Sunday, June 05, 2016

Rescuing Ranu (6)

Chapter Six

Nela had  forgotten how  full of insects  the nights were in Kerala. After a few miserable hours, she called Ranu in from the porch where she had  been sleeping. The child stood before her, rubbing her eyes. Can  you help...”  Nela began.  The girl did not understand the words, and  Nela was too tired  and irritable to try the same phrase in likely languages. She burst into tears. Ranu, alarmed, took a few steps  toward her. Murmuring concern, she tried to understand what was wrong. She pantomimed her best guesses, finally weaving her arms to describe a canopy of mosquito netting for the pallet.   Nela nodded her head,  and the girls face brightened. She opened the wardrobe, and  pulled out several pieces of netting. She spread them  out on the floor, crouched over them  for a moment, then ran to the back of the hut. She returned with  a sewing box.
The girl was deft and quick in her stitching. When  she had constructed the canopy, Nela tied it up in four wooden sticks and  hung it over the pallet.  The girl smiled and  said, Tank you.
You are welcome,” Nela said. Thank you.”
You are wecome.  Tank you.”  Ranu repeated. Nela clucked her tongue against the roof of her mouth, and  Ranu’s soft features immediately took on a worried look. You want to please  me,” Nela observed quietly. In a mix of languages and  gestures, she announced, You must  have canopy, also.”  The child ducked her head,  shaking it vigorously. Nela took the girls arm. Her skin was pocked with  insect bites. Nela began to count  them,  as proof of the need for netting. After a few false starts, Ranu began  to count  with  her, saying the numbers in Malyalam. Nela repeated each number in English,  in a sing-song tone, like a chant  or refrain to a favorite hymn. Ranu followed along, her enthusiasm for the little game  rising.  And  when all her bites were counted, she stuck out her other  arm, eager  to begin  again.
The following morning, Nela jolted awake from a strange dream about some raucous winged creature. The birdlike screech came again,  and she realized it was Mamis shrill voice breaking on the air. Shiva, Shiva! she groaned.
Pushing the netting out of the way, Nela walked out onto the sleeping porch looking  for Ranu.  She was not there.  The porch had  been swept and her netting had  been carefully folded in a corner.  It would have been understandable if she had overslept. They had  been up half the night
Nela walked around to the front of the hut, squinting into the sun as it rose over the motel. There were  only three cars parked outside, but that was not necessarily an accurate indication of the number of guests. Soon enough, a pair of honeymooners came through the front door, their extended family straggling behind. They all got into one of the cars, and cranked away  in a cloud  of murky exhaust. All these  people, lying around the floor of a single room like laundry, arguing about who had  the key. Nela took a few steps  toward the space they had just left. She was hungry and the motel  was where the food was.
A narrow figure  appeared by a side door, balancing a large banana leaf on the fingers  of one small hand. Ranu! Nela stepped back into the shack, smiling. The girl entered, and without a smile or word of greeting, set down chapattis and  sweet coffee. Her eyes were drooping with  fatigue. Her face, so open  during the previous nights  activities, had  closed off. She had  drawn deep within her body,  shoulders slumping, spine  a snake.
There was something beyond mere fatigue in her posture. Mami must have ordered her to keep her distance from the demanding new guest.  Nela would try to make  it easy for her, then.  She finished breakfast in a few bites. The girl held out her palms to receive the used  cup and  banana leaf. She cleared her throat, but no words followed. Nela nodded a curt dismissal and ushered Ranu out.  
A few noisy children had  gathered at the edges  of the property, and Nela noticed that Ranu was careful  not to look in their  direction as she headed back to the motel.  The children were  loudly teasing her about her gait, mimicking it. They probably taunted her every  day.  Nelas face flushed with  anger. She forced herself  not to jump  up and  scatter the children, because that would only make  things worse  for Ranu.   But when the kitchen door slammed shut  on the girl, and she was safely out of sight, Nela strode out in full view and  gave the other  children a long, black look. They withered, one by one, and  loped away.
This righting of a small wrong was enough to clear Nelas mind for work. No distractions, now, neither Ranus plight, nor Jacksons slippery love. Jackson! She had  not thought of him for hours, and  here he was again, filling her mind, knotting her stomach. Nela arranged her papers on the table. It was time to do what she had  come to do. Dismissing everything else, she plunged into her problem, the one place she could  always come back to.  While other  people scratched the surface  of problems, darting from one subject to another, trying this and  that, Nela latched on and dug  in.
Life outside, all noise and  smell, did not penetrate her consciousness when she was working, so when Ranu returned to the hut with  lunch,  Nela didnt register the sequence of actionsthe movement of the small body  touching lightly  on one surface  or another, two bowls  being set down. Even the fragrance of garam masala twisting upward with  the steam  did not disturb her concentration. When Nela was writing, she tuned everything else out. The girl began  to ask permission to sit down, but Nela only looked through her into the formulas in the back of her own  mind. Shaking up the ink in her pen, she gathered her features in a dark  expression that Ranu must have thought was meant for her. She snatched her bowl off the table and  took it outside. Sitting in the dirt like an urchin, muttering, it was the sound of complaint that gradually penetrated Nelas mind. But before she could  parse  the words coming from the veranda, they had  ceased, and  the sound had  turned to humming. The tune  was an old one, something Nela had  also sung  as a child.
Snapped out of her concentrated state, she got up and  stretched her aching back. It was only then  that she noticed the laid table, and  the fact that the room had  been swept and  scrubbed. She had  no idea when Ranu had done  all that. She peered outside, and  the slant of light told her how  late it was.Taking  her bowl outside, she sat down in the dirt beside  Ranu,  who flinched and  scooted  away.   Kai vesamma, kai veesu, Nela sang, a little off-key. She put her hand out, beckoning Ranu closer. Ranu  hesitated, but when Nela began  to sing the chorus at full voice, the little girl grinned. She began  to clap her hand on her knee, one beat palm down, two beats turned up, in the traditional style. The two of them  sang the entire  song—about going  shopping—as the soup thickened.
They might never  have heard Mami over their own  voices but for the metal  ladle striking the copper  pot. Mami was beating it as hard as she could,  her feet leaving  the ground with  each blow. Startled, Ranu looked up. Her face drained of color, of youth and  joy. Hastily she gathered the lunch  dishes together and  limped away  without a goodbye. We help them the way they want to be helped, but we don’t interfere with  their customs, Jackson had told her once when describing his job with  the engineers. It had seemed a reasonable stance  to Nela at the time. Now, seeing Mami herd Ranu into the motel  so roughly, she was not so sure.

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