Where Peacocks Fly - Chapter 1
by Prema Sastri
The drawing room was crowded. Meera looked at the guests. It occurred to her, there was no reason why she should have invited them. Ramaswamy was never at his best at parties. He was standing in a corner of the room, glass in hand, letting forth an endless stream of talk. Plates were empty.. Guests were wedged in groups of people who had already said whatever they had to say, and were staring over one another’s shoulders for someone more important to talk to. Men were standing with empty glasses; women were looking around for the toilet.
None of these seemed to concern the host. He was in the farthest corner of the room talking to a member of the Railway Board. “Streamlining,” he was saying, “streamlining; that’s what is required in every department. Now when I took over from my predecessor in the Ministry of Agriculture, I found more employees than files. They were like a forest of trees. I soon had them felled.” He laughed, savouring the joke. The member of the Railway Board yawned. He was waiting to get in with his story of how he had handled the last railway strike. Still, Ramaswamy was marked as a rising young man. He was very close to the Vice President. It would be unwise not to humour him. The Railway Board member put on an air of respectful interest, while he mentally finished the crossword puzzle in the morning’s Statesman.
Meera looked at the guests and wondered which course of action she should take. Should she try to catch Ramaswamy’s eye, or should she plough in and manage as best as she could?
She decided against enlisting her husband’s help. He was not one of those people whose eye one could easily catch. They had often visited friends and sat through all the clattering sounds in the kitchen that meant it was time for dinner. The hosts would have long since given up any pretence of making conversation and would be sitting on the edges of their chairs stiff like plaster casts. Meera would have to end the evening with the final indignity of having to get up in the middle of Ramaswamy’s sentence with an equivocal, “we have got to go now.” They would leave and drive home in one of those hurt silences that she no longer regarded as an indictment but a refuge. No, there was no use in trying to catch his eye. Meera tried to search for a pathway, in the sea of humanity. There appeared to be none.
Her friend Betty, flanked by two men, was sitting on a sofa. At her feet there was a row of men looking at her in rapt attention. Betty was wearing a light blue dress in a cotton knit that clung to the contours of her thin body. Her long legs were clasped around a knee, pulling it back and exposing at that distance cream coloured thighs, and a glimpse of blue nylon panties. The sardar sitting at her feet had shifted his gaze down from her face. Meera could see the back of his neck stiffen. Betty continued with her story, which must have been amusing for that was the only corner of the room from which came any laughter. There was a pause as she adjusted a shoulder strap. A drop of perspiration ran down her face. Her brown hair was beginning to lose its curl as it struggled over her shoulder.
A patch of perspiration had begun to form on her stomach, stretching between the lines of brief and bra. She shook the front of her dress and wriggled her thin breasts in an attempt to get
some air. One of the men must have told the group a joke, for there were guffaws of laughter all around. Betty had drawn her legs together and the sardar had relaxed his stance and was now surveying his empty glass.
Meera looked down at her own heavy purple kanjeevaram sari and sighed. She felt overdressed. All the other women were dressed in cool cottons. She had originally taken out a pale green cotton sari and matching blouse. Ramaswamy had given it one look and asked ‘haven’t you anything else to wear.’ She had laid it aside and worn the purple. She felt enveloped in it, its dark colour seeping into her skin and her spirits.
She looked around the room again. Savitri was standing near the bay window. She was pressed against one of the walls. She seemed ready to melt into it any moment. She was standing at the edge of the group, her face vacant, her hair knotted in a tight bun. Beside her stood her husband,Manik Wadera, a senior officer in the postal department, tall and angular, his face drooping into the melancholy expression it took on when he had too much to drink. Near them was Nita whose husband was in the Foreign Service. Nita looked bored.
Her brief blouse stretched into a ribbon like line as she threw back her shoulders. Her sari sat low on her hips, lacked its usual perky swing and appeared to droop. Nita had been waylaid by the secretary of the local Ramakrishna Mission. Undoubtedly he was trying to interest her in good works, for his eyes turned across the room and looked to Meera for help.
Meera pushed herself forward. In the process she jogged an arm. A glass tipped over and a stain began crawling down her sari. She looked up into the eyes of a strange young man.
“I’m so sorry,” he apologized, pulling out a handkerchief. “I hope I have not ruined your sari.”
“Oh no. I never liked it much anyway. Have I seen you before?”
“No!, I am a cousin of Nita’s, staying with her. Did she not ring up and tell you about me?” He looked embarrassed.
“Of course she did. It just slipped my mind.”
“You are not a good liar. Nita was too lazy to ring; just like her. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Not at all. Why should I?"
"Well, let me help you, now that I am here. I can see you are on your way with replenishments. There’s no use trying to get through that mob. I’ll get some drinks and eats and entice people out on the lawn.”
“It’s damp. It looks like rain; there’ll be insects.”
“It will do them good. Just watch me.”
In a few minutes he had stepped out and gestured to various people through the windows. The surprised guests found themselves herded to the lawns. He rounded up a few chairs, and brought out trays of drinks and snacks. Under his direction, Ramaswamy found himself carrying a table outside and pouring cool drinks for the ladies.
“There! I soon got that sorted out.” The young man had found his way back to Meera, who had flopped down on the sofa. The room was still crowded, for not many of the guests had been willing to meet the rigours of a July evening in New Delhi. There had been a dust storm in the afternoon and the air tasted of grit. The atmosphere outside was muggy and there were clouds in the sky.
“I’m glad you got people outside. I would not have dared to on my own.”.
I have seen a lot worse than a few drops of rain.” The young man looked cheerily at Meera.
“Have you indeed. It sounds formidable. Where?”
“In Ladakh, in that unpleasantness with the Chinese. We used to breathe in snow and breathe out ice. I was one of the late arrivals. It was all over before I saw any excitement.”
“Are you in the army?”
“Yes. I forgot to tell you my name. Captain Sharad Khanna at your service. I haven’t looked after you at all. You have had nothing to eat or drink. You are setting a bad example as a hostess. What can I get you?”
“You won’t be able to find anything by yourself.”
“Then let’s forage together. Come on.”
He got up and waited for her to lead the way. The kitchen was littered with unwashed vessels, used plates and glasses. She opened a cupboard. “There are some soft drinks in there. There must be some ice in that ice box.” She pointed to a large apple shaped icebox, almost hidden behind an earthernware pot. “If you fix the drinks, I can arrange the eats.”
She opened a tin and laid out the savories she had so carefully prepared: fried nuts, savory potato balls, set in a bed of coriander and red chillies, served with coconut chutney. She got out a saucepan and began frying small round dosas, Captain Khanna had laid out his tray with an assortment of drinks. He had put the ice into a miniature stainless steel bucket. He looked at Meera bending over the stove. The smell of dosas being fried crisp and brown filled the air. Captain Khanna had laid out his tray with an assortment of drinks. He had put the ice into a miniature stainless steel bucket. He looked at Meera bending over the stove. The smell of dosas fried crisp and brown filled the air.
“That looks good, but aren’t your guests supposed to go home for dinner?” He picked up the plate on which the stack of dosas was growing higher.
“Turn off the stove and come along. There’s enough food here so feed a regiment. I wonder why they use that expression. Regiments in the field usually get very short rations; dry bread, evaporated milk, if we are lucky; mostly not even that. What’s that you are taking out now?” To be continued ...