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Where Peacocks Fly - 28

by Prema Sastri

Back to Chapter 27

Chapter 28

With Mangalam away Meera became despondent. It was as if she was in a black fog. She had not been close to Mangalam, as she was unable to handle her rebellious attitude. Yet, she remembered her as a small lost child. She wondered how she was getting on. She feared her stubborn behaviour would make it difficult for her to adopt herself to a husband and in laws.

She phoned her daughter often. After the pleasantries were over there was nothing to talk about. Almost every day guests dropped in to meet the new daughter in law. It was a Punjabi custom that the bride wear her finery and jewellery for a year during which time she was not burdened with heavy household duties. Mangalam was the centre of attraction in her new household.

One day, after what they considered to be a decent interval Meera and her mother, Kalyani went to visit her sambandis. They went armed with packets of sweets and fruit. Maninder greeted them and made them welcome. Mangalam came in dressed in one of the outfits from her trousseau. It was a pale lime green silk with silver sequins. She looked pale. Meera was sure she was suffering from morning sickness. A young girl brought in tea and snacks. Maninder introduced her “My niece, Amrita.” Soon a large number of nieces, nephews, cousins and second cousins came into the room.

The Singhs lived in a haveli in Chandni Chowk. It was a sprawling house with turrets and balconies. The innumerable rooms housed almost all the members of the Singh family. They met for meals in the large dinning room. The kitchen was kept working all day. Two cooks were always busy frying sweets and savouries, in addition to providing meals.

Maninder pressed them to stay for lunch, but they declined politely. Mangalam showed them her room. It was long and rectangular, situated behind a veranda which ran round the length of the house. It had long narrow windows and a high roof with wooden beams. It contained two cots with embroidered bed covers, several built in cupboards, a dressing table and two chairs upholstered in velvet. A maroon carpet occupied the centre. An elaborate chandelier hung from the ceiling. Both ladies were silent as they returned home in the taxi.

Meera tried to get closer to Sankaran. It was difficult as he was rarely home. He seemed to be busy with special classes, sports practice, debates and the many activities of college life. He was a member of a club called “The Progressives”. They had frequent meetings. Members often called Sankaran at home. He spoke on the phone for long hours. Meera could not make out the details of the conversation. It was clear that the group was full of ideas to change the world. Sankaran talked of unity, peace and change in the order of things. It appeared as if he was waiting for something to happen. At times he was eager, at others he appeared to be depressed. He spent a lot of time at the computer. He was constantly tapping out messages or reading his e-mail.

Meera was worried. Was he looking at porn sites? Could he be a drug addict? Meera looked for puncture marks on his arms. There were none. His behaviour was normal. She wanted to confide her fears in Ramaswamy, but was afraid he would make matters worse by interrogating the boy and beating him.

One day, while visiting the Menons she indirectly voiced her doubts. The Wing Commander laughed them off. “All of us were the same at that age. We were impatient with society. We wanted to change the world. We dreamed of a world where there was justice, peace and equality. We longed to serve the nation. We grew up. We found jobs and learned to live with reality.

“It looks as if nothing has changed.”

Mrs Menon came in with tea and snacks. “Don’t you worry about Sankaran. He’s as bright and well adjusted a boy as I have ever seen. Gopal enjoys meetings him.

Meera left feeling relieved. Possibly her fears had been exaggerated. During the wedding Sankaran had been happy and cheerful. He had gorged himself on food, both Punjabi and South Indian. He was a great hit with the youngsters among the in laws. They crowded around him, joking and laughing. Ramaswamy too was in his element. He mingled with the guests, seeing to their needs. He was courteous with the groom’s party. He was a smiling and gracious host. Meera wondered whether she was married to two different men, neither of whom she knew.

Her ruminations were interrupted by the arrival of Mangalam, with a suit case in her hand. Meera remembered a friend telling her – “Get your daughter married. Then wait for the knock on the door.” Meera wondered what brought her daughter home.

“I’m back for good.”

Meera felt as if she was struck by a mace. She did not betray the shock.
“Very well. Keep your case in your room. We’ll have lunch, then you can rest.”
Mangalam disappeared into her room. She came out wearing an old pair of jeans and a long shirt which covered her stomach. By now her condition was apparent. Meera put curd rice, salad, pickes and chips on the table. Mangalam wolfed down the food.

“This is divine. I am tired of channa, sarason ka saag and roties.”
“No one comes home for lunch. I don’t cook any thing extra. Have a long nap. It will do you good. I’ll clear up.”

In the evening Mangalam changed into a long skirt and blouse. She came into her parents’ bedroom. Meera was plaiting and coiling her hair.
“I’m not going back.” She announced.
Meera put the last hair pin into place.
“You don’t have to.”
“Aren’t you going to ask me what happened?”
“No! It is up to you to decide what you want to do. I’ll call Maninder and tell her you’re with us.”
“She knows.”
“I told her I wanted to be with you for a few days. She agreed readily enough. Almost as if she was happy to be rid of me.”
“You are mistaken.”
“I can’t take it any more. I don’t have a life to call my own. The women walk into my room, pick up my clothes and wear them. I can’t call Surinder my own either. He’s always busy in the shop, running errands for the family or discussing business with his father.”
“It’s a joint family.”
“What’s worse is that I can’t stand the food. It’s cooked in pure ghee with plenty of spices. The smell of meat makes me sick.”
“That’s because you are in a delicate condition. You’ll get over it.”
“It’s not what I thought it would be.”
“Nothing ever is. You are out of it, now.”
Mangalam did not look pleased, as she left the room. Meera told Ramaswamy and Sankaran that Mangalam had come home for a few days, as she felt home sick.
“More likely they had enough of Mangalam and wanted some peace without her. Can’t say I blame them. She is a pest. Sankaran made a face at her.

Mangalam threw a cushion at him.
“Stop it,” admonished Meera. Remember your sister is a married woman.”
“The more fool her.”
Ramaswamy chipped in. “Sankaran, treat your sister with respect. Go to your room. Mangalam, come here.”

He talked with his daughter for a while asking about her health and happiness. That night he turned to Meera with a puzzled expression. “I hope every thing is alright. Her visit is rather sudden.”
“All is well. She needs a rest and a change.” Meera knew that her husband was not satisfied with the answer. She turned on her side and pretended to sleep.

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To be concluded in the next issue.

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