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Where Peacocks Fly-21

by Prema Sastri

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Looking around Meera saw that her marriage was no better and no worse than that of most of her friends. Husbands were stingy with money or did not give any money at all. Women were forced to call on parents for expenses. Few of them had professional qualifications or the capability to earn money. Men had affairs and did not care what their wives thought. In laws frequently shared the family home, taking over its management, leaving the daughter in law to do the menial work. Spouses beat their wives. Only a few women lived in peace. In return they compromised all the time.

Comparatively, Meera was better off. Ramaswamy was violent only towards the children. In turn they provoked him showing disregard for parental instructions. She was caught in the middle, unable to sympathise with either of them.

One day she got a call from Capt. Khanna.

“I’m Major Khanna now. We must celebrate.”
“Congratulations! I am happy for you.”
“I have a few days leave to my credit. I want to take Asha around New Delhi. I will be glad if you could join us. Mr. Ramaswamy too is welcome. I have a deep respect for him.”
“I can’t say. Call me in a few days.”
“You must come. Asha has taken a liking to you. She wanted you to be with us.”
Meera doubted it. Asha seemed incapable of voicing an opinion.
“I’ll do my best. I can’t make promises on behalf of my husband. He’s busy, and never takes leave.”
“I understand that. He’s known for his hard work. It does not excuse you.”
“I’ll see.” She rang off. Meera was disturbed by the call. Close proximity to Rakesh Khanna would hit her nerves. Asha would be a source of anxiety to both of them. She told herself she was making too much of a simple outing.

Major Khanna rang the next week with a flexible programme. Meera asked if she could bring Chotu. Rakesh Khanna readily agreed.

It was late December. Christmas activities were over. New year celebration had not yet begun. Major Khanna called for Meera in his deep green Morris Minor. Chotu accompanied them carrying basket of cakes, sandwiches and lime juice.

“You think of every thing. I thought of taking all of you out to tea.”
“Another time.” Meera and Chotu settled themselves on the back seat after greeting Asha.

It was mid afternoon. Their destination was Humayun’s Tomb. The beautiful gardens were full of flowers. They were also crowded. It was the height of the Tourist season. Indians and foreigners were all over the lawns in bright woolens. Many of them were busy clicking photographs.

Humayun’s tomb could be seen in all its splendour. Meera could not stop staring. Buildings like this have been called ‘frozen music.’

Rakesh Khanna agreed. “I can hear a Shenai. The architecture of this building is no less than that of the Taj Mahal. Let us find a place where we won’t be trampled upon.” He scouted around and selected a spot under some shady trees. “There’s shrubbery all around. We can be by ourselves.”

They unrolled the darri brought by Rakesh. Asha sat down. “Tea!” Rakesh took out a thermos jug and paper cups. Chotu served cake and sandwiches on paper plates. “This beats being in an office.” Rakesh stretched his limbs.

“It’s better than working in the kitchen.” Meera brushed crumbs off her clothes. She moved closer to Asha. Asha lay down. Soon she was fast asleep.

Rakesh bent over her. “Let her rest. All of us can take a break. They spread themselves on the spacious darri. Chotu cleared up and wandered within the precints of the shrubbery. There was a warm sun above. Leaves rustled on the trees. The grass smelled fresh and fragrant. Sleep seemed welcome. She woke up to find she had rolled near Rakesh. Her hand was curled round his shoulder. He was awake and looking at her. Her grasp was so tight he could not extricate himself. She hastily moved away. Rakesh stood up. Time to go home. Asha was still sleeping.

“She gets tired easily. Let’s get her some cold coke to refresh her when she wakes up.” Chotu can look after her till then.”

Meera got to her feet, discreetly putting her sari together. She did not want to go. She felt she was disintegrating into pieces, with each piece going in a different direction. Not knowing what to do she nodded.

They went out of the gates and stopped before a vendor selling cool drinks. Rakesh ordered four bottles. “Let’s finish our drinks. Then we’ll have to carry only two bottles.”

“I see you are resourceful.”
“That’s me. Now drink up.”

Rakesh had already tilted his bottle upside down and finished its contents. He surveyed Meera as she struggled to drink from a straw. At last she finished. They returned to find Asha had just woken up.

“A cool drink for a cool lady.”

Rakesh poured the coke in a paper cup and gave it to her. Chotu enjoyed the other bottle. They packed up and started for the car. When they reached Meera’s flat Rakesh escorted her in. “Thank you. Asha was happy you were with us.”

“It was a pleasure.”
“See you! Be prepared for more army excercises.” Rakesh left.

Meera went to her room. She felt disoriented. She hoped she was not coming down with a fever.

A few days later Rakesh called.
“I still have leave and I warn you I have drawn up daunting schedule.”
“No problem.”

There were many more excursions. They went to the Kutub Minar and admired the Asoka Pillar which had remained erect and free from rust for hundreds of years. They walked among the plants and the sun dials. They drove past Purana Quila, its anicient structure fronted by modern buildings. They passed the Supreme Court, Parliament House and Rashtrapati Bhavan. Delhi combined the elegance of old and new, the centuries merging into one another. They visited Jantar Mantar, Rajghat and the Ram Lila grounds.

One afternoon was spent on the lawns around India Gate. It seemed as if all the inhabitants of the city had gathered there. People came on cycles. Father and mother with two or three children perched on a single vehicle. They carried large tiffin carriers, cane mats and wicker baskets. They unrolled their mats and consumed large quantities of food with much laughter and noise.

Peanut vendors held out packets of freshly roasted nuts. Icecream vendors rang bells. Multicoloured balloons tied to sticks found children calling to the elders to buy one. Hot potato cutlets buyers. The canals full of water gave a sense of coolness. The atmosphere suited Asha. She looked around her smiling. Rakesh took a stroll and came back with balloons.
“Come children. A gift for you.” He solemnly presented balloons to the ladies and to Chotu.
“What about he fourthchild?” laughed Meera.
“I haven’t forgotten any one.” Rakesh drew out a balloon from behind his back. He released it and chased it across the grass almost falling over himself in the process.

“Men are like children.” Meera gazed after the vanishing figure. Asha looked puzzled. Rakesh returned. Meera let go of her balloon and watched it rise only to burst.
“You’re lucky. I ran a long way chasing mine. It’s getting dark. Let’s go.”

Rakesh thanked her as she and Chotu got out of the car. As he drove off, his face was set in stern lines. Meera feared he had something on his mind.

It was a few days before Meera heard from him. She went over the last few days. They had been warm and sunny. She had enjoyed the outings. Chotu was constantly at Asha’s side. There was no worry on that account. At times Rakesh would put an arm around Meera’s shoulder to prevent her from being jostled by the crowds. Where the ground was uneven he took her hand to steady her. His movements were casual. Yet, she could feel his pulse beating wildly.

When she was with Rakesh Meera felt as if the scattered pieces of her life had come together in a pattern. She was part of the rhythmic breathing of the earth. The trees and grass greeted her. She was where she was supposed to be.

Rakesh called at last.
“Asha has not been keeping well. Her parents have come to be with her. I hope all those trips did not tire her. I wanted to make her happy.”
“You did, Rakesh. I have never seen Asha so lively. Our picnics were short. We did not do too much.
“I hope you are right. I’ll be in touch.”

She noticed that the children spent a lot of time away from home. Mangalam spent the evenings with a friend Amrita. She said they were studying together. Sankaran said his political club was active. Meera accepted the situation. She was glad they were not loitering on the streets or addicted to movies, like many of their classmates.

To be continued..... here - Chapter 22

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