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by MANJU KAPUR

She was about to turn her attention back to the cooking when she saw Kailashnat hand the Professor something. Her lips tightened, and the movement of her hands grew mechanical and listless in the dough she was kneading in the thali between her feet. She was suspicious, but what could she do with her suspicions? Even such a trivial thing as Virmati's brother handing something to her husband was enough to unsettle her for the evening. She made up her mind to visit Kasturi the next day and make inquiries about Virmati's wedding, and could she do anything to help?
The Professor was by now getting up and making for his room. The woman finished kneading the dough, and got up to take his tea tray inside. All the breakable china on it she would wash and dry herself. Wash, so that the servant boy wouldn't get a chance to crack or chip anything; dry, so that there wouldn't be the water stains he hated on the crockery. Sometimes she would pass her fingers gently over the rim of the cup, thinking that his lips had rested there. She did this now. Suddenly she heard his tread, hasty, rapid coming towards the kitchen. She blushed and quickly put the cup down. The Professor lurched in and the woman stammered, 'What… what's the matter? Are you all right?'
'Vir – Virmati,' the Professor trembled over the name.
The woman moved the tea things about on the tray.
'Vir –' he tried again.
She put the tray down with a bang.
'Tell them… Hurry, go tell her mother…' Here the Professor choked, and looked terrible in his wife's eyes.
What is she telling you that her mother doesn't already know?' asked the woman as snappishly as she dared. 'You lie down. I will make you some desi tea.'
She started to peel the potatoes. She would do the tea things later. Dinner had to be served, her family had to be fed, no matter what Virmati had done.
The sight of her peeling shook the Professor into articulation. 'I'm telling you to go, and you sit here cooking!' he cried.
'To say what?' she asked, still not looking at him.
'Tell them she's gone to Tarsikka – perhaps to drown herself in the canal. They must move fast to save her!' the Professor's voice broke and wordlessly he pushed his wife out towards the other house.
He watched her out of sight, then shut the door of his room and let his head fall heavily against its smooth wooden surface. Tarsikka was sixteen miles away. He had to rely on them – what else could he do? He was… he was nothing now… not a rescuer, not a lover, nothing in this matter of life and death. Why had she decided on this awful step? Didn't she trust him? Didn't she know how much she meant to him? He had told her of his love a thousand times. Now it could no longer be a secret, he had to tell his wife so she could tell that family. Well, let everybody know. With Viru not there, nothing mattered. With no strength to remain standing, he gradually slipped onto the floor, where he remained a long time, his head cradled on his arms.
The first thing that flashed into the woman's head was 'Good.' And then, 'But she'll make sure we are never free of her.' She had made certain of this with her letter, clinging to her husband even in death, making them all suffer.
And then fear took over. Here she was wishing evil of others. Surely this would rebound on her. A person's life or death was in God's hands, and in an effort to collect herself and avoid her thoughts she hurried to Kasturi's house. The woman knew she would find Kasturi with her older daughters in the kitchen across the courtyard, preparing the evening meal. She walked towards the back entrance, dread mixed with righteous triumph at this opportunity, wondering what phrases to use. Hadn't her husband himself sent her? If there was any irregularity here, it was not her fault.
In the kitchen, Paro was bothering her mother. 'When is Pehnji coming, Mati, when? She promised to bring me something.'
'How do I know where your sister has gone and died?' asked Kasturi irritably, wiping the smoke tears from her eyes.
'Tell me, na,' said Paro insistently, dragging her mother's palla off her.
Kasturi turned to take a tired, half-hearted swipe at her younger daughter. 'Didn't you hear? Just wait till she does come. She should be here at this time instead of out of the house. She is old enough to know better. Really, I give my daughters too much freedom. And this is the result!'
'Come here, Paro,' said Indu, as Paro prepared to sulk. 'Here, help me knead this dough.' She tore off a piece and gave it to her.
Paro sat down, and absently started to pinch and pull the damp dough between her fingers. 'Oh, there's that Pabi from the other house,' she remarked, half to herself, half to the others.
As the woman came in, Indu nudged Paro to give her a wooden patla. Kasturi felt a little surprised. This was not the time for neighbourly visits.
The woman meantime was wonderhing how she was going to break her news, among the sisters and everybody? The bearer of messages from her husband about their daughter? It wasn't fair she should be put in a situation like this, she should also be at home cooking. That was her right, to be able to cook for her family, to be left in peace to fuss over their eating habits, to cater to their likes and dislikes, to do just what Kasturi was doing with her daughters. As a preliminary she let tears gather in her eyes.
'Arre, arre,' exclaimed Kasturi, putting down her ladle, and cleaning her hands by flicking some water on them from the glass next to the dough. The sisters stared at her.
The woman threw her palla over her face and rocked back and forth, moaning.
'Bas bas,' said Kasturi, rubbing her on the back.
'Oh Bhenji! It is my unlucky kismet that has brought me here. Everybody's curses will be upon my head!'
'No, no,' said Kasturi soothingly, one eye on the cooking vegetables.
'Bhenji, I am so ashamed. I am so unlucky! What will you think?'
'I think? Why? Indu, just stir the sabzi, and add a little water,' words amid sobs.
'Yes? He told you what?' asked Kasturi in the same even tone.
The woman's purpose was to convey news. Her words came rushing out. 'He told me to tell you that maybe Virmati has gone to Tarsikka… That maybe she has done something to herself. Oh, Bhenji, please forgive me!' As she gave her news, her sobs subsided. She no longer had the greater right to cry.
Kasturi's hand slipped from the woman's shoulder. She turned to stare at the fire under the cooking. In the silence, Paro could be heard shouting, 'It's not true. She was going to bring me something from the city! Mati, it's not true! Indo Phenji, it's not true!'
'Ssh, Paro,' Indu tried to keep her quiet. 'You can't talk like that to Pabiji!'
'But she's saying things about Phenji,' whispered Paro hoarsely. 'I saw her in the evening before she went and had promised me-'
'all right, all right. Now shush.' whispered Indu back.
Kasturi got up heavily. She did not want to expose her daughter to more. It was bad enough, this information coming from outside the home. 'We must go and see her father,' she said her voice lacking all expression. 'Please come.' And with none of her usual politeness she left the woman to follow her out of the kitchen. At the doorway she turned back once to say, 'Indu, just see the sabzi doesn't burn, put the dal on afterwards. Start making the rotis. Use the fresh butter in the doli, the old one is for ghee.'
'Han,' said Indu, stopping Paro from following her mother.
The bus driver and the conductor of Lala Diwan Chand's twenty-seater both belonged to the same village. By the time they had locked the bus and deposited the keys at the big house, the bright colours of the sky had faded to dull purple and grey and the trees had begun to absorb the darkness of the night. They had to hurry if they were to get home while there was still light to see. As they stepped through the small door of the big gate, the chowkidar exclaimed, 'Pyare Lal and Mahan Singh! Chhoti Pibiji came alone in the bus, and has gone up to the canal by herself. On your way home, just make sure-'
There was no need to say more. The men started quickly up the high embankment that bordered the big canal.
Virmati's chappals were still warm when they reached the small bridge that spanned the branch stream.'
Kasturi was sitting tensely in the veranda. Her daughters were silently waiting with her. Suraj Prakash and Kailashnath had left for Tarsikka in Lala Diwan Chand's car, the car he kept to be used for special occasions.
Soon Lajwanti came to join them.
'Any news yet? She asked, as the daughters made way for her.
The girls shook their heads. Kasturi's tears began to fall.'
'No, no' consoled Lajwanti, throwing her heavy arm around Kasturi's shoulders. 'God will send her back to us. Everything is in his hands. You must not cry. It is a bad omen.'
'How could she do this? What will happen to us all? To these girls? Where did we go wrong?'
Kasturi cried on, saying all the things she knew Lajwanti would be thinking, saying them with a heart full of grief and angry shame that she had to be talking like this about her own daughter, and the eldest in the family too. And Bade Baoji, who had championed her cause, what would he think? As for herself, she could never wipe out the stigma of having a child thoughtless enough to cont3emplate ending her life without consideration for what her family would suffer. Then there was the Professor, how did he know before her own family? She trembled at what she might find out.
Lala Diwan Chand was surprised when, on coming home from work that day, he was handed a notebook and pencils with 'Parvati' scrawled on the package.
'Who brought this?' he asked.
'The munshi said Ram Lal, the servant, old, faithful and slightly stupid.
'Yes, but why?' asked Lala Diwan Chand patiently, 'Didn't he say anything?'
'No'.
'Call the munshi,' said Lala Diwan Chand, 'and quickly. From his quarters. Faster!' he shouted uncharacteristically, at Ram Lal's slow-moving back.
The munshi's arrival a few minutes later produced an explanation that left Lala Diwan Chand seething with exasperation. His eldest granddaughter was here and he hadn't even known. 'We thought you knew, Baoji, or would I not be the first to tell you, Baoji?' left him struggling to control his temper. Where was she? This was no time to be away from home. If some trouble had caused her to come to him at Tarsikka, why didn't she follow her impulse to its logical conclusion? He got up and hastened towards the gate.
Virmati was meanwhile walking down the canal bank. She tried to wrap her dry dupatta around her, but the thin material soon got soaked. Her path was dotted with drops that were quickly absorbed into the soil. Her saviours followed at a respectful distance, also dotting the soil with water that dripped from their clothes. They ignored Virmati's low, repeated requests to be left alone. She was thankful for their help, she said, she had slipped and was all right now. No, no, they said, what would Baoji say? Virmati had no answer to that, only further blankness at the thought of her grandfather.
By now the car containing Kailashnat and Suraj Prakash had turned into the mud path bordering the canal. The increased bumping of the car meant an increase in Suraj Prakash's nausea, a nausea that had risen within him since their departure from Amritsar almost forty-five minutes earlier.
'We are almost there,' Kailashnath tried to be consoling. Suraj Prakash said nothing, only hunched up tighter in his seat.
'Have faith, Pitaji. Everything is in God's hands.' Kailashnath was worried by his father's silence. Suraj Prakash was looking ashen and the son thoughts suddenly, my father is an old man, and may Virmati be cursed for what she has done today. His hands whitened over the steering wheel, and he pressed the accelerator, making the car bump even more and his father turn even paler. By this time it was almost dark, and they had come within sight of the bridge they would have to cross to reach the mill.
The Professor's wife was banging on his door.
'Open, open,' he could hear her shouting. Her voice seemed to come from far away, too faint and tiny for him to pay any attention.
And then, 'Your food is ready. It's getting cold.'
The woman is mad with her obsession about food, thought the Professor wearily.
Shrilly, it came, 'something has happened.' Shrieks and shouts. 'He's gone and done something inside! He is ill, he is sick, he has fainted. Hai re, hai re!'
Footsteps receded at a run and immediately came back compounded. This time multiple bangs on the door, and a crescendo of wailing.
Finally the Professor surfaced. His eyes were dazed and red, his usually carefully done hair wild and disheveled. 'What is it?' he demanded cantankerously. 'I was sleeping.'
His authority in the house meant that nobody openly questioned this statement.
Virmati was not the first to see her grandfather almost running towards her. Her head was too bent. Instead, 'Baoji'; exclaimed Pyare Lal.
'Baoji!' echoed Mahan singh.
No sooner did he reach them that they overwhelmed him with their choric accounts. Sukhdeve had said, they had hurried, they had seen, they had jumped and they had, by the grace of God, been able to rescue, a little later and… Here they broke off to invoke the name of God again.
Lala Diwan Chand praised them. Their presence of mind had averted an untimely accident. The canals were not safe in the monsoon, and they themselves must be careful when walking along them. People could slip. The men agreed. And now they should go home, went on Lala Diwan Chand, it was late enough.
As he talked, his hands were unwrapping the chador from around himself and transferring it to Virmati's shoulders. He did this without giving her more than a cursory glance. His gaze was fixed on the men, as theirs was on him. Since Lala Diwan Chand's arrival, Virmati had become invisible, and, burning from gazes, imagined or real, she was grateful.

                     To be continued......


 
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