Saturday, June 18, 2016

Rescuing Ranu (19)



Chapter Nineteen





Nelas failure  to enroll Ranu in a school weighed on her, as time passed. Every evening she called the child to her and  taught her something she needed to know, but that wasnt  enough. She felt the enormity of her task so keenly that she allowed it to become  a topic for discussion at the Friday gatherings.

The consensus seemed to be that Nela should not wait until  the next term began,  although the current one was well underway. As for schools and procedures, Ashoke knew  all the ins and  outs, but he hemmed and hawed and squirmed and  stammered when Nela asked for his advice.  “It is better to have a tutor come. You cannot send  her in with  the smaller children, and you cannot put her with  her peers. You do not wish for your  daughter to fail, isnt it?”  He inflected the word daughter with  everything Nela hated about him, his caste- consciousness and belief in the superiority of blood relations. To him, Ranu was an outsider, forever a foreigner. Adoption papers meant nothing. If Jackson had  been there,  Ashoke wouldnt have let his true  feelings show.  More than  once, Nela had been tempted to invoke her absentee husbands name, but she had  stopped herself  each time. What exactly could she say?

In the sagging middle  of the party, Ashoke asked Nela to accompany him to the store for more  ice. She dully  followed him to the car, barely registering the sight of Priya at the window, curtain in her fist.

In the car, Ashoke droned on and  on about the trauma a classroom would inflict on Ranu.  Nela had seen him wince whenever his daughter and  Ranu ran off to play together. Ranu has adapted well

to your  child. They are best of friends already. A class will afford  my child more  opportunities for friendship.

The girls in my daughters class are Brahmin. They are taught to honor their fathers and brothers wishes in their choice of friends. The men will not welcome Ranu.  They know what is best for their kin. A girl is never  too old for a brothers good influence!

And I suppose  you think  you are comparable to one of my brothers?

His hands squeezed the steering wheel. “I could  be so much  more  than that! It was too absurd, and Nela laughed out loud.  Ashoke stiffened visibly as he pulled  into the convenience store. Another man  would have known when to quit, but not him. He locked  the doors and  turned to Nela, but she had  already unlocked the door on her side and slid through it. She entered the store and  walked to the far aisle, out of sight but not earshot.

Why  wouldja bring  her here?”  the cashier  whined when Ashoke greeted her familiarly. How could  you do that?

Ashoke leaned in over the counter, and  put his finger  to his lips. I lost count  of your  shifts. I did not know you would be working.” Nela was aware of Ashokes serial infidelities, but had never  paid much attention. The idea conjured up ridiculous images and  quickly bored her. He was Priyas problem, not hers. But now,  she wanted some details, so she picked up a bag of ice and  laid it on the counter. She looked  the cashier full in the face. Hello,” she said. Do I know you?”  Before the words were out of her mouth, she had  the answer. It was the student who had tried  to undo her.

Ashoke lifted two bags of ice, threw some money down, and  walked briskly out the door. The women did not look at him. He did not matter.

Why did you come back anyways?

Why should that interest you?”  This was not India,  where there  were eyes everywhere.

The girl burst into tears. You ruined my life,” she whimpered. You attempted to ruin  mine,” Nela retorted. A suspicion that had been brewing inside  her mind for a long while erupted now.   She hitched a shoulder in the direction of the door Ashoke had  just walked through. Did he put you up to all that nasty  business?

The student studied her black-polished fingernails. He said you had  a temper, and  you always get a little crazy when youre  working on a new problem

Nela felt that temper choke her words. She clenched her fists at her thighs. “So you were sleeping with  him.”  It was a statement of fact, one that suddenly made all kinds of sense.

The girl nodded. “Im his type, she said, as if she had  won something.

Did you cheat on his say-so?”  Nela had  to get to the bottom of it. The student nodded and  bit her lip. He wanted to distract you

from that guy you were starting to work  with.  Hes so competitive.” She flushed, sensing a misunderstanding, then rushed on. Not  competitive like jealous!  He had  all this! She ran her hands over her body  crudely. Ash just wanted to keep collaborating with  you. He was afraid youd  take his ideas and work  them  up with  the new guy.”  She ended her sentence with  a question-mark, the first small doubt. Let her dawdle over her own hurt, Nela thought. She resisted the

urge  to break  the silence by telling the student that there  had  never  been collaboration between Ashoke and herself,  that it was clear what kind  of competition there  had  been, had  always been. But to what end? Ashoke had always been willing  to sacrifice Nela for his own comfort. The knowledge of the depth of his cruelty toward one woman would have only made the other  feel worse.

As the women spoke,  customers stood around at strange angles  reflected in round security mirrors. One by one, each put their  goods  back on the shelf, and  left the store before they witnessed the unlikely reconciliation of two women betrayed by the same man.

Nela took a cab back to the party, and  opened the door in time to see Ranu and  Ashoke deep  in conversation. A chill fingered her spine,  and she was between them  in a second. What were  you talking about?

Ashoke leaned back in his chair and  drew in on his absurd cigar. Your girl was telling  us how  she met you. Poor thing.  To be abandoned by her mother, only to go to work  as your  servant.” Before Nela had  a chance  to inhale, he cut in.” Do you remember the wallahs who helped our mothers or the vendors going  by singing chai, chai, chai tea, coffee? One of the servants would rush  down the steps to bring  drinks back up! The little girls began  to sing the familiar chant,  until  Nela silenced them  with  a glower.

Even in the villages,  child labor is not to be tolerated! Ashoke went on.  I am surprised that you would be party to this.

Ranu is my adopted daughter, not my servant.

“Po-tay-to, po-tah-to, Ashoke smirked. You must  have paid  a pretty price to be able to adopt with  no father!He pulled  on the cigar.

“Jackson  is our Appa,”  Ranu piped up. Ashoke coughed loudly, followed by an incredulous laugh. He waved his arms around the room expansively. We have one of those,  too,” he told the girl. Jackson  is a fine scientist, and  will make  a fine addition to our university.

Now it was Nelas turn to laugh. So you think  you have him, do you?

“Im sure he will agree!

“I think  he would have told me,” Nela said, watching Ashokes face carefully.

Oh, you are still in touch,  then?” His mustache twitched imperceptibly.

Rather. Jackson is my husband.

Ashokes hands fluttered to his face, trying to cover physical reactions Nela had  already taken  in and  processed. He tried  to speak,  but could  not. He tried  to rise from his chair, but could  not find his footing.  A guest  had to pull him up to a standing position. With all eyes on him, he staggered upstairs.

The migraine comes on suddenly,” Priya said, stubbing out her husbands cigar in the ashtray. “It is the smoke.” She continued to stand over the smoldering thing,  staring at it, while  the party broke  up. Nela gathered up Ranu amid  whispered congratulations on her marriage. Where is he, when will he join you, will he be working with you, do you plan to bring more children from India? The new Angelina and Brad, someone chortled.

At the door, Nela said goodbye to Priya, who would not answer.

Once home,  a gloom settled  over Nela, seeping into her bones,  making her shiver.  Had  she miscalculated, running away  from Uncles fallout  to the false safety of this vipers nest? She knew  that Ashoke would be intent on making life difficult for her from now  on. She was the one who had something on him, information that would make  trouble for him personally and professionally, but he would try to hurt her for having that knowledge. It was counter-intuitive, and  just like him. Guilt turns to anger, anger to guilt. He would bet that he could  damage her more  than she could  hurt him. A mistake, of course, but that wouldnt stop him from the gamble.

She drew the covers up under Ranus chin. She had  made Ranu let go of her life for what? The child shivered in her sleep. The season  had turned, and Ranu was always cold. She had  taken  to wearing a parka over her sari even inside  the house. Her new western clothes,  the jeans and sweaters, were warmer, but hung unworn in the closet.

Nela opened the drawer holding winter nightgowns and quilted bed jackets. Just beneath the layers  of fabric, Jackson’s measuring device caught her eye, the object he had  deliberately left for her so long ago.  She had  forgotten it was there,  the symbol that he intended to return to her.  She picked it up and held it until  the cold metal  represented only the object it was, and nothing more.


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