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Where Peacocks Fly - 13

by Prema Sastri

Back to Chapter 12

Life settled down into its old mechanism. Shankaran picked up strength. His selection exams were due the next month and Wing Commander Menon had pronounced him fit enough to be able to attend them. “Don’t let him strain too much now. Otherwise he will be too weak to be able to write his exams. He can read for an hour or so a day.” At the end of half an hour Shankaran’s eyes would begin to water. Meera sat by him reading out portions of his English text. Mangalam helped him in the evenings with his physics and chemistry. Most of the portions had been already covered in school and except for some maths Shankaran had not missed much.

One afternoon the phone rang just as Shankaran had dropped off to sleep. Meera rushed to pick it up before the sound could wake him.

“Captain Khanna here. Do you remember me?”

“Of course. So you got that parcel. What was the name of the plane?”

“Packet. Yes, flew in yesterday. How are you? I hope you will be at home this afternoon. Can I come around four or will that be too early?”

“That’ll be fine. My son is at home. He had a bad attack of pneumonia. My daughter too should be arriving from college then.”

“I’m sorry to hear about your son. I’ll be there by four thirty. Perhaps I can help to cheer him up.”

“Do that. We will be waiting for you.” Meera hung up and looked down at her sari. It was crumpled. The house was on the untidy side. She ran around dusting and setting things in order. She hastily mixed some besan powder with onions and tomatos to make pakodis. She had finished making the pakodis and had changed into a printed cotton sari when the door bell rang. It was Mangalam. She looked surprised.

“Are you going out, mummy?”

“No dear. A captain Khanna will be coming to see us in a few minutes. Wash your face and get ready.”

“Do we know him?”

“He’s Nita’s cousin. She brought him to our last party.”

“Aunty Nita’s cousin; he must be interesting.” Mangalam ran in to change.

Captain Khanna arrived promptly at four thirty. He had a bundle of comics in his hand.

“I brought these for the youngster.” He said offering them to Meera. It must be tough on him being laid up like this.”

“Come in, and give them to him yourself,” invited Meera. “He has just got up from his nap. I am sure he will be thrilled to meet you.

She led Captain Khanna into Shankaran’s bedroom. Shankaran was sitting up looking through the day’s newspaper. His eyes brightened when he saw the guest. Meera introduced them.

“Here’s something for you young man,” said Captain Khanna. “I know how it feels to be out of action.” Meera left them chatting and went in to make tea. Mangalam was ready. She was wearing an off-white crepe cotton blouse without a slip inside and black stretch pants. She took in Meera’s admonishing glance. “Oh mummy, don’t be such a square. I’ll take that tray in for you.” She took in the tea and snacks. When Meera entered Shankaran’s bedroom she found them having an animated discussion. Captain Khanna got up as Meera entered and drew a chair for her.

“These youngsters of yours have strong minds. We didn’t think so much when we were their age.”

Meera poured him out a cup of tea. “What are they arguing about?”

Shankaran got up with a jerk. ‘He thinks he has been a hero.” He looked at Captain Khanna. “All he’s done is to serve the establishment.”

“Don’t sit up so suddenly. It’s bad for you, and what do you mean? I have no idea what you are talking about.”

“He’s been telling us about his war experiences,” said Mangalam popping a pakodi into her mouth. “He was in a frozen trench for two days and abandoned as lost. He walked back to his lines at night. I think he is simply wonderful.” She fluttered her lashes at Captain Khanna.

“But what is the use?” broke in Shankaran. “You can’t fight a system. You can’t fight an idea with arms. The Chinese have achieved true equality. They have abolished poverty. Children are treated as productive members
of society, not like brutes only to be watered and fed. You soldiers were fighting a losing battle from the beginning.”

Meera put out a hand towards him. “Don’t agitate yourself. Your face is getting flushed. After all these are just opinions.”

He pushed away her hand. “That’s all that anything means to you, mummy..words, ideas. You think that whatever happens concerns someone else. You are still full of bourgeois ideas of goodness and respectability. Can’t you face the truth?”

“She can’t,” confirmed Mangalam, swinging her long hair so that it streamed down one shoulder. “She’s afraid.”

Meera was annoyed. “If you have finished dissecting me before strangers, let us talk of something else. Have they announced the team for the next test match?”

“There you are mummy,” Shankaran slumped down on the bed. “Always harping on an old run of the mill subject. It saves you from doing any thinking for yourself.”

Captain Khanna was looking anxiously at Meera. “You mustn’t think of me as a stranger, Mrs. Ramaswamy. I was feeling like I was part of the family.”

“A bit too much I think.” Meera put the tea cups carefully to one side. “These children seem to have drawn you into one of their eternal arguments.”

“But I enjoy it. It’s interesting to know what the young people of today feel about things.”

Meera smiled. She looked at his pleasant youthful face. “You’re not that old yourself.”

“I’m thirty. It is a long time since I was young. In fact I feel dreadfully old when I hear these children.

Meera looked at Shankaran. “I did not know they felt that way.”

“Shankaran’s voice was gruff. “Nobody cares what I think.” Mangalam crossed one leg over the other. For an agonized moment Meera was sure her pant would split.

“Don’t take him so seriously, mummy. It’s what he has picked up from books. He doesn’t know what it means.”

Shankaran thumped his pillow. “You just wait. Things are being prepared that you can’t even dream about.

“Ha!” Mangalam picked up the tray. “I’ll take this away.”

Captain Khanna stood up. “I think our friend needs some rest. I promised Nita I would be back by six. Nita threatened to lock up the house and push off after that. I didn’t know I was going to meet such a fiery revolutionary.
Bah,” said Shankaran, drawing his sheet over his head. “Labels!” he turned over.

Meera and Captain Khanna went into the drawing room. Meera turned to him awkwardly.

“I’m sorry you were exposed to my son’s bombardment. He gets worked up over nothing.”

“Don’t worry. It’s just a phase. I suppose we were all like that once. We forget so quickly.” He turned towards her. “You know I got to thinking as I was talking to your son. There was a lot of truth in what he said. I felt that way myself in the trenches. What was it all about? However, when I saw you that day at that party I knew, I felt glad that I had done something to keep your world secure. I am gladder still today. I mean I looked at you and thought, life is good. Let us keep it the way it is. I hope you don’t mind.”

Meera stood still for a moment. “It is very kind of you to say so Captain Khanna. I wish I could live up to your expectations. As you say, most of what my son said was true. We do live with trivialities.”

Captain Khanna held out his hand. “Thank you for a very pleasant afternoon. I loved meeting your children and long live all those trivialities. Only don’t let Shankaran hear me.”

Meera hesitated. Then she shook his hand. “Thank you very much for coming to see us. Do come again. I’m sorry you couldn’t meet my husband. He comes home very late.”

Captain Khanna let go of her hand very slowly. “I have to leave tomorrow. I’ll be back as soon as I can. Look after yourself till then.”

Meera looked out of the window but he had already shut the gate behind him and gone.

She stood there for a while, her face flattened against the window pane, feeling once again the warmth of his hand on hers.

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...To be continued...

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