Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Rescuing Ranu (chapter 2)

Chapter Two

The next morning, Ashoke poked his head  in Nelas office. Where did you get to last night?  We looked  all around! Priya made paaysam in honor of your  homecoming. You did not take! He pursed his lips in a pout.
That  party was purely  for your  prospective hire. Jackson, is it? He sat next to me on the plane  home.” She looked  at him hard. Would he mention Jackson’s disappearance from the party as well? Put two and  two together?
He didnt mention that! I wonder why he didnt tell that. Ashoke hated to be out of the loop.
Yes. I usually make  more  of an impression,” Nela said wryly.
Oh, no! I mean,  of course  that is true,  I mean,  our guest  must  have had too many claims on his time last night. He was teasing her
now,  a tentative wink.  Nela picked up an imaginary shovel  and  began to dig. He gave up immediately, backing out of her office, hands raised in front of his face.
Thumbi. Little brother, she had  called him in their childhood. A pest, a fetter. Always underfoot, except when she needed him. He should have stood up for her against the village  gossips when they decided she had made herself  unmarriageable. Instead, Ashoke had  distanced himself.   He was not responsible. Her own headstrong behavior had tripped her up! No one had  told her to touch  a boy unrelated to her in full view of witnesses. For months, if Ashoke caught a glimpse of Nela in her exile, sitting on her familys veranda, he ignored her. He would not respond to a word or a wave if there  was anyone who might see.  Amma was the first to notice this behavior. You should have accepted him when a match was possible,” she had  seethed. Now, his parents will not agree. Shame,  shame.
But since the moment she had  set foot on this campus, Ashoke had haunted Nela. Far from home,  they were both safe from Nelas reputation as a fallen woman. Here, it did not matter that her family  of origin  regarded her as unmarriageable. Here, all roles were  up for grabs.
At first, Ashoke had  tried  to play the part  of protector. During her first few days  in town, he barely  left her side. He even helped her move  into her apartment, despite the fact that he hated to sweat.  As the labor of lugging boxes went  on and  on, items of his clothing came off one by one, until  he was shirtless and  shoeless.  “I wish I had my dhoti,” he said at one point.
Dont  you dare! Nela responded, her words swift and hard as a slap. A look of confusion flitted across his face, but then  Ashoke drew himself  up and  puffed  out his chest. The posture made him look sway-backed, but it made him feel powerful and  intimidating. He began  to grumble in Tamil.
Nela thought to cool him down with  some lemonade. She sat against the opposite wall with  her yellow  glass, hoping her body  language would make  itself understood. Ashoke was too thick- skinned for delicate rejections, and  as soon as he had  finished his drink, he took up where he left off, engineering bodily collisions,  coordinating tight squeezes in the stairwells. When  the job was done,  he ceremoniously gave her the key to his house, and held out his hand for hers. But the key was not forthcoming, not then,  not now.
Nela stood up and  went  to the window, letting her gaze wander over the campus. This was the same vista that had  once filled her with  pleasure, the one spot of sand  and spit chosen  by her, not her parents or her brothers or the chokehold of Indian tradition. She had  plotted her escape  from India carefully, choosing a time to present her plans  to the committee  of brothers, uncles,  and  father  while Amma was absent.
Her new home  embodied freedom. It could  be molded and re-formed to reflect her changing self. Blue silk walls in her bedroom, a whiteboard in the living room, whatever she wanted, she could  have. Now the idea struck her as static, the place interchangeable with  any other  locale.
Just below  the window, a gangly kid decorated with  piercings on the verge  of infection slumped along  the sidewalk. He was coming to see her, and suddenly she realized she had no energy  for him. She could  not steer him through the grand potential of his life.  Not today. She hastily wrote him a note, taped it to her door, and  raced  down the back stairwell.
It had  begun to rain, and  she opened her umbrella. She walked briskly, although the rain did not bother her. People  found it odd to see someone amble  down the street in bad weather, so thats what she usually did. Not today. What do you care what other people think? What indeed, Richard.
Bombay  Bistro came into view, and  Nela ducked into the doorway. The masala of smells she had  been inhaling for half a block, layered over the wet airs perfume of iron and  wool, made her crave a milky tea with  cardamom. She twisted the doorknob, pushed through the heavy wood.
Her eyes immediately fell on a hunched figure  in the corner,  eating a chapatti with  both hands. It was Jackson. Their eyes locked,  and  it was too late to hurry away.  Jackson was already rising  from his seat, pulling  the door fully open  for her. Hereit sticks a little. Its all this rain! he said. “How do you get used  to it?” He chattered all the way to the table, where he pulled  a chair out for her as if he had  been expecting her. “Ashoke told me about this place,”  he said. Two spots  of pink appeared on his cheeks and  made him seem vulnerable, younger.
Nela smiled. Oh, he did, did he?”  Jackson lifted his eyebrows, not understanding why she would say it like that. Nela labored over an explanation. Ashoke avoided Indian restaurants when he was with non-Indians, not wanting the responsibility of ordering for an entire  group. They never  knew  what they were in for. Hot food means hot.
This isn’t hot,” Jackson replied, flipping  his flatbread like a flag. You are supposed to take with  chutney,” Nela said. She placed a
teaspoon of pickled relish  on the corner  of his bread. When  his eyes brimmed, she smiled. You see. Hot.”  They were bickering again.  In for a dime,  in for a dollar,  she thought. “How seduced are you by the idea of teaching at my university?
All yours, is it now?” he smiled, and  she clucked her tongue in a way that signaled displeasure. Oh, you’re  serious!  Well. Ive spent years traveling to villages  in the neediest countries, and nothing ever gets better. I feel in need of a radical change of direction.
Do-gooding has lost all gloss?” she quizzed him, scooping up some sambaar with  a piece of bread. Jackson shrugged his shoulders. It was an exhausted heave, and  it made her want to comfort him. Alarmed by the feeling, she changed the topic. What have you heard about this so-called shake-up? I have been away  and have not been briefed.
Your new dean  wants to make  his mark  at your  departments expense. Doubling the teaching loads,  for instance, will serve as the metaphorical head  on the pike. I thought Ashoke would have given  you every  detail  by now.
Nela smiled. Im sure he will, with  great  relish. But its not a very good deal for you, coming in, is it?  I actually like to teach,”  she lied. “I may well be in the minority.
A waiter came around with  a brass tray of iddlies and  assorted chutneys. Jackson named the rice and lentil dumplings accurately, watching for Nelas reaction. She repeated the name  slowly,  pronouncing it properly this time. He tried  again.  A good sportsman, a quick study. Nela dipped a dumpling into the sambaar, and  cupping  it with  the other  hand, offered  it to Jackson.
He was just opening wide  when Ashoke burst in.  Nela held the iddly in mid-air. What is it, then?” she demanded. Ashoke ignored hersnubbed her, actually—and turned his attention to Jackson.
Sorry to be so late! Such a commotion fetching the children from school! But I see our Nela has been entertaining you.
We met by chance.  I am not staying,Nela demurred, her mouth full of Jacksons soupy iddly. Ashoke winced. Enjoy your  tea party! she added, swallowing hard. She gathered her purse and  umbrella, and  nodded formally at Jackson, who winked at her.
Not  to worry,” Ashoke said loudly. The department will pick up this tab. We take care of our own.” He dragged out the last comment, rolling  his Rs for Jacksons benefit,  whose reflection cringed in the wavy window as Nela walked away.
Once home,  she went  straight to the whiteboard behind the living room bookcases. She paced in front of it, waiting for an idea to appear. When  she first installed the board, she had  explained to her puzzled friends, Some people may have a piano, but I have a board full of elegant equations.
Math may be elegant, but its not art, one friend had  pointed out. Why don’t you buy a nice drawing?
No,”  Nela had  argued. This is my house. I want to fill it with  my own work.
Alone now with  her numbers, she feared that shed lost the ability  to do that work.  She had forgotten how to exploit  solitude, thanks to the months shed just spent at her mothers crowded bedside. Another mathematicians presence probably wouldnt have helped. They were like chess players, silently  thinking long past the other’s  endurance before making a single move.  Still, it would have been nice to have someone with  whom to bounce around ideas.  Jackson?
Seven fruitless hours later, she fell asleep on the canvas cot. If she had been at the office, she would have unrolled the sleeping bag from under her desk, the light burning above  her numbers, making sure the calculations did not slip away.
Nela woke  up the following morning, and,  as was her custom, saluted the sun. There wasnt  the visible sun to salute,  but that was no excuse to cut the rest of her yoga posesfish, camel, scorpion short.  Do you have to do that now?” one ex-boyfriend used  to ask her. Whats  in it for you, anyway?
Yogashcittavrittinirodhah. Tada drashthuh svarupe vasthanam, she had answered. He made an irritated gesture indicating she should translate. “Yoga stills the fluctuations of the mind. Then the true  self appears. Any Easterner knows that.
Upright again,  Nela went  into the kitchen to make  tea. She sipped her cup dry, stood up from the table like a guest  taking her leave. She walked into the living room and  took a look at her whiteboard. It may as well have been empty. She bit her lip harder than  she meant to.
Outside, the morning drizzled. Her joints were still too young to signal the weather, and  she had  to depend on other  sources of information. She had  to pay attention. A few years earlier,  a violent storm had ripped through the area, damaging the campus, lifting a dozen cars off the ground and  dashing them  apart like toys. She had  been blissfully unaware of anything but her calculations until  she stepped outside into downed branches and an end-ofthe-world devastation. She stood frozen to the spot, hearing the scream  coming from her own  mouth as if from a great  distance.
A little drizzle could  not compare to that. Nela stepped into her garden. To breathe in the familiar smells of the neighborhood, the braid of bakery smells and  damp soil, delighted her. Trowel  in hand, she was ready to loosen her brain  with  her body.  This was an old trick of hers, switching gears to relax the parts of her mind snarled with  effort.
The neglect  in her garden was much  worse  when viewed so close. She had  assumed that when she was called to her mothers bedside so unexpectedly, Ashoke would keep an eye out for her property. After all, he was always spouting mantras like there is nothing like relatives!
She reached in her pocket for a scarf to tie up her hair. The cloth caught at nothing. No hair, no flowers, no calculations!  She got on her knees and stabbed the earth  with  a trowel. Out of the corner  of her eye, she watched one hoverfly idle over another, enacting the principle of motion camouflage. It was like a cat stalking its prey.  One had  to admire a mechanism like that.
She was still thinking about the flies as she strode into campus.Motion camouflage! she hissed  at a panhandler watching her from the curb. He cringed as if she was the one who was dangerous.
Nela entered her building and  passed right  by her locked  office. She continued down the hall to the lounge in pursuit of Jackson, looking  neither right  nor left, ignoring students and  professors alike. She found Jackson with Ashoke, drinking institutional coffee. Ashoke teetered on the chair legs, a trick he had learned from some how-to-succeed book or other,  long ago. “It is keeping your  opponent off- balance,” he had  informed her. He will listen all the more.
Jackson smiled at her approach. Ashoke did not. “I just noticed something rather phenomenal, she plunged in, drawing up a chair and wedging it between the men.  Ashoke was forced  to move  to accommodate her. She was not oblivious to the fact that she was interrupting a private conversation, and  that Ashoke was irritated, but she would not take his feelings into account. There was no point. He had  proved many times that his feelings could  not be hurt.
She spoke  only to Jackson when she said, “I was just gardening, and  I saw a great  example of motion camouflage in hoverflies Within moments, the two of them  were  deeply engaged, heads together, each scribbling on scraps  of paper pulled  from their pockets. Ashoke, sighing like a punctured balloon,  continued to sip his coffee, and  did not budge.
“Ive seen this in the field many times,” Jackson said, and  I can offer you an empirical proof. How  would you go about doing a mathematical one?
Ashoke broke  in. She probably cannot, just as she could  not make  room for you in her office.” He rocked on his heels with  a look that bet on Jackson. He lost.
Well, of course  not. She is working on a difficult problem, and  needs her space.”
Nela gave both men a penetrating look. Where did they finally put you, anyway?” she wanted to know.
“Ill show  you,”  Jackson said.  He scooped up the bits of paper and  led Nela into the back of a secretarys office. Ashoke did not follow them.
In the room, there  was an aluminum table with  legs so thin they looked on the verge  of collapse. No proper desk? Two wooden chairs, a hotplate. One filing cabinet  pushed up against a windowless wall. The walls were made of stucco, whitewashed another color long ago. The air was so stale it made Nela cough.   This will not do,” she said, gently thumping her fists against Jacksons chest, as if he was the one who had coughed.
He took her fists in his hands, and  looked  down at her, amused. “Its serviceable, and  anyway, its not your  problem,” he said. But it was too late. She had already taken  his problems as her own.
They went  back to her office to continue their  discussion. They sat at the round table, papers between them,  and worked until  their backs ached.   At last, Jackson got up to stretch, then  took out his phone to snap  pictures of their calculations. “We should videotape the hoverflies right  away.  
Lets set up the equipment.
The overgrown field, perfumed with  grasses,  buzzed with  life. Jackson and Nela worked together as if they already knew  one anothers body  and could  predict a particular sequence of movement. Nela scribbled information on her pad,  regarding the angle  of the sun and  the species  of fly they were studying. At one point, she leaned into Jackson’s shoulder to steer his attention to a pair of insects,  and  he took her hand. An electric charge branched through her arm, and  she began  to lecture nervously, the way she had  on the plane.  Here we have motion camouflage in mating behavior. We see that it is not only a prey-capture strategy.
Mating as optical  illusion. Interesting.”  She felt his warm breath graze her neck. She released his hand and  widened the distance between them. Pretending not to see his slight  smile meant that she would not have to respond to it.
When shall we meet to analyze the data?” She brought her pad  and pen close to her face, all business.
Now  he was the one who looked  uncomfortable. He blinked rapidly, as if he was about to tell a lie. He confessed, Im leaving tomorrow.
Tomorrow?” she said dully. Oh, well, then. There is no point.” There is no point, there  is no point, she repeated silently  as she walked away from Jackson into the sullen  air.

Jackson did not leave the university. Nela only found out this fact the following weekend, when she collided with  him at a department function. “You! she said.
You look surprised, he said, assessing. Didnt your  buddy tell you Im here for another few weeks? Nela turned her head  to meet Ashokes eyes, staring from the back of the room. He dropped his glance immediately.
He said nothing!
Really?  And  I thought you were  avoiding me!
Why  would I do such a thing?” Nela believed she might find an Ashoke-manufactured reason if she shook him hard enough. But she could not bear to look at him. She leaned into Jackson, and  pounced directly on the point. Have you given  any more thought to what we were talking about? He looked  into her eyes so deeply she shivered. Suddenly, she could  not read the slight  movement of his head.  Was it a shake  or a nod?
“Its all Ive been able to think  about.
All through dinner, course  after well-lubricated course,  they whispered to each other  about their  developing idea.  They were cocooned, the only two people at the long noisy table.  After awhile, although their  thighs were touching and  their  hands mirrored each other’s  movements, they both seemed to remember where they were. Jackson rather loudly said to Nela, “Who would you say is the greatest mathematician alive?”  A question for the general audience. Nela smiled and  played along.
Your question is ill-defined, sir,” she retorted. Do you mean algebraist, topologist, number-theorist, geometer, differential geometer, algebraic geometer, or?
“I did not ask for a rigorous answer. Hey, its a party. A general response will suffice.
Nela chewed her mouthful of spicy potatoes thoughtfully. She swallowed, sipped some water, and replied with  an inflection flat as a fact, Andre Weil.
All the mathematicians at the table, drawn by sound of the name, swiveled their  heads. Each pair of eyes brightened. Oh?”  Jackson egged her on.
Yes. One reason is as follows: we all teach courses on whatever subject interests us at any given time. We call them  Lie Algebras, or Jordan alegbras, etcetera, etcetera. Weil simply called all his courses Mathematics. There was a beat or two of dead air, broken only by the sound of chewing and  gulping. Mathematicians take time with  the formulation of their replies.  At this table, no one was willing  to risk a quip.
Why  do you suppose  he turned toward the Gita when he was jailed for not going  into the French  army?” one of the women wanted to know.
He wanted to be reassured that he was doing his dharma,her husband said from out of the side of his mouth. The wife, unconvinced, looked  to Nela as an expert on such matters.
Weil defined his dharma as the duty to be a mathematician, although it is known that arbitrary definitions often lead to chaos. In the Gita, Krishna says that if the balance between right  and  wrong becomes distorted, he will incarnate himself  to redress the balance.” The room quieted. Were the people bored or riveted? Nela could  not be sure.
Another woman piped up, “Is it true  that karma is what youve  done, and  dharma is what you will do?”  The group  tittered. Nela frowned. She would not deign to answer sound-bite philosophy.
One man  changed the subject. “Paul  seems to have sunk  into a clinical depression.” A murmur rippled through the company.
Does anyone know what triggered it?” Nela asked, although she did not know a Paul.
After  he won  the field award, he assumed he could  count  on the Distinguished University Professor award. It crushed him when it became apparent that this was not to be.
DUP,” Nela mumbled. DUP, DUP, DUP,” she repeated. Jacksons smile egged her on until all heads had  turned toward her. She calmly  continued chewing until they turned away  again.
As dessert was shuffled onto their  plates,  Jackson leaned down to Nelas ear and whispered, Lets get out of here.”  Nela rose from the table at once. She made loud,  purposely unbelievable, flamboyant excuses  as she bade both strangers and  friends farewell. She accompanied Jackson to the door, aware of Ashokes dark  eyes following her.
At the cottage  Nela and  Jackson pulled  one another up the stairs,  peeling clothes  as they went.  On the top landing, he stopped kissing  her mouth to bury  his head  in her neck for a moment, as if that particular nook was the place he had been searching for all his life. He leaned into her hungrily, but Nela, disbelieving her own  happiness, leaned away. One pursues, the other evades,the man  murmured, undeterred.
“Is it a game  to you?
“Its a serious one.” There was no use in starting an argument. Just be a body,  Nela counseled herself.   She led him into the room with  the blue silk walls, climbed on the bed and  tugged him to her, watching his hands trail sensation along  the length of her skin.  She inhaled his smell, and briefly wondered where his mouth had  been. Jealous already? The thought made her smile, the absurd truth of it. He was inside her now, his breath coming fast and  jagged.  She closed her eyes, and rose up under him. For a moment she couldnt remember his name.  My house.
“Itll be better next time,”  Jackson reassured her a few moments later.  She had not noticed the pillow  damp with  her own  tears, but he had. How to explain them?
Oh, the release  of built-up chemicals. Nothing more.
He smiled and rubbed her back. Damn pheromones.” He licked the salt from her skin. Ashoke says you and  he almost married,” he said.
Thats what you were thinking about? she laughed. “You know hes carrying a torch  for you.
She slipped out of bed to gaze out the window, although nothing was visible but a sliver of moon. Our  parents had  some preliminary plans  for a union. It did not bother them  that he is a distant cousin.  I would never  have consented. As you see, I actually have good taste in men.”   She squinted into the dark,  trying to name  the shapes moving under a passing cloud.
Why had she escaped Jackson’s embrace? It couldnt have been the mention of Ashoke. He was nobodys rival. No, it was just that this was all too close, too intimate. Nela was suddenly conscious of her naked body.  She picked up her robe, pretending to be chilly.
Are you hungry?” She wanted to continue the conversation with  the barrier of a table between them.
Over tea and  toast, they talked about the university, her research and his plans.  “I have to see a few more  people about this job, and  I have to finish up on the old one. Then Im free,” he said, meaning, Im all yours.
Where will you be? she said, meaning, How far from me?
“Im going  to a village outside Kerala.
Really! My old family home  is still there.  It belonged to my grandfather, and  was passed on to my mother. The river comes right  up to the door, and water buffalo  still graze in the back. We loved  coming back to that house after visiting relatives in the hills. She closed her eyes and  tried  to concentrate on her memories, and not the way Jackson was playing with  her fingers.  Wed stop at a particular station on our way home,  and Appa would buy us strawberry pink
or blueberry milk. I had no idea how the color got into the milk. It fascinated me, for some reason.
“How old were  you?
Oh, five or six.  We would float to the house in a boat, and  wave to the neighbors who lined the shore  to welcome us back. I wish  you could  see it. I could  give you directions. My mothers youngest sister lives in the house. She would look after you if you wanted to stay there.
Immediately, she wished she could  call the words back. She watched Jackson tilt his chin, thinking it over. His features did the talking when words were  insufficient. How  many men did that? No sputtering or over-explaining for this one, no piling  on the excuses.  The organizers have made accommodations for me,” he said simply, “but  I could  drop in and give her your  regards.
She didnt acknowledge the offer. Her face closed off, and he switched the subject. So what does your  name  mean,  anyway?” he asked.
What does it mean?
Yeah, yeah—does it stand for anything?
She sighed. A foreigner question. Ground,” she said. Ground?” They were getting nowhere.
Yes. As in earth,  place, or even home.” Quicksand. Mud.
Did your  parents think  that a name  like that would make  you stay with  them  forever?
“A daughter permanently underfoot would not have been hoped for. But perhaps my name  predisposed me to my love of walking.
Oh, do you hike?
No. Just walk. I get restless.” A warning? She tied the sash on her robe tighter, irritated equally by his questions and  her desire  to answer them.  She eyed her running shoes by the door, tongues lolling in canvas, but then  Jackson pushed aside  his chair and  stood behind hers. He pulled  apart her sash, and reached down into her robe. He began to touch  her again.

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