1: The Window
I see her everyday
At the window of her house
Her likeness lurking in the shadows
Her mind obscure
Mira watched as the young man walked by. His limbs long and loose, his eyes pensive and his pace halting and slow as if navigating through an invisible mine field. Mira accompanied him to the end of the street and then stood silently as he waited hands in pockets for the bus to arrive. In a few moments he was gone. The routine repeated itself every day.
She cracked the window open as the air inside had grown musty. Freshness rushed in but along with it also scurried in sound; that of the street, commonplace and routine. Yet it gave shape to the visions she had been trying very hard to leave behind.
Chennai–when life was less complicated.
Though the day had barely begun the air was already thick with activity. Mira lingered a while longer in the bed that she shared with her sister and attempted to associate the sounds with the images— The light slap-slap of her mother’s slippered feet as she hurried down the corridor to coax their father awake with the aroma of freshly brewed coffee. Mira hadn’t heard him come in last night but that had become quite the norm of late.
She strained harder closing her eyes and smiled when the lilting song of the Veena struck her. A melody so rich and weighty that it made her whole body reverberate. The music emanated from the tiny apartment upstairs that her family had rented out to a young couple. Both maestros of Karnatik music, he played the Veena while she sang. The idea was so delightful that it brought a flush to Mira’s cheeks.
Just then her sister rolled over and brought her leg down heavily across Mira’s stomach. A rogue whizzed by on screeching tires raucously proclaiming his transgression setting off the neighborhood dogs barking in ferocious jugalbandi. A vegetable vendor meandered by with his cart plying his wares in a high-pitched nasal twang. An auto-rickshaw sputtered to a halt at the address across from their own. Mira absorbed it all leaning against the iron frame of her window swirling a toothbrush lazily around her mouth. Then she burst into a fit of giggles when a passing lad serenaded his daily fixture to her.
Pushing back some fifteen odd years—
Sukanya smiled indulgently at the excited clamor of limbs then flinched as several books fell with a resounding crash to the floor.
“What now Mira? Don’t you see I’m busy?” She shot an irate glance at her nine year old as she scrambled into the kitchen and made an instant beeline for the array of steaming fresh savories and sweetmeats. “Stop! Don’t you dare touch anything with your dirty hands!” She admonished before returning her attention to the pan of simmering ghee on the stove. Out of the corner of her eyes she spied slim fingers plunge into thick caramelized syrup. “Mira!” She raised her voice again. But she was too late for the golden brown dumpling had disappeared inside her daughter’s eager mouth.
“Maa. I swear. I washed my hands.” Mira grinned with the characteristic brashness of children. “And I have something important to tell you!”
Sukanya sighed and turned off the stove. She was in dire need of a break after being closeted in the sweat box of her kitchen since four that morning. She was making preparations for the Diwali feast later that week. Using the edge of her cotton sari to dab at her perspiring forehead she waddled slowly into the front room and settled her diminutive frame made awkward by the burden of pregnancy on to a long wooden swing seat. She signalled her daughter to crank up the ceiling fan before looking askance at her as she who was adroit at creating mountains out of molehills.
Mira did her bidding, then widening her eyes approached her mother and spoke in a loud whisper as if parting with information of considerable import. “I think I saw a new family moving in next door.”
“Really? Then that is excellent news. It’s not auspicious for a house to remain unoccupied for too long. ” Sukanya opined, her weary visage perking up. Disregarding her fatigue she stood up and walked over to the side door and stepped out onto the long narrow verandah.
The bungalow next door was an ancient two-storied edifice that dwarfed their own. The original owners or what remained of them had scattered hither and thither after the passing of their ninety year old patriarch who had been the only one holding the family together. Having lain empty for the better part of a year, the place with its dark shuttered windows and massive yard overrun with weeds would often send shivers down Sukanya’s spine. But now all that was about to be remedied.
“Don’t Mira!” She warned in vain as she saw her daughter expertly scale the trunk of the Neem tree whose branches extended well above and across the 5ft solid boundary wall that separated both the houses. “I don’t think our neighbors will like the idea of living next door to a chimpanzee.”She burst into laughter on hearing the exasperated whine of complaint.
“Stop messing with my palloo, you’re asking for a good hiding.”
Mira giggled but continued ardently to chew on the cloth. The cotton tasted good besides she needed something in her mouth all the time. Different things in different phases of life; like a thumb, a sari or a pencil. The hiding was long overdue.
Her mother laced her fingers through the freshly painted grill of the garden gate– Papa’s bonus put to good use. “They look like Madrasis.”
“Okay I’m sorry, Tamilians.” Her mother rectified her error. (‘Madrasis’ is the general term most Indians from the north of the Vindhyas still use to refer to those from the south. It is considered an ethnic slur.) “They are light-skinned and sharp-featured. Brahmins would be my guess. The lady is wearing pattu even in this heat. Her jewelry looks expensive.”
“She’s asking to be robbed.” Mira giggled.
But her mother didn’t attend to her comment choosing instead to continue with her observations. “They look quite well-to-do, upper middle class at least. They have to be to afford such a big place.”
Her astute daughter shook her head and rolled her eyes. Mother was not being a great detective. She had just described most of the neighborhood. It was an unspoken rule here that castes and classes stuck together. Theirs was a rare exception having migrated south from the northern state of UP, and the fact that they belonged to the lower Bania or merchant caste.
“And .. it looks like they have a boy. Your age or maybe a bit older. He walks with a slight limp.”
A boy? Mira’s eyes widened and she stuck her face curiously into the gate. “Don’t they have a girl? I hate boys, they pick on me all the time.”
“I didn’t see one. Not all boys are the same. Stop making that face Mira or it’ll get stuck like that forever. Now c’mon. Help me with the rangoli in front of the house then go and clean your room. I’ve so much work to do!”
“But Rags can do it too, can’t she?”
“No she can’t. Your father has arranged for her to start her math tutorials today. And please don’t wreck your sister’s beautiful name. Call her Raaga for god’s sake.”
“Rags suits her best. That girl couldn’t hit the right note if her life depended on it.” Mira retorted but then obediently followed behind her mother.
PS: Sorry but when I get restless I write and women in conflict happen to be my favorite subject matter. I’d like to continue this story.