Friday, June 10, 2016

Rescuing Ranu (11)

Chapter Eleven

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. Ranus 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 couldnt 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 girls 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. Whoevers 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 Ranus 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,  “Ill deal with  Mami. The rent is due  today, and  shell 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 landladys 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 Jacksons 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 Im 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 arent 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 waters 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 shouldnt keep it all inside.  Nela certainly hadnt 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 girls misery somehow. But for now, she simply took the clothespins from her, and motioned for her to sit downgently, 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 girls eyes, Nela saw that she had won more  than a little game with pebbles.

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