Toward the end of winter, the house itself began to breathe. Its ancient corners gave away the faint smells they had saved up since monsoon. The book shelf in the study had swollen with moisture, and titled so much that the books would topple down, it seemed so. Tagore’s Shipwreck oozed out from the top rung, threatening to take the leap any moment now. Shattering the multiple layers of cobwebs, it will any day now, fall flat on the floor, in its shallow suicidal attempt, throwing yellowed pages all across the floor.
The shrubs of croton that had long outgrown the shape they had been sized into now began to extend their wild boughs into insides of the windows. Like foreign intruders. The yellow red and white hibiscus had reached for the roof, and stood over it like half an umbrella. Amongst all this exuberant growth, though, ironically the potted brio phylum had withered. This pot sat on the window ledge, outside. Mani sat on the inside.
Combing her shriveling mound of hair, for the past half hour. Strands of it, both black and white, in equal proportion, broke off and filled the room. Mani combed relentless. When she began doing something, there was nothing that could make it stop, other than a new beginning, a new task at hand. Each day was a series of distractions, joined back to back. Once she took to eating bananas, she wouldn’t stop until you shoved the bunch away from her, if she hadn’t finished them all. Similarly, so on and forth. Sura, her housekeeper, once had to break the latch of her bathroom door so that you could make her stop. From pouring bucket after bucket of cold tap water over her head. So that she would not die from a cold, or from insanity.
Sura lived with his wife and three children, all three of them girls. It took him a lot of persuasion to leave his messenger’s job in the department of fisheries and settle down for housekeeping. Mani had to tempt him with numerous perks. One of them being, an outhouse for his new wife of those days. Gradually, the daughters came along, one disappointing offspring after the other. Sura was heartbroken until Mani one day confessed to him that being childless herself, she would treat his daughters, as she would have treated her own grand-daughters. Had she had any. And promised to marry them off, when their youth ran out, to eligible working men. But till then, she had three recurring deposits running on each of their names, she put in some hundred rupees, each month, each year, year after year after year.
Sura was her one man many jobs. He played part time driver when he had to kick start the old Premier rusting in the garage, any afternoon Mani felt like sweets. There was a Calcutta Sweets Stall, just where the road forked, a ten minutes from the house. But Mani would rather be driven. She would sit beside Sura, in the front, like a jolly little big girl, in her messy sari tied about her waist and slipping from her shoulders. In her new days, Sura’s wife assumed Mani was a shameless woman. Like a high society woman who would bed anything that came her way. It took her months, probably even more than a year to completely appreciate this kind of an insanity. In which one could act sane and insane, depending on what they felt like. Back in her village days, mad people were of a completely different kind.
Mani would sing along with the car radio that played on, missing out words in the lyrics. As a child, she had been blamed to have an eidetic memory. She remembered everything, sometimes things she wasn’t ought to. Until then, when she began to forget. Systematically, like in a schemed manner. Taking a couple of baby steps to insanity, then one reverse to sanity, and repeat. So everybody knew, Mani would never make it back, her progress to the other side had been very consistent, her doctor would declare. Her devout religious mother who died at forty-six knew, so did her older brother, who was the Secretary of Fisheries. Her ageing father found it hard to accept though, he trusted genetics too much. How could the daughter of a man as erudite as him, fail to outgrow something as silly as infancy.
In the later, dumber decades of his life, Retd. Prof Das would sit in the arm chair and stare out the grille. One day, years ago, he remembered looking at his thirty-three year old woman-child. Thwarting away street dogs, like there was nothing else in the world to await. Their garden used to be in full bloom then, fuchsia colored table roses grew in hanging pots from the ceiling in the portico. In the lawn that used to be flawlessly manicured, Mani drenched herself with the garden hose. The dogs chased her with their very own canine belligerence. Prof Das was heartbroken, he had fallen off the edge that day, usually he would walk into the garden and with a very loud scream put the menagerie back in the cage, but not that day.
The people who had come to see Mani, the widower - a meager I.A. Pass in comparison to Mani’s M.Sc. in Physics and half a Ph.D., had her mental shortcoming not hindered the way, her thesis lay useless in one of the rungs of the bookshelf, discarded, had rejected her outright. On Prof Das’s porch, he mentioned that the seeing and observing ritual done with, he couldn’t marry his daughter. No matter what the give and take. Prof Das upped his stakes, even on his face offered some more dowry, a better car. He also frankly asked the candidate, if he had heard anything about Mani’s first marriage. No, he hadn’t.
Later that afternoon, he sat in the portico and looked at his daughter through the low hanging table rose, without quite seeing her. For the first time in years he decided not to put an end to her joy, as abruptly as he would usually have done. We suspect, probably, that was the time when he had accepted that Mani was not going to make it back. Not in ever, again.
So before his own death got more imminent, he began looking for a suitable house keeper more than he had earlier looked for a bridegroom. He would make a call to the Secretary of Fisheries’ secretary, his Personal Assistant, a Ms. Velvet, or something, what-was-her-name. On regularly spaced biweekly calls, after Velvet put the call through, father and son would discuss every prospective candidate for a stay-in house keeper.
The Secretary of Fisheries
After a pensive following of the El Nino, the monsoon of ’94 had ditched every one alike. News readers wore a dismal look in their eyes beneath thick spectacle glasses. Farmers dropped down, one by one, consuming pesticide for afternoon tea. Some jumped into rivers, up above from bridges relentless. Children, with their earthy bodies, were shown in the papers, playing in dust over cracked earth. The air was all consuming, harsh, loud, withholding the eerie noises of death and pallor.
The Secretary of Fisheries, sat at the end of his table, resting his elbow on the glass sheath over it and attended a bevy of calls. Some left him exhausted, with all the listening to that was given at the other end. The Secretary of Fisheries was not quite the listener. He buzzed Velvet for his regular coffee, called back immediately to make that black. When Velvet came in, he was turned towards the curtains that were permanently shut. For a dozen times, Velvet must have conspired to get it changed to Venetian blinds, or anything more contemporary. But stuck in the red tape, that never was let to happen.
She believed she had made enough of a clink to register a presence. But the Secretary was impermeable today. For the better part of that afternoon, he scribbled notes, scratched them out, then unscratched them back. His head felt heavier as the espresso cooled down and got cold, sitting quietly untouched.
When Prof Das made it up the stairway, crossing one-do-not-spit-here, corner in the alley after another, nobody knew that the boss’s father was even there. But Velvet hadn’t patched in even one of his calls for the last two days, angry and ignored, he had broken protocol and driven to the secretariat.
Like any pain stricken constituent, he sat upon the wooden bench lined up for the grievance stricken, the landless whose livelihood in the off season lay in their ponds, the persistently penny-less clan whose prawn harvest three years ago had gone diseased, so on and forth. Prof Das looked down at the floor, imagining the sound of the words he had drafted for his son. His bushy white every-brows hid the obvious disappointment in his eyes, downcast.
Velvet’s suspicion lingered around the relatively well dressed septuagenarian long enough for her to saunter over to him and ask.
“Are you here to see the secretary?”
“He can come around whenever he gets the time, I will be here. Sitting”
And that was when Velvet recognized the ageing baritone and rushed inside the secretary’s chambers.
Mani’s brother was barely in the middle of a panic attack. That shaky nerve that lived in their lineage had gotten only stronger in Mani, but it was very much there in the secretary as well. As children, Mani would at times be the one stronger amongst the two, more patient, more meticulous, when she was blamed with an eidetic memory. When she stood first and collected certificates galore, the professor’s daughter ruled the roost. Back then, the elder brother was nothing more than a bat waiving maniac who escaped home with different alibis for the cricket ground.
On some distinct occasions, Mani defended him. Stood guard for his factitious web of stories that kept him away from his tuitions or school. Believed him for once, all of it that he said, in a way compelling the others to fall in line. The secretary never fully paid her back for all that sitting like a rock though. Not when they were children, not even when they separated as adolescents and not the least when they lived two very different lives as adults.
Prof Das somehow always outshone in the quandary as their only common point. Like a pigeon, like a bearer of unintentional messages his children sent to each other, he continued to be their sole bridge, since the mother had died and moved into another world, until the end.
The secretary of fisheries rushed out to see his father the very instant he could get off the phone. Velvet sent in tea, didn’t carry it herself like she usually would. It was a Saturday afternoon. The secretary crushed the curtains into the corner of the window and let some light in. They spoke in shallow voices as the sun emerged from behind thick clouds for a while and then contemptuously dipped into an orange horizon.
Living in an Apartment
Mani had been married for seven days, six nights. Not a lot had happened in the last week though. Except that her suitcases had arrived, three days later than promised. Till then she had had to live out of the sole bridal bag. It was a new city; the air here was drier, cooler. Further into the land, away from the moodiness of the sea. If it rained, it rained for days, if the sun beat down, the mercury knew its way up very well. Mani felt suffocated in a way, she had never lived in an apartment. She found her privacy singularly invaded, in weird ways, she had never shared a wall with another house. It felt unhygienic, crammed.
Bhagvati, who had traveled with her to help her set her new home and stay as long as need be, made tea as many times as Mani felt like tea. The tea cups ignored one after the other on the ledge in the balcony got cold, untouched. Mani had grown into detachment ironically well. She needed no love, it seemed, if you let her be. Allow her to have it her way. So at her husband’s house, there was anyone she hardly missed. It had always been Bhagvati who spoke on the phone, each time Prof Das called to check if everything was alright.
But she yearned for the garden, the way that untamed grass felt against her feet. How each of her toenails painted a different color, outrageously contrasted the grey green underneath. Yet Bhagvati would not let her out and coyly tell Madhav had taken away the keys with him and neither of them could get out. Mani would conspire about calling the police or the fire station, because they were authorized to break in and enter. Numerous such strategies visited her mind in bubbles and evaporated. In a child’s mind, one would bet, they would stay long enough to become plans. But not in hers.
In the evenings, when Madhav came home from work, limping from the elevator to the door, across the corridor, Mani would stick her ears to the door to hear the dragging sound of his right foot on the floor. Just as he unlocked his way into the house, Mani would run into the kitchen and catch hold of whatever Bhagvati was holding and pretend that she was the ideal home maker, the devoted wife, the stay-at-home better half. Bhagvati would give him the exact same look everyday and in one insignificant moment, all records would be set straight. That she has been insane today as well.
The nights had been spent scratching the wall adjacent to her bed, as Bhagvati lay on the floor, indifferently turning sides, breathing loudly, snoring. That snoring would wake Mani up when she had managed to fall asleep for tranches of the night. Her new husband had insisted on her discontinuing a few doses of medication, merely to check on the feasibility. But each of those days, Mani began to stretch out a bit beyond her boundaries of civility.
Just like the Secretary wouldn’t want any of his office men and women to find out the secret of a sick sister, her husband wouldn’t want the neighbors to. He was prepared to wait as long as required and keep her in. Contained, like a well guarded secret. There had been no wedding party in the city; none of his friends had even known who he had gotten married to. Though they knew, that he had. They knew, there was a girl who sometimes answered his phone. In her shriveling, child like voice, mistakenly, quickly handing it over to him. On some occasions, she had dropped it on the floor. Incidentally, they thought, probably this was some comfort girl that had begun to live with him longer than planned. After quite a bit of scheming, did they come to know about the whole marriage story, and why he had availed all of his annual privilege leaves earlier that month.
Echoes in the Mind
Mani’s new husband had not known her as a child, when she had been very quintessential, studious and obviously belligerent when it came to filial ties. He hadn’t known her when she began going to high school and developed certain of those really odd symptoms. Of watching TV for hours, not necessarily watching, as much as merely sitting in front of. Or of vanishing for hours together, sitting on the edge of the roof, wanting to be alone, shutting the door, not talking to anyone except for when it was time to come out to eat. Nobody gave it any attention back then, they were clueless and assumed hopefully it had something to do with puberty. Her devout mother for once believed that it was good that her daughter didn’t touch anything at the house when she was bleeding, that way things continued to remain pious.
But later, when she washed her hands and feet a dozen times before they sat down to eat, or stood before her mother’s gods and murmured hymns again and again, counting with her fingers, with the lines beneath her knuckles, began following her inane rituals throughout the house, touching every piece of wood that came on her way as she went somewhere, when she even was seen talking to trees, the bush of bamboos in front of their childhood home became one of her favorites, Mani was thoroughly rebuked, even threatened.
There is no fear more than the one being declared insane. The shame itself would scare her, keep her on guard not to be caught in the act. But it didn’t help any longer than that. Soon, the psychiatric doctor in the town was consulted who wrote a prescription of medicines with a lot of paracetamol. She slept for longer hours soon after she was started on mild dosages that were to be gradually strengthened. But people began to talk.
Prof Das, who was then a mere junior lecturer pooled in all the money he had and moved into the psychiatrist’s town. The secretary of fisheries who was seventeen then, who had been tilting towards Dickens and Dostoevsky, was admitted into Bachelor of Arts, with Honors in English.
But the troubles only deepened, Mani kept getting away and away from them all. In the house they rented in the town, each of them had their own room, a luxury Prof Das had been coerced to avail at the cost of half of his salary given his half-grown man of a son who refused to be in the same room as his sister. Mani, however had to share hers with a widowed maternal aunt who visited from time to time. Her mother called her Golap, which meant rose.
Golap had been instructed to keep an eye on Mani, to keep her from straying. Because it would drive even her own mother’s temper to the roof, things that Mani did, despite having been persuaded, bribed, warned and threatened to stop. They kept her from school. Instead, a tuition teacher would come home and teach her. Between hours of severe metaphysical distractions, whatever she could gather she did. She was waived the compulsion of attendance, with Prof Das’ insistence with her school principal and only wrote the half yearly tests, pre tests and tests, even missing a few when she felt under the weather.
Meanwhile, Golap with her strong resolve to extend her stay in the town, initiated few of her hardhearted missions to cure Mani. Every Friday, a certain holy man from her village changed three buses after walking two miles to be there in Mani’s room and sprinkle it with holy ash, and cow dung water, leaves of basil and chant hymns that had no meaning for Mani as she sat there mute ad complied. With the same temerity with she went by each one of her mother’s pleads.
Mani had shrewdly learned to feign obedience. As in she touched her tuition master’s feet every morning before she sat down in front of him and went on to blabber about differentiation and integration, thetas and epsilons, powerful formulae that Mani could never grasp, decompose. She merely sat there, but she sat quietly, without protest, in a demure surrender, until he left. After which she went back to her praying to trees and counting beads, spitting unnecessarily.
In the first year of living in the town, things spilled out of control. Mani’s fingers and face began to swell due to the excessive washing and bathing. Her features began to grown disproportionately, her chin pointed out from her face like a sentinel. Her lower lip mildly twisted vis-à-vis the upper. Her pupils began to point in different directions, she almost voluntarily developed a squint. Her breasts ceased to grow, she gained the stunted look of a woman-child. Her fists were always clutched tight, in order to stop anything viral or bacterial from penetrating her body. She touched hardly anything, ate with a spoon after repeatedly rinsing it.
So Golap, called a sorcerer, who was a half brotherly acquaintance earned through the holy man who previously did the chants. His fees were as good as double. He, who with his red beard and creepy knotted unwashed hair of years, scared the good gods away from Golap and Mani’s devout mother, came home with a sacred broom. With that broom, he beat the crap out of every wall, every piece of furniture, all the pots and pans and bowls in the kitchen before finally turning to the cynosure of it all, Mani.
Mani was having a good day that day, God bless the sorcerer. Her prayers had been counted right that day, unlike the others when she would have to start praying from the beginning again, messing with her mind. Her clothes had been wringed and hung to dry away from the rest of the family’s, though on the same string. She had cleaned her bowl and spoon for breakfast till her umpteenth time, and to her very satisfaction. So the echoes in her mind, that spewed her orders to do this and that, had been temporarily silenced. But then, entered the broom, center stage.
He slapped on Mani’s cheeks and asked Golap to strip her. Mani screamed into tears and shrank to a entangled ball of muscle. The sorcerer therefore, beat Mani too, calling her by her good name. He started calling out to the ghost inside and commanded it to leave Manasa Das’s flesh. And never return. Because if he pretended to leave and then came back the same night or later, the sorcerer would know and come back and beat him again. Mani lay on the floor like a coiled snake, clutching her knees with her hands, facing the wall opposite. The room filled with smoke, the fire kept burning. Mani coughed, the sorcerer coughed, Golap coughed so much that she left.
Later when it was time for Prof Das to come back home, the sorcerer drank a cup of tea and left saying that the ghost was a Muslim one and wouldn’t respond to a Hindu sorcerer because, he didn’t understand his chants of Sanskrit. Had Mani ever strayed close to a burial ground as a child?
Mani stared into the Bay of Bengal. The foam of the waves gathered at her feet before receding. The water looked grey nearby and got darker as she looked further. She had left her slippers on the dry sand and her bag too. She bent down to gather the bubbles in her hands, but they vanished almost instantaneously.
There were families around, children, old ladies in drenched saris, kneeling inside the water, laughing rather loudly, calling out to each other. There were men standing where the big waves broke into small ones. They were calling out too, to their wives and sisters. All such voices coagulated in Mani’s ears as she tried to close her eyes and reminiscence. Back until the days when she built temple of wet sand and her brother dashed against the waves. But memory, like sanity never held her in good stead.
Two days ago, Mani had freed herself from Bhagvati’s watchful gaze for a minute and slipped out of La Ville’s gates, empty handed. Except for two marital bangles, rings on fingers of both hands and Suvadra’s locket hung around her neck. She knew for sure, trading each of those tiny pieces of jewelry would buy her a way back home.
Wiping her forehead with the end of her sari, Mani walked onward. When she looked back at men who stood beside the road, by tea stalls, or selling samosas and gaped at her, they strengthened their stare. It was a chain reaction, the more men that looked at her, a multiple of that she looked back at. Ultimately, she fastened her pace, because all eyesight ended with her, she was the center of the universe, everyone, the taxi drivers, the grannies up in the buildings looking down from their balconies, children being taken back from school, housewives buying vegetables, men spitting pan and smoking, limbless beggars, beggars who sang perfectly well until you dropped a coin in their beaten aluminum bowls and the thud of that disappointed them enough to stop singing and start cursing, teenage girls by the road who waved to take the bus to their boyfriends, the setting sun, the callous breeze, each and everything ended upon Mani.
She asked, only where the train station was. The railway station. Which way. Where hawkers sold books and groundnuts in chili powder. Where the lemonade man always, almost always followed her with his suspicious eyes. Where was that place? Did she have to get on the bus or hail a taxi. Which way did Madhav go? The short, bristly bearded man she had married. Mani felt like going back one moment, lunging forward the next. In both minds, she sat on the bus stop with scores of other girls her age waiting for the next bus homeward. She was headed home too. Only that it was a couple hundred kilometers away, a night away or two. Mani couldn’t remember.
The entire wedding had been so hazy. Like she had been sedated, and she probably had been. Because many of the secretary’s friends were there, from the department of fisheries and other departments, in their red beacon cars, and so was his socialite of a wife. But she remembered taking the train, being driven to the station in a jasmine laden ambassador, strings of jasmine inter-stitched with red roses fell upon her card window as it was rolled up. She remembered feeling drowsy and nauseous. In that chaos she held on to Madhav’s hand. That must have been love, in afterthought. She saw what felt like her mother standing on the porch, crying. May be she was real, and there was Golap laughing loudly as she did when she caught Mani doing one of her early morning rituals, moving in circles, quietening the noises in her head. No that was not Golap, suddenly she couldn’t remember Golap, but the one near her was her mother. Why were they standing so far and not with every one near her? The socialite sister-in-law with her matte lipstick, stood with a static smile stuck on her face, hand bag intact, which once Mani had deliberately raided and burgled.
So yes, there was a train. She got up on the next bus and stood holding the bar like a daily commuter. The conductor asked her where to, she gave him that blank expression, he kept on asking until a few other passengers got involved and she blurted out.
“Eighteen rupees, that would be.”
After a few minutes, he left her alone moving on to other passengers,
“I am going to come back, keep the money ready by then”
One good woman nudged Mani asked her what her name was.
“Manasa. Manasa Das”, she retained her father’s surname despite having been married to Madhav for thirteen days.
“And which train are you taking Manasa?”
“The one to Puri. Tonight”
“Oh, which one? There are so many trains to Puri. Howrah Puri? Jagannath? Which one have you bought the ticket to?”
“I don’t remember, it reaches tomorrow morning”
“But only all the trains reach tomorrow morning, sugar”
Mani exchanged all her rings and bangles for a three hundred rupees and took the woman’s address so that her brother would money order her whatever more that three hundred was worth. But a ticket to Puri would cost her about two hundreds and she needed the third hundred, to buy food, give coins to beggars and little children that swept her railway compartment, just like Madhav had on their journey onward.
Mani bent down and sat on the sand, the water came up to her chest and sometimes brimmed above her head. She felt the salt in her eyes, on her tongue. When it got into her ears, she felt she would drown, but didn’t. She repeated that a few more times, even waded into the water on all fours, like a child would. Stretched her arms back and rested her body on them. The water entered her, she cringed.
She missed her slippers and reluctantly walked out. Suvadra’s locket was no longer there around her neck. The sea, she had been told was forever gracious, it never owed anyone anything. Even people who got washed away by it waves, their bodies were returned the next morning, bloated and eaten in places by fish, but returned nevertheless. So somebody would definitely get her Suvadra, Mani thought she should wait by the sea until morning, to see.
The room smelled of incense. And of slow death. Prof Das’s middle aged wife hadn’t got out of bed for months. The secretary had stationed a nurse from the hospital, twenty four seven so that his new wife could be spared the pain of service. Suvadra believed in karma. Asleep for several hours a day, she had begun to sink into deep hallucinations. Gradually, the line in between got thinner. For days, she thought that the her nurse was a part of a dream. She lived her awake hours in a distinct blur and called for Mani whenever the blur cleared for a moment.
Mani had been kept apart from Suvadra, she hadn’t even been told that her mother was that way, waiting for her to come by, and for death. Mani was on her own in the big bungalow after her sick mother had been shifted from the nursing home directly to her brother’s spacious quarters. So very spacious, that the warmth of humans that walked and sat about in it, was absolved into the cold, decades old walls. Mani would come by on some Saturdays to be with her mother’s side for a few hours before being sent back in the secretary’s one of many red beacon cars.
Nobody liked the house very much though, even Prof Das made several excuses to spend the night in his bungalow. One of the most reasonably used excuses was to keep an eye on his insane daughter. The Secretary’s quarters, for one had numerous corridors that separated parallel chain of rooms on both sides. Mani got very confused which room was whose and barged many a times into her rather impersonal sister-in-law, painting her nails in a bathrobe, or drying her hair, getting ready to host one party or other. The kitchen too was rather dusty, despite the numerous aides that the secretary had engaged, the milk powder was out of Mani’s reach, so was the jar of sugar cookies. Mani mildly disliked to despised the place.
Suvadra, whenever awake would recognize Mani and ask her to light an incense stick. Due to the bottles and bottles of stacked up syrups, strips of emptied capsules, those of multiple colors, those she lost track of what she was being fed, her room began to smell like alcohol, like the inside of a hospital. She would coax the nurse to walk her to the attached bathroom, but after a couple of times of fainting en route, they stuck to the bed pan despite many protests.
Suvadra’s stench, which from the very beginning had kept at bay her son and daughter-in-law, had later even began to repulse Prof Das. Probably he just hated the odor in the room and kept away, or he saw his own senility approaching in a fast diminishing Suvadra. In the end, it was only Mani on Saturday afternoons, who sat beside her watching her reduce.
Mani would get tired of getting lost in the many rooms of the house, before she finally found the one in which her mother had been kept. Many a times, she would read out poems from her English books, or short stories that she had borrowed from her father’s library. Or from her sister-in-law’s Femina magazines. She loved how to glossy pages felt against her fingertips. But irrespective of the incense, the stench never ceased.
It was like, it emanated from her mother’s various decaying organs. Her liver, and pancreas, and gall bladder, intestines, everything that betrayed her mother’s soul in half life and failed one by one. In a neat order, spaced out, measuring the number of days they could trick her into living.
One afternoon in August, there were unexpected showers. Mani had been watching TV in the other room, some movie with a band of dacoits and a heroine in a shiny red dress. She refused to budge as neighbors and friends gathered in Suvadra’s room beside her dead body. Mani saw people walk in with flowers and walk out empty handed, but she wouldn’t let anyone reduce the volume on the TV. That very afternoon, she came back to her old home, their neglected bungalow, clutching her mother’s locket to her chest, refusing to believe that she had been half orphaned and pretending that nobody had died.
The Secretary was touring for the first time with the misses. That was what had made the entire village gloat in indecent pride. Talks had erupted in pan shops about how pink her lips were, or how deep the neck of her blouse was. The women folk bathing in the river gossiped about her money squandering, and the young boys waited for her to come visit their school which ran in full strength as long as the secretary inhabited the guest house.
The Secretary was on a weekend getaway to change his wife’s mood and also check on the progress in a few projects he had ensured the funding for years ago.
It was a quiet Saturday morning until the ambassador with its red siren turned off arrived, and the secretary decided to take a tour of the twin ponds that he had ordered be dug and be invested in indigenous fish farming. But alas, the ponds lay deserted, only knee deep in slush and were green with hyacinth. A few hours was what the bloated babus of the department of fisheries had in their hands, to make things right, their hearts trembling in their mouths. Noiseless pump sets had been brought on thrice their rental fee, water from Luna, the river that wandered by, was pumped afternoon through till the ponds were flooded.
The grass around and about the twin ponds was shaved to built paths for the secretary and the misses and tiny flower plants potted suitably to beautify their impending visit. Almost simultaneously as she complained that the ceiling fan in the master bedroom in the guest house made a creaking noise and that it would definitely fall and smash her pretty face. Immediately the diploma drop out village electrician was asked for and the fan fixed. It was him, who stole glances at her and spawned the talk about her lips and her blush and her belly button that showed neatly from amongst the folds of her sari.
Towards the afternoon as the secretary asked to be driven for the inspection, the tanks carrying live fish that had been wholly emptied into the water were quickly removed leaving no traces of hyacinth. The Rohu and the Mirkali that hadn’t seen each others’ faces ever, now jumped about in the same pond like it was home and like they were brothers. The two ponds shone green in the orange sun, like the two eyeballs of a beauty queen. The pug marks of men and the tire trails of the mini-trucks carrying the fish tanks were evened out by laborers who had suddenly found employment out of nowhere.
When the secretary arrived, he walked toward the Luna first wanting to catch it in all its November glory. The misses could not keep pace with her husband’s long legs. She walked five feet behind collecting the end of her sari in the bent of her elbow, tying her hair into a knot as it the breeze from the river blew it astray. The women who had heard the word and the school boys had gathered already and wouldn’t disperse despite having been threatened by the babus and their henchmen. They swallowed every movement like it was a some movie, with a fine-looking couple of a man and a woman, resplendent in wealth, power and glory. They must be incredibly content with their lives, the women thought. The boys wondered what it would be like to have that damsel sleeping beside them on the same bed. And if she was as warm as she was pretty.
The Luna meandered in its rightful place, the sand created mirages of water where there was none. His staff, they kept their distance and stayed back as the misses finally caught up with the secretary on the banks. Then onward they walked side by side to the water. The palm trees that had grown up where the sand ended and the black soil began, on that very border, bent towards the river with the fury of an abandoned lover. The dozens of them growing bent that way, the sun dissolving into the water behind the bridge, the crows flying in patterns in the benign sky made everything very picturesque. Like the couple stood upon the cover of some vernacular novel.
‘Mani and I grew up, making sand temples, somewhere right here. I always walked ahead of her, checking for quick sand.’
The wife squeezed her kohl eyes and nodded. In a way, asking him to continue, but probably in her heart, wanting him to stop. The secretary continued.
‘I would pluck wild flowers for her to stick atop the temples she built. We also dug out rabbit holes till river water seeped out and everything around them collapsed, sank. Imploded’
‘Our mother would ask me never to let her out of my view. She was always afraid of losing her, probably because she was the younger one. Because we had always known that everything was not right with her.’
‘One day she began washing her feet off the sand under her toenails in the river. She was perched in the knee deep water for what seemed like hours and wouldn’t budge even after I tried dragging her out. I was afraid to leave her there and go home to call our mother. I thought that the river would carry her away.’
During the same time, Mani slept like a cat since siesta in their decrepit bungalow in the town. Sleep had been playing truant for the weeks since Suvadra had died. All night, she would walk around in the study like a ghost. Sometimes, Prof Das would sneak into the study hearing those footsteps to check if his wife had returned from the dead and stand for a moment confused in half sleep. Mani had the same side face as her mother. It was from in front that she had begun looking insane.