Where Peacocks Fly - 5
by Prema Sastry
Mangalam put down her empty glass of milk. “I’m sorry, mummy. I’ve to go to Sheela’s house today. We have to arrange about the farewell party for the senior class. I promised her I would go over.”
“You can’t. You know you have to study. Why, yesterday I tackled all the work myself because I did not want to disturb you.”
“I must go, mummy. What will they think of me if I back out? They’ll never speak to me again. It will be mean to let them down at the last minute.”
“I don’t like your friend, Sheela. I always see her with disreputable looking boys. Why do you want to be friendly with her?”
“She’s the only one who is really nice to me. Most of the girls are senior government officials’ daughters or related to some minister. They won’t even look at me. They laugh at me and say that Madrasis are sissies and don’t know how to live.”
“What nonsense! Why do you let yourself be influenced by such rubbish? You can’t go.”
“I must, mummy. I must. Don’t you ever understand anything?”
“All right, ring your father and see what he says. “
Mangalama went to the telephone. Shankaran cleared his throat and looked embarrassed.
“I won’t be home either, mother. I have to attend a meeting of our political club. I’m the secretary.”
“What club is this? I don’t remember hearing of any such club in your college. I’m sure it can’t be having a meeting now.”
“It’s just a small group we have formed by ourselves. Some of the boys are coming from Greater Kailash. What a fool I will look if I can’t go from here to Ramakrishnapuram.”
“What about your studies? Your exams are only three weeks away and you seem to be least concerned. I can’t answer you. Ask Daddy.”
Mangalam had just been connected to Ramaswamy’s number. His P.A. told her that Ramaswamy was out. He had a conference and was not expected back in the office. She stamped to her bedroom.. “I just have to go.”
Shankaran was counting some change in his pocket. “I’ll take a bus. I should be back by eight.”
Meera felt she had no strength to restrain them. She watched dumbly. They marched out of the house.................
“The basic problem with Indian women,” said Betty, “is that they have far too much time to mope. Wasn’t it Churchill who said ‘the secret of being miserable is in having enough time to wonder whether you are happy or not’.” She adjusted the frame of the picture she had just finished hanging on the wall. “Is this straight?”
Meera scrutinized it from the other end of the room. “A little higher I think.”
Betty stepped down from the table. She was wearing a faded pair of jeans and a shirt with a design of snakes and snake charmers. The snakes were a virulent green, the charmers short and black. Meera felt that at any moment one of the snakes would rear its head and hiss at her. Betty put the table away and stood back to survey the effect. “How do you like my latest acquisition?”
Meera turned her attention to the picture. It was a ghat scene from Benares. A conglomeration of odd looking buildings stood in the background. Some had pagodas, others had crooked walls, and one looked faintly like a mosque. Along the edge of the river the artist had drawn a man sitting on his haunches and defecating. Near him was a group of people bathing. They were headed by a woman emptying from a brass pot on herself. The front of her sari had fallen down exposing loose pendulous breasts. A corpse and an assortment of garbage could be seen floating on the river.
Meera struggled for words. The picture appeared to be badly drawn and illcomposed. She forbore from saying so as she had often seen the painter Chandan Lal in Betty’s house. Nobody knew his antecedents or where he lived. He had made himself a hanger on in Betty’s home and hoped her husband would be able to sponsor him on a visit to America.
“I think the picture is wonderfully realistic,” said Betty before Meera could venture a safe opinion. “There is nothing pretty about it. It’s got the stuff of life.” Meera was glad to agree.
“It certainly has that. I always wanted to go to Benares. I think I’ll forget it after seeing this picture.”
Betty gave her a direct look. “You should not be put off with realities.” Her tone was severe. “Look at the truth, face it and learn to love it. That always has been my policy. Lots of foreigners say, India is full of dirt, overflowing trash cans. It is crowded and overpopulated. One can’t bear the smells. Others say, India has a wonderful old culture. Everything is so serene. It makes the American way of life seem so sordid and commercial. Well, I say: Yes, India is dirt and all the rest of it. It has its share of liars and beggars but I love it the way it is. It’s real, it’s there.”
This was such an indisputable statement that Meera did not feel it was necessary to add to it. She murmured the conventional “I am glad you like India.”
“Now, I think we deserve coffee and cookies. She went to the kitchen and gave some orders to her cook. In a few minutes he came to the drawing room with a tray that held coffee and a plate of crumbly biscuits. As Betty busied herself with pouring the coffee Meera looked around. Betty had shifted her picture of the Taj Mahal to the other side of the room. Meera had to crane her neck to see the uneven white cubes stuck together in a haphazard way that constituted the artist’s idea of the Taj Mahal. Certainly there was nothing pretty about that. Betty had now given the pride of place to a picture entitled Musical Instruments. It portrayed the back view of a nude. The buttocks had been exaggerated into the shape of a tabla. The body had the outline of a sitar. The effect was ugly and obscene. To be continued .....