then she shuts herself up. How can she be such a pedant? Insisting on the right word when her husband is trying to explain why he did what he did. Somewhere in me, she thinks, I feel this is all a joke. He will finish with his explanations and we will go home together.
'And I watched the young men so full of ambition and dreams and I thought, what have I done with my life? I felt as if I was being strangled, slowly but surely. I had to move on,' Giri murmurs.
He waits for Meera to speak. To interject, to question, to merely react. But Meera, done with the cutlery, is rearranging the stack of sweeteners in their silver dish. Later she will ask herself, if she had spoken then, would the ebb of conversation have receded in another direction? Was it her silence that goadedGiri to finish on the note of 'there-is-no-room-for-negotiation-here'?
'So I left. I didn't understand or even realize why I was doing what I was doing. I didn't think you would understand how I felt either.'
'What?' Meera asks. 'I thought you said I was the one person who would understand. And now it seems I don't understand you. Is that what you are bringing this down to? This middle-age caper of yours... Is that what this is about?'
Giri shakes his head. 'You just don't get it, do you? How I feel, what I am going through. How do I make you understand?'
That is when something snaps in Meera and she rises, her teeth baring into fangs and her eyes daring him to speak further. 'What about us? The kids, I... What are we to do while you find yourself?'
'Sit down, Meera. Sit down. Everyone's looking at us!' Giri hisses.
Meera looks around her wildly. Then she drops into the chair. What is the use anyway?
She hears him speak. Nuts and bolts of how they would separate and what would need to be done. Their lives, their children, their joint account and what they had shared once. How simple it is to unravel a skein if one wants to.
Long ago, Giri told her, 'Patience, Meera, patience. That is all you need to work any knot open. Keep teasing it and you'll find a knot with a bit of slack and once you do, you are home.'
Giri, Houdini of matrimony. Where did he find that slack bit?
'Then there is the house. I asked you, begged and pleaded with you to sell the house. With the money, I would never have had to work for someone else. I could have pursued my dream, my chance at happiness... but you wouldn't listen. You kept brushing the thought away. You indulged me with a "not now, we'll do it later", as if I were a child hankering for the moon. I have to moveon, Meera. I don't know what it is I want to do. I know it is too much to expect you to understand what I am going through. Or for you to look at this objectively. But I want you to know that I didn't intend to hurt you or the children.
'You may have to seriously consider selling the house now. I won't be able to contribute much till I have sorted things out. The kids' education and their essentials - that is my responsibility.' He pauses and looks away. Then, in a firm voice, as if to beat down any protests she may have, he says, 'I have other responsibilities, too, now.'
Meera searches his face. Is that what it's all about?
All those times when he was working weekends, the late evening meetings... how did I not see it? Mummy is wrong. I am not a good wife. Or, wouldn't I have sensed it? The presence of another woman in your life. How did I go so wrong? Who is she? Where did you meet? How long has it been going on? But I won't ask you who she is. I won't give you the chance to unburden your guilt. I will not sit here and listen to you say, 'Meera, you are the only one I can say this to... you are the only one I could ever say anything to.'
From somewhere in the back of her mind a thought rises: if you love your life, you are lovable. If you hate your life, you become hate worthy. Did she read it somewhere? Or is it one of those Lily - Saro aphorisms that after a while became a part of her system, swimming to the surface with unfailing accuracy of time and circumstance? Making her mouth fill with ashes as once again she realized the truth of all that she had dismissed as their narrow-minded nonsense.
Meera sits there one last time with Giri, spooning the cinnamon speckled foam into her mouth and tasting nothing.
She watches him leave and thinks: what now?
They have already kept her waiting for ten minutes or, as Meera calculates it, for Rs 52.65. This is the fourth time. The last three times they kept her waiting only to tell her that Randhir Sahi was in a meeting or elsewhere. 'What about his mobile? Has the number changed? I can't reach him on that either. Can't you give me the new number?' Meera tried to keep the plea out of her voice.
But they refused. 'Please try again, ma'am.' 'Please call back later.' 'We'll tell him you called.' And Meera waited for him to call her. He didn't.
Meera gnaws at her lip. The meter is ticking. The theme song of Titanic plays on in her ear. A hysterical giggle flutters in her throat. What could be more appropriate? A sinking ship and her... 'Hello,' she says into the phone. 'Hello, hello, hello...'
As she stepped out of the house, Nikhil asked, 'Why aren't you calling from home?'
'It is cheaper,' she said. 'I can keep an eye on the meter. Here I'd just prattle on.'
'You don't prattle. They do!' he retorted. 'They are the ones who talk too long on the phone.'
'Hush! It doesn't matter. They are trying, Nikhil. It is not easy for them,' Meera said, trying to not let her lip wobble. These days even the slightest hint of kindness unsettled her. She could handle rage and anger, frustration and even rudeness. But kindness... it unnerved her.
The old ladies tried. Meera watched Lily and Saro meticulously move one button into the box after each call. Meera had said they must. 'Each button represents one free call. We will be billed after a hundred free calls. And you'll have to ask me when you need to make a long distance call. I have locked that facility. We needto economize now. Really. I've also changed all our cell phone connections to prepaid plans.'
They looked at each other, Lily and Saro. This was a Meera they didn't recognize. A Meera with home economies. A button a call. The pink papers and news magazines cancelled. No more half loads in the washing machine. Lights and fans switched off when not needed. Reheated leftovers. And a measuring spoon that didn't brim any more. But they said nothing. The stern cast of her face alarmed them more than Meera realized. At night, in the privacy of their bedrooms, they heard the echoes of the clamour in Meera's heart: What are we to do now?
It was Lily who said, 'I don't need a cell phone, Meera. Anyone who wants to reach me can call here. It is too much of a nuisance really! All kinds of strangers calling at strange hours, wanting to sell you things you don't need.'
And Saro, who couldn't even bear the thought of sharing a bottle of marmalade with anyone else said, 'She and I can share mine. Why waste money on two connections?'
'It's fine for now. I'll tell you when we may need to give up one of the connections,' Meera said quietly.
'Yes, Meera,' his voice booms over the line. Her publisher and lifeline.
'Hello, Randhir,' Meera says in as steady a voice as she can muster. 'I tried calling you several times but couldn't reach you.'
'I heard,' the voice at the end of the line says. Meera waits for him to make excuses, even apologize, perhaps. In the past, he never failed to call back. And at book events, he was always there, ebullient and full of gruff humour and telling anyone he could grab hold of, 'My bestselling cookbook writer. Except, how can you call her a cookbook writer? She's more than that. She's the corporate wife's Spencer Johnson, an inspiration for every woman whose husband is part of the corporate world!'
Meera would smile, partly in embarrassment at his exaggeratedclaims for her and partly out of affection for him. He had been a rock all along.
She didn't actually set out to write a cookbook. In fact, if Meera had nurtured literary ambitions, she would have chosen loftier, weightier themes from her Greek myths. Or traced the life and writings of a poet, perhaps. Or crafted a series of literary essays on books and writers.
Then one Saturday evening, three years ago, she found herself at a loose end. Saro and Lily were away visiting friends. The kids had gone out for a movie and Giri was in Singapore on work. Once upon a time Meera used to go with him on his foreign trips. But after that time when they were in Brussels and Nikhil fell ill, Meera was increasingly reluctant to leave the children alone. Now they holidayed abroad once a year, with the children. Meera preferred that to sitting around in hotel rooms all day or strolling aimlessly through the streets of some foreign city, waiting for Giri to be available after a day of meetings and presentations.
She sat at the dining table, cutting up vitamin pill strips into neat little squares of aluminium foil. She kept them in a round glass candy jar so that each of them would see it and remember to swallow one just after breakfast. She thought of the dinner party they had been to a week before. A young colleague of Giri's had hosted it. They had arrived at the apartment two streets away, exactly at 7.15 p.m. as they had been asked to, only to find a flustered host and a distraught hostess.
'The maid didn't turn up and the baby kept crying through the day...' Tina, the young wife had murmured, trying to hide the fact that she had been weeping all evening. 'And there was a power cut last night and the food I had kept ready in the fridge has spoilt. Neeraj is angry with me for calling in food but what else could I do? And then the dog ate up the kebabs I had placed on a platter for heating up and serving. And he says it's all my fault. That I should be more organized.'
Meera saw the red-rimmed nose and the puffy eyes, heard the wobbly voice and felt her heart go out to her.
'Don't worry,' Meera, the legendary hostess, smiled. 'We'll put a smile on Neeraj's face. Now, what do you have in your kitchen?'
Later, as she sat watching Tina charm Giri and the other men with stories of her former workplace, Meera smiled to herself. At least she wasn't as clueless as Meera had been. Meera, at her first dinner party, had tried to introduce literary trivia into the dinner table conversation, thinking it would amuse and entertain and perhaps even start a discussion. 'Did you know that Sylvia Plath actually used a thesaurus?' she had said.
Giri's boss had spooned pulao into his plate and murmured, 'Sensible woman! What's poetry anyway but the same thought in different words? One might structure it better with a thesaurus. Now Meera, did you make all of this? Excellent food and a superb menu! I especially love the flavour of pineapple you have brought into your pulao. Giri, you are a very fortunate man. She is an asset!'
Meera had felt her smile falter, her topics for discussion sink in the middle, and she dwindled into silence. Over the years she had learnt to rein in her impulses and seek those worlds where it was enough to float rather than probe or analyse. The price of gold was good, as was a new restaurant they had eaten at, or a movie she had watched; international celebrities and a description of a visit to a quaint place full of atmosphere and antiquity were perfect, especially when one had overseas guests. And when all failed, Meera brought in Daddy's tea estate years and Lily's cinema days. Meera's parties would never be a riot. Instead, they were elegantly structured, perfectly orchestrated symphonies with never a wrong note. Meera, conducting with a twirl of her wrist, had just one mission - that the boss went back happy and Giri's colleagues went home envying him the life he had.
The magazines referred to people like her in rather dismissive terms. The soufflé sort. The Teflon type. It hurt, especially because deep in her it rankled that she who in her student years hadworshipped at the feet of Germaine Greer and Marilyn French, Andrea Dworkin, Gertrude Stein, Dorothy Parker and Simone de Beauvoir - the devis of womanhood who taught her how to shape her femininity and female thinking - had become this. All it took was one long look at Giri, and the devis and their theories had evaporated. And now she was the kind of woman who mouthed gibberish.
'Thanks, Meera,' Tina had whispered in her ear as the party progressed without a hitch. 'You should really write a book for wives like me. For corporate wives like me so they don't make a hash of their husband's career and their marriage!'
Tina was more than a little drunk by then but Meera, sitting at her dining table with a fistful of vitamins, found herself taking one of Nikhil's exercise books and scrawling on the first page:
THE CORPORATE WIFE'S GUIDE TO ENTER TAINING
1. Thou shalt be dressed, perfumed and ready by the time the guests arrive.
2. Thou shalt not drink too much alcohol.
3. Thou shalt not forget to show appreciation for the perfumed candle brought by the boss's wife. (The very same candle you gave them a year ago during Diwali.)
4. Thou shalt not dawdle over serving, or race through the meal.
5. Thou shalt not monopolize the conversation.
6. Thou shalt not discuss thy office politics, or thy ailments, maids, drivers, servants and in-laws.
7. Thou shalt not air thy views on company policies even if thou hast a management degree from IIM or Wharton.
8. Thou shalt not flirt with thy spouse's boss. Even if he looks like Richard Gere, Alec Baldwin or Saif Ali Khan.
9. Thou shalt not find fault with thy spouse even if thou would like to crack his knuckles with a nutcracker.
10. Thou shalt remember to smile at thy spouse ever so often. Bosses know a happy man is a happy employee.
Over the next few months, Meera no longer had empty evenings. In those hours, she worked on her book and with the same detached secrecy with which she had written it, she took a printout and sent it to one of the best known publishers in India - Watermill Press.
One of the news magazines that specialized in literary gossip reported how Randhir Sahi was so enchanted by what he read that he called Meera the night he finished reading the manuscript and signed her on. In six months' time Meera became the bestselling author of a book that corporate men gifted to girlfriends, fiancées, wives and in some cases, their mothers as well.
'If you don't get through to me, all you have to do is email me, Meera. I may not always be able to come to the phone,' he says. 'And now, what can I do for you?'
'Well, it's about the new book,' Meera begins. 'I was waiting to hear from you on the proposal I sent... the one on desserts.'
He sighs. And Meera feels her expectation curl at the edge.
'I am not so sure that we will be able to publish it,' he says. 'I sent you an email. Didn't you get it? It just doesn't sit well on our list!'
Meera had read the email in puzzlement. What had the editor meant by saying it wouldn't fit into their publishing programme for the year? A mistake, surely? She had run her fingers through her hair and thought, I will have to talk to him myself. The editor perhaps didn't realize who she was or what Randhir thought of her. His star, he called her.
'Randhir, I was taken aback by the email. I thought you hadn't seen it...'
'I see every email that is sent out, Meera.' His voice wears an edge now. 'The Corporate Wife's Guide to Entertaining was a hit, I agree. But The CEO Lunch hasn't taken off as I expected it to. And Giri, after saying at the book launch that he had found a tie-in to buy back 1000 copies, hasn't reverted. I had to make some enquiriesand I hear that you are separated. That changes the whole angle, you know. And 'Just Desserts - Desserts for When the Boss Comes to Dinner' is too niche and too much of a risk!'
Meera listens. I will not beg. I will not plead, she thinks. But she hears herself say, 'What am I to do now?'
'I really don't know. Think of something else. A cookbook that no one else has. Like you did with The Corporate Wife's Guide to Entertaining. Send me the book proposal first, though.'
A container truck thunders past the narrow road. A medley of horns blare. 'Where are you calling from, Meera?' the voice asks, suddenly curious.
Meera hangs up quietly. Later she would send him a polite email explaining she had been cut off, and couldn't connect again. She needs him more than he needs her and she is prepared to grovel. But for now, she takes a deep breath and stares at the phone as if it were Randhir. 'Bastard! The fucking bastard!' Meera mouths softly in the confines of the telephone box. Abuse trips off her lips easily these days.
Why hadn't she signed the two-book contract he had proposed after The Corporate Wife's Guide to Entertaining? Why hadn't she done what authors everywhere were doing? What use now this mad bid to hold her freedom to herself? Giri had urged her as well: 'You could have asked for a bigger advance!'
'It's not the money, Giri,' she had tried to explain.
'It's always the money,' he cut her off. 'It's a commercial book you are writing. He is going to make money from it. You should too! But when do you ever listen to me?'
Now Meera walks back to her home quietly. She has spent Rs 110 on a call that has amounted to nothing. At least she has been spared the humiliation of her mother and grandmother hovering, eavesdropping and then huddling together to speculate about what would happen next.
There is no knowing what will happen next in our lives, Meera thinks, walking past the gates of the lilac house. Did Lily and Saro ever know such uncertainty, she wonders. Perhaps they did, which is why they are the way they are. Wary of everyone and everything, jealously guarding what is theirs. In time, will I, too, become like them? Watching out for myself rather than for anyone else? Meera dislikes the woman she is turning into.
The cane chairs sit forlorn and vacant in the patio. A breeze ruffles the tops of the palms in planters. Meera stands by the pillars and looks at the house. Her lilac house wreathed with creepers, its garden abloom. Bees drone, squirrels chatter, birds call. An oasis of peace flanked by tall apartment blocks on either side and a shopping complex across the road. Meera sighs and asks the house, 'How could you do this to me?'
If a few months ago someone had said that this house, her beloved lilac house, would fracture her marriage and throw her life askew, she would have laughed herself silly. And then reached across and tapped their nose playfully. 'What did you eat last? A magic mushroom omelette? I've never heard anything more bizarre! Is this the house in Amityville Horror or what?'
Meera walks into the house. Where is everyone? She can hear the television. She goes to the kitchen and pours herself a glass of water. She takes the glass and sits in the patio.
She has been clutching at straws. Cookbooks are fine for corporate wives with husbands who pay bills and settle the dues. Abandoned corporate wives need more. Meera draws out a diary from her bag. All her household accounts are in it. It seems to her that this is all she does these days. Tabulate the figures again and again as if by doing so she can arrive at a sum that will assure her all is well: Giri may have left but they will survive. One way or the other.
Meera finds Nikhil in his room. He is lying across the bed with his head resting on one arm.
'So what happened?' Nikhil asks.
Meera shrugs. 'Nothing really. He wants me to come up with a book idea like The Corporate Wife's Guide to Entertaining! This one doesn't work, he says.'
'Is it because of Daddy?'
'No, darling. Daddy has nothing to do with this.' Or us any more, Meera thinks but bites down the words. Nikhil still believes that his daddy will come back.
She sits by his side and ruffles his hair. Her eyes sweep the span of his room. A child's room, though he hates it when she refers to him as one. She thinks of how he clamoured for a book every week. And now he doesn't any more. Instead, he reads again the books he has. She thinks of how he reads the newspaper, making an effort to seem responsible. He sits in Giri's chair and holds aloft the pages as his father once did, seeking to fill his place.
Nikhil looks at her. 'What will we do, Mummy?' he asks and Meera thinks her heart will break at what she sees in his eyes: Nikhil knows his father isn't coming home any more. 'Will you have to sell my iPod?' he asks.
'Not yet,' she says quietly, hating herself for not being able to say, 'Of course not!' This way it won't be such a shock if we have to, she reasons.
One more nail in your coffin, you SOB, she tells Giri in her head. I can forgive you for what you are doing to me. For the anxiety you are causing my mother and grandmother. But not this. Not for robbing my son, our son, of his childhood. Nothing you ever do, even if you come back, will remove that shadow in his eyes. Somewhere in your new happy home in your new happy life, I hope it occurs to you that you have a child who has resolutely willed his tongue to never again utter 'I want', or 'I need'.
'What will you do?' he asks again.
'I don't know yet, darling. But we'll manage. I know we can.'
Meera's eyes swoop on the books. 'But I'll tell you what we are going to do, right now.'
She goes into her bedroom and drags out a trolley dolley. From the shelves in the bedroom and the living room, she pulls out books. All the advertising and marketing books Giri bought with the rapacious greed of a child who can't have enough. He merely needed to possess them; some of the books are still in their plastic jackets, uncut, unread.
'What are you doing?' Nikhil asks from the doorway.
Meera smiles. 'Come with me.'
They take an autorickshaw to an old bookstore Meera has run in and out of when book buying was a necessity rather than a luxury.
She watches the bookshop owner price the books. A small price to pay for stealing a childhood, Giri, she thinks.
'Buy yourself two books for Rs 200 each,' Meera tells Nikhil, stuffing the money into her purse.
'What about Nayantara?' Nikhil asks carefully. He knows Meera isn't pleased with her.
Meera wants to reach across and hug Nikhil. Her son who so wants to right the world, their world, where Mummy and Daddy live together and siblings don't have to choose between parents. 'When she's home for the weekend, she'll have her book allowance too!' Meera smiles.
Through the aisles of books they wander, seeking paperbacks whose marked price doesn't exceed their budget and will buy them solace for a while.
Through the mustiness of age, from the patina of dust that clings to the air, a soft voice rises. A child singing - 'We Shall Overcome'.
Meera turns and sees a pixie faced little boy sitting on the floor with a picture book. He is singing as he turns the pages.
Meera's eyes seek and meet Nikhil's. They smile. Complicity and hope.
Meera feels a warm rush of love for the child, that unknown child.
We shall overcome, she thinks.
In the newspaper that morning, Meera had paused at an advertisement for editors in a software company. She has a postgraduate degree in English language and literature. Would she be considered too old? What if the working hours are long? What would they - Lily, Saro and the children - say? It doesn't matter, Meera thinks. I can put up with anything if it will exorcize this constant fear of penury. If it will just let me cope until we figure things out. If it will buy me time...
THE LILAC HOUSE. Copyright © 2010 by Anita Nair. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.