Increasingly restless in limb and mind. Nela became aware that she was waiting. Living like a pauper in a place more primitive than any she had ever inhabited, she waited for her work to gel, for Jackson to appear, for the child to present her with more than a glimpse into her troubled young life. After trying, and sometimes succeeding, to finish a calculation, she’d go for a walk. On the dirt road, clouds of dust rose up with each footfall, obscuring the motel as it dropped behind her. Pebble-pocked land, scrawny children, women of indeterminate sun bleached age appeared before her and responded to her presence, this stranger, with shy curiosity. If they had pegged her as a monied European, they might have swarmed her, but with her worn sari and rough chappals, she had the look of a native. Even her bristling hair was not unusual in this landscape.
One day, on her walk, a young boy ran past her, head smooth as a ball. She idly wondered for whom his hair had been sacrificed, and to which god. Did the boy know? There was a temple in the middle distance, and a shop for buying shorn hair nearby. Nela’s tongue struck the roof of her mouth in annoyance. Memes perpetuate. She was suddenly exhausted by the weight of other people’s tradition.
Her pace slowed as if the thought was more real than abstract. She shuffled past a crew of men on the landscape, the afternoon sun glinting on equipment similar to the pieces Jackson had kept in the house. Perhaps that was why she stopped and shifted her weight on one leg, crossing her arms over her midsection. Without registering details about them—she was still deep into her problem—she turned her face toward the workers. She was not really looking at them, but staring through them, without seeing. One by one, these men returned her stares. Some of them shouted, and she snapped out of her concentrated state. Foreigners!
“I might have seen someone I know today,” she told Ranu that night. To think aloud was to give thought a voice and help her pin it down. Ranu nodded like a sage. She had just teetered into the shack with the evening meal and was arranging the food. It had become a ritual, the child carrying their meals from motel to hut, one meal hiding another. Nela held out her hands to receive the banana leaf, and gestured for Ranu to sit down with her. She offered a bite of the food to the girl, a signal for Ranu to begin her own meal. They talked softly in their fusion of languages, feeding one another sounds the other’s lips seemed made to repel. Nela had learned five Indian languages as a child, and began to study English at seven. Ranu had had no such advantages.
After they had eaten, Nela pulled Ranu to her and loosened her braid, pantomiming a headache. Thoughts loosened with her hair, Ranu asked, “You have little girl?” Nela shook her head. “I am no one’s Amma.” Ranu reached over to pat her flat belly comfortingly.
“Where is your Amma?”Nela said.
Ranu’s eyes filled. Her chin trembled but her voice was steady. “Ranu belong to Uncle and Mami only.”
Before Nela could say anything, the child had run to the door. It was not to leave the room, however, but to show Nela a colony of bats beating their wings against the violet sky. “Every night they come,” she whispered.
The two of them stood in the door for many minutes, watching. When they went back inside, Ranu curled up on Nela’s lap while Nela brushed the knots from her hair. “Did you notice that the two bats followed a third just like in a soccer game?”Ranu nodded, but Nela guessed it was only to keep the words coming. She kept talking, and softened her voice as it thrummed into Ranu’s small body. Soon the child was asleep.
After that, Ranu slept indoors, sharing Nela’s pallet. It became her favorite time, the child sleeping, the night wind soughing through the trees, the single light burning. If the child fell asleep before she could take the dinner dishes back to the motel, Nela piled them up and left them outside the door. Invariably, Mami clomped down the path connecting the two buildings, swearing. She’d halt at the sight of the used banana leaves as if they came as a surprise. From inside the room, Nela prepared for a confrontation, a withering look already stamped on her face. But Mami always retreated wordlessly, and Nela went back to work.
One afternoon, Nela and Ranu set out for the vegetable vendors to shop for the motel guests. This marketplace was both familiar and strange to Nela. After a summer in the hills, she would return to her family home by boat, traveling down the river she could smell from the spot on which she now stood. The fragrance triggered memories. “Brothers all filled the craft. Every time, we nearly capsized! I could not stay dry. As we came close to the great house, neighbors leaned out over their porches. Many families lined up along the length of the lagoon. They wanted to wave to the Sambashivan family. We had to stay upright in the boat to wave, also.”
“How did they know you were coming?” Ranu asked.
“I still do not know! At the time, I was suspicious of them. ‘Gossips!’ I told my brother Ramesh. ‘Do they have nothing better to do with their time than check us?’“ Homes similar to Nela’s family home rose in the distance, and she thought of Amma’s youngest sister, Chitti, caretaker of the old home and grounds. Nela had lost the memory of the auntie’s features, but she remembered being pulled onto her lap and fed rose ice cream as a child. Most of the sweet found its way into Chitti’s mouth—‘two spoons for me, one spoon for you’—and finally the old woman, sated, would roll onto her pallet and sigh Rama, Krishna, Govinda, before dropping off to sleep.
In the market, Nela and Ranu passed a stall of yellow and green plantains. “In the evenings, I was sometimes chosen over my brothers to accompany Appa to market,” she told Ranu. “He had a large kerchief that he would use to wrap the plantains,” she said, drifting her hand across the fruits.
“Did Amma scold about the stains?” the girl wondered. Yes, of course she did. That’s what Amma did, that’s what Amma does.
The design of this market was identical to the one Nela’s family had frequented. Identical also was the way they did business. Stalls overflowing with fragrant mangoes, many-eyed potatoes, and onions were all policed by vendors’ young offspring. The vendors called Ranu by name, seeking the advantage of familiarity, but the young girl knew when to be aloof, and how to drive a hard bargain. Nela congratulated her when she captured the best plantains, coconuts, and chilies.
Once a person got used to the pace, the heartbeat slowed down, and the breath came more easily. The university and its politics receded into a dimly lit corner of Nela’s mind, and when she tried to formulate a mental picture of Ashoke, her brain pushed it away. Her thoughts wandered to Jackson, and her gut clenched as images of the two of them came to her. She pushed them back. Stay in the present. Pay attention to the child.
The sun was at its hottest now, and Nela motioned that she’d like to sit down and have a cool drink. Did Ranu indulge in this simple pleasure when she was alone? Unlikely. She had to account for every rupee. Mami ought to give the girl some leeway. She was getting quite a bargain now, two workers for the price of one.
Ranu efficiently got a table, and two mango lassis appeared. They could relax for a quarter of an hour before they continued shopping. There was no need to strain for small talk, and Nela slurped her drink contentedly. She had abandoned her European table manners already. There was no point here.
Nela and Ranu looked out on a passing parade of decorated cattle, horns painted and covered with shining metal caps. Multi- colored beads, tinkling bells, sheaves of corn and flower garlands surrounded their necks. “It is Mattu Pongal,” the girl declared. “End of winter!”
“It is why we take oil baths,” Nela told her. The girl cocked her head. She had only learned the ritual, not the origins. Nela said, “Once Shiva asked his bull, Basava, to go to the earth and ask the mortals to have an oil bath every day and to eat once a month. But Basava made a mistake. He announced that everyone should eat daily and have an oil bath once a month! Shiva banished Basava to live on earth forever. He would have to plough the fields. This is why we appreciate him.”
Something, a detail, the half-glimpsed gesture, a particular scent perhaps, caught Nela’s attention just then. She did not answer Ranu’s stream of questions about the bull, but scanned the scene before her, narrowing her eyes to sharpen her vision. Nearly lost among the commotion of lowing beasts, shouting vendors, and rickshaws, she saw a disheveled man slumped in a chair. He was stirring his drink as if that small motion took all of his strength. His skin, waxy and hanging like steamed folds of fabric, looked feverish even from a distance. Nela’s body recognized him before her brain remembered his name. Gooseflesh rose on her arms.
She could no longer track the impressions swirling around her. She could only focus on Jackson, and in a moment she was at his side, feeling his forehead, gathering his clammy hands in hers. “Tell me what happened,” she shouted, in order to hear the submerged words over the noise in her head. She watched him part his cracked lips, waited an interminable second for her name to form. “You know me,” she insisted. “We know each other!” She tugged him to his feet, and half-carried him to an auto rickshaw. “It’s my husband,” she lied to the shocked girl. “Bring his gear.” She pressed Jackson’s head against her shoulder, and did not move away when his hand rested against her breast, holding it like a loaf of bread. She choked out directions to the driver over the sick man’s head, and left the girl to struggle with his heavy equipment and the day’s haul of vegetables.
At the hut, and with the help of two drivers and Ranu, Nela managed to get Jackson onto the thin pallet. The girl and drivers hissed at one another in cascading waves of Malyalam during the entire maneuver. The men clearly expected to be given some of the booty in Jackson’s bags as a reward for their help. These people never stopped negotiating. Every kind act exacted a price, and it infuriated Nela. She turned on them, advancing on them with the cords on her neck straining. One began to smile, but only got as far as a grimace. He winced in pain as Nela scratched at his forearm, then opened his surprised eyes wide as Nela slapped him across the face. Both men backed out of the hut, forearms shielding their faces from hard blows that were meant to connect. Swearing in two languages, they recovered themselves when they reached the safety of the porch, the door slammed shut. They suddenly burst out laughing, slapping one another on the back. They had not just been cowed by a woman, had they? It had all been a joke. “Bloody swine!” Nela muttered.
She turned to Jackson’s belongings, and tore into the backpack looking for clues about what had happened. A note or letter might tell her what she was dealing with, a to-whom- it-may-concern list of instructions. Something, anything. No such luck. But she did find a first-aid kit and a bottle of antibiotics that had been zipped in a side pocket. She held the bottle to the light and examined the label. This medication was used to treat malaria. Despite the concrete pit that lodged in her throat and the roiling in her gut, it was a relief to know the name of the demon she was fighting.
She administered the drug, crushing the pill between spoons and stroking Jackson’s throat to promote the swallowing reflex. The effort taxed him, and he fell back on the pillow that was already soaked through with his sweat. A few syllables escaped his lips, but they had nothing to do with anything going on around him. How much weight had he lost? His muscles sagged in their casing of skin, and Nela knew that when the gastric symptoms started up again, he would lose even more weight.
She wrung out a corner of a washcloth and tried to get Jackson to suck the moisture, while she removed his clothing piece by piece. His sucking reflex was strong, so it was hard to tug the cloth away when she needed it to wash his body. He opened his eyes when the rough cloth came into contact with his sunburned skin, and he moaned. Nela crooned soothing sounds low in her throat, and saw his eyes crinkle in some kind of recognition. His muscles relaxed. He trusted her.
Ranu ran in with a fresh shirt and lungi, towels and bedding, and laid the pile of cloth on the table. She stepped back into the shadow of the doorway, hands dangling at the wrists as if she couldn’t decide whether to wring them or not. Nela forced her lips into a reassuring smile, a green light of sorts, and sent her right back out for ice packs. It would not do for the child to help dress a man. Ranu hitched up her sari and galloped out of the hut.
Meanwhile, Jackson had begun to shiver wildly. Nela climbed in under the mosquito netting with him. She put his head on her shoulder and wrapped him in her arms. She would hold him for as long as it took, long past the time when the episode was over.
“Do you remember how we watched the birds from the roof of the physiology building?” she whispered into Jackson’s ear. She held her breath, half-expecting him to say something about the day the two of them worked side by side, sharing ideas, pushing toward an epiphany. Jackson moaned. Her eyes filmed with tears.
Another woman might have hummed a calming melody, but Nela whispered details about science. She pooh-poohed studies that postulate unconscious people hear what was going on around them, but now she believed that Jackson recognized her voice. She couldn’t be sure how many of her words penetrated his brain, or that his vocabulary of moans went beyond the obvious, but he was with her now. She would bring him all the way home.
Jackson continued to shiver. Slick with his sweat, Nela leaned down to kiss his rough cheek, resting her hand on his heaving chest. He suddenly went still, and slid into sleep, out of her reach.
Ranu returned to the hut with her pail of hard-won ice to find the patient washed and dressed. His fever was coming down. “See? You can give the ice back to Mami! We have no need of it.” Nela smiled at the girl, but held her own hands behind her back. They were trembling.