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 girl’s 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, “T’ank you. “
“You are welcome,” Nela said. “Thank you.”
“You are we’come. T’ank 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 girl’s 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 Mami’s 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 night’s 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. Nela’s 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 Nela’s mind for work. No distractions, now, neither Ranu’s plight, nor Jackson’s 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 didn’t register the sequence of actions—the 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 Nela’s 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.