It was a hot, exhausting and muggy evening after a depressing day in early April. We loafed around in the streets and then sat down in the coffee lounge of Janpath Hotel for a while—lazily, very lazily, lingering over the cups of coffee that both of us consumed.
An age seemed to have slipped and crawled by between our slow, purposeless sipping, leaving behind the dregs of a bitter emptiness.
Oma, that is Omprakash, had tilted the coffee pot to pour the second cup for me.
He was just going to pour milk into the partially empty cup he had refilled, when I said, “No, no milk.” .
“Not even sugar.”
“Like the Russians?” And Oma smiled.
My mind was at odds with itself and I couldn’t bring myself to oblige him with an answering smile.
At times when I hated being a non-person in Oma’s life, I felt an urge to say something devastating and razor-sharp which would rip through his veneer of smug complacency like a knife. At such moments his carefully cultivated urbanity made me bristle. Anything at all to slice open that glossy overlay, that embalmed cover, to see the muck inside. A mere half-an-inch opening would do.
But when I’d cut a piece out—no, not even a piece, a straight, sharp line, like a fine incision from a surgical knife—and see him squirm, I’d begin to regret my resentment.
What exactly did I expect from him? Perhaps, something like a house flushed with the warmth of love, and a sense of belonging, my head on Oma’s chest in the privacy, and the safety and security of four walls, and books and music and…and maybe many more things.
And if all that was lacking, Oma was responsible for it, because all the decisions were made by him all the time.
It was seven-thirty when we drained off the third cup of coffee.
Oma glanced at his watch.
Whenever a frown appeared in the middle of his forehead, over the bridge of his nose, it was an indication that something was puzzling him.
Most of the time he was completely self-possessed in control of any situation—indeed, it almost seemed as though he had a firm hold over everything within a grabbing distance, even over the frisky vagrant breeze.
That was why the sight of his knitted brow always filled me with a rush of pity. Pity and tenderness, and my heart would just melt and irrationally drift towards him.
“Hello, a penny for your thoughts.”
“You haven’t suddenly remembered an appointment, have you?” I smiled.
A woman, blast her, seemingly graduates in histrionics in her mother’s womb. She puts on an act to please her husband, to procure small concessions, and playacts even while sharing the joys and sorrows of neighbours and relations and other familiar connections. Is this what they call a feminine disposition? Sneeringly? Deprecatingly? But why? Why shouldn’t she be recompensed for the effort she makes?
“No, no,” he said quickly.
“However did you guess, you stargazer, you?”—He also relaxed. Smiled.
When Oma smiled the sun glinted on the nacreous edges of his two front teeth. The rest of his teeth were the colour of yellow sand, very ordinary and even a bit ugly.
Oma’s mani was not ensconced on his brow, but at the edges of his two front teeth. And to seduce me Oma didn’t need to dance like a peacock—all he had to do was to smile and flash the pair of gems in his two tuskers, and my whole body would begin to melt like wax.
“No, it is not astrology. I am an omniscient being.”
“Oh, all right, omniscient being.”
“Then tell me what were you thinking of? And don’t you conceal anything from the all-knowing baba.”
“I was just thinking that it’s past seven-thirty and rather late to make it to a film or play. Where shall we go now?”
A black cloud was again visible on the horizon’s rim. A blinding streak of lightning too flashed once. It was a lightning flash of anger. Of accusations. Of helplessness. Instead of making a home with me this man of mine had turned me into a gypsy. A nomad.
But the eternal woman within, who also happens to be a consummate actress, cautioned me: Careful, there. I gently dabbed a smile on my lips like lipstick, “There is a place, O emperor of the world. If my life be spared I might have a suggestion.”
“Proceed,” he laughed.
“What about going to hell?”
“Splendid! Let’s go.”
He asked a passing waiter for the bill, made the payment and, as was his wont, took the bill back. For expense account. I could see myself in his account books.
We got up and came out.
But the question that was still to be answered was—where were we to spend the rest of the evening!
He hailed a taxi and asked, “Shall we call on Rano?”
“But you said she had left the MP’s bungalow.”
“I know, but before he left for England, Kaloo settled her in another house. I have the address with me.”
Kaloo, that is Oma’s friend. His name was something else—typical of the christening that grandmothers do for the salvation of their souls. To all his friends he was simply Kaloo.
“Okay, let’s go,” I said.
There was no point arguing about it because the evening, I knew, was fated to be massacred.
The taxi stopped in front of a large bungalow—obviously another government accommodation. We entered the gate and cruised the side of the house to reach the rear. A sprawling desolate lawn whose grass had browned prematurely. At the other end of the dried grass was a large tree in whose branches a dense darkness lay sulking. There was something decidedly ominous about the tree and that derelict lawn.
Oma knocked on a door at the back. Rano unlatched it, “Come in. How did you think of coming to this place today?”
“We have come specially to find out how you are, and not just stumbled in,” said Oma, climbing a low step to enter the room. I followed him in.
The darkness lurking in the branches of the tree outside lay curled in Rano’s hair. She looked sad and a bit unhinged.
At one time the room must have served as a coal and drywood store. Or the living-quarters of some cook’s personal assistant—the bloke who washed the dishes.
The room was unbelievably small. A bed in one corner covered half the space of the room. At the other end was a small electric stove. A few cups, saucers and spoons lay oddly piled in a heap nearby. Alongside were about half-a-dozen empty jam and coffee jars which had been crammed with salt, chillies and other condiments. The covers were dirty—their colours gave a clue to their contents.
Doesn’t a stove which is not blazing—a cold, unlit stove—look terribly sad? Forlorn and wretched!
The only remnants in the room from those old days were a silk quilt whose colour was now bereft of its glow—although like the embers in a dying hearth some of the old warmth and vividness still lingered in it. And a transistor—the one which was Kaloo’s first gift to her when, so his friends said, he had eloped with her from Chandigarh.
Rano hailed from a very ordinary family. Banging the typewriter keys in the Chandigarh secretariat, she was dazzled by Kaloo’s wealth and enchanted by his formula-based, practised display of love. When she came down from her dizzy heights she found herself alone in the coal and dry wood store.
Kaloo, of course, had taken his wife on an excursion to England as a bribe.
When a man steals something from a woman, known socially as his wife, he bribes her to compensate for her loss. The bigger the theft, the heftier the bribe. But the other woman, that pathetic stand-in, his mistress, need only be coddled with food and clothes and jewellery. And even God can’t save this surrogate stand-in if she falls a prey to the feigned love of such a man.
With our arrival the room had either shrunk, or the air inside was insufficient for three people. Something was causing suffocation. Something which made breathing difficult.
“So, what’s the news?” Oma lay sprawled in the middle of the cot, cradling his head in his hands. I sat down gingerly on the edge of the cot.
Rano was sitting on a wooden plank lying near the stove. “You can see for yourself,” she replied with strange indifference.
“Just one, about ten days back,” Rano’s voice carried a whiff of those ten days of wait and emptiness and disappointment.
“Yes, all well.”
“I?” Suddenly startled, she glanced at Oma.
“Are you all right?”
“I am.” Her voice, on the verge of tears, seemed to come from the bottom of a well.
Silence filled the room for a while—the kind of silence that hangs in the air when the sound of a siren has subsided after rending the air on a dark night, leaving behind a palpable danger suspended in the air. That is when the ears, their antennae probing the darkness, are keyed up for the next explosion of sound—perhaps, for the sound of an exploding bomb.
“There was a letter from Kaloo. He wrote asking me to keep an eye on the luggage he had left on the platform.” Oma permitted himself a chuckle.
“Really!” An impenetrable darkness flicked off her voice, like powdery ash.
I squinted at Oma. It was unusual to see him fumble for a reply. Rano was looking at him, her eyes holding the ghost of a challenge, a subtle hint of a confrontation.
Oma sidestepped the challenge and changed his stance, “You have guests here. Aren’t you going to entertain them?”
“There is no milk, otherwise tea…”
“If you don’t drink all of it, you can save some for tea.”
“It’s not that. I didn’t fetch any milk this morning.”
“I feel so uncomfortable in this hot and stuffy room at night that I can’t go to sleep till the early hours of the morning, after which the milk depot closes down.”
I surveyed the room. My gaze ricochetted back from the walls that enclosed that narrow space. There was not a single window. Making an opening in the room to admit skylight seemed to have gone out of fashion. A door on the rear wall seemed to have been blocked and closed for ever—perhaps, by the landlord on the other side.
Evidently when Rano eloped with Kaloo from Chandigarh, she couldn’t have imagined that for all his wealth Kaloo would not be able to give her a home.
“Come out with some whisky.”
“The whisky-tippler has left for England, there is nothing besides empty bottles here.”
Rano sighed heavily. “Is that right?”
Oma laughed sheepishly. For a while there was silence. “How do you spend the whole day?”
“I roam the streets.”
“Which ones have you covered?”
“I don’t keep track of their names.”
“Don’t measure out too many streets though. Do you know what they call a lone woman loiterer in England?”
“A streetwalker,” Oma laughed.
I shuddered and looked at Rano. Her face looked desolate like a deserted street. As though she hadn’t followed what was said. “Perhaps they do,” she was possibly thinking of something else.
I glanced at Oma and had the oddest feeling that the man could be brutal to the point of being a sadist.
At this juncture the proper course for me should have been to jump to Rano’s defence—because she belonged to the same tribe to which I too belonged, the tribe of the spare women. But such women do not fight. That right belongs solely to the wives. For stand-ins like us, a fight with our men would amount to committing suicide by jumping in a blind well. And the opportunist within me decided that I wasn’t quite prepared for that.
We were again quiet for a long time.
“Shall we?” Oma looked at me.
“Hmm.” I rose to my feet.
So did Rano.
“When you write to him next tell him that Sahani comes every fourth or fifth day with a twenty-rupee handout. Also, that I am starving.”
“Sahani comes here?” Oma was instantly alert. A conscientious keeper of his friend’s meadows.
“Kaloo had asked him to.”
Rano opened the door leading out. After the suffocating stuffiness of the room, the breeze flitting through that dark, derelict lawn gave a pleasant sensation. It was much more comfortable outside. And breathing was easier.
Wordlessly, with small, measured steps the three of us walked down the side of the bungalow and came to the gate. The road outside was bathed in light.
A mild breeze and dim light.
“Right,” we said and took her leave.
“Do come again…..soon,” Rano said in a voice faint as a whisper.
The road was quiet. Perhaps the flow of traffic here was not all that regular. Both sides of the road were lined up with huge trees swathed in folds of heavy darkness. In all probability they were jamun trees.
The wind was blowing gently. We walked slowly under the canopy of a tree.
I drew back in alarm, frightened. A sound of muffled sobbing floated down from the tree.
“What is it?”
“What is what?”
“Someone is sobbing.”
“Where?” Oma asked.
I continued walking.