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Where Peacocks Fly - 15

by Prema Sastri

Back to - Chapter No.14

Chapter 15

By now Savitri had brought in a tray with three different varieties of bajis. It was followed by tea in an exquisite bone china set. Meera forced herself to eat a baji or two. Savitri looked offended. “Is that all you can eat? I’m sorry you don’t like my cooking.”

“Everything is lovely. The bajis are so light and crisp. I wonder how you got them that way. Mine usually turn out lumpy.” She swallowed a couple of bajis. They had been made with a generous dose of chilli powder. Meera took a sip of tea to ease the burning sensation. The tea was hot and scalded her. She was feeling queasy, but Savitri with an air of long suffering forced her to finish all the bajis she had prepared. She herself nibbled at one and drank only half a cup of tea. “I had a bad headache all day,” she explained.

“I’m so sorry. I put you to a lot of trouble. I should be going now. Perhaps I shall just have time to drop in, on Mrs. Seshadri.”

“She has a bhajan group meeting at her house, later in the evening, but she should be free now.”

Meera found Rukmini Seshadri in the midst of a welter of activities. Her house like Savitri’s was immaculately clean. The drawing room had been cleared of furniture.
The floor was spread with bright coloured rugs. At one end was a picture of Nirvana Swami, a saint who was locally much revered, and who had his ashram outside Delhi. The picture was hung with a massive garland of jasmine and marigolds, the table was inches deep with rose petals. Two sticks of incense were burning in a brightly polished holder. Rukmini wore a harassed look. Her sari had been tucked well above her ankles. Wisps of hair hung down her forehead. She did not seem too pleased to see her visitor.

“I’m so sorry,” Meera apologized. “I did not know you were having your bhajan session today. I could not get you on the phone. I could not let you know I was coming. I’ll stay just a few minutes.”

“It’s all right,” said Rukmini, politely. “I’m just putting the finishing touches to the prasad.”

“Please carry on with your work.”

Rukmini went towards the kitchen and Meera aimlessly followed her. There were two huge cooking vessels full of halwa. Cups and saucers and a pile of banana leaves to serve as plate had been kept in readiness. Rukmini spooned a large helping of sooji halwa and two vadas on to a leaf and handed it to Meera.

“I can’t eat that. I just had a heavy tea with Savitri.”

“You cannot refuse prasad, surely.” Rukmini looked horrified as if Meera had committed some obscene act. Meera hastily gulped down the Prasad. The queasy feeling got worse. Meera picked up a glass and was about to fill it from the pitcher, but Rukmini stopped her.

“You must have some of my sherbet.” She poured a bright pink concoction into a glass. “This is one of my special fruit juices. Can you guess what is in it?”

The liquid stung Meera’s throat. She was now feeling sick. She put the glass down to find Rukmini looking expectantly at her.

“It’s delicious, but I cannot think what you put in it. I know that it’s a mixture of lime and orange juice with perhaps some cardamoms.”

“There,” said Rukmini triumphantly. “I knew you would not be able to find out. I have added a dash of boiled ginger along with a sprinkling of chilli powder. I got that colour by dissolving a packet of raspberry jelly into the mixture. How was it?”

“Delicious,” said Meera. “Simply lovely.” She wanted to flee before she was sick. She tried to pin Rukmini down on the question of pickle bottles. By now Rukmini was completely distracted. Her two daughters had returned from school.

“Go along,” she scolded them. “the guests will be here any moment and there you stand looking grubby. Get ready at once, so that you can help me to receive them. Later on you must help me to serve the prasad.”

“But what about our tea mummy? We are feeling hungry.”

“Well you will have to wait. You should not have come home so late."

“The school bus had a puncture. It was not our fault.”

“It is not my fault either, so rush and get ready.” She turned to Meera. “Children nowadays can’t be relied on.”

Meera flourished her notebook before Rukmini. “What about those pickles?”

“What pickles? Oh, pickles for the fete. What are you worried about? I told you I would make as many bottles of pickles as you wanted.”

“Yes, but tell me exactly how many bottles, and what kind. We don’t want to repeat ourselves.”

Rukmini frowned. “I have half a dozen bottles of shriveled mango pickle still left. You can take it with you now if you want.”

“No, I’ll collect it later.”

“I will also make you some of my famous ginger pickle. There is no need for you to get so flustered. The Lord takes care of everything. I am sure you’ll get all the pickles you need.”

“Can I write your name down for six bottles of mango pickles, and six bottles of ginger preserve?’

“Certainly, certainly.” Rukmini took a step forward. One of the members of the group had come in. She was followed by a servant carrying a harmonium.

“I must go now,” said Meera. “It was nice of you to spare so much of your time.”

Rukmini looked as astonished as if Meera had broken out into a wild tribal dance. “You cannot go, now that the guests have come. You must join us. It would be most impolite to leave.”

Meera found herself propelled into the drawing room along with the harmonium. The guests started arriving. Rukmini was caught up in a flurry of greetings and pleasantries. There was a sudden hush as the lady who had brought the harmonium set the chords. The group started its singing of bhajans. The room was full by now. Meera had been wedged between the wall and the group of singers who were clustered behind the harmonium. There was no hope of escape. Most of the group wore ecstatic expressions. Some were singing with their eyes closed. Others sang with folded hands gazing at the picture of the saint. Some were clapping their hands in accompaniment. Most of them were out of tune.

The sick feeling in Meera had developed into a migraine. She made herself as small as she could in her corner and closed her eyes. All her muscles were stiff. Her head felt as if it had been kept under a grinding stone. Bright blue flashes of light seemed to explode before her eyes.

It seemed aeons before the singing was over. Meera opened her eyes to find that Rukmini’s daughters were serving the prasad on leaves. Rukmini, she surmised, must be in the kitchen pouring her special fruit juice into glasses. Meera made her excuses to one of the girls. She ran outside before another helping of Prasad could be forced on her. A number of cars were parked before the house. One of the drivers stood near the gate, smoking a beedi. She begged him to find her an autorickshaw. He was back with one in a few minutes.

When Meera got home she ran straight to the bathroom. Shankar confronted her on the way. “Mummy, what happened to you? You took so long. You said you would be back by six at the latest, and it is nearly eight. There is nothing to eat and daddy has been phoning all over Delhi to find out where you are.

Ramaswamy appeared behind Shankaran but before he could ask her any questions, she got into the bathroom. In a few minutes she brought out the results of Savitri’s and Rukmini’s culinary efforts. She wiped her face with a damp towel and lay down to recover from the effects of her friends’ hospitality.

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Continued in Chapter No.16

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