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Where Peacocks Fly - 14

by Prema Sastri

Back to Chapter 13

Shankar did reasonably well in his selections examinations. He was almost his normal self. Ramaswamy arranged for a tutor to coach him during the revision holidays. With his help Shankaran was working very hard for his I.S.C. exam. “You will disgrace me if you don’t stand first in your class, and get a good all India rank,” Ramaswamy admonished. “I’ve never been second. I always took the first place in every exam.”

One morning Meera realized that it was a long time since she had thought about pickle bottles, or of helping Betty with the charity bazaar. Betty visited Shankaran while he was ill and brought him glossy American magazines. When he was better, one day she reminded Meera, “Don’t forget, the bazaar is only eight weeks away. Shankaran looks fine, and it won’t hurt him to be left alone once in a while. He has to study anyway.”

There was no real excuse for Meera to put off preparations for the pickle stall. Shankaran was absorbed in his studies, and the maid servant had proved to be more efficient than expected. Nita had agreed to help her. The best thing would be for the two of them to meet and portion out the work. Nita answered her telephone call, with a bored voice. “Oh, the pickle stall. I’d forgotten all about it. I have been so busy. Come along tomorrow at eleven, and we can discuss it.”

Meera arrived promptly at Nita’s flat in Diplomatic Enclave by eleven. The door was opened by a grubby looking bearer. Neeta came to greet her wearing a flowered housecoat over a loose diaphanous nightgown. Her face looked unwashed and her mouth was covered with crumbs. She brushed them off her chin and casually waved Meera to a chair. “I’ll be with you in a minute. I just got up. The bearer brought Meera coffee in a cup that smelt of an unwashed dishcloth. She took a sip and laid it aside. Nita’s drawing room looked as if the contents of the arts and crafts emporium had been emptied into it. On the bookcase was a huge brass Bankura horse. The walls were hung with an assortment of Batik paintings. The curio cabinet was full of specimens of the local blue pottery. Meera could not move without bumping into some costly artifact.

Nita came in dressed in a lime green georgette sari. Her hair had been combed out and hung loose. She was wearing a shocking pink lipstick. She had applied some exotic perfume which lingered in the air, and settled into the heavy upholstery. She lit a filter tipped American filter cigarette and put it into a holder. “I don’t see what it is you’re getting so worked up about. It’s only a matter of collecting a few bottles of pickles and selling them. I’ll make half a dozen jars of vegetable pickle in the Punjabi style. That should fill a hundred bottles. I’ll have them labeled and kept ready. All you have to do is to collect a few bottles each from your friends. There is no need for you to put yourself out. You’ll have enough to do selling them on the day of the bazaar.”

Meera was relieved. Betty had set them the target of selling two hundred bottles of pickles. If Neeta was going to prepare a hundred bottles at home, it should relatively easy to collect the remaining hundred without effort. “It is nice of you to take on so much responsibility,” she said. “If you can produce your share of the stall on your own, it leaves me free to tackle our friends without fear of our backtracking over each other.”

Nita smiled. “I’m glad to do my bit. Now it’s up to you.” The door bell rang. Nita jumped up to answer it. Meera could hear Mr. Kapadia’s voice. “I know I’m earlier than you expected. I postponed a meeting to get here. I brought you a little something.” There was a long pause. When they both came in, Nita was holding a small packet. “Youk now Mr. Kapadia, don’t you. I was looking for a gift for Anand. Mr. Kapadia was kind enough to say he would select a pair of cuff links on my behalf.” She laid the packet carelessly on the bookshelf. Mr. Kapadia looked embarrassed. “I’m sorry I did not know you were busy.”

“Not at all. Meera and I were collaborating on a pickle stall we are organizing for the American charity bazaar.”

Mr. Kapadia fidgeted with his briefcase. “I hope you will like my selection. Perhaps I should go now."

“Our business is finished with. I was planning to go into town to visit a friend. Meera too is in a hurry to get back. Perhaps you can give us a lift.”

“Certainly, certainly. It will be a pleasure.”

“Don’t bother about me,” Meera protested. I can
easily get an auto. It’s not far.” Mr. Kapadia turned to Meera.

“You may not be able to get an auto, at this time of day. Savitri tells me your son had pneumonia. I’m sure you must be wanting to get back to him. It’s no trouble at all. I’ll drop you off first.”

“It’s very kind of you to drop me,” said Meera, as they neared her flat. “I’ll be coming in to see Savitri in a day or two. Nita and I are organizing a pickle stall for a charity bazaar. I’m hoping that Savitri will help us out.”

“I’m sure she will be glad to do so,” said Mr. Kapadia, as he stopped in front of Meera’s flat. Mango pickles are her speciality. I am sure she will be glad to make some for you.”

“Don’t be silly,” laughed Nita. “It’s not the mango season now.”

“Isn’t it? Well, Savitri will know what to do.”

It was a couple of days before she could call on Savitri. She and Shankar had an early lunch. There was an auto strike on and she would have to take a bus. Savitri opened the door wearing a spotless white sari. She ushered Meera in with a tired smile. “Do sit down. I was just tidying the kitchen. I’ll be with you in a minute.”

Take your time,” said Meera politely. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Just sit and talk to me till I finish.” Savitri led her to the dining room from where she could see the kitchen and gave her a chair. The work seemed to be almost over. The stainless steel vessels on the shelves shone. Spoons, bottles, dishcloths were all neatly in place. Savitri began folding a newspaper. “There are just a couple of shelves left to paper.” In a few seconds the shelves were neatly papered. She picked up a plastic bag that held an unfinished sweater and began to join Meera.

“What a beautiful pattern,” said Meera as she watched Savitri’s needles flying. “So neatly done too.”
“Savitri held out the sweater. It was a man’s sweater in a complicated pattern, made in several colours. “I saw the pattern in an issue of Woman And Home. Luckily I was able to match the shades in our local shop.”

For some time they discussed plans for the fete. Savitri promised to make a dozen bottles of red chilli pickle. “I’m sorry I won’t be able to help you with organizing the stall. I am so busy in the house.”

She put down her knitting. “We have been talking long enough. You must have some refreshments.”

Meera protested that she had just finished lunch and could not possibly eat anything now. She would also like to finish a few more visits in the neighbourhood. Savitri would not listen to her. She was already chopping onions at a fantastic rate. She soon added rounds of potatos and brinjals.

“Please,” said Meera. “You are taking so much trouble. I never eat between meals. A cup of tea will be very welcome, but nothing more than that.”

“You have come a long way. You must have something to eat in my house.”

Meera waited and wondered whether there would be time to make any more visits that day. She wished she had the guts to get up abruptly and make for the door.

Savitri was busy mixing besan powder in a bowl. The newly cleaned kitchen was splattered with drops of batter. Meera looked at them with a rising sense of guilt. Savitri had put a vessel full of oil to heat on one side of the stove. She dipped the cut vegetable in batter and began to drop them in. Meera listened to the hiss and splutter of bajis being fried. How did Savitri find the energy to keep active all day, she wondered. By this time she herself was dead beat and longing for her afternoon nap.

She had never been able to get her kitchen as meticulously clean as Savitri’s. In Savitri’s house even the floors and walls seemed to shine. Meera thought of Mr. Kapadia’s visit to Neeta’s flat. She was sure it was no the first time. Undoubtedly he and Nita were more than friends. It was quite obvious from the way he looked at her and the glances she gave him in return. Did Savitri not mind? Were her days so immersed in cooking and knitting and sewing and scrubbing that nothing else mattered? She could well afford a dozen servants, but she seemed to prefer doing all the work herself. Meera remembered that the Kapadias had three grown up sons. How did they react to their father’s affairs? Did they take after him, or were they as ignorant of the situation as their mother seemed to be?

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