Monday, June 06, 2016

Rescuing Ranu (7)



Chapter Seven


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, shed 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. Nelas tongue struck the roof of her mouth in annoyance. Memes  perpetuate. She was suddenly exhausted by the weight of other  peoples 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 themshe 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 others  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 ones Amma.”  Ranu reached over to pat her flat belly comfortingly.
Where is your  Amma?”Nela said.
Ranus 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 Nelas 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 Ranus small body.  Soon the child was asleep.
After that, Ranu slept indoors, sharing Nelas 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. Shed 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 Nelas family home  rose in the distance, and  she thought of Ammas youngest sister, Chitti, caretaker of the old home  and  grounds. Nela had  lost the memory of the aunties 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 Chittis mouthtwo spoons for me, one spoon  for youand 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. Thats what Amma did, thats what Amma does.
The design of this market was identical to the one Nelas 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 Nelas 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 shed 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 Nelas attention just then.  She did not answer Ranus 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. Nelas 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. “Its my husband,” she lied to the shocked girl. Bring his gear. She pressed Jacksons 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 mans head,  and  left the girl to struggle with  his heavy equipment and the days 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 Jacksons 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 couldnt 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 couldnt 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.

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