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Where Peacocks Fly-20

by Prema Sastri

Back to Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Meera recalled her intention to invite Rakesh Khanna and Asha over. She called and fixed a Sunday morning for coffee. Ramaswamy would be home. She asked her parents to join them. She and Chotu were busy all morning preparing iddlis, sambar and chutney. There were coconut toffees to go with it, as well as vadas and fruit salad. She made a bowl of curd rice garnished with coriander leaves. No south Indian felt that a meal was complete without it.

Her parents arrived early. They brought payasam flavoured with raisins and cloves. The Khanna’s came exactly on time. Meera and Ramaswamy greeted them. The men got into a conversation on defence related subjects. The women sat together. Parvati took an instant liking to Asha. She chattered away. Asha responded by smiling and looking animated. Parvathi did not seem to notice anything unusual in her behaviour. Asha was dressed in white, with matching slippers, a pearl necklace, earrings and bangles. She carried a white leather handbag. Meera was sure Rakesh had put the outfit together. Asha looked beautiful like a white rose. She was the essence of charm and elegance.Seeing her comfortable and happy Meera relaxed. So did Rakesh.

“I don’t see the possibility of keeping military secrets,” said Ramaswamy. “The newspapers publish all the details. Television is no better.”

“The days of spying will soon be over,” added Mr. Vishwanathan. “Media watchers will find out all they want to know.” He turned to Rakesh Khanna. “It puts the lives of brave soldiers like you at risk.”

Khanna laughed. “Risk is the price for joining the armed forces. We live with it, perhaps even enjoy it. It is a small price to pay for the honour of defending our country.”

Mr. Vishwanathan was impressed. “It is noble of you to think so.”

Ramaswamy looked up. “Most of the risk factors can be eliminated.”

Meera saw that both Rakesh Khanna and her husband were passionate on defence matters. They were absorbed in conversation. Her father contributed with comments on administration.

They moved to the dining room. Every one ate well. Chotu scurried up and down serving the guests, replenishing snacks and attending to each person. When the time came to leave Rakesh Khanna was lavish in his praise.

“I never thought a south Indian repast could be so satisfying. We Punjabis rarely look beyond our channa and rotis. We had an enjoyable morning.”

“Come again.” Ramaswamy sounded as if he meant it.

Meera’s parents lingered. Parvathi seemed content. “Well done Meera. I thought you would never learn to cook.”

“That’s what every mother thinks about her daughter.I can’t imagine Mangalam in the kitchen.Besides, Chotu did a lot of the hard work.”

Mangalam and Sankaran entered. They had spent the morning with a friend. Meera tactfully suggested the outing. She was afraid no one could get a word in edgewise with the youngsters around.

“You’ve been having guests.” Sankaran pointed an accusing finger at Meera. No wonder you wanted us out of the way.”

“I thought you would be bored.”

“I hope there’s something left to eat.” Mangalam looked at the dining table.

“There is enough and more. Your mother always cooks twice the quantity that’s needed.” Parvathi pointed to the dining table.

“I’ve packed something for you to take home.” Meera held out a packet to her mother.
“That’s very thoughtful of you. Your father and I will enjoy it tonight. Mrs. Khanna looks like a perfect lady. I liked talking to her.
“She is well bred and soft spoken.”
“So she is. She must come from a good family.”

Meera’s father joined them. “Capt. Khanna is a fine young man. He is enthusiastic about his career. Rare these days. It’s time we got back.”
Meera saw them out. Her father started his car, an old grey Fiat. Her parents waved to her and drove off. Sankaran and Mangalam came back with plates full of food.

“This is scrumptious.” Mangalam licked her fingers. “You didn’t tell us Capt. Khanna was coming. I had so many questions I wanted to ask him.”
“I was afraid of that. We can call him another time just for you.
“No need. He can’t think of anything beyond the army.” Sankaran popped a whole vadai into his mouth. The children went in for second helpings. Ramaswamy came up to Meera.

“Is there something wrong with Mrs. Khanna?”
“I don’t know.”
“Thank God you are not like her. I wouldn’t know how to manage.” Meera was so astonished at his remark, she stood there with her mouth open.

When Meera went to bed that night Ramaswamy was already asleep. He lay on his back, his hands at his sides. He looked vulnerable. She washed her face and changed into a nightdress. She felt warm and happy.

The morning get together had turned out well. There were enough leftovers, complemented with a salad,
to last for dinner. Putting away the crockery took time. She did not dare to entrust the work to Chotu’s childish fingers. The cream coloured set, printed with geometrical patterns, was her pride. She saved for months before walking into Singh and Singh a fancy shop in Connaught Place. After much deliberation and consultation with store assistants she finally chose this set. She took it home in an autorickshaw. Ramaswamy made no comment. She did not point out the new acquisition for fear of his blistering remarks.

There had been no unpleasant behaviour today. The three men respected each other. The women enjoyed one another’s company.The food had been appreciated. Most surprising Ramaswamy had been perceptive enough to understand Asha’s condition. In the process he had indirectly paid her a compliment, the first in their married life.

Meera looked at her husband’s sleeping form. In repose his stern features softened. Was he lonely too? She did not know what he liked or wanted. He did not interact with his family except to set standards. In return they too did not seek him out. Meera did her best to bridge the gap. His unspoken resistance discouraged her.

Her sense of being alone grew. She looked back on her own life. Her father was an I.C.S. officer belonging to the Tamil Nadu cadre. He had his tenure of small towns. There were frequent transfers. Meera and her younger sister, Mathuram, went from school to school. Their father’s exalted position made it difficult for them to make friends. The other girls were uneasy in their company. They had nothing except each other. Meera read all the books she could lay her hands on. Mathuram loved dolls and toys. They had a peaceful relationship without bonding.

One day Mathuram took to her bed with a fever. A few days later she breathed her last. She was fourteen and just discarding her play things. They lay in all corners of the house as silent reminders. Nobody had the heart to tidy up, or put them away.

Mr. and Mrs. Vishwanathan became robots. Their movements were slow. They turned to one another for support. Meera was left out of their comforting embrace. She had not been close to Mathuram. She was company, though not a companion.Without her, the house was empty. Meera blamed herself for not making more effort to know her sister better. She felt that if she had been more attentive Mathuram would not have died. She scolded herself, for the many times she had refused to join her sister in playing with dolls. Her mother started going with her father when he went on tour. Meera was left in the large bungalow in the care of a woman servant. Grief and guilt ate into her like acid corroding fine linen.

Her father asked to be transferred to Delhi on compassionate grounds.The change helped her parents. Meera was more alone than ever. There was no life after bereavement. In Delhi her father was allotted a flat in Wellesley Road, as no other accommodation was available.The flats were built around a large courtyard. The ground floor apartments had small gardens. Parvathi set herself to cultivating hers. In the winter season she grew Salvias, Marigolds, Roses and Sweet Peas. There was a papaya tree and banana plant in the narrow space at the back. She had found her vocation. Mr. Vishwanathan felt the atmosphere in Delhi stimulating. He was in the education department and was full of plans and projects that would take the country forward.

Meera was at a loose end. After letting her complete her B.A. in Queen Mary’s College, Madras her parents did not want her to continue her education.

Her mother took up the task of getting her daughter married. She tracked down suitable candidates with the avidity of a hunter stalking a tiger. Nothing seemed to be working out. The boys in Delhi had their own plans. Boys from the south were under the control of parents with stipulations as to dowry, horoscopes and material assets.

After attending the wedding of her friends’ daughters Parvathi would retire to her room to emerge distraught and anxious.

Meera was now twenty one. One of the neighbours was running a nursery school in the city. She asked Meera to help her. Meera was glad to do so. Chasing after the children to prevent them from falling or putting strange objects in their mouths, distracted her mind. Nergis Kothawalla liked to chatter. Her incessant monologue soothed Meera, who did not want to think her own thoughts.

When one of her friends suggested Ramaswamy as a son in law, Parvathi and her husband thought it was another routine to be gone through. They did not believe it would work out.When it did they could not contain their joy. Parvathi phoned her friends. Mr. Vishwanathan went through his finances.Meera was told of her impending marriage.

.......To be continued

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