Saturday, June 04, 2016

Rescuing Ranu (5)

Chapter Five

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 brothers number. She thought she had better let someone know her plans.  I cannot work  here,”  Nela began.
You cant 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 everyones life but hers.
Thats 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 couldnt have been particularly loud,  and the seat next to her was empty, so why  not? She wasnt 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 Ashokes dinners, a guest  had  marveled at the way Indian women glide in their  saris. But one cant 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 womans 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 fathers  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 Nelas table. She had  been trying to arrange her backpack and  suitcase so neither would scratch  her knees. The movement seemed to mystify himhis thick eyebrows wiggled like caterpillarsbut he had  seen luggage before, certainly. What could  he possibly have read into her fidgeting? He wiped his hands on his shirtjust 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 didnt 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 peoples 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.  Nelas 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 wasnt,  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 fastshe  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 sons 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 Nelas 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 fathers  house for food.  She was not a child like this girl, but still young, and  Appas sympathy for her had  irked  Amma. She thought the womans constant presence reflected poorly  on her somehow. She knew how  to keep servants invisible, to go about the family business as if they werent 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 girls life? She had  been born into a situation she could  not get out of, except possibly through marriage.
One of the girls legs was noticeably shorter than  the other,  and  Nela listened to the childs 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.   Dont 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, hismagic  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.

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