Nela tried not to think about Jackson, divided loyalties, the rupture. It was easy to loose track of time, dozing in the cot. Her eyes flickered open and shut to the changing intensity of sun on the tarp, her way of counting out the hours. As the room darkened with dusk, she closed her eyes with relief. It was a luxury to feel her presence erased like that, swallowed in darkness, to fall into a void where no one could follow with their questions, needles, and bandages.
In the stillness, Nela gradually became conscious of another being’s breath. She held her own, the better to listen. What creature breathed through its mouth like that? An animal looking for scraps? No, this exhalation came rapidly and exuded a faint familiar sweetness. Nela parted her lids slightly. “Who is it?”
Nela’s eyes flew open, and she reached out her hand toward the voice. “Are you alright? How did you get here? It’s not safe!”
“I go away?” Ranu asked, uncertainly.
“No, no! I am glad you are here,” Nela said, holding her with a one-armed hug. “How did you get away from Auntie? Does she know you are here? How did you find me?”
Ranu took the questions one at a time. She crossed her arms across her thin chest and snored comically. “Auntie sleeping. I crawl out on my belly. I know how to find!” She imitated a snake.
Just then, the sleepy auntie bustled in. She did not register the figure on the cot, but grabbed Ranu’s arm. “Wicked, wicked girl! I told you, stay where I can see you! I cannot go running after you!”
Ranu twisted away, and snuggled into Nela’s good side. The other woman’s expression swung from rage to apology in an instant, her mouth pursed in the beginning of a simpering explanation. Nela did not want to hear it. She raised her good hand, triggered her forefinger, and pointed out the unzipped exit.
Ranu and Nela looked at one another and smiled. Ranu touched Nela’s bandaged arm delicately. “Amma hurt?” she mourned. “Not too bad,” Nela replied. The little girl had called her Amma twice in the space of a few moments, and she waited for the sound to come again. “Did you go to Onam festival?” she asked, wanting more words.
“Snake boat races only. I bring you sadhya.” Ranu pulled a crumbled handful of barfi from her pocket, wrapped in a scrap of banana leaf.
Nela pinched a morsel. “Did you see Kathakali?” Ranu nodded, and stuck a pose from the traditional dance. “Who danced in Thiruvathira kali this time?”
“Laxmi and Anaga.” Daughters of the village. No mention of Meera.
“Did they tell you any gossip?” The child shook her head, frowning in the face of Nela’s smile. Nela dropped her voice and asked, “Did you tell them where we are?” Ranu blinked her eyes rapidly, perhaps the prelude to a lie, but in the end she didn’t answer. That was answer enough.
“Were Uncle or Mami present?”
The child shook her head. “Uncle is afraid of guards outside camp. He is keeping inside. Everyone watching.” It was true that in that place, everyone knew everything as soon as it happened. Sometimes that was protection enough.
The two passed the next hour playing games with some tongue depressors Ranu had taken from an open supply kit. The moon had risen, fractured but luminous, and shed enough light in the room so that there was no need for a lamp. Ranu had not addressed Nela as “Amma” again, and Nela was flooded with melancholy.
When the medic, swinging his caged light, came in to change the patient’s dressings, Nela and Ranu both protested. The man scowled, and giving Ranu a quick once over, announced, “No children.” Nela opened her mouth to say something, but he quickly stuck a thermometer in it, and she could only watch Ranu run out of the tent in tears. But a moment later, Jackson came in, holding the girl by the hand. “Look who I found,” he said, smiling.
Nela and Jackson had to campaign hard to keep Ranu with them in the camp. During all the meetings and hard projections there was only one concern: what course of action would keep the camp safer, and what might leave it open to destruction?
“It boils down to cost and benefit,” murmured Nela in her bed one day, half-dreaming the calculations.
“Hmm?” said the nurse who was painting her arm with antiseptic. “Is it mutually beneficial to keep Ranu with us, or are we just being selfish? Will the camp suffer a loss? That is the question.” She jerked her chin at the sound of quarrelling voices, comparing points-of- view. Ranu was lame. She was a victim. She was smart. She was a survivor. It was hard for everyone who had a say in the matter to reach a conclusion.
Nela and Jackson, despite their own ideological fissure, presented a united front, and tried to shield Ranu from the controversy. She knew all about it, of course. One afternoon, she began to call Jackson and Nela “Amma” and “Appa,” whenever they were within earshot of anyone with a vote. It was a clever strategy, and the committee determined the obvious. Ranu was allowed to stay with her makeshift parents, officially permitted to sleep at the foot of their cot.
One solution gave way to a new problem. That first night, when she should have felt safe, Ranu awoke drenched and screaming. Nela pulled her in under the covers. The little girl tried to say what had horrified her, but fell back asleep with only the half-formed word “fire” for Nela to go on. “I think she’s having nightmares about the rescue,” Nela whispered to Jackson.
After three consecutive nights of nightmares, he suggested, “Tell her a story about some brave thing in your life.” So every night after that, when Ranu’s ordeal played out in her unconscious mind, Nela would gather her up, and whisper a story in her ear. The tale was no more violent that what the child had lived through already, and she had soon memorized the story of the time when Nela’s ten year old Amma shot a dacoit.
“Your Amma was a warrior,” Ranu would prompt Nela, in the dark.
“Yes. She was no older than you.”
“ ‘Our little Shiva has the makings of a fine warrior,’ “the child continued in a gruff voice, imitating Nela’s grandfather.
“Yes, my Amma had a strong father with a deep voice. One day, he lifted her from the horse she had ridden furiously around the property, and cradled her in the safety of his arms. What fun danger could be! Only seconds before, holding onto the rough black mane and seeing nothing but the blur of hooves tearing up the earth with that peculiar, hollow sound, Amma must have thought that those were her final moments of this lifetime.”
“She was wery brave,” Ranu said.
Nela nodded, stroking the girl’s hair. “Yes. Then my grandfather said, ‘All the children must learn to ride. Dacoits could kill us in our sleep. At least, if each child can ride a horse and shoot a gun, we may survive these lawless times.’”
“Your Amma knew to shoot cap pistols since she was being little.”
“Correct. ‘Appa says we must not let the big birds eat any grain,’” Nela mimicked the eldest brother speaking to the young Amma. “‘So, you point the gun at the bird when he flies down on the sack of grain, and then you, bang-bang, scare him away! Do you think you are big enough to try?’”
“She plants feet in the earth, takes aim and fires at a bird. Wings go up like many hands clapping,” Ranu mumbled, her lids fluttering down.
Nela went on, more softly. “By the time the real dacoits came, little Shiva knew exactly what to do. Surrounding the house, the men whipped the horses viciously, whooping all the while. Shiva ran from the center of the house into which her petrified mother had dragged her, ignoring the panic in her mother’s eyes as she ripped herself out of the protective embrace. She saw her brothers and her father stationed at the windows and she silently crept to where the weapons were kept. She put her hands around a small loaded pistol. She climbed onto a chair and picked off her first marauder before her father even noticed she was there. She saw the bandit’s astonished eyes as he tumbled from his horse, blinking back the mirage of the child at the window, the little murderer.”
Ranu was always fast asleep by the time Nela had ended her story, but one night, Jackson, who usually slept through the exchange, was still awake. Over Ranu’s sleeping head, he asked Nela, “What’s she like, anyway? Your Amma?” They were just talking now.
“Her sister is the fierce one,” Nela said, having had enough of Amma for one night. “Chitti, you know, the aunt staying on at the family house, now she was a tough lady. She had to be, I guess, to withstand all the gossip that circulated around her when her husband went off to find his fortune and never came back. Her in- laws kept her for awhile, mostly to save face with the neighbors, but when her father saw how thin and dejected she had become, he took her home for a visit. It turned out to be a permanent move. When we children first became aware of her, her hair had already turned white with waiting. She wore it in a thick braid down her back. We thought of it as a weapon, although she never used it like one, and at bedtime, we would tell one another a true story as a reminder that she was on our side.”
Nela adopted the same story-telling style she had just used with Ranu.” Once, when Chitti was visiting a relative in the city, a burglar made a hole in the wall from the outside. Not a difficult thing, since bricks were often made suitable for an adobe house, soft and crumbly. The burglar knew exactly where the family kept their strongbox, and when Chitti saw his hands grab the box through the hole, she grabbed back. She pulled so hard, his arms and head came all the way through the hole, and then she threw red pepper in his eyes.”
“Fear no evil,” Jackson laughed. “must be your family mantra.”
“We must get out of here soon,” Nela told Jackson a few days later. “They have lost interest in our welfare. We are inconvenient.” She dragged out the word, showing her teeth. Her recovery had slowed, her plans stalled. The people in the camp had become bored with the restrictions the little family imposed on them.
Only the day before, the medic had sent Ranu to the apothecary, without regard for danger. “I’m sure your fierce old man has given up,” he had shrugged when Nela called him to task. “Life goes on.” She squeezed the therapeutic ball in her hand, wishing it was his head. She wished it otherwise, but she could not expect the people in the camp to put rescuing Ranu above everything. “We need to get Ranu the necessary documents.”
“I know someone who will help me get papers,” Jackson answered. Their eyes met, and Nela saw a guarded quality in them that she had not noticed before. She felt gooseflesh on her arms rise.
“You have those kinds of connections? I keep forgetting we don’t know that much about one another.”
Jackson tucked his gun in his waistband and laughed bitterly. Nela at once felt a wall go up between them. Whenever she could not parse his reactions, she felt this barrier. All month, Jackson had returned to the outpost at night drawn and brittle, his mind troubled by events he did not share. Nela didn’t quiz him while his mind was still engaged with the day’s battle, the hours lost standing in line for documents, trying to locate whom to bribe. She tried again. “What kind of advice does your crew have for us?”
While Jackson tugged on his boots, he looked up at her and said, “Are you well enough for a wedding?”
“Ours,” he said. “They think we should adopt Ranu, and it would be easier, if we did.”
“Did what?” Her head pounded. She hated it when he spoke in incomplete sentences.
“Got married.” His words popped like bubbles, and Nela looked at him sharply.
“Is it a man or a pyjama?” she chuckled.
“I’m serious,” he said, annoyed. And what she saw in his eyes made her lean over to kiss him, carefully. It was the best she could do at the time.
After Jackson left, Nela closed her eyes to help slow her breathing. She had to stay calm to heal, not get ahead of herself. She willed her wound to heal. She visualized the process of healing with a biologist’s eye. She egged on the closing of her wound like a cheerleader, encouraged the knitting of the ragged edges.
Now someone was interrupting her again. A throat cleared, fabric rustled. Nela doggedly squeezed her eyes even more tightly shut.
“Excuse, please,” a voice said. Nela propped open her lids and surveyed the interloper. Mami! A chill knuckled up her spine. “What do you want?”
“You must leave. Uncle wants Ranu back. It is a matter of prestige.” “When?”
“Soon. Although the village is not finished…”
“Do not blame this on Jackson!” It appalled Nela that Mami never stopped trying to make a deal.
“I have come to tell you proper way to get papers.” Mami immediately folded her hands in front of her in a contrite posture that surprised Nela. Was she acting, or could Nela trust her intentions? And how did she know what Jackson and she were planning? Was there a mole in the camp? As if she could read Nela’s thoughts, Mami said, “Ranu is good girl. Is better if she going away from here.” Mami’s sudden concern for the child she had exploited provided an interesting wrinkle. She had risked a good deal to come to this inhospitable place ringed by firepower and trigger fingers. Nela pushed down her suspicions about what Mami had to gain. She supposed she should hear her out.
“You must marry first,” Mami began, with a look that told Nela she had never believed that Jackson was her husband. “Next, Shudi karan ceremony is conducted by Arya Samaj Mandir. There exists proper procedure wherein person wanting change to Hinduism has to give application witnessed by at least two witnesses and affidavit duly signed and attested by Notary Public.” Mami stopped to take a breath, and plunged on before Nela could tell her that she had no intention of asking Jackson to change his religion, whatever it was. It was beside the point.
“Priest of the Arya Samaj Mandir performs the Shudi Karan ceremonies wherein a proper Havan is performed and samagri offered to the holy fire by the converted. He take oath to follow the arya Hindu religion and take Hindu name replacing old name. Proper, numbered conversion certificate is duly signed by him getting converted. Secretary of the Arya Samaj Mandir signs also. A copy of this certificate is keeping with Arya Samaj Mandir.” Mami shot Nela a penetrating look. Nela met it with a question in her own eyes. Why should Mami help her? “Why I am telling you is because marriage between Hindu and non Hindu person is under Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 and Registrar of Marriages always want a copy of the conversion certificate to be satisfied about legality.”
“This will all take too much time,” Nela complained. Her head had begun to ache.
Mami pulled out a piece of folded paper from her sari. “Here is main point. This man will accept donation to hurry marriage along. Adoption also hurried.” Nela took the paper.
Armed with Mami’s information, the couple set off to the courthouse the next morning. The trip was physically arduous for Nela. Her tourniquet darkened with dust as they bumped through the open air in an auto-rickshaw. Jackson’s jaw worked with thoughts he would not express. Wedding jitters? Not likely. He was a man not easily mired in details as small as a marriage contract. A big- picture man, he was.
Nela began to tell him about South Indian marriage customs: the seven trips around the fire, the chanting, the wedding necklace, the marriage bangles. She told him about a cousin at her brother’s wedding, how he had been enlisted by Amma to circulate among the guests with silver platters of food until he made himself dizzy. She told him about the way priests from each family traditionally clashed over some fine point of the ceremony, interrupting it and leaving the nervous bride sagging in heirloom gold and jewels. “I don’t even have a cigar band to give you today,” Jackson apologized, missing the point. Nela searched his face for irony, and found none.
They entered the sun-washed building under a canopy of dark eyes parsing their intentions. The other couples fit together, all the same size and denomination. For a brief moment, Nela worried that some official might prevent them from this necessary step, but the ceremony proceeded in a smear of bored, mumbled words. The official barely looked up. These were words he had repeated countless times, and his mind was probably on tiffin and his next smoke.
“Feel different?” Jackson asked his wife when they exited the room. She gave him a comic head-waggle. “Sure about that?” he chuckled. They stepped around well-wishers as they descended the stone stairs. “What do these people want?” Outside, sunshine dazzled like a nerve.
“Money, of course. A donation to prevent the Evil Eye from ruining our bliss.” Jackson pulled his body up and away from her sarcastic emphasis on the last word. He let her hand drop. Nela was perplexed. This marriage was a practical step toward Ranu’s adoption, wasn’t it? Why try to dress it up as some grand gesture? It was a chore, an errand like any other.
There was no time to linger over philosophical implications. There was more paperwork to do, and the couple spent the afternoon in long sweat-soaked lines of irritable people. They stood silently, one behind the other, unconnected, the only stoics among crowds seething with complaint. Nela lost count of the times they reached the head of one queue only to be sent to the back of another.
Despite the banner of her tourniquet, she shook away all special treatment until her body gave out and she puddled into Jackson’s arms. He righted her without comment. She longed to hear him say what he usually said upon catching her when she tripped—we have to stop meeting like this, or some such—but this time he did not.
A teenage boy with white religious markings on his forehead scraped a chair across the floor for Nela. The stripes should have lent a fierce look to his face and gave the lie to his gentle nature. He was the only one in the room to help her. She gratefully took the chair, ignoring hostile glances from a few people who were also tired of standing, and had suffered worse calamities than a wounded arm. “They probably think I was burned in a kitchen fire set by my mother-in-law,” Nela whispered to Jackson, just to see him wince.
After many minutes of scraping the chair forward by inches, Nela and Jackson finally reached the counter. The man behind it was so short, that only the top part of his head showed. Nela had to peer over the division between them, to hand him her marriage certificate. As she explained their situation, the man’s mustache wax melted down his jowls into his collar. The faster it dripped, the more the corners of Nela’s mouth turned up. Jackson rapped her on the back lightly, to prevent her from laughing.
“Is the child free?” The man’s mustache twitched stiffly.
“She is an orphan,” Nela said, choosing the best definition of free. The man scribbled and stamped some documents. Jackson nervously shifted his weight from one foot to the other. At last the man looked up. He only spoke to Nela. “ACA issues adoption clearance. Certificate of clearance will be given on the thirty-first day.”
“My husband and I wish to adopt her and bring her home with us to Britain.”
The man’s eyebrows lifted. “You have NRI Indian passport?” Nela produced it from her bag. The man squinted at it, ran his thumbs over the surface, and grunted. He pulled out another document, scribbled on and stamped that one, too. “Certificate of No Objection,” he pronounced. “File the petition with the court, next step.” Nela thanked him and took the papers.
“You are native to Kerala,” the man said. It was not a question. Nela waggled her head and smiled. To be wedded to any bit of sand and spit was sentimental nonsense. She had never been able to understand how any locale could get under a person’s skin and give them their identity. Yet this was home, and she had been content here this time. It wrenched her to be chased away.
Jackson and Nela continued to drag through their auspicious day, knowing that at any moment their luck could change and waylay their mission to rescue Ranu. At their final stop, the clerk at the court was not easy to read. Was it the thick glasses, or the quick-bitten nails? He received Nela’s papers nonchalantly, and took them to his chest. He raised one shoulder, and then pulled back, his body’s effort at managing truth. He said, “Case decided within two months.” He was lying. Nela opened her mouth to argue, but Jackson’s expression made her hold her tongue. She faded to the back of the room, a woman like any other in the region, observing the same customs.
She read the men’s lips from a respectful distance. After all, she had learned long ago that if a person stepped out of line here, she would be cruelly treated. But to succumb to India in its entirety could be a transformative thing. Nela watched the clerk hand Jackson a sheaf of papers. If she had believed in destiny, she would have trusted more in the smooth surface of this operation, but she held her breath as Jackson extended a wad of bills to the clerk, and thanked a nameless god when the clerk took them.