Monday, January 13, 2014

Collections: Rescuing Ranu

     The motel sprawled at the end of a winding dirt path a mile from the main road. The rickshaw driver had been unwilling to go past the turnoff where the path was pitted and narrow, so Nela walked the last mile, shouldering one burden, the other bumping against her hips. The driver would not have done more than lift them out of the vehicle.  There should be a separate pyune to do that. There wasn’t, but this is an imperfect world.
    Harnessed with writing supplies, Nela walked in her flimsy chappals past outhouses and a well. She barely glanced at the landmarks, and idly wondered how clean the well-water was. She tried to remember a story about a polluted village well cleansed by a vial of holy water from the Ganges. How did that story end, she tried to recall. The people must all have been poisoned. You can’t purify water with other, polluted water, or by the wishful thinking known as faith.
    She walked past a fence toward the low boxy buildings slumped against one another on smooth loose stones. There were a few barren fruit trees providing little shade. In the distance, the hill flared with fragrant cooking fires, dark, bare figures crouching over them, stirring, stirring. Monkeys occasionally darted from trees and bushes to steal food, scrambling up the trees again with their prizes.
    Nela stopped for a moment to slip off her backpack.  It was odd to feel her heart beating so fast—she assumed she was in better shape than that! She picked up her luggage, one piece in each hand, and let each go again, abruptly. She pulled out the paper with the scribbled numbers and compared them with the ones on the sign above her head. Satisfied that she was in the right place, Nela knuckled the door loudly. Chips of paint flaked off. Inside, she heard the fumbling of locks, and several voices hushing each other.
   “Hmmm?” The proprietor looked Nela over critically. A small woman in a paisley sari, stepped past the door, half-closed it, and faced Nela squarely. She slowly twirled the gold links in her neck chain. Nela said, “I am in need of a room.”
   “We have no rooms,” Mami lied. For decades, she and her family had had rooms. Tough little men with black mustaches and cunning eyes had managed to keep the business going through political and personal upheavals of all kinds. This woman was only one in a long line of Motel Patels, perhaps not even related by blood. She was probably some pampered son’s wife. She dug her toes in the dirt, flexed them like muscles. Chewing a paan, she waited for Nela to leave, or argue, but Nela did not move. Mami spit out a stream of red juice that had already begun to rot her teeth, the stream barely missing the bags by Nela’s feet.  Mami stared at them hard, as if they might yield up their contents. Her eyes sank back into their leathery bags, and she said, “Small servants quarters in back. It has electric. I could give you my niece for cooking food and washing clothes. More rupees, but very good deal! You make a fool of me for low price!”  She pointed to the rundown building on the back of the property. A girl with long braids could be seen sweeping the front step with a homemade broom. One of her legs was noticeably shorter than the other. She seemed to know that she was being talked about—her face flushed, and she bit her lips.
     Nela considered her options and came to the only conclusion. “Yes, yes. OK,” she said.  A servant might be useful. She had plenty of experience with them in her childhood. Amma, by example, had taught her how to keep them invisible, to go about the family business as if they weren’t there, as if they were incapable of hearing and seeing every private thing. Nela decided that she simply would not notice the girl, would not engage her. She had come here to work. She would allow no distraction, not even the thought of Jackson and his slippery love.
    The girl did not seem any more eager to have company than Nela was, but the hierarchy of power had been slapped into her, and she grudgingly made room for the visitor and her luggage.  In the bedroom, there was no bed—only a pallet on the floor, a basin, and a wardrobe made of treated cardboard.  Four wire hangers hung from a rod inside the doors. In the main room, there was a table big enough to write on, a dry place to stack books, a lamp that could be made bright enough so that Nela would not damage her eyes. She looked at the spare surroundings and relaxed her shoulders as if relieved from a heavy weight.  She was home, but not home. The village where she had grown up sprawled just across the river. It could make no claims on her with its suffocating embrace, its links of diluted shared DNA. So close to a place where everyone was auntie or uncle, it was good to be alone. Alone, it was possible for her to breathe.
     The girl had teetered off with her own things to the sleeping porch off the bedroom. She must be used to being shoved from one corner to another. There were cheap pictures of Ganesh on the walls, but what obstacles could he possibly remove in the little girl’s life? She had been born into a situation that she could not get out of, except possibly through marriage. Nela listened to the child’s uneven steps as she moved around the porch, and realized that marriage was not an option, either. The imperfection of her legs sealed her fate in this community. At least she would be spared being handed over to some anonymous husband.
     She had come in again. Nela watched her grab the heavy suitcase and heave it into the wardrobe. There was no point in either helping her or stopping her from doing her job. The child had purpose, and pride in her ability to earn her keep. Nela allowed the suitcase to be put away, but would not relinquish her backpack. She sat with it on her lap, hugged it like a child. When the girl held out her hands for it, she had the look of an impatient parent on her smooth face. Nela shook her head. It was not the usual ambiguous waggle. It was a definite no, but the girl grabbed the handle anyway, and tugged hard.  Nela pulled back, standing up to force the girl to let go. She did. But when she let the handle go, it was Nela who stumbled backward. The girl, with no trace of a smile, either victorious or apologetic, offered her hand to the sprawled woman.
    On her way up from the floor, Nela took in a few more details. The girl was about ten years old, her underfed frame stretched on bones lengthening fast. She had high cheekbones and guarded eyes. Dressed in a plain cotton sari frayed at the hem, her only adornment was a thin gold chain, so thin that from a distance it looked like a few grains of sand had lodged on her clavicles.  Her thick black hair had a blue sheen, and Nela could tell that it was heavy. It had been plaited too tightly into braids that hung thick as limbs just behind her ears. They probably gave her a headache she was so used to, she never noticed it. Who braided her hair, anyway? What was she doing in Kerala? Did she have people? They should want more for her than this.
    Nela sat back down in the chair, bag still in her lap, and pointed to the other chair. The girl took it obediently. Nela unzipped the bag and pulled out the long yellow pads of paper, the pens and pencils, her well worn Gita.  She laid them all out on the table, looking for a reaction. The girl seemed unimpressed. Nothing glittered, nothing gleamed. Nela asked, in Malyalam, “Can you read?” She flipped open a page, ran her finger down the margin. The girl patted the pad as if it were a pet, then shook her head and backed away.
   “Don’t be afraid,” Nela smiled. “The words can’t hurt you. Do you know your numbers?” The girl nodded.  Of course she must—it was probably up to her to haggle over prices at the market. She must have learned to add, subtract, multiply, and divide, at a young age.
     A game the young Ramanajun had played with his schoolmates--his “magic squares” might appeal to the girl, so Nela pulled out a blank sheet of paper, scored it with three columns, and wrote numbers in each square. The columns added up to the same number, in all directions. The girl laughed with delight. She wanted to try it, too. Nela pushed the paper and pencil toward her.
   “What is your name?” she asked.
    “I am Ranu,” the girl said.


No comments: