Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Rescuing Ranu (16)



Chapter Sixteen


At the airport, Nela held Ranu by her good hand while  the child hopped alongside her, wearing her nerves like clothes.  Jackson, loaded with suitcases and  the battered laptop, calmly steered his family through the surging crowd. Nela suspected his demeanor was for her benefithe had begun to grind his teeth at night,  and  during the day he had  continued to disappear for hours. Where have you been? shed ask when he finally crept into the tent at night  and  stretched out beside  her. We have the documents, the guards are outside—why are you taking chances?” He refused to tell her where he had  gone, or what he was after.  She was strong enough to take bad news,  now, so it wasn’t  necessarily that he was protecting her. There was something else going  on. Do we ever know our loved  ones?
They walked three abreast to their terminal. “I need a little room,”  Nela said as politely as she could.  Jackson was guiding her again,  fingers  on her back. She had never  liked the sensation of being corralled, and  she pulled  away  from him. Reflexively,  he leaned in toward her, then  back again.  Sor-ry, he said, sarcastically. To start  an argument in front of Ranu was unfair, so Nela swallowed her irritation.
The trio continued along  the scuffed  corridor until  they reached the line of travelers heading for the UK. It wound all around the chrome barriers, a necklace,  a snake.  Jackson stood quietly behind Nela, touching her lightly  on the curve  of her waist.  She did not move  away  this time.
People  reuniting or tearing themselves away  from their  loved  ones were traumas not easily sloughed off by the parade of parting. Nela winced at the thought of her own  last airport farewell. She had  tried  to say her goodbyes at Rams front door, dropping a quick kiss on
her mothers head,  but Amma had  grabbed her hand and  squeezed it with surprising force. I come also.”  A freezing wind had blown through Nela, but in the next instant she understood that it was a matter of pride, of prestige,” that Amma see her daughter off. It was what family did. This terminal, crowded with  relatives bearing gifts and  packages of favorite foods not to be found at any foreign supermarket, newlyweds bravely  separating from parents already beginning to wait for their return, and satchels of letters to be hand carried  to relatives of relatives, all testified to that. Amma handed a stack of this same type  of letters to her daughter at the gate. Bye-bye, bye-bye.
Ranu,  who had  been sitting quietly on a suitcase, began  to agitate for her passport. You’ve been watching the people at the counter, haven’t  you, Nela teased, digging into her bag for the passports. Ranu nodded solemnly, and received the document into her cupped  palm.
It was damp with  fingerprints by the time she showed it to the uniformed clerk behind the counter. He licked his thumb, and  slowly  turned the pages. He grunted, and  Nela strained to listen for the
cross-examination sure to follow. But the man only twitched his mustache—perhaps the bristles hid a smile—and handed the booklet  back to the little girl.
Next, they paused at the gate to take off their  shoes. Ranu bent down to pull off one shoe with  the toes of the other  foot. Nela reached down to assist her, as mothers do. There  you go,” she said.
She pulled  off her own  sandals, letting Jackson steady her. She realized she had  been ducking his glance, not wanting to read  his face, the downward turn of his lips. She wished for the privacy of the dark,  out of the range of hearing by onlookers, but then realized she would use no words for this parting. She turned to him and  searched his face, hand at his cheek. Longing. Regret.  Determination.
So, nothing had  changed. He was not coming. They had not spoken about his plans  since the night  in the clinic when she had claimed Ranu as her daughter (my not ours, I not we), and edged him out of her life. The moment she realized another calling had  taken  hold of him, she had begun to distance herself  from him, palms out, fingers  splayed against his chest as he reached to encircle her.  He wanted to fix the broken village? Fine. Let him follow his dharma. If he had  only married her to help her accomplish her one unselfish act, well, it was the least he could  do. She backed away  from him.
Go on,” Jackson was urging her, as if he were the one doing the distancing. “I have some work  to do, but Ill follow you. Ill join you soon.  His words, staccato  as a broken promise, unlocked her, and  Nela practically ran to the gate. She did not look back at the raised hand and crumpled face of her husband.
Once she had hustled Ranu into the plane,  Nela would not let the child put her satchel  on Jacksons empty seat. Why  Appa not coming, Ranu worried.
Nela flinched. Her flesh prickled as she tried  to unscramble the messages in her brain.  He would rather save the world.” Ranu  cocked her head.  He will come next time, Nela amended. There was no point in trying to explain the inexplicable to a child.
Ranu squirmed into her seat and began  to play with  her earphones, an activity that should have absorbed her for hours but did not. She soon tired of it, put her head  on Nelas shoulder, sighed and  fell asleep.  Nela tolerated the connection, barely.  Her resentment for the childs touch  surprised and  shamed her. Motherhood is not for everyone,” Ashoke had  once said, just after his wife had  suffered a miscarriage. Nela thought the sentiment unnatural and cold-hearted at the time, but worthy of Ashoke. He was always looking  for someone to blame,  while she considered herself  above  such coping mechanisms.
You can try again,  or else you can adopt,” she told him at the time. He had frowned at that. You don’t know where these  kids come from, he said. As a scientist, you should know that they may have bad genes,  with  traits  you will pay for in the end.

There was no one to meet them  at Heathrow, of course.  Ranu  swung her head  from side to side, looking,  looking.   What are you looking  for? Nela wanted to say, but kept her mouth clamped over her teeth while  she herded Ranu into a taxi.
They had  little luggage, a fact that seemed to puzzle  the driver. He frowned above  the trunk. Zat all?’ A toothpick in his mouth made the words sound clenched and hostile.
You got a problem with  that?”  Nela said in her best American accent, before turning her face to the window. The driver would not try to make small talk now.  She pulled  Ranu close to her, ready to point out the landmarks. The route was familiar, but altered somehow. New  construction had  sprung up around familiar buildings. That  building is where Christians worship,” orienting herself.  There  is the famous fish market.
Like vendors at home?” Ranu wondered.
No. But you will like it.” She said it like an order, not mere information, and the girl flinched at her brittle tone. It was the sound that worked here. English  Nela.
Beyond  her front door, a cloud  of stale air and dust. It had  thickened the surfaces of the furniture, and  the rising  motes  caused Ranu to sneeze. Nela pulled  a tissue  from the box in the kitchen, and  it disintegrated in her hand. How  long had  she been gone, anyway? She tugged her hair and made a quick calculation of its growth. She had  been gone for twelve months.
The lights were  off, of course.  She hadnt paid  any bills. Nela made for the telephone anyway, and  picked it up. Dead silence. What else, what else?”  She took out two candles from a drawer, lit them, and handed one to Ranu.  In the flickering light, the childs face was placid as a kettle  pond. To depend on a candle was no real inconvenience for her. It was Nela who was less adaptable.
Tired as she was, she set to work  righting the house, and  Ranu shadowed her, picking up her rhythms, imitating her movements. They dusted and  swept and  scrubbed the layers  of neglect  off surfaces until they glowed in the candlelight.
“Hungry?” Nela asked when they were finished. The child nodded, and Nela opened the cupboards to see what was still edible.  There was a
lone can of beans,  a package of powdered milk, and  a box of crackers. Her neighbor Ida had  cleaned her out.  The old thief must  have carted off the goods  one sinewy armful at a time chickpea flour, the jars of pickles, a torn and half-used bag of fennel seeds.
She heated the beans and  served them  to Ranu,  who sat in a kitchen chair swinging her legs. The little girl tried  to scoop up some beans  on a cracker, and promptly spilled them. Handing her a spoon,  Nela coached her. “It is how  they do here. You must  try.” Ranus attempt left much  to be desired. The harder she tried,  the worse  she did. Nela insisted she keep at it.  And remember to eat with your  mouth closed. Like this.
After the meager, tense  dinner, Nela took Ranu by the hand into the room with  the white board and  its flaking  equations. She yanked the curtains closed, and pointed out the cot. Ranu,  as if accepting a punishment, climbed on it and closed her eyes.
Once in her own bedroom, Nela went  to the window to close those curtains, also.  She could  not bear to survey the inevitable damage in the garden yet. She undressed quickly and  made an automatic grab for the brush on her dressing table. Both the silver- handled brush and matching hand mirror  had  been moved out of
place.  She picked them  up and  glanced at the background view of her down quilt. It seemed to have been hastily settled  over the sheets. That bed is probably still warm, she said to herself.
The day she left, Nela had  pushed the spare  key at her neighbor, Ida only reluctantly taking it.  Nela should have known her beautiful things would prove too much  temptation for the old girl. Fences make good neighbors. Well, at least she hadnt given Ashoke the run  of the place, the man  who thought every  piece of mail in a relatives house belonged to him, the man  for whom every  boundary was porous.
Nela sat on the edge of her bed and stared at the blue walls. She had insisted on the luxury of the silk, and had been willing  to live on rice and noodles until  it was paid  for.  What would the how-many- cousins-are-worth-one-brother folks think  about that? She had nearly dissolved with  hunger that first year. Examining the hollows under her cheekbones each night  in the cracked bathroom mirror,  he felt the pull of sacrifice, and the satisfaction of earning what she wanted. When  she thought of her younger self sitting with  a single  bowl at the kitchen table, legs snaked around the flimsy aluminum frame  of a chair, she smiled. We are all heroes in our own stories.
In the middle  of the night  she jolted awake. The air had taken  on a chill. Ranu needs  another blanket, she thought. Struggling to get out of the soft deep bed, she was stopped by a sound. An inhalation, a small snore.  She turned in its direction and  found Ranu lying on top of the bedspread. Nela looked  at the girl for a long moment. Placing  two of her fingers  inside  the open  palm,  she watched the small fingers  curl around them.


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