Nela’s 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 wasn’t 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, isn’t 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 wouldn’t have let his true feelings show. More than once, Nela had been tempted to invoke her absentee husband’s 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 daughter’s 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 brother’s 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 Ashoke’s serial infidelities, but had never paid much attention. The idea conjured up ridiculous images and quickly bored her. He was Priya’s 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 you’re 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. “I’m 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. He’s 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 you’d 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 Nela’s turn to laugh. “So you think you have him, do you?”
“I’m sure he will agree!”
“I think he would have told me,” Nela said, watching Ashoke’s face carefully.
“Oh, you are still in touch, then?” His mustache twitched imperceptibly.
“Rather. Jackson is my husband.”
Ashoke’s 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 husband’s 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 Uncle’s fallout to the false safety of this viper’s 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 wouldn’t stop him from the gamble.
She drew the covers up under Ranu’s 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.