Saturday, June 11, 2016

Rescuing Ranu (12)

Chapter Twelve
About this time, Ranu became very protective of her bicycle, and never left it out in plain sight. She hid it behind the hut, under a crisscross of branches. The camouflage only called attention to it, and every day a cluster of children could be found around the disguise, pulling down the green.
Nela told Ranu, “Bring it inside.” But within a week it had been stolen during one of the child’s visits to her relatives, so Ranu claimed. She was an inexperienced liar and couldn’t make eye contact with either Nela or Jackson as she told her story, and embroidered it with new details as they popped into her head. It must have been stolen from Uncle’s house, she said. No, from Mami’s. Or from the market. “More likely, her family sold it out from under her,” Nela said to Jackson.
To get to the bottom of the robbery, the couple decided to visit Ranu in the village. “They will have to welcome us,” Nela said. “Indians pride themselves on their hospitality.” Jackson sucked his teeth the way he did when he was unsure about something. Nela wanted to point out his “gambler’s tell,” but resisted the urge. There would be plenty of time for all that.
Ranu’s people lived in a shack even more basic than the one Nela and Jackson occupied. Driving up to the cluster of falling-down shanties in the battered truck, the three of them immediately drew a crowd. Ranu climbed out first, and the villagers crowded around her in a parody of protectiveness. One by one the net of people broke apart, flowing along the sides of the truck, stroking it as if the vehicle was an animal. The villagers made gestures that confused Nela.
What did they want? She couldn’t reach far enough into her memory to make sense of the movement. “They want to know if the truck has been blessed,” Ranu explained. Nela choked back a laugh. She’d forgotten how her family, too, had blessed every new item as it came into the household. Sometimes even that was not enough, and although the thing had been purchased on an auspicious day, Amma would check it for demons for five days running before she would agree to keep it.
Ranu took Nela’s hand and led her into the hut that housed her when Nela did not. It consisted of four posts into which walls of discarded industrial metal and slabs of wood had been hammered. The four corners were divided into cubicles by sari cloth curtains. The floors were earthen, covered by straw mats. A tarpaulin roof sagged over all. In the middle of the room, an old man sat cross- legged on one of the mats, smoking. Ranu drew near, and sank awkwardly to her knees to touch his feet. The man smiled, showing a toothless mouth black with betel juice. His eyes did not crinkle. It was an artificial smile, put on for guests. Ranu tugged on Nela’s hand, but Nela would not touch the man’s feet.
The threadbare household had snapped to attention on behalf of the strangers. Besides Jackson and “Uncle,” there were no men on the premises. No sons, no cousins. “What is an old man doing with all these women?” Nela said under her breath. “They don’t look related to him. Somebody should have inherited those huge ears! Not many of them look marriageable, either.” Jackson fired a warning glance at her. She tossed it off. The old man couldn’t possibly understand much English.
A wizened woman appeared with a tray of pakoras. Smoke and steam billowed from the back room fire, and it should have been hard for anybody to breathe, but the ones who lived there seemed used to it. Nela coughed, and the old woman asked after her, using a string of syllables too fast for Nela to grasp. The relatives had clearly not been expecting guests, but that was the plan, after all, to catch them unawares, to force them to defend whatever reason they had for confiscating Ranu’s bicycle, to get to the bottom of things.
Presently a line of men trooped in, greeted the visitors, and seated themselves in a semi circle near the old man. The women brought in thali dishes heaped with spicy dals and vegetable curries on banana leaves, and set them on the mat. Each woman stood behind a man, ready to get him whatever else he needed. Nela stood behind Jackson.
The old man was polite and deferential to Jackson, giving him a pillow to rest against, passing the dishes to him as soon as he served himself. The females did not partake of the food. “They look hungry,” Jackson said to his host. The old man waggled his head and stuffed an onion paratha in his mouth.
After dinner, Uncle took Jackson on a tour of the surroundings. Nela stayed behind to eat with the women, watching the men from the hole in the wall that served as a window. The women noticed her interest, and spoke words they put in Uncle’s mouth.
Through the wounded wall, Nela saw the old man point to a temple a few feet away. One side of the building had been smashed, and the rest of it seemed unstable, wobbling in the light. The structure was surrounded by wire, and a layer of broken glass glinted on the roof. A satellite dish floated like a white flag above. Uncle tugged Jackson’s sleeve impatiently. “TV, TV,” he said, dancing on his toes. The youngest woman at the table said it with him, springing up and down on the floor.
In this graveyard of tarnished and broken items, any new article called attention to itself by its very newness. Nela scanned the landscape, until her glance landed on a shiny bicycle leaning against a temple wall, almost hidden from view. She blurted out, “That’s Ranu’s bicycle!” The women stopped tittering. Only one woman, the eldest in the group, dared look at Nela. “Is belonging to God,” she said. She gestured at the ground dismissively, to change the subject. In the hierarchy of the household, her word carried the most weight, besides Uncle’s.
“Well, I paid for it!” Nela turned her attention back outside, where the old man was leading Jackson away. He must have noticed the bicycle, too! The man hurried him along, abruptly stopping a few yards from the temple. A broken utility box dangled wires from a splintered support. The old man clucked his tongue, and raised his arms helplessly. Jackson approached the box and deftly reconnected the appropriate wires. A light went on and the old man held his hands to his heart as if he had just witnessed a miracle.
Nela left the women to their gossip. She went out into the rubble- littered landscape and sat on a tree stump within earshot of the two men. Uncle saw her first. She smiled and gave a jaunty wave. The old man turned his mouth downward, but Jackson beckoned her to join them.
They all strolled past other objects in need of repair, with Uncle pointing at each one. It was an odd sight-see, a strange bazaar..Jackson stopped at the disasters he could fix, engineering valves and junctions with the miniature tools on his army knife. The old man stood by, grunting his appreciation.
At one point, Jackson rose from his crouch and turned to face the old man. “So you’re Ranu’s uncle.” Nela murmured the same words in Tamil while Jackson locked eyes with the old man. “Are you brother to her mother or to her father?” Again, Nela’s mouth filled with pebbly sound, translating.
The old man grinned. The single tooth in his mouth gave him the appearance of an animal. He said, “It is our culture.”
“So, no blood relation, then.” The old man waggled his head. “How did she come to live in your house?” Instead of answering, the old man bent his bandy legs low enough to examine a dry trough. He pinched dirt between his thumb and forefinger, and shook his head. Throwing his arms into the air, he acted out the enormity of the irrigation problem before him. He made sounds that were not, strictly speaking, words. He was done with words, and would not be answering any more questions, no matter what Jackson repaired for him.
A few days later, an invitation came from the uncle through Ranu. “He wants to thank for fixing,” she explained. Nela rolled her eyes, but Jackson said immediately, “Tell him we will come.” Ranu thanked him, bobbing her head as Uncle might have done. “We can’t get any information if we stay away,” Jackson reminded Nela, who had stiffened in his arms. She rolled away from him on the pallet, and, wanting more distance, stood up. He was right, of course, so there was no use in arguing. Instead, she began to roll out dough for coconut dumplings. Sweets might loosen one of those women’s tongues. And Mami would not protest the use of the motel oven to bake the dumplings. She was afraid of Uncle, too.
The following evening, Nela descended from the van, cradling the box of fresh koyakkatai. Ranu told her that they were Uncle’s
favorite. “Because they look like little purses?” Nela teased, coaxing a smile from the girl’s anxious face.
The feast followed the same protocol as before. The men ate first, served by the arc of attendant women, who had to crouch down in order to deliver each steaming dish. Uncle never glanced in their direction. He was used to having food magically appear before him. He hummed his satisfaction from time to time, and Nela noticed Jackson’s disgusted look at the old man’s table manners--- mouth open, bits of food dribbling from his nearly toothless cavern.
Uncle wanted to talk about problems in the village. He recited a list, punctuating each one with a shake of his dirty forefinger. “Water from well is bad. We call priest to purify. He is keeping drops from Ganges around his neck and spills one drop only into well. Everything good now.” He grinned.
Jackson winced, wrinkling his forehead as Nela translated. “The water is purified with a drop of holy water?” he repeated. “Has anyone had a drink since?” She relayed the question to Uncle, trying not to meet his eyes, according to protocol. She did not want to put him off, but water was one of Jackson’s biggest concerns. It’s the root of everything, he often said. It’s the first step to civilization.
Uncle’s eyes darted away from Jackson’s face in the slippery way of a practiced liar. “Laxmi took drink. She will not get up. Bad stomach.” He snorted, and wiped some legumes from his chin.
“Show me the well,” Jackson demanded.
The men took pushed aside their food, and rose to go. Nela didn’t bother with the tight-lipped women, but slipped out after the men. Although he had had experience with making himself understood in foreign settings, Jackson still needed her. She lagged a few paces behind, trying to be discreet.
A stack of pipes blocked the men’s progress. Uncle stopped in front of it and struggled to pick a piece up. Jackson gently took it from him, setting it in its place, and the rise and fall of a polite argument was carried by the wind to Nela. “You can’t do everything yourself,” Jackson was saying.
“Brother-cousins help,” the old man shrugged.
“Perhaps Ranu has a father or brothers who could help, too,” Jackson suggested.
“Only baby girl. Little sister. Mother, father run away.” “The parents are not dead?”
“Yes, yes. All dead,” the old man corrected himself as he skipped in front of Jackson, and led him to the well. It was no more than a crumbling cone in the earth, and a foul odor rose up from it. Jackson dragged his sleeve in front of his nose. Nela could not read Jackson’s lips with fabric covering them. She hurried closer to him, trying to keep track of the old man’s side of the conversation. Her brain supplied Jackson’s likely responses, but Nela knew she should not trust her own assumptions. They had led her astray before.
Jackson pulled out his little computer, and Nela held her breath. For a moment, she imagined that he had the old man’s confession for some heinous misdeed, that Ranu would be handed over to her, that the police would punish the old man, Mami, and anyone else who had mistreated the child.
But Jackson was in the here-and-now, summoning his engineers for practical help. They were camped out only a short distance away, and within a few minutes, three trucks trundled down the road, grinding to a stop in front of Jackson and the astonished old man. One worker, hurdling from his vehicle, wrapped Jackson in a bear hug. The others circled him, clapping his back, and exclaiming joyfully, as if Jackson had been lost rather than abandoned. Jackson responded politely but with a physical reserve that indicated he had not forgotten what they had done. It was clear that he was calling in payment for a debt owed.
Jackson gestured for Nela to join them. Uncle’s faded eyes widened as she shook hands with each man. After greeting the entire crew, Nela proceeded to work with them, side by side, toe to toe. She felt like a piece of glass at the chandelier vendor’s, parts of her held up to the light and appraised. She bent her back to the physicality of the work, hiked up her sari, and tucked the extra fabric between her legs and into the string around her waist. Women did that all the time at the beach when washing clothes, but never in front of men. But Jackson was there, and would protect her.
At one point, finding herself alone with him, she asked him about the man who had greeted him so enthusiastically, and from whom he was now keeping a careful distance. “He’s the guy who recruited me for this outfit,” he said.
“What were you doing before?” It amazed her that she had never asked him such a basic question.
“I engineered the guts of high tech buildings: hydraulic systems, electrical and mechanical systems, stuff like that.”
“So you’re responsible for those speedy elevators?”
“Guilty. Me and the other Silicon Valley boys. Then, the great altruist over there started talking up water systems—replacing dirty with clean can go a long way in modernizing places like this.” And yet he betrayed you in the most basic way, Nela wanted to say, but at that moment, Jackson opened his hands to show her the same piece of equipment he had left beneath her kitchen table, the sign that he would return. “It’s much less obvious than a boomerang,” he pointed out. She slapped the gadget away, but gave him a smile that held nothing back.
Two days later, a child appeared at the hut, hoisted on Ranu’s hip. The baby was dressed in a white undershirt, and wore a small handmade rakhi on her wrist. Nela had forgotten that it was the festival of siblings, Raksha Bhandan. The ornament, symbolic of the love of siblings for one another, bothered the tiny girl. She kept tugging at it, and Nela thought of her brother Ram, and the way he would patiently hold his arm out so that she could fasten her bracelet around it.
The baby managed to stay on Ranu’s hip as she went about her tasks, but just barely. It was a new environment and the baby wanted to explore. Every few minutes, she reached out one or both arms out for some shiny thing, prompting a soft string of cajoling words from Ranu.
Meanwhile, Ranu tried to avoid Nela, ducking whenever she got within speaking distance, but got caught as she was escaping onto the back veranda. “Who have we here? Where did she come from? We didn’t see her at the shack. Is she a cousin? Baby sister? Who is her mother? Why are you hiding from me? “
Anxiety flickered across Ranu’s face. After a long confused explanation, Nela gleaned that when the girls’ mother had died, or been driven away, it had fallen to Ranu to find a way to make sure the baby survived. “Uncle has no more food for her,” she said. “I give her to you. If you will not take, I give her to Mami.”
“You must not do any such thing,” Nela said. “You must take her back home. She cannot possibly eat too much for Uncle!” Ranu did take her back, but did not return to Nela’s sleeping porch that night.
Nela paced back and forth along the verandah for hours, watching and waiting. She knew all about men like Uncle. “Now the old man thinks you are the answer to all problems,” she complained to Jackson, as the hours ground on. “Some god with resources. More demands will come in! And we still have no answers about either child.”
When she was emptied of complaint, Nela stretched out beside him on the pallet, although she did not think she could sleep. He reached for her hand, and Nela rolled away. She kept her back turned until the sun rose.
When Ranu arrived for her duties the following morning, it was clear that she’d been crying. “Something stinks,” Jackson said.
“There are laws! We had better investigate Uncle and Mami more thoroughly.”
“Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer, is it?” “It is.”
So Jackson absented himself from the construction site, and on the fourth day, Uncle appeared at the hut. “Hallo? Hallo?” he asked with a head waggle meant to be charming. Nela pretended not to see him, and forced her train of thought along its hard won path for another minute or two. But Uncle, clearing his throat noisily, did not respect anyone’s boundaries, especially not a woman’s. He was just like her eldest brother, annoyed when she ignored him in favor of her books. “She thinks she is rajkumari!” he would say. “She is not only one knowing how to read!”
Uncle entered the room by inches, and casually picked up a paper, “Geometry of the Selfish Herd.” He thumbed through the pages intently, licking his fingers with each turn. Suddenly, he giggled as if it was all a joke. How would he know? He cannot even read, Nela thought, raising her eyes to meet his.
Nela put down her pen. If she succeeded in ignoring Uncle, it would fall to Ranu to wait on him, and Nela hated to see how cowed the girl was in his presence. There were worse things than being interrupted. She motioned for Uncle to sit, although he was already in the process of lowering himself into the chair. “Will you take tea? she asked, knowing that he had just had some with Mami. When he waggled his head in assent, she smiled in a way that caused the old man to frown. He spared her few words, usually, but might have taken her to task, had Jackson not entered the room at that moment.
Uncle greeted him effusively. “Pipe is laid from mountain stream to village center,” he began, clasping his hands to his heart.
“I know,” Jackson replied. “I was on the team that made the water intake system. Remember?” It had taken three trips to build it, a small impermeable dam to feed it, and two kilometers of pipe. There were now two taps, where water flowed at sixty gallons per minute. What more did the old man want?
“We are needful of water pumping and storage stations. Sun rays make it go?” Solar power was a vague notion to him, but somehow, even in this remote place, he had caught wind of it.
Jackson liked to see how far he could push the old opportunist before he admitted ignorance, but not this time. A light appeared in his eyes, the way it often did when he had information to share, and he carefully explained how Uncle’s idea would work.
When the old man finally took his leave, armed with new promises and commitments, Nela decided that she would jump into the project whole-heartedly, too. This was to be their strategy, then, to become indispensible to the village. She did not know then, how widely their goals for it would diverge.
“There are many children in the village, and none of them can read, except Ranu.”
Jackson agreed. “Yes, thanks to you. And yes, it’s high time for a school to be built. It will be a hard sell, though. Education, especially of the girls, is low on Uncle’s priorities.”
“Well, you’ve established the basics for him. He’s got clean water and electricity. The villagers are more enthusiastic about economic progress, growing food and being able to sell it. But education is the next logical step in modernizing the place. Uncle should be apprised of the fact he will not be living forever! Other people may have opinions on what is good for the village.”
Since building the school was Nela’s idea, it became her responsibility. She oversaw the actual construction, set up the electrical, plumbing, and septic systems, and the interior walls, working alongside Jackson most days. She fell onto their pallet at night too exhausted to discuss the work.
So Nela was no longer only a theorist. She had tabled her research once again, but with no resentment this time. This practical effort was for Ranu. As the muscles in her arms became stronger and sunburned, her respect for protocol frayed with her temper, but soon the building was finished, and the scrubbed children ready to learn. Nela told Uncle that she would start them off, but that the village would have to choose another teacher. The women formed a committee to ask Nela to stay on, but the idea terrified her. One of the women conscripted her sister for the job. In Nela’s view, she was not qualified, but at least she could read English.
Agnikaa did not want to be there, that was clear. “Teacher reaches the ruler into her sari, and scratches!” Ranu reported, craning her neck away from an imaginary neckline and imitating the motion. Or, “It was too hot, so Teacher took us outside and we wrote our letters in the dirt.”
“How many letters did she teach today?” Nela asked. “A, B, C.”
“But you know already!”
Yes. I am the smartest.” Her chin tilted upward with either pride or defiance, as if braced for teasing. Nela could not protect the child from everything.
She went over Ranu’s lessons with her in the evenings, and found that the young woman had already taught the children everything she knew. Now she was just making things up. From then on, Nela had to correct Agnikaa’s information more and more frequently. “Tomorrow, when Teacher tells the class this, you raise your hand and tell correct way,” she instructed Ranu. But, that evening, when she asked Ranu for the detailed report of who said what, the girl looked down at her feet and mumbled nonsense, and Nela became alarmed. Ranu only reacted like that under threat. It was time to pay the teacher a surprise visit.
She readied herself with the usual treats and walked into the class, unannounced, on quiet feet. Agnikaa was standing over a child, his arm extended, about to strike him with her ruler. A quick scan of the row showed that some of the children had already been beaten, red welts rising up from their tender skin. They stood at the sides of their desks, hands tugging their ears, doing deep knee bends in unison. It had been a long time since Nela had seen these punishments, and the sight infuriated her.
She rushed at Agnikaa, grabbed the ruler, began to hit her and did not stop until Ranu pulled her off the weeping young woman. “Put her in the closet,” one of the assaulted boys demanded. He pointed out the closed off space. “She puts us, when we are bad.” A dark, airless hole punched in the wall. Nela wheeled on the teacher and screamed at her until the woman crawled out of the room on her hands and knees.
The children, wild-eyed, watched Nela as she took ten deep breaths, and walked slowly to the front of the room. She took up a piece of chalk, and wrote a diagram of a flock. “Do you know why the birds on either end of the vee formation fly with less effort?” It had nothing to do with the English alphabet or two times two. But it was all Nela could think about, how she had followed Jackson into this place.
Soon, the sniffling in the room had ceased, and the charged air quieted in the silence of many hands moving across paper. At the end of the day, Nela dismissed the children with a reminder.
“Tomorrow is Guru Purnima. We rise at 4 a.m. to meditate and chant for the celebration of our good gurus: Dhyaana moolam guror murtih; Pooja moolam guror padam; Mantra moolam guror vakya; Moksha moolam guror kripa.
The children began to chant with her, and she thought about the beauty of ancient syllables derived from the speech before speech, the sounds passed down from birdsong.

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