by Prema Sastri
Back to Chapter 7
Next morning Ramaswamy left for the office without comment. Shankaran’s face was flushed when he came to the table. “Don’t you think you should stay at home?” she suggested.
“I’m sure you have a fever.
“No mummy, I feel alright.”
“I think I’ll take your temperature. “Meera found the thermometer in the medicine cupboard and prevailed on him to put it in his mouth. His temperature was normal. “All the same I think you need a day’s rest,” Meera protested.
“No mummy. We are going to start a new theorem in maths. You won’t want me to miss that.”
“Go then, but don’t expose yourself. Take an auto home if you feel bad.” She looked up as Mangalam came into the room. There were dark patches under her eyes. Otherwise she looked composed. She was wearing a loose blouse held together by a single perilous knot, leaving her midriff exposed. Her long hair was hanging loose. “Surely Mangalam, you are not going to college like that.” Meera gaped.
Mangalam helped herself to an iddli. “Do you really want me to tie my hair up?” She held her hair to one side and Meera saw that there were red welts all over her back and neck. “It hurts,” Mangalam added. “I can’t bear any cloth near my skin.”
Meera was silent. Shankaran stared at the welts. She went to a side table and picked up a tin. It was full of small change. She put it in front of the children. Shankaran helped himself, but Mangalam pushed it away. “I don’t need it, thank you all the same. I’m going to Sheila’s house and a friend is picking us up from there.” She looked at Meera as if warning her not to object.
“Very well,” said Meera at last, “perhaps that will be best. Would you like me to put some ointment on that?”
Mangalam got up to wash her hands. “No mummy,” she said slowly, “I am afraid that will do no good."
“You better hurry up,” said Shankaran, "unless your friend is going to take you in a plane. You’ll be late for college." He picked up his change and left. Mangalam followed him, her hips swinging jauntily. “She is young” thought Meera. “Perhaps I m making too much of her being beaten. They say the young are resilient. Tomorrow she will be boasting how she is daddy’s darling.”
She was wiping the table when the phone rang. It was Betty. “Hi, Meera,” she said. “remember that charity bazaar I was talking about? I thought we could discuss it today. I am going into town in a few minutes. I will be returning about twelve. I will pick you up on my way back. Peter will be coming home for lunch, and will drop you on his way back to the office. Have lunch with us so that we can have time to talk.”
“I can’t, Betty. I’ve lots of things to do.”
“So have I,” Betty cut in. “But I don’t spend the whole day doing them. Your family is away till evening. I am sure you can spare an hour. I need your help.”
Put like that Meera found she could not refuse the request. “Very well Betty. I’ll be ready.” “O.K See you about noon.” Betty hung up.
Meera washed out the rag with which she had wiped the table. As she hung it to dry she felt her depression lighten. The maid servant surprised her by arriving in time. Meera asked her neighbour to keep an eye on the clothes in the back garden, and settled down to wait for Betty.
Betty arrived a few minutes after twelve and declined Meera’s offer of coffee. “I know your South Indian coffee is delicious, the real filtered stuff, but I’m in a hurry.” As they got into the car Betty pointed to a picture on the back seat. “I collected that from the framers today. You must help me to hang it straight.” Betty actually needed no help. She very efficiently knocked a nail into the wall. Meera found herself standing behind Betty, making aimless comments, till the picture was neatly hung to Betty’s satisfaction. Meera dragged herself to the present to find Betty looking at her. There was a question mark in her eyes, a pencil in her hand and a writing pad on her knee. “Can I put that down then?” she asked. “Yes indeed,” Meera replied. Now what had she let herself in for?
“So you will be in charge of the pickle stall. I suggest you form a committee to help you out. Here are some names I have thought of.” Betty’s fingers were already flying over the paper. She tore off sheet after sheet, and handed it to Meera.
Just then they were interrupted by Chandan Lal who had been ushered in by the bearer. He greeted Meera with an indifferent gesture and held out his hand to Betty.
“I thought I would drop in and see how the picture looked in its new surroundings. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Not at all.” Betty disengaged her hand and turned to the picture. “I think it is one of your best. Meera helped me to hang it.”
Meera was about to disclaim any effort on her part, but Chandan Lal had already turned his back on her and was helping himself to one of Betty’s filtered American cigarettes from a walnut cigarette case on one of the centre table. He picked up a match from its matching matchbox container. He inhaled deeply and sat back. “I must say Betty, the picture does not do justice to your beautiful room. It was not meant as a decorative piece.”
Betty was giving him her full attention. “I know that. It is meant to tell the truth.”
“Not just truth Betty, the reality behind the truth if you must; not mere truth, that’s to attract the Indian mind.” Chandan Lal’s squat face took on an abstracted look. He had a front tooth missing and his lips were stained with nicotine. A blunt fingernail felt the edge of the filter with satisfaction. Meera wondered how long Betty could endure the pompous fool. She was saved from further doses of his concept of art by the arrival of Peter. He kissed Betty on the cheek and smiled at Meera. She was glad to notice he ignored Chandan Lal except for a slight nod. Betty got up to order lunch. “You must stay to lunch,” she said politely to Chandan Lal.
“Certainly, Betty; since you press me.” Betty went in to see to the lunch and Meera felt her depression return as she looked at Chandan Lal. She was sure he had timed his visit to coincide with lunch.
.....To be continued.....
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