Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Rescuing Ranu (15)

Chapter Fifteen

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 beings 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?
Nelas eyes flew open,  and  she reached out her hand toward the voice. Are you alright? How  did you get here? Its 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 Ranus 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 Nelas good side. The other womans 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 Nelas 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 Nelas 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 didnt 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 patients 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 shes 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 Ranus 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 Nelas 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 Nelas 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 girls 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 mothers 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 bandits 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 Ranus sleeping head,  he asked Nela, Whats  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. Im 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 dont 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 didnt quiz him while his mind was still engaged with  the days 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.
“Im 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 biologists 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  Nelas thoughts, Mami said, Ranu is good girl. Is better if she going  away  from here.”   Mamis 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  Mamis 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 brothers 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 dont 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 Ranus 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 Jacksons 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 suchbut 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 mans mustache wax melted down his jowls into his collar. The faster it dripped, the more  the corners of Nelas mouth turned up. Jackson rapped her on the back lightly,  to prevent her from laughing.
“Is the child free?” The mans 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 mans 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 persons 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 Nelas papers nonchalantly, and  took them  to his chest. He raised one shoulder, and  then pulled  back, his bodys effort at managing truth. He said, “Case decided within two months. He was lying. Nela opened her mouth to argue, but Jacksons 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 mens 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.


Iulia Flame said...

I love the image of the woman willing her wound to close like a cheerleader. Excellent series.

Cheryl Snell said...

Thanks for reading along, Jillian.