One night, Nela heard Ranu creep into the main room. She turned into Jackson’s shoulder and deliberately evened her breath. What was the girl up to? Conversant as she was with betrayal, she did not suspect Ranu capable of it, even in a country where resources were so scarce. Ranu’s relatives were probably counseling her to keep her eyes open for opportunity. Everyone deserved whatever they could wrest from someone else - that was always the subtext. Ranu would have to be strong to resist the memes of her culture. As strong as Nela had been? Maybe stronger.
The cupboard squeaked open, and Nela heard an object being pulled out. A brass tray? A muffled sound filled the air for a second, followed by the fragrance of flowers. There were a few blooms in the plot behind the property, sparse and pale yellow. What did yellow signify, again? Nela couldn’t recall, although she summoned up images of sizzling ghee, gold thread on a sari, marigolds on a bridal bed, and tried to find the common denominator.
From the porch, she heard Ranu hush the unmistakable ping of a spinning coin. The girl stifled a giggle, and at once, Nela put it all together. Ranu was assembling Vishu items, so that auspicious, good luck objects were the first items she and Jackson would see when they awoke. Vishu was something parents did for their children, leading them, a parental hand shielding their eyes, to the display. There were gifts of clothes, coins, and special treats. It was all Nela could do not to shout out “Happy New Year” to the good-hearted girl.
The girl’s faith in her rituals was unshakeable. Like nearly all children, even the young Nela, she loved the familiar rites and ceremonies. “I read somewhere that even homeless Indians are happy, because these customs bind them together, even when they live on the street,” Jackson said, after Ranu had gone outside to chalk the petals of a welcoming kolam on the porch.
“Misery loves company, then?” Nela scoffed. Some subjects were better sidestepped. It would do no good to argue when the science was soft, which included psychology and sociology, so Nela changed the subject. “Ranu is getting too thin. Whoever’s feeding her besides us is being stingy. And she lost another tooth. It was not a milk tooth. She will not talk to me about it. She just gets very busy and gallops off.”
They both suspected Mami. She was probably the one cutting down Ranu’s allotment of food as well. “She knows we are feeding her, also,” Nela said. “She probably justifies it with that.”
Jackson stroked his beard, which had grown long and ferocious- looking, “I’ll deal with Mami. The rent is due today, and she’ll be trying to wheedle an increase. There she is now!” He went to answer the sharp knock, and Nela disappeared, out of sight but not out of earshot. She smiled at the way Jackson could pour on the charm. “Please sit down. I was about to make tea.” His voice oozed warmth, and Nela could sense a giving in on the landlady’s part. Mami unfolded her flesh all over the chair, arranging and rearranging her feet, smoothing the creases in her sari, cocking her head in response to everything Jackson said like a coquette who is not really listening. “We are concerned for the girl,” Jackson was saying. “She has become so thin. Her teeth have begun to fall out. We will take her to the doctor.”
Mami broke through the trance that Jackson’s voice had put her in. “No, no! Doctor is too costly. Too far from here. Two, three days.”
Jackson turned to check that she looked as nervous as she sounded. “We will have Dr. Singh, who looked after me. Only fifteen minutes away by van. Ranu is too young to work so hard.”
Mami worked her fingers nervously on her lap, then impatiently waved one plump hand. “Who knows her age? She does not know.”
“She has family in the next village. They would know.”
“She has baby sister only. Baby cannot know.” Mami slurped her tea, and looked around for a sweet.
“Who is responsible for Ranu,” Jackson demanded of her, his voice suddenly cold. “You?”
The change in tone derailed Mami. “No! I am one of many aunties only. She is nothing to me! I give her rupees as a gift. She wants to help, I cannot chase her away.”
Jackson stood over Mami. Nela held her breath. “Who is responsible?” Jackson asked again, each syllable heavy as a sledgehammer.
“Uncle only. He is keeping the girls since mother died.” “Does this uncle hit?”
Mami averted her eyes and bit her lip. There would be no more talk. The visit was over. She held her hand out for the rent.
After Jackson’s talk with Mami, life visibly improved for Ranu. She was cheerier, and could sometimes be seen trying to skip. Her chores had become lighter, and she lost no more teeth. “I think I scared Mami into better behavior,” Jackson said, “toward Ranu and even toward us. I could have sworn she would have tried to raise the rent.”
“How did the conversation between you two conclude?” “What do you mean? Bye-bye, I guess. Go to hell. The usual.” “When you ushered her outside the shack, what did you say? I could not hear.”
“I said, ‘You should be paying us for keeping thieves away. Dacoits could march on your main house and take it over!’ Something like that.” He shot Nela a quizzical look. What was she getting at?
“But how did you refer to yourself, anyway? I mean, when you talked about us? How did you characterize our relations?” Nela put a hand to her face, hiding.
Jackson smiled, his old urge to tease completely restored. “Everyone knows that I’m your husband, darling,” he said.
My house. Nela cursed the pink filling her cheeks.
Then, without warning, everything changed again. Ranu once again performed her tasks slowly, hanging her head. She brooded, on the verge of tears, brows knitted. Her young face became pinched and she lost enthusiasm for lessons, even playing with the electronic machine. She lowered her eyes and frowned as she cleaned the floor. What was she thinking? Nela had no way of knowing.
Ranu stood up, brushed the dirt from her pattu lehenga, and went out onto the porch. She stood there for a long moment, looking at the sky. When she came back inside to ready a package of laundry, slowly at first, then urgently, it was as if she was under threat. Nela did not want her to go off alone to the river like that, not until she knew the reason for the mood swing. “May I come?” she asked, pointing her chin at the bundle of clothes. Ranu nodded slowly.
Nela separated her own clothes out, and bundled them on her head as if she had always done laundry this way. The image of her washing machine and dryer stacked on top of one another at home came back to her. The convenience of it all had taken some getting used to. For a long time, Nela continued to wash her clothes in the tub, squeezing suds through fabric with her strong hands, wrestling with some calculation as she worked.
Nela and Ranu walked along the path to the river. The entire way, Ranu kicked at the clods of dirt as if she wanted to kill the earth beneath her feet. What was it like to be ten years old, on the cusp of hormonal chaos? Nela could not recall. She lagged behind the limping child and studied her gait. The deformity that made her unmarriageable in her village could be fixed surgically. What would await her at the end of a trauma like that? A man older than her father to take care of, or a groom in thrall to a sadistic mother, just waiting for a daughter-in-law to mistreat?
“Oh, I hope the village women aren’t lounging around with their brats today,” Nela said. But there they were, a dozen women, replicas of the women she remembered from her childhood on the opposite shore, spilled onto the rocks, sunning themselves like lizards. Nela counted a dozen others at water’s edge, washing clothes. “Rolling heads in idle gossip!” she stage-whispered to Ranu, as they nodded vague greetings to the sprawled assembly. Nela sat on the sand, a mere observer, while the girl headed for the rocks. Physical effort should help Ranu vent whatever was bothering her. She shouldn’t keep it all inside. Nela certainly hadn’t at that age. In her family, for a few years, her brothers gave her a wide berth. Once, and only once, had she lashed out at her father, who was making arrangements for her nose to be pierced. Nela had no intention of allowing any such thing. She flew at her Appa, pummeling him with her clenched fists. It was the only time her father had ever hit her, Amma looking on placidly.
Nela watched Ranu wade out to the bleached rocks. She shook out a dhoti from her bundle of laundry. She slammed the rock into the cloth as if she hoped to see blood. Her plaits began to unwind, ropes of hair lashing her cheeks. Her lips moved as she argued silently with people Nela did not know. From time to time, she stood up in the river, stretching the tight muscles her back, chin tilted toward the sky. Was she searching for an answer to a private question? Only when she happened to turn around did Nela notice her tears.
Nela waded out to the rocks, took the wet clothes from the girl, and carried them back to their courtyard. Along the way, she asked no questions, and Ranu kept silent except for the occasional sniffle. Nela decided she would get to the bottom of the girl’s misery somehow. But for now, she simply took the clothespins from her, and motioned for her to sit down—gently, so there would be no room for misinterpretation. The girl flinched at harsh gestures.
As Nela hung up the clothes, Ranu accumulated speckled pebbles in the space between her scabbed, mismatched legs. She was making up a game, her tears dried already. “What are you playing?” Nela asked when she had finished pinning up the clothes. She crouched beside the girl.
“It is the story of Rani,” she said. “She was a clever girl who outsmarted a very selfish raja and saved her village.”
“Is she the same girl who was offered a reward for a good deed, and asked only for one grain of rice?”
Ranu looked up at Nela. “That would have made her a stupid girl,” she scoffed. “Rani asked for the grain be doubled each day for thirty days.”
“That is lots of rice,” Nela agreed.
“It was enough to feed the village. Rani taught the raja a good lesson.”
“Let me show you something else,” Nela said. She sat down and gathered some pebbles of her own. She enlarged on the concept of doubling with a handful of stones and a stick in the dirt. By the shine in the girl’s eyes, Nela saw that she had won more than a little game with pebbles.