The Narrator

  

                                                                        

                              THIRTEEN

 

 

        The suddenness of Mamaji's entry had caught even me, an experienced reader of literature, off guard.  Of course, I knew that it was going to happen sooner or later--it was inevitable--but I wished to delay this unpleasant event as long as possible.  Subconsciously, I wanted to believe that somehow Badri could get away from its horrible consequences.  Now that Badri actually uttered the words, I looked up startled.  My heart pumped furiously.  I became scared for what might follow.  How did the Uncle react?  What did Meena do?  And Badri?  What did they do to him?

    But it was rather late.  The lights in the city and on the hills had dimmed.  Even the couple at the far end had gone up, back to their room perhaps.  A waiter stood under the awning, waiting for us to leave.   I moved my hand involuntarily to my mouth to stifle a yawn.

    "Sorry, Sir," Badri said with a smile.  "It must be quite late for you.  I have taken up too much of your time.  Do forgive me, will you?"

    "But we haven't even come to our film script, let alone finished this story," I said, a bit peeved.  I was bugged with myself not only for having spent so much time with Badri, but for having agreed, implicitly, that I would collaborate on his film script.

    "Don't worry, Sir.  Aisa hi hota hai.  You must be patient. Sab theek ho jayega."

    The last, "everything will be fine," was a sentence that occurred in practically every Hindi movie.  If the heroine, in deep trouble, went crying and whimpering to the hero telling him that she was pregnant with his child--mein tumhare bacche ki ma banne wali hoon--all he had to do was to look deep into her eyes, hold her close and say, sab theek ho jayega.  If the bankrupt and despairing family of the honest man (usually the hero's father) were being driven out of their house by the villain's henchmen, the brave man would be seen consoling his wailing wife, sab theek ho jayega. If the old widowed mother, in a desperate last-ditch effort, retreated to her puja room, crying before her favourite deity for the life of her only son, now in the clutches of the killer villain--"I've never, never asked you for anything in my whole life; now I beg for the life of my son; if you don't listen to my prayers I shall tell the whole world that you're no God, but just a lifeless, heartless, piece of stone..."--all her would be daughter-in-law, the girlfriend of this very endangered son had to do was to go up to the old lady, shed a few tears, and say with great fervour and conviction, "Don't worry, Maji, sab theek ho jayega." Sab theek ho jayega. So often repeated repeated in response to impossible situations. How like a film Badri sounded right now. I would recall his words later with bitter irony--sab theek ho jayega.  Indeed.

    It was after 1:30 a.m. when Badri walked me to the porch of the hotel.  The gate keeper was off or had gone to sleep.  Badri opened the door for me himself.  He signalled to the driver waiting in the parking lot. The poor man was obviously asleep because he didn't respond.  We walked to the parking lot, the gravel crunching its protest under our feet.

    As we approached, the driver got up with a start.  He stepped out without his cap, and gave Badri half a salute.  The back door was opened for me.  I got in.  Badri himself held the door for a minute as he wished me goodnight, apologising again for having detained me for so long.  The driver got in and started the car.

Before he put up his glass, Badri slipped a large note into his hand.  The driver beamed in gratitude.  Badri waved and the car pulled out, into the long drive-way out of the hotel, back through the deserted streets of my city, to the narrow lane in which I lived.

    Except for the pan shop near the cinema hall, which itself was half-closed, there were no lights anywhere.  As we approached my gate, the driver honked to displace a cow sitting in our way. The headlights glared all the way to the end of the road, waking up the beggar sleeping in the verandah of the grocery shop.

    When my gate rattled, a window flew open above me.  A couple of lights came on.  Then, quickly, went off.  I knew my late arrival in a white, chauffueur-driven Mercedes had not gone unnoticed in our small, nosy neighbourhood.

    I dragged myself to the bathroom.  Brushed my teeth. Changed. It was just before two o'clock when I was in bed.  But I couldn't sleep.  I felt not just tired, but overcome.  I had had too much stimulation, too much excitement.  My temples were throbbing and my head felt heavy.

    I didn't have a very comfortable night.  I must have had a couple of bad dreams.  One I remembered because I woke up soon afterwards. I was being chased down the labyrinthine steps of some old fort. I could hear the shouts of my pursuers behind me. The cobbled steps rang out as I thundered down, running for my

life.  Suddenly, I was plunged into darkness.  I couldn't see anything.  I was falling.  I felt a certain sense of panic clutch my innards.  A silent scream rose in my throat.  Just then, I was plunged into a vast, dark, filthy lake, the water thick and viscous like oil.  I struggled for breath, trying to free myself from the sticky, dirty substance.  Just then something tugged at my leg.  I lashed out in panic.  I felt a sharp, shooting pain as something bit into my leg, drawing blood.  It was a rat.  Huge and ferocious.  There were rats everywhere.  The whole place was swarming with them!  I thrashed about wildly, gasping for breath. Suddenly, somewhere, in the distance, I heard a siren going off, persistent, like that of a police car or an ambulance.  I was no longer struggling, but walking on firm ground.  But something was

odd.  I was naked.  Where were my clothes?  The sharp sound came closer and closer.  This is when I woke up.

    It was already eight-thirty in the morning.  Sunday morning. The phone was ringing.  I dragged myself to the drawing room to pick it up.

    "Hello?  Oh, hell-o-o-o!"

    It was Neha calling from Pune.  I was supposed to have telephoned her last night.  Saturday nights.   That was our arrangement.  On alternate weeks. Yesterday was my turn.     Sure enough, she was saying, "Tu kuthe hotas?  Where were you?  I waited for your call till ten in the night.  Then I tried to call you till eleven-thirty. Was there something wrong with the phone?"

    "No, I don't think so."

    "Hello?  Well?"

    "Unh, I had to go out."

    "Go out?"

    "Yeah.  To eat.  To dinner.  A friend called me."

    "Was it Dr. Swaminathan?"  Old Swami was our Head of the Department and he sometimes called me to dinner.

    "Uhn, no."

    "Well?"  She never gave up, did she?

    "It was a friend.  Someone you don't know.  His name is Badrinath Dhanda."

    "Who?"

    "Like I said, you don't know the guy."

    "Hmmm."  She paused, as if to reorient her self.  "Tu kasa aahes?"  How are you?

    "Me theek aahe.  Tu kasi aahes?" I'm all right.  How are you?

    "I'm all right too."

    "Are you eating properly?"

    "Of course."

    "And exercising?"

    "Yes.  I go for a walk in the mornings and evenings with Baba."

    "Good.  How's the weight?"

    "Good.  I've gained five pounds this month."

    "How's the baby?"

     "Kai sangu.  Phar tras deto"  She giggled.  "Unh, unh.

Naughty.  He kicks."

    "Listen, you take care of yourself, all right?  No straining.

No bending.  This is your seventh month, remember.  Take all your medicines...."

    "Ok, ok, ya.  I'll look after myself and `ourself' inside me.  But you'd better eat properly.  If I find that you've lost weight when I return, I'll, I'll...send you to your maher (parents)."

    "Even if I'm not pregnant?"

    "Ha, ha.  Then I'll make you pregnant before I send you," she retorted.

    Finally, she said, "Bye, honey.  I love you."

    "Umm--umm.  Bye,"  I said in reply.

    Click.  The phone went dead.  It felt good to talk to Neha. It seemed to clear the air a bit from the influence of Badri.  I found myself smiling.  Thinking about the good times we'd spent together in this marriage.  Yet, why did I feel sad, even a trifle guilty?

    I tried to shake that feeling off by humming to myself all through my bath.  I did my puja.  I dressed after lighting the agarbatti.  Then I watered the plants, something I had neglected to do regularly since Neha left.  Talking to her had made me feel contrite.  I had a leisurely breakfast of toast, milk, cereal, and fruit.  I turned on the TV.  Nothing like Sunday to laze about in the house.  The servant came and began cleaning up. I sat in front of the telly and read the Sunday papers.

    Just as I was beginning to sink into a delicious soporific 11 o'clock daze, the phone rang again.

    "Hello?"

    "Good morning, Sar.  This is Badri ispeaking."

 
  Copyright © 2005 - Makarand Paranjape