Nela went through her to-do list efficiently. She mulched her garden, stopped her mail, arranged for the utilities to be shut off. Just before the phone went dumb, she dialed her brother’s number. She thought she had better let someone know her plans. “I cannot work here,” Nela began.
“You can’t work? Not in your house? Not in your office? Not in the library?” Nela visualized her brother counting off locations on his fingers.
“There are too many people. I am drowning in samsara.”
“You must keep your head above the water, then.”
Spreading a map on her bed, Nela searched out possible routes connecting the most interesting math conferences. When her glance fell on India, details of her old neighborhood rose up: waterways clogged with hyacinths, banyans with branches doubled over into the earth. Why would she choose her homeland to run to? It had not been hospitable to her, in fact, she had been held prisoner by its customs. But Jackson was there, somewhere, fixing everyone’s life but hers.
That’s neither here nor there, she reminded herself. The point was isolation, so she could work. Kerala was familiar enough to navigate, but she would be a stranger there. There would be no students, no colleagues, no Ashoke pronouncing his punishments. Kerala, or at least her idea of it, seemed at that moment ideal.
She folded a few saris into her suitcase. Her laptop, yellow legal pads, and a few books filled her green backpack. There was very little of her old life she wanted to take. She wanted to be unreachable, unknowable, incommunicado.
On the plane, Nela allowed herself to relax for the first time in a long while. Before she knew it, she was weeping. This surprised her with a numb surprise, but she did not try to stop the tears. The sobbing couldn’t have been particularly loud, and the seat next to her was empty, so why not? She wasn’t bothering anyone. The worried attendants, their whispers and shuffling steps, were more bothersome. One uniformed woman offered tissues and tea. Nela shook her head a definitive “no.” Why do people put such faith in tea?
She cried herself to an exhausted sleep full of images of Namagiri, her divine pen and automatic theorems, until a woman woke her with a reminder to bring her seat up and fasten her seatbelt. Nela
prepared herself for the hot air of home.
It hit her like a fist. She descended the steps of the plane slowly, the thick air more and more difficult to inhale. The Indians at the gate, none of them her family, waved in the light. They bore the facial features of their region, and answered to familiar names, but were strangers nonetheless. They eyed Nela suspiciously. What was a Brahmin woman doing in western style shorts and hiking boots? She had determined not to reveal her presence to anyone, to be a ghost, but there she was, with all eyes upon her, open to interpretation.
She ran one hand through her halo of dark frizz. She would have to find a place to change into a sari, and soon. In a dim stairwell, she managed to wrap the sari cloth around her body, back against the door. When she had arranged the fabric, her posture immediately acclimated to it. She took a few steps. This was like wearing high heels again after a long time. Some things one never forgets! At one of Ashoke’s dinners, a guest had marveled at the way Indian women glide in their saris. “But one can’t run in a sari,” she had pointed out.
“What have you got to run away from, a pretty lady like you?” the man had teased.
Outside the airport, Nela looked for her next way out. She managed to hail a vehicle by standing very still while everyone and everything swirled around her. “Take me to the Udipi,” she directed the auto-rickshaw driver with the scraggly beard and slicked-back hair. He waggled his head and lowered his eyes. She saw that he already disapproved of her, out in public alone, without the married woman’s red kukum on her forehead or a mangalasutra around her neck. He wanted to see some symbol of belonging. An unaccompanied woman was an unwanted woman, cast out of some unknown circumstances onto dangerous streets. Nela adjusted her sari, glad that she had had the opportunity to change into it. Where would this man have looked if she had confronted him with a pair of bare legs?
Driver and passenger passed a clutch of women in black trudging behind a single man. They reminded Nela of a flock of myna birds, each one following only one other. Pursuit and evasion? Suddenly the memory of Jackson in the taxi with her rose up, and she realized she had been scanning the scene for him.
The landscape was as much a masala of contradictions as her emotions. At the end of a dirt path, a man in a dhoti crouched on his stringy haunches, smoking. He presided over a small inventory of crystal chandeliers which caught the sun and, in turn, made Nela catch her breath.
A woman in a bright sari and gold bangles set down her burdens to point to a piece. The two began to haggle, the high and low voices twisting around one another like music. The man looked like one of the durwans who had squatted on the roof of her father’s building
years ago. The woman could have been the suitable bride chosen for, and refused by, Ramesh. But these strangers were not those people, however interchangeable they might seem. Nela knew no one and no one knew her. She was a grain of sand on the beach for as long as she chose.
The driver took her rupees at the front of the restaurant, finally looking her full in the face. She boldly returned his look, and wished him a good day in five languages, rapidly. As she disappeared inside the door, above which a sign said Pure South Indian Food, she knew she had confused him. He could not pigeonhole her. Good.
The restaurant was dirty, proclamations of purity notwithstanding. Cobwebs draped every dim nook. An old cash register wobbled on the turmeric-stained counter. In the back room, a female voice could be heard complaining, hissing above the sizzle of ghee. The complaints ceased following the sound of a slap, and then started up again.
Nela took the only chair that still had all four legs. She sat down and tested the table by shaking it. She made an impatient gesture with her hand, complaining in English to the waiter. The boy rubbed his mustache with his thumb, and waggled his head ambiguously. English must sound like gibberish to him, someone who had probably never set a foot inside a classroom. Nela sighed. This is what the future looks like. Memes perpetuate. Beckoning him closer, she ordered a biryani and a mango lassi, this time in Tamil.
The owner of the restaurant, a man in his fifties, wearing a faded kurta and sandals, approached Nela’s table. She had been trying to arrange her backpack and suitcase so neither would scratch her knees. The movement seemed to mystify him—his thick eyebrows wiggled like caterpillars—but he had seen luggage before, certainly. What could he possibly have read into her fidgeting? He wiped his hands on his shirt—just what it needed, another stain. He willed his features into an expression of only casual interest, and asked, “Traveling alone?” Nela nodded impatiently. “Going home?” Digging deeper.
Her plans were none of his business. From the look of the scars on his face, the man had had a history of rebuffs, but probably not from women. None would have dared raise a hand against him. “Where is there a good, cheap motel?” she responded.
He stood in front of Nela, bouncing rhythmically on his toes, not replying. He was thinking, it would seem, while he scratched his round belly. He seemed to forget that she was there. Her plate of food had arrived and she didn’t want him to watch her eat, so she made a gesture for him to leave. He frowned, and followed that involuntary reaction with a misplaced smile. Pulling a greasy pencil from behind his ear, he carefully wrote down an address for her. “My periappa and his wife run this place. Clean place. Mami cook pure South Indian wegetables. You vill be safe.” Nela took the scrap and squinted at it. Not only did she know the street, she knew the proprietors by reputation.
“One of the Motel Patels?” she said, just to see his face ball up. It entertained her to hold a mirror to other people’s prejudices, but she believed she was less of a snob than the man in front of her.
The motel sprawled at the end of a winding dirt path a mile from the main road. Nela’s rickshaw driver had been unwilling to go past the turnoff where the path was pitted and narrow, so she walked the last mile, shouldering one burden, the other bumping against her hip. The driver had done no more than lift the luggage out of the vehicle for her, complaining that there should be a separate pyune to do even that. There wasn’t, but this is an imperfect world.
Harnessed by her belongings, Nela walked in flimsy chappals past several outhouses and a well. She barely glanced at the landmarks, and idly wondered how clean the well water was. She tried to remember a story about a polluted village well cleansed by a vial of holy water from the Ganges. How did that story end? The people must all have been poisoned. You can’t purify water with other polluted water, or by the wishful thinking known as faith.
She walked on smooth loose stones past a fence toward the low boxy buildings slumped against one another. A few barren fruit trees provided scant shade from the blistering sky. In the distance, the hill flared with fragrant cooking fires, dark, bare figures crouching over them, stirring, stirring. Monkeys occasionally darted from trees and bushes to steal food, scrambling up the bark again with their prizes.
Nela stopped for a moment and slipped off her backpack. It was odd to feel her heart beating so fast—she assumed she was in better shape than that! She picked up her luggage, one piece in each hand, weighing them. She set them down again, and pulled out the paper with the scribbled numbers from her sari. She compared the numbers with the ones on the sign above her head, and, satisfied she was in the right place, knuckled the door loudly.
“Hmmm?” A small woman in a paisley sari cracked the door, and stepped past it. She half-closed it, and faced Nela squarely. Twirling the gold links in her neck chain, she appraised her and the possible value of her bags.
Nela said, “I am in need of a room.”
“We have no rooms,” Mami lied. For decades, she and her family had had rooms. Tough little men with black mustaches and cunning eyes had managed to keep the business going through political and personal upheavals of all kinds. This woman was only one in a long line of inn-keepers, probably some pampered son’s wife, doing his work for him.
She dug her toes in the dirt, flexed them like muscles. Chewing a paan, she waited for Nela to leave, or argue, but Nela did neither. Mami spit out a stream of red juice that had already begun to rot her teeth, barely missing the bags by Nela’s feet, and stared at the luggage as if it might yield up its contents. Finally she said, “Private quarters in back. I give you girl for cooking food and washing clothes. More rupees, but very good deal! You make a fool of me for such low price!”
“Where?” Nela wanted to know. Mami began to walk toward the back of the property. Worried that she had queered the deal, Nela sighed with relief when the proprietor pointed to a rundown building. It was no more than a shack. “Is there electric?” she asked Mami, who frowned.
“Suitable quarters for many past owners. Good enough for you! Plenty light, water, air!”
Nela considered her options and came to the only conclusion. “Yes, yes. OK,” she said. They quickly negotiated a price. She handed Mami the rupees, and gathering up her bags, walked up to her new digs. A child with long braids was sweeping the front step with a homemade broom. She looked up and her face flushed. Nela smiled at her but the child quickly looked down, unsure whether she should stay or retreat to the back veranda. Nela gestured for her to come into the house. An image from her childhood came to her: one of the durwans who swept the walkways of her father’s house for food. She was not a child like this girl, but still young, and Appa’s sympathy for her had irked Amma. She thought the woman’s constant presence reflected poorly on her somehow. She knew how to keep servants invisible, to go about the family business as if they weren’t there.
The girl before Nela was clearly even less eager to have company than Nela was, but the hierarchy of power had been slapped into her, and she grudgingly made room for the visitor and her luggage.There was no bed, or bedroom, only a pallet on the floor. There was a basin on a stand by the wall, and a wardrobe made of treated cardboard, with four wire hangers on a rod inside the doors. A table big enough to write on, a dry place to stack books, and a lamp that could be made bright enough so that Nela would not damage her eyes finished the spare surroundings. For someone who had sacrificed food for blue silk on her walls, this was a departure. Could she adjust? Nela looked around the room one more time. She could.
So, Nela was home, but not home. The village where she had grown up sprawled just across the river. It could make no claims on her with its suffocating embrace, its links of diluted shared DNA. So close to a place where everyone was auntie or uncle, it was good to be alone. Alone, it was possible for her to breathe.
The girl had teetered off with her own things to the sleeping porch off the main room. She must be used to being shoved from one corner to another. There were cheap pictures of Ganesh on the walls, but what obstacles could he possibly remove in the little girl’s life? She had been born into a situation she could not get out of, except possibly through marriage.
One of the girl’s legs was noticeably shorter than the other, and Nela listened to the child’s uneven steps as she moved around the porch. The imperfection of her legs sealed her fate in this community. Marriage was not an option, either. At least she would be spared something.
She had come in again. Nela watched her lift the heavy bag and heave it into the wardrobe. There was no point in either helping her or stopping her from doing her job. The child had purpose, and obvious pride in her ability to earn her keep. Nela allowed the bag to be put away, but would not relinquish her backpack. She sat with it on her lap, hugging it. When the girl held out her hands for it, she had the look of an impatient parent on her smooth face.
Nela shook her head. It was not the usual ambiguous waggle. It was a definite no. The girl grabbed the handle anyway, and tugged hard. Nela pulled back, standing up to force the girl to let go. She did. But when she let the handle go, it was Nela who stumbled backward. The girl, with no trace of a smile, either victorious or apologetic, offered her hand to the sprawled woman. On her way up from the floor, Nela took in a few more details. The girl was younger than she had seemed at first glance, about ten years old, her underfed frame stretched on bones lengthening fast. She had high cheekbones and guarded eyes. Dressed in a plain cotton sari frayed at the hem, her only adornment was a thin gold chain, so thin that from a distance it looked like sand sprinkled on her clavicles. Her thick black hair had a blue sheen, and Nela could tell that it was too heavy for her thin neck. It had been plaited tightly into braids that hung thick as limbs just behind her ears. She probably had a headache all the time. Who braided her hair so severely, anyway? What was she doing in Kerala? Did she have people? They should want more for her than this.
Nela sat back down in the chair, backpack still in her lap, and pointed to the other chair. The girl took it obediently. Nela unzipped the bag and pulled out the long yellow pads of paper, pens and pencils, and her worn copy of the Gita. She laid all the treasures out on the table, looking for a reaction. The girl seemed unimpressed. Nothing glittered, nothing gleamed. Nela asked, in Malyalam, “Can you read?” She flipped open a page, ran her finger down the margin. The girl patted the pad as if it were a pet, then shook her head and backed away. “Don’t be afraid,” Nela smiled. “The words can’t hurt you. Do you know your numbers?” The girl nodded. Of course she did, it was probably up to her to haggle over prices at the market. She must have learned to add, subtract, multiply and divide at a
young age. A game the young Ramanajun had played with his schoolmates, his “magic squares,” might appeal to the girl, Nela decided, and so she pulled out a blank sheet of paper, scored it with three columns, and wrote numbers in each square. The columns added up to the same number in all directions. The girl caught on fast, and laughed with delight. She wanted to try it. Nela pushed the paper and pencil toward her. “What is your name?” she asked.
“I am Ranu,” the girl said.