Where Peakcocks Fly-6
by Prema Sastry
Back to Chapter 5
Meera dragged her thoughts back to the purpose of the visit. Betty had phoned her early that morning. She was organizing a charity bazaar and wanted Meera to be involved. Betty’s husband Peter Winsted was defence expert attached to the U.S.Embassy. He often met Ramaswamy, who was secretary on the defence production department, on official matters. They were a friendly couple and often invited the Ramaswamy’s over for an informal evening. Unlike most embassy wives, who lived in seclusion emerging only for an occasional play, or a bout of shopping at the Cottage Emporium, Betty was determined to know India and could often be seen driving her dusty Ford in the most crowded area of Delhi. She was frank and matter of fact and Meera enjoyed her company.
Betty had returned to her original topic. “Indian women have too much time on their hands. There are so many opportunities for social service, but it’s hard to get any of them to do anything. They say they are busy with their husbands and children, but I don’t see how that could keep them occupied all day. I tried to get together a group to go visiting some of the hospitals but I could get the names of only three volunteers. Yet, most of these ladies are able to get around when they want to go shopping or visiting.“
“Indian women have been kept in the background for thousands of years,” said Meera thoughtfully as she bit into a biscuit. “It will take us a few centuries to change our habits. In fact most of us intend to do things; only we don’t know how to set about it. From the time of Sita we have been taught to be followers and not leaders.”
“It’s a pity, said Betty, emptying her cup, “because most of them have the capability, and there is so much to be done.” Betty evidently felt it was her duty to right all the ills of India. Her day was a round of welfare activities. She also spent three hours every day working in a hospital run by American missionaries, for she was a trained nurse. If India had any problems by the time Betty left, or if it held any undiscovered artists it could not be for lack of Betty’s trying.
“I thought you could be in charge of the pickle stall,” Betty was saying. “You wouldn’t have to make them yourself; you could go round collecting bottles of pickles. I have asked Nita to help you. I’m sure she will be very efficient.”
Protests rose to Meera’s lips. Where would she be able to spare the time? She could not drive and getting transport from Moti Bagh was a problem. The maid servant was sure to absent herself. She did not voice her thoughts. She did need something to occupy her mind. There were pools of emptiness in every day that she was unable to either enjoy or fill. She would never have the courage to start anything on her own. Collecting a few bottles of pickles from her many acquaintances did not sound too difficult. She thought over the events of last night and made up her mind. “Of course, Betty, I’ll be glad to do it.”
The previous night when Ramaswamy had returned neither of the children had been in. Meera had stayed awake, reading a novel by Denise Robins till ten. There had been a storm. One of the bedroom windows had been left open, and the rain had streamed in wetting the dressing table. She had got soaked battling with the window,
and soaked again as she mopped up the floor. It was only after that she realized that it was past nine and the children had not returned. She did not know where Shankaran had gone. Sheila had a telephone. She tried to get the number but when she picked up the phone she was greeted with silence. There had been a heavy wind and lines would probably be down for some time.
At ten she heard Ramaswamy’s car turn into their quadrangle. She opened the door and he handed her his briefcase. “I came away early. I had a bad headache.” Wind blew through the door and she saw that it was still drizzling. The briefcase that he handed her was damp. A drop of water ran down his nose. He wiped his face with a handkerchief and looked at Meera. A chill crept down the back of her neck. She began to shiver as if it was she who had been out in the rain.
She took the briefcase and went into the bedroom. She found an old towel and began to wipe it carefully making sure the towel did not leave any fuzz on the surface. Ramaswamy peeled off his shirt and vest and threw them on the bed. He toweled himself and stood waiting. His chest was covered with thick curly hair like the fuzz on a hairy caterpillar. Meera suddenly remembered how a hairy caterpillar had fallen on her hand as she was cleaning the windows one afternoon. The fur had stuck to her skin and stung for a week. She realized that Ramaswamy had rubbed himself dry .. She jumped up and found him some clothes. As she handed them to him she noticed that his hands were not quite dry. There were knots of hair on his fingers and the damp still clung to them. As Ramaswamy took the clothes the doorbell rang. She hurried to open. Shankaran came in. His wet clothes clung to his skin and his teeth were chattering.
“Who is it?” Ramaswamy had come into the hall, his shirt half on. He took one look at Shankaran. “Where the hell have you been?”
“I went to a friend’s house. I got caught in the rain.”
“Haven’t I told you there is to be no going out during exams?”
“I had to go all of a sudden. I asked Mummy.” He began to tremble violently. His clothes had become transparent with the rain and he was encased in it as if in a plastic sheet.
Meera locked the door and turned to him. “You’ll catch pneumonia. Change your clothes and get into something warm. I have some hot rasam ready.”
Ramaswamy had blocked the way. He took a step towards Shankaran. “You have your selection exams for the I.S.C. next month, and yet you have the time to fool about in the rain.”
“Daddy, I missed the bus and got caught in the rain. I had to wait an hour before I could get one.”
“He’ll catch a severe chill,” pleaded Meera. “Let him change and eat. You can talk to him later.”
Ramaswamy turned to Meera. “Don’t tell me when I should talk in my own house. You were stupid enough to allow him to go out. I know how to deal with him”. Before Meera could reply he had struck Shankaran. There was a sharp crack and Meera thought the thin jaws must break.
Shankaran had not flinched. Meera had a vision in which she could see him standing through eternity waiting for the blows of the world to fall on him. To be continued .....