She first appeared to me in a dream. I don’t remember when. But not her eyes and smile which had engraved themselves across my heart. The eyes and the smile sucked the beholder into her orbit. In the dream I’d dropped a swing from a limb of the neem tree in front of my grandfather’s house. I made the swing from flowers plucked a while ago. From our garden of marigolds, chrysanthemums, jasmines and roses. I asked her to sit on the swing. She sat, her face showing tension, and gripped the ropes of the swing decorated with flowers. .It was time I gave the swing four or five pushes from behind. That I did.
The scene was now set for fun. The fun had just begun when a peacock landed in front of the swing. And unfurled his tail of thousand eyes, blue, green, yellow and brown. He came from a future that had yet to dawn. From Shahpur Jat in Delhi behind the barsati I would tenant twenty years later with my wife and daughter, I’d not even dreamt of it at that time, not even married then. The peacock danced for a while and, tired perhaps, folded his fan into a tail and labored to sail off back to where he had come from,
The girl then propelled herself to a rhythm. When the swing zoomed, her waist-to-heels skirt made of silk from Kanchi billowed like an umbrella unfurled in rain. When it receded the skirt dyed in green sucked into the fork of her legs. The swing went higher and higher till it became horizontal as it reached the peak of its trajectory. I could see on her nymphal face excitement mixed with fright. The neem cast a geometry of light and shade on her body flying back and forth. I could see the leaves of the tree taking time to come down and mantle her head and clothes. I now remember her smile through the rain of serrate leaves. The smile wafted straight into my heart and flared. After some time she climbed down the swing of flowers, and pleased with herself hugged me in joy pillowing her head on my chest. She stayed in my arms until the rhythm of her heart synchronized with mine.. It was a dream I couldn’t recall in its completeness. I could recapture only her eyes and smile that I had saved in the hope the dream would come true some day.
I awoke with a start when my mother called from out of nowhere, ‘Get up, here is tea.’ I struggled to come out of the dream, keeping with me the scent of the girl’s body and the silken press of her half-saree. The queen of the dream, her heartbeat, the swing of flowers and the song of the birds, the half-saree had all vanished. Where could they’ve gone and how? A sense of loss and betrayal such as the loss of an empire and the empress seized my being. Was the dream unreal? Don’t some dreams become reality? I was sure that this dream too would come true one day. Even the Shahpur Jat peacock had disappeared. Perhaps Hyderabad was not a good place for peacocks to be. Maybe, he flew off to his habitat somewhere in the north.
My grandfather’s house that I saw in the dream was real. It is no more ours. It is now a mall. In the years that followed, nothing of the dream remained in me except the smile and the eyes of the tormentor that time couldn’t erase.
With the help of the memory of the dream intact I knew I would one day find the owner of those eyes and the smile. When I find her, I’ll own her, her eyes and her smile would be mine and mine alone. Years after that dream, we shifted to Hyderabad following my father’s impulsive decision to migrate. The city we’d come to looked like the capital of a foreign country where we were classified as aliens. People dressed differently, spoke a different tongue, used a different currency and lived in houses that disappeared behind high compound walls. Though we didn’t need visas our bags had to pass through the customs after we’d disembarked at the Kacheguda railway station housed in an elegant building answering to Gothic and Asaf Jahi architectural styles.
On arrival, we stayed with an uncle who lived in Barkatpura, a few minutes walk from the railway station. It was a prosperous district of the city. It was our first day of outing in that foreign city. A short distance from the uncle’s place was a lush green circular park. Popularly known as Barkatpura Chaman. Central to our story are the chaman and a two-storied building where it plays itself out.
Around an arc of the road embracing the chaman we found a beautiful two-storied building glowing in the simplicity of its design. That house was a complex of four flats washed with white marble dust and a notion of milk. The moon lingered over the building longer than he did elsewhere, an old man taking in the sun at the chaman told us. My father traced the owner and rented two flats of the house. The owner had named it Anand Bhavan. The abode of bliss. No one passing by the Barkatpura Chaman ever failed to notice its understated majesty. The Chaman is both a traffic island and a park. With a few characterless cement benches that looked like unfinished Henry Moore sculptures, and an ornate bracket of five domed lamps atop a wrought iron post in its middle, the park, acquired, like the chandrakanta flowers, life in the evening, a time mothers and nannies brought children there to play and frolic. When they’d gone came the lover birds to exchange intimacies. At the beginning of the arc of the chaman was a cottage that later historians would’ve described as a mausoleum of love. It looked like a hermitage of humble descent, separated from the main two-storied structure by a low wall hiding behind a finely manicured hedge of hawthorn.
The time of this story was our tenth year in that elegant house. Thanks to my father’s fatherliness, I stayed at home after graduating in law. I did, besides looking for work, nothing more worthwhile than reading books and listening to music, something my father found hard to object to. My idea of taking a break from books and music was to drag a low rosewood chair close to the large bay window of our living room. It caught a view of the chaman, gifted with spring all round the year, and the road ringing it and the passing show in the park.
If I veered my eyes to the right I could see a slide show of the modest cottage with a porch large enough to be a veranda and of the middle-class life breathing there. I had a friend there who was my age. He worked as a bank clerk. He spent his free time with my brothers and me. He lived in the cottage with the family of his elder brother who had a wife with a round but pleasant face heading a plump body, and two children, five and seven. She was a native of Bellary and spoke both Kannada and Telugu. I tried to imagine the path my eyes would take to return to where they had begun their odyssey. First would be the Kannada hermitage, then the chief minister’s single-storied house and across the road where my soccer player friend lived, the ranch house of Gulshan Yar Jung with gates of entry opening on the road facing the finance secretary’s mansion washed in yellow paint. The return trip ends at my window vantage.
One day--I forget what day of the week it was-- I parked myself at the window for a casual survey of the world around the chaman. Involuntarily, the eyes began a leftward movement covering the Finance Secretary’s mansion, where a gardener had just finished his job of watering the front lawns. He did it, rain or no rain. Then the eyes traveled to Nawab Gulshan Yar Jung Bahadur’s ranch house across the road that took you to Osmania University; next my eyes took in the Chief Minister’s residence under siege night and day by a milling crowd of petitioners, touts and political brokers, some pitching tents on the footpath across his house, ready to swoop at sight on the chief minister’s minions to wangle an appointment. Past the house of a friend of my brother, the eyes were about to complete the circuit when they came to a standstill at the cottage, arrested by the appearance of a nymph looking like a streak of lightning, I thought. Or, was it a fragment of the moon that has appeared on earth as a result of a divine curse? Something told me I’d seen her somewhere. My God, could this nymph be the same girl of the dream I’d seen before we’d shifted to Hyderabad? The same eyes and the same angelic smile. Was this a continuation of that dream? She looked like she had just walked out of a dream. The first thing I did after confirming she was was thank God for posting a friend in that humble dwelling, hiding under the benign shadow of an ancient neem tree.
It was December and the brittle yellow-gold leaves of the tree floated down gaily to carpet the compact, unpaved courtyard of the cottage. My eyes wandered to where my new find was raking the grounded leaves with a short broom like Devika Rani in Achoot Kanya. The two children of the man of the house trailed her in the manner of kittens trailing a cat, picking up leaves with their tiny hands and gamely adding them to the pile. The threesome looked like Sakuntala and her deer in Kanva’s hermitage. Between them they made raking more a game than a chore. She glided about the place with balletic grace. She sensed, I thought, some snooping and raised her head as if my eyes had alerted her to my presence at the window. Our young eyes met and each of us felt found out. At once I appropriated her in my mind as mine. She straightened up herself and let the broom drop to the ground and considered the owner of the hungry eyes. On her lips glistening with moisture stretched a lyrical smile with its power to hypnotize the beholder. Was it a smile of recognition? A smile that was worthy of celebrating in a sonnet. Did she recognize me as the one who had helped her swing in my grandfather’s garden of marigolds, chrysanthemums, jasmines and roses? For a while I imagined that everyone in that dolls house had left it to make room for her and me to live there, undisturbed. There was the kind of cosmic peace that predated the birth of Man. I’d no idea whether it was love or some sort of
crush. It was not infatuation, that overtook Adam when he pressed his teeth into the forbidden apple, I convinced myself. My adoration was not without a reason. My lightning came across as proud and one who didn’t shower her animating smile on all and sundry. When she bestowed it on the beholder she did it as if she were doing a favor.
Next day, I took my friend to the Irani Café attached to Deepak Mahal and extracted some biographical detail about her. He told me that she was from a village and had come to stay with her uncle, a middle level official in the Revenue Department, to do the last year of high school. Her father lived on his farm in their village near Raichur. She would go to college next year. With plenty of foresight that God has granted us in His benevolence I dangled candy to lure the kids, years away from the ways of the world. Who knows when I might need their help? To entice her into my parlour I’d only six months. I would then leave home to attend advanced law classes. This signaled to me the need to act fast.
I intuited that the stars were on my side. The beginning had begun imperceptibly. One day from my window vantage I espied her heading for our house leaving her entourage behind. I guessed she was coming to borrow sugar or coffee-powder from my mother. Earlier the kids used to come on such missions. She avoided the front door and floated at the back entrance opening into the kitchen. That’s my mother’s habitat. From the living room I drifted into the kitchen and surprised her. She raised her head and recognized me as the man at the window. Did she see the same dream I saw at my ancestral home? A slow mesmeric smile rolled out leisurely across her roseate lips, parted a crack to reveal a string of pearls. We were now face to face with each other for the first time. She was blushing like a good Indian girl. Sakuntala had parted her hair in the middle and pushed the two streams back to weave into one single lustrous plait. There was a vermilion dot in the middle of her brow like Shiva’s third eye sans the fire. Below a pair of arched eyebrows shone eyes dark and coy. A finely sculpted nose south of the eyes and a red coral stud on the right nostril completed a face fit for a Viswakarma bronze. A mauve sari and a white blouse wrapped her dainty body. The smile never seemed to desert her. I returned her smile and asked her in Kannada for her name. She was surprised to hear Kannada in a Telugu household. Delighted, she smiled radiating warmth.
‘What’s your name?’ I asked her again to break the ice.
‘I don’t know,’ she said and smiled.
I struggled to match her voice with any of the voices of younger singers I’d known. Yes, it sounded like Syamala Mazgaonkar’s.
‘I’ll call you Anamika then,’ I told her looking into her limpid eyes.
‘If that pleases you,’ she said and took her snaky plait in her hands and regarded it fondly.
I look at the tresses and exclaim my appreciation.
‘Fantastic,’ I say.
She blushes and a tinge of pink washes her cheeks.
‘But there are no flowers in your hair,’ I say to keep the conversation going.
‘Wait until evening,’ she says with a glint of mischief in her eyes..
‘Okay, Tell me what flowers will it be?’ I ask her.
‘I won’t tell you now,’ she teases.
She sees a cloud on my face and at once sets out to clear it.
‘What flowers do you like?’ She offers a choice.
My face brightens. Because it means she’ll wear flowers of my choice to make me happy. ‘Jasmines,’ I tell her.
‘Where do you get jasmines in December?’ she asks with a mocking smile.
‘Okay, anything you like,’ I tell her shamming defeat.
My mother is furtively watching this burlesque. She sees the makings of a bond in our banter. She, my mother, smiles and unseriously suggests I disappear.
‘Go mind your business,’ she waves me off, raising a ladle in feigned reproach. Seeming to enjoy my discomfiture, the girl smiles at me, as if I’d deserved the motherly snub.
‘What do you want, my dear,’ my mother asks the girl, guessing she is from the hermitage.
‘My aunt wants a cup of sugar,’ she says in broken Telugu to my mother. My mother is taken in by her pleasing ways and, I presume, her magnetic eyes. She gives her sugar in a small stainless steel bowl.
‘Enough?’ asks my mother affectionately.
‘Will do,’ she says without raising her head..
‘I haven’t seen you earlier?’ says my mother.
‘I came only three days ago,’ she says, slightly tilting her head to the right.
‘On a visit?’ my mother asks a supplementary.
‘No, I’m doing my high school here,’ she tells my mother with restrained pride.
‘Okay. Keep coming,’ my mother says regarding the girl tenderly.
‘Keep coming,’ I mimic my mother’s words and voice.
She laughs. The laugh sounds like the hum of a distant cataract.
‘You haven’t told me your name?’ says my mother.
‘Vandana,’ she says.
‘Lovely girl,’ my mother says to me after the lovely girl has gone.
The girl has to pass our front door to go back to the cottage with the sweet cargo. I appear at the front door as if predestined. I wave to her cheerfully as she walks back to her house. From the corner of her left eye she watches me wave, smiles like a flower unfurling its petals for dew to settle upon and increases the pace of retreat. The girl and the smile have now become Siamese twins.
Her smile this time awakens in me a feeling of euphoria and an urge to hasten the consummation. Get bold, I tell myself. I write a small note and fold it twice. I always carry it with me like it is a part of my body. Who knows when she might call next? There is nothing in the note that should stoke speculation. It says let’s meet behind Yuvati Mandali. Two days later she is at the backdoor to return the sugar. My mother knows I will surface there. She pretends to be busy and unaware of the girl’s presence. In my mind I thank my mother for her understanding. The girl sees me advance towards her and tries to sort of spruce herself up.. She yanks back a renegade pallu around her shoulder..
‘What’s the matter?’ I ask her matter-of-factly.
She makes no answer, implying she would talk only to my mother. Like a dumb doll, she holds up the bowl full of sugar to me, smiling enchantingly and averting my smiling eyes. I take the bowl and pass the note to her. I’m all keyed up. She might shred the note. Thank God, she accepts it, flashes an understanding smile that is a virtual reply to my note. She is dropping her guard is what I thought.
It is turning out to be a school for novices, strangers to the games of the heart. I know Indian girls never make the first move. They don’t leap headlong into the game.. That means the ball is in my court. But where is the point in serving a ball that is never returned? Ignore the rules, I tell myself. I continue to write notes; she continues to accept them but does nothing about them. In good time I remember a Sanskrit proverb that says silence is consent. That makes me think that half the battle has been won.
One day I catch her walking to Sarada Kanyashala, her school in Sultan Bazaar. I wait for a few minutes, take out my Sunbeam and catch up with her on the Kacheguda Station Road. I get off the bike and walk the machine beside her.
‘You didn’t tell me if Yuvati Mandali is okay?’ I ask her.
‘I’m scared somebody will notice us,’ she says, fear on her face.
‘We can meet in the park next to your school.’
‘Don’t be in a hurry. Every moment has its ordained time,’ she says like a fatalist.
‘Okay, wait is what I can do,’ I say sounding hurt and turn back.
At 0830 I turn off the radio after listening to Krishna Udayawarkar’s Bhoop khayal. I move into the living room and pull the rosewood chair closer to the window that gives me a view of the Chaman. School and university buses zip past before my eyes fleetingly. The glass panes of the bus windows register for a nano second the white shining facade of our house. I sense some movement at the front door. The sylph and the younger deer are tarrying there expecting to be seen and hailed. The sylph and I exchange glances and smiles revealing joy at seeing each other. Vandana is waiting, I presume, to see my mother to appear at the door connecting the dining hall to the living room.
I turn my attention to the boy sucking his thumb and looking nowhere. He is a cute brat with brown curly locks and eyes full of mischief.
‘Hi Putta, want me to take your picture?’ He doesn’t say anything but looks at me to indicate it is okay.
I go into the radio room and get my father’s Voigtlander camera and drag a low stool into the middle of the living room where the light flowing through the window is the most.
‘Put the boy on the stool,’ I tell Vandana.
She lifts him onto the stool and sits him to face the window. He keeps his hands in his lap and restlessly anticipates the click of the camera.
‘Please hold him,’ I tell her.
I peer into the ground glass viewfinder and find enough light illuminating the boy’s chubby face. I wait till he summons the right expression and click to take three frames.
‘Now your turn,’ I tell the sylph and look into her eyes for a sign of consent.
She looks down at the carpet shyly, not saying a word.
‘Come, come,’ I try to persuade her.
‘For my sake, please,’ I tell her.
‘But these are yesterday’s clothes,’ she says.
‘Doesn’t make a difference,’ I assure her and advance towards her to usher her to the stool. Before I reach her she comes and sits on the stool. She then gathers her paavda in place.
She is wearing a light-green blouse with deep green checks on it and a paavda made of the same material.
I’m now standing in front of her with the camera in my hand. She is sitting in front of me like Seeta in Raavana’s custody. A strand of her hair frees itself from her hairdo and dances in the air. I bend forward and caress it back into place. She grimaces but blushes nevertheless.
‘Now look at me,’ I tell her.
She is shy and smiles. Have I become a stranger suddenly?
‘Okay, look into the camera,’ I tell her.
She becomes self-conscious and a bit tense.
Now I employ an old trick of mine: set everything ready—frame, focus, light and aperture, tell a joke and click. This trick had never failed me.
‘Come, ready, don’t laugh,’ I tell her.
That makes her laugh.
I lose no time and click, catching her at the penultimate moment of her restrained laugh.
‘Thank you, Vandana,’ I tell her.
There is relief and joy on her face.
She rises from the stool and directs her glowing gaze at me to say thank you to me.
The boy and she disappear into the dining hall to see my mother, their original mission.
Three days later the photos come from the studio. When she comes out into her little garden, I flourish the pictures from my window, expecting her to come and pick them up. She sends the boy to me. But I give him only his photos and keep hers with me.
It is a Sunday, a holiday for the little bird that flutters my heart. As usual, I drift towards the window for bird watching. She is there in the small garden among zinnias, periwinkles and moonbeams and the jasmine creeper, watering them with affection. She stops suddenly and raises her head, perhaps, to catch the call of the koel hiding amidst the margosa leafage. She says koo, koo to the koel to provoke the bird. But the mischievous black bird refuses to bite the bait. It stops to sing and embraces silence, choosing to remain unseen and unheard. The girl tries a few more times to tease the crooner. The bird refuses to break its silence. The girl gives up and is about to get back into the house when the cunning bird calls her back with a sharp whistle. Unlike its repetitive phrases. The girl turns back and says koo, koo enthusiastically. The bird picks up the refrain and together they launch a duet. The duet has not progressed far when a spoilsport crow tries to crash into the concert. The koel flies away in protest. For the poor girl it is the end of the engagement with the bird.
Next day Vandana appears under the gulmohur tree overlooking my mother’s kitchen, enjoying the soft rain of the tree’s speckled red-orange flowers. She seems to have forgotten that she had come there to borrow coffee-powder or sugar. I materialize there as if drawn by her expectation.
‘So, here comes the koel,’ I tease her.
She smiles beautifully setting off a wave of exhilaration through my veins.
‘You know what the koel was singing?’
‘How do I know,’ she asks a little irritated.
‘It is Hindol,’ I tell her.
She pretends she hasn’t heard me.
‘Now let me get in. I want some coffee-powder,’ she says.
’Okay, madam,’ I tell her in a theatrical way and let her step in.
‘Come, my child,’ my mother greets her from the kitchen.
She looks into my mother’s eyes as if she were her mother. It moves my mother.
‘So, what do you want?’ she asks the sylph.
‘Do they teach music at your school?’ my mother asks. .
‘But my son loves music,’ she tells her.
‘Oh mother, I love you,’ I tell myself.
That day, her uncle’s family had gone out to see a film, leaving her at home. This piece of intelligence came my way from the kids in return for a couple of chocolates. I wait for dusk to dawn. There is no light in the porch of the cottage. The margosa tree checks the landfall of the moon who is so bright that the front yard looks like it is paved with a gossamer of snow.. Under the trellised shade of the great tree I move like a soldier wearing a white-and-gray camouflage and reach the front door of the cottage.
Knowing he is not at home, I gently tap the door and call my friend by his name. She comes out and asks, in a sign language,
‘What do you want?’
My nerves are in a mess.
‘Isn’t Ramu at home?’ I stammer.
‘No,’ she says and suppresses a smile lest it should imply an invitation.
‘My god, he said I could come and collect the cricket ball we had bought at Juneja.’
‘I’ve no idea. Come in, look for it,’ she says, and steps aside to let me in unaware of what is on my mind.
I enter the room and gently close the door behind me. I stand with my back to the closed door. I don’t say anything. I gaze into her eyes and see in them my own dreamy eyes. She looks back into mine. Realizing how close she is to me she steps back and moves away from me to lean against the wall. She is now staring down at her feet, perhaps counting her toes. More likely she is considering ways to negotiate an unfamiliar situation. She appears confused like a character that has forgotten her lines.
I close the distance between her and me. I put my hands to the wall over her shoulders weaving the hands into a ring. She is cornered in a pleasant way. We are now physically so close that each can hear the other breathe. It is a duet of the hearts. I ask her to sit by my side on an ancient trunk painted green. She doesn’t move. I stand up, take her hand and make her sit next to me on the trunk. I hold her soft hands; I could see the waves of ecstasy sweeping her as if they were tangible. The new hour of intimacy we find ourselves in shakes my voice.
‘Now, tell me what’s on your mind?’ I ask her showing hurt in my voice.
‘Do you really need an answer?’ she asks, twirling her pallu around her finger exuding feminine charm.
‘I want you to be mine. May l ask you a thing?’ I ask her.
‘I know what it is,’ she says and looks shyly into my inebriated eyes. A feeling of impunity from the world descends on us.
‘What is it?’ she whispers.
‘Whatever it is.’
‘I assure you I’m yours. You may talk to my uncle,’ she says. These words touch the most mellifluous chord in my heart like shuddh nishad in Chandrakauns. A sense of ownership seizes my being.
‘My eyes and mouth speak the same language,’ she says raising the dialogue to a sublime level.
‘Oh Vandana, you’re peerless,’ I tell her.
blasts my composure. I let my left arm slide around her waist and with the right, I raise her chin and softly kiss her tremulous lips. She shudders. My body feels the charge that runs through her and throbs her slender body like the flutter of a butterfly’s wings. The tremors find a rebound in me. She involuntarily weaves her arms around me. She is awakened. And, she flows into me. We share the ecstasy of first touch. She smoothes her saree as if to undo an indiscretion. The featherlike contact with her femininity gives me an experience of levitation. Her eyes show a quaint blend of bliss and fright
‘Okay, thank you a lot,’ I tell her and kiss her sparkling eyes and reach for the door.
I walk out in a daze like Danny Kaye does after kissing Virginia Mayo in A Song Is Born. As I reach home, the spiritually inebriating scent of her adolescence clings to me like the sublimity of a morning raga, the Ultimate, the Indefinable. It sucks me into an orbit of unreality, an experience that eludes human language
An impulse destroys my equanimity. I pass my left arm around her waist and with the right, raise her chin and softly kiss her tremulous lips. She shudders. My body could feel the charge that ran through her and throbbed her slender body like the flutter of a butterfly’s wings. The tremors find a rebound in me. She involuntarily weaves her arms around me. She is awakened. And, she flows into me. We share the ecstasy of first touch. She smoothes her saree as if to undo an indiscretion. The featherlike contact with her femininity imparts to me an experience of levitation. Her eyes mist and show a mélange of bliss and fright.
She has shed her girlish bashfulness now and is looking straight into my eyes, passing messages of the heart.
Together, we create a spiritual moment and crown it with the attribute of eternity, a moment for Gods to celebrate, a moment that transcends the birth-rebirth cycle. A moment that renounces materiality.
‘How is it?’ I ask winking at her.
‘I don’t know. You tell me,’ she says and laughs coyly reliving the moment.
She pauses and says, ‘I felt disembodied.’
‘So here we are, the two of us and nobody else,’ I whisper to her admiring her closed eyes and long lashes like the teeth of a comb.
She remains wordless.
‘Do you mean I should leave now?’ I ask her.
‘Yes. They may return any time now,’ she says.
‘Okay, thank you a lot,’ I tell her and kiss her sparkling eyes and reach for the door.
I walk out in a daze like Danny Kaye after kissing Virginia Mayo in A Song Is Born. As I reach home, the spiritually inebriating scent of her adolescence clings to me like the sublimity of a morning raga, the Ultimate, the Indefinable. The warmth of her virginity emanating from the pleats of her saree sucks me into an orbit of unreality, an experience that eludes human language.
Amma is in the kitchen. Alone. I buzz around, fiddling with the freshly washed cups on the drainboard of the sink.
‘What are you doing here?’ she asks me without taking her eyes off from the boiling milk on the stove.
I grin like I’m dumb. She knows why I’m moping around.
‘Amma, will you do this for me?’
She knows what it is because she has observed my state of abstraction and knows I cannot keep the churning inside to myself. She wants me to disgorge it.
‘You know, Vandana?’ I tell her.
‘Yes, what about her?’
‘I want to marry her, amma.’ I don’t know in what syntactical order the words tumbled out. Amma is capable of parsing them in whatever order they come out.
‘Let me think,’ she says, taking the milk down off the stove.
‘What is there to think about?’ I ask her trying to place a lid on the milk.
‘Everything,’ she says.
‘Like what?’ I ask her.
‘Don’t be impatient like a school kid,’ she chides me.
She notices the pain on my face and tells me she would talk it over with dad.
She assures me, ‘Let us see. I’ll talk to Vandana’s aunt and see how it turns out. You know her parents are poor.’
‘I’m not marrying her parents,’ I tell her.
It makes her laugh. She says, ‘We know nothing about them. No doubt the girl is good-looking and well behaved. Let’s talk it out.’
My mother is so gentle and amiable that I sometimes feel she has refined gentleness into a weapon. She has never raised her voice at her children nor said a disagreeable word. I would rather readily hurt myself than hurt her, I resolve and smile at her to show her son is unhurt. I go over my predicament and decide to accept what destiny has in store. These are times that define the frontiers of possibility. I draw strength from my mother. She is there to absorb any disappointment.
Amma calls Vandana into the kitchen one day. She steps into my mother’s parlour with trepidation. Amma understands her nervousness.
‘I want both of you to be happy. Tell me without fear what is happening between you?’
‘Nothing, amma,’ she says.
‘Do you like Krishna,’ asks amma.
She nods affirmatively and makes an attempt to check tears.
‘Why do you cry, my child?’
This word of affection tests her restraint and she sobs into the pallu of her saree.
‘We are with you Vandana. Do you think your parents will be on your side?’
‘I’m not sure,’ she says.
I will talk to your aunt. Don’t lose heart,’ my mother tells her. Vandana continues to cry. My mother hugs her to calm her. She recovers after a few minutes.
‘I’m grateful to you, aunty,’ she says sobbing and leaves.
My brothers know what is happening. The music has stopped in the house.
It is already a week that Vandana hasn’t appeared under the great margosa tree or at my mother’s habitat. My left eye is twitching. I worry that’s not a good omen. Where has she gone? The kids are of no help.
‘Uncle, she has gone home,’ they tell me.
‘How’re we to know?’
Ramu confirms this story. He couldn’t tell why she has disappeared abruptly.
My mother volunteers to probe. She meets the girl’s aunt.
‘Did you get any word from her parents?’ my mother asks her.
‘Yes, we did,’ says the aunt averting my mother’s eyes.
‘What did they say?’
‘I’m sorry. They don’t favor the match.’ She said.
‘Strange. But why?’
‘It’s an unequal relationship, they think. They can’t match you in any respect. They are scared,’ she says.
One look at my mother’s face tells me everything.
‘Okay, amma. Don’t brood over it,’ I tell her.
It was a denouement that shook me. Its cathartic impact was to defog my mind and cloud the past. I go back to Somerset Maugham, and A.J.Cronin to escape the torrent of memories. My innate hatred of self-pity and melodrama saved me from disintegration.
She has burned into my heart a smile that will travel with me into successive births. In my hour of desertion, I remember the lines of Prem Dhawan:
Ek aisi aag lagi man me
Jeene bhi na de mar ne bhi na de.
(Ignited in me a fire that
Lets me neither live nor die.)