Friday, June 17, 2016

Rescuing Ranu (18)

Chapter Eighteen

That evening, mother and  daughter arrived at Ashokes party, linked by the hand. When  they entered the living room, all chatter  suspended. Curious faces turned toward them,  and  a wave of sound broke  out, welcoming them. “Youre back! How  are you? Its been forever!  And who is this?” Nela put a protective arm around Ranu,  who clung  to her, shaking slightly.
This is my daughter. Another murmur waved through the group as they waited for details. But Nela had  finished her introduction, and made it clear she wasnt  taking questions.
One of Ashokes children crept  in around the sea of adult hips and stood opposite Ranu.  Want to see my room? Ranu,  biting  down her lower lip and  lifting her eyebrows, looked  to Nela.  At her nodded permission, the girls ran upstairs, the helpful little hostess pulling  Ranu along  by the hand.
Nela caught Ashokes glance,  the tightened lips turned down. When was the last time a lower  caste had  visited this house? A cripple? Even as a boy, Ashoke had  been a snob. Convinced that all eyes were  on him, he complied with  the Brahmin code of behavior, giving  alms to the poor, for instance, but chasing them  from his familys veranda when the coast was clear.
We consider our parents gods,” his wife was saying to a guest  Nela did not know. The woman standing behind the stranger seemed vaguely familiar.  She looked  like a model, and  had  had accompanied a reader who only dated models, but Nela could  not remember either  ones name.  The reader peered into his empty glass, bored. He had  probably heard this little speech  a hundred times. “It is common practice that we prostrate ourselves in front of them  to touch  their  feet, Priya went  on.
Even  when you meet them  in public, like at the airport? I never  see people strewn about the floor at the baggage pickup.” The guest pursed her mouth around the word strewn.
There was a beat of silence, and  then  the sound of the little brass bell. The company assembled around the table. Nela did not call Ranu down for supper, although Ashoke called for his daughter, who ignored him. His face flushed after the first two calls, and he marched to the bottom of the stairs, yelling  her name.  Shuffling back
to the table, hands thrust in his pockets, he shrugged, as if losing  face in front of colleagues was of no importance. My children have no idea how  to prostrate,” he complained. They cannot even hear my call. Is all iTouch and earbuds these  days! He waved his hand to indicate the guests should begin without the children. Nelas dinner partner had brought her own bottled water, and  set it down heavily by her glass. “I cant do yeast,”  she explained, first to Nela and  then  to the man  seated on her other  side. So wine is out.”  She picked up the bottle and  ran a lacquered nail down the label. Without looking  toward Priya for help or permission, she poured some of the amber liquid into her neighbors glasses. Nela saw Priyas annoyance, and  gave a conspiratorial shrug.
Why  do academics drink so much,  anyway?” the guest  said. Bill got so sloshed at last weeks party, he almost cried when the little girl hed been flirting  with  sneaked upstairs with  someone else! She spoke  with  the fervor of the converted.
Well, Bills hardly an academic anymore. I heard him say he resigned his position last week. He was grumbling about how  good his work  is, but that nobody appreciates him,”  said another guest.  Nela suddenly could  not remember the speakers name,  although she did recall he specialized in these conversational tangents. So hes taking his ball and  going  home.
Or else he is going  in for being a gigolo and letting his wife do all the work,” Ashoke declared, passing the biryani. He still reveled in the role of host, attentive to his guests’  needs.  Solicitous  to a fault, he would hold  out a steaming dish  and  order a guest,  Have! with  a waggle  of his head.  He loved  to intone the name  of some delicacy  or other  to the unschooled. It seemed to make  him feel taller. And,  surrounded by neighbors and  colleagues, he did not have to be alone with  Priya.
The company sniggered. It only egged Ashoke on. There  is another way to divide labor. She does all the work  and he does all the complaining.
Although Nela had  lost the thread of the ongoing soap opera during her long absence, the tone of the talk was all too familiar. It was condescending and gossipy, and she had almost forgotten how  much  she hated it.  How could  exposure to all this be good for Ranu?  It changed a person, and not necessarily for the better.
Her own reputation for being brusque had  been built by gatherings like these. Shed get fed up and conclude conversations by simply walking away.  No decompression phrase! a student once complained to the assembled. Stranded in the room she had just left, his hand was still unshaken, dangling from his sleeve.
When  Nela left the table this time, there were again no goodbyes.

One night,  long before dawn, Nela awoke to the sound of fireworks. Someone else might have identified it as gunfire, but this pop  was distinctive, and immediately brought her childhood back to her. It was Divali, the Festival  of Lights celebrating Ramas triumphant homecoming after killing a foe, the time of year when she and Ramesh would rush  out of the house after an excited,  light sleep, armed with  Atomic Bombs, and  Flowerpots. Arms  full of firecrackers saved for and selected weeks before, they would race to the gymkhana across the street. No matter how early, there  were always children already there, waiting for the brother and  sister famous for balancing the flaming flowerpots on the vertical  bars of the chain link fence and setting  off the fuse of the Chinese crackers. Soon the night  bloomed with  burning flowers, hovering over whole neighborhoods before dissolving.
Now Nela rubbed the sleep from her eyes and opened the front door. There was Ranu,  crouched in the fallow  garden, setting  off a few tiny blazes. The path  from the kitchen door to the plot had been lined by diya pots, and a kolam  made from rice paste  drawn outside the porch. How  long it must  have taken  Ranu to do this! Nela ducked inside before the child noticed her and  the surprise was spoiled. She went  to her bookshelves. The child needed a Diwali  gift! There was no time now to make  traditional sweets  or buy new clothes,  but a book would do. Nela picked up her Gita and drew her finger  along  the spine, rubbed her thumbs over the embossed cover. How  could  she part  with this piece of her history? Chitti had given  the book to her when she was still too young to understand it, although she could  have recited any story from it on the spot. She took the volume out to Ranu.  Happy Diwali,” she said. This was my aunties book. You have seen it before, at the hut. Chitti  gave it to me, and now  I give it to you.”  The child received the book with  open  palms.

“Appa  coming soon?” Ranu asked later that morning. She was sitting on the floor near the whiteboard, eating some lentils with  a mitt of naan, mouth wide  open  again.
He would be annoyed that I have not yet enrolled you in school,” Nela responded, skirting the question. She leaned over the papers on her side of the table, trying to pick up the thought that Ranu had just broken. Where had her ability to concentrate gone? The task at hand was not difficult;  she had written up research results many times before, sent them  to the journals with  success.
“I learn  at home.  You teach.”  Having come up with  the solution to the problem, Ranu went  back to her messy  breakfast.
Dont  you want to go to school with  Uncle Ashokes daughter?” Used to bribes,  Ranu said warily, More  children there?” Nela nodded, and  Ranus face fell. The older  children in the neighborhood had  already targeted her as someone to bully, a lame foreigner drawing designs with  colored chalk on the front stoop. You teach at school, the girl haggled.
The mothers catch-all  phrase came out of Nelas mouth. Well see.
Later on, Nela returned to the house with  groceries and was greeted by the smell of butter sizzling in an iron skillet. Ghee! Ranu  had  found a camphor lamp  in a cupboard full of ornaments and  accessories for Hindu rituals, and  placed the lamp  on a small table near the doorway with  an old stick of incense  and  a few flowering weeds from the garden. The clarified butter was for aarti, the traditional welcome home.
Ducking into the kitchen, Nela joked, You wanted to welcome me back from grocery shopping?” She mimicked the ritual, making circles with her hands, quoting a mantra.
The child hung her head.  “It is for them,” she confessed. She flinched, as if mentioning her missing sister and  Jackson might offend.  There was a part  of Nela, the weak  part  she despised, still waiting for her husband.   Ranu,  too, was waiting. Nela would find her sitting  on the bed sometimes, knees drawn up and  locked  in the spindles of her arms.  Rocking  back and forth, her eyes round and  hopeless as the bottom of a well, she did not look to Nela for answers. They both knew  there  were none.

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