فصل 07

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فصل 07

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Chapter seven

Nagarajan

It was not till after Christmas that di@k managed to establish contact with Nagarajan. His letters went unanswered and the telephone number Suresh had given him rang engaged the whole time. di@k spent the Christmas and New Year holiday looking up old friends. Eventually he received a card from Nagarajan, inviting him to visit ‘at your earliest convenience’.

di@k took the early morning flight to Bangalore and checked into the West End Hotel, his favourite hotel in the whole of India. It was still an island of peace in a city which had gone wild with development. The rooms were in separate buildings surrounded with gardens and trees. The service was efficient and polite, and the rooms comfortable and spacious.

It took di@k some time to get through to the number in Devanahalli. Nagarajan eventually came to the phone. He sounded vague and confused, but the line crackled so badly that di@k could not really tell. He managed to communicate his message - that he would be coming over to Devanahalli the next morning. Nagarajan told him he would be welcome.

di@k took an early breakfast on the terrace of the West End. He ordered idlis with masala and chutney - and the jet-black southern Indian filter coffee. The grass in the garden was wet with dew, and he wrapped himself tighter in his Kashmiri shawl to keep warm. There had been a wedding party in the garden the night before; now the grass was littered with fading orange marigold garlands and bruised jasmine flowers turning from white to brown. He wondered how long the newly-married couple’s happiness would last. He hoped it would be longer than the brief beauty of these flowers.

He hired a car with a driver for the day, and by eight they were threading their way through the morning rush hour towards the northern exit from the city. Under the British Raj, Bangalore had been an army town with wide tree-lined roads and comfortable bungalows. It was still an important military base. But now it was also the high-tech capital of India, with space industries, aeronautics, computer software, telecommunications, silicon chips - the works. The bungalows were being rapidly replaced by high-rise blocks, shopping malls and luxury apartments. And it now had the worst traffic pollution di@k had experienced for years.

They passed the Maharajah’s palace, hidden behind groves of eucalyptus trees. Then out beyond the Agricultural College and all the research institutes which were springing up along the road. They passed the Parsi ‘Towers of Silence’ where dead bodies were left exposed to be eaten by birds of prey. It looked abandoned and did not seem to have been used for some time.

The traffic was chaotic: yellow auto-rickshaws weaving in and out of the traffic, sometimes carrying seven or more people; buses so overloaded that they sagged down at one corner; lorries piled so high with sugarcane that they seemed about to turn over; old cars driven by even older men clutching the steering wheel as if their lives depended on it (and they did!). Gradually the traffic thinned as they got farther from the city.

Rural India, the India of the villages, surrounded them again very soon after they left the city. Bullock carts moved slowly along, loaded with sugarcane, hay, groups of people. The road was lined with tamarind trees, many of them scarred by traffic accidents, and with families of monkeys playing under them. Beside the road there were the dark green mango orchards, fields of grapevines, groves of coconut palms, silvery sugarcane plantations, small fields of red peppers. And of course the bare granite rock of the Deccan Plateau.

They turned right at the road junction at Dodballapur, taking the direction of Nandi Hills. di@k had heard about the Hills but never visited them. He did not realise then what an important role they were to play in his life.

It was ten when they arrived in Devanahalli. It took some time before Shaukat, the driver, located Nagarajan’s house. They found it in a quiet lane, well away from the town centre. It was a single-storey house, built from granite blocks, like all the other houses in the town. It was built around a courtyard, in the traditional southern Indian style. Nagarajan was waiting for di@k at the entrance.

di@k was shocked when he saw Nagarajan. He was like a dried-up plant: brown and lifeless. They went into the courtyard of the house. Sitting in a shady corner, they began to talk. Nagarajan’s daughter, Lakshmi, served them coffee.

When di@k first saw Lakshmi he felt he instantly recognised her, although he had never met her before. It was as if he had always known her. She was in her early thirties, or so he guessed. Her skin was dark, much darker than Nagarajan’s, with a warm glow. It was her eyes which caught his attention first - dark pools in which her feelings surfaced. Her long, jet-black hair hung down her back. She wore a simple sari which did not completely hide the outline of her full breasts and narrow waist. She moved with an indefinable grace. She was, quite simply, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Their eyes met briefly before she bent to pour the coffee.

While Lakshmi busied herself with preparing lunch, Nagarajan told di@k that she was a widow. He had arranged her marriage to a boy from the same community, a computer software specialist. They had married at the boy’s home town, near LJdipi in North Karnataka, when she was twenty-two. By then she had completed her MA2-1 in English literature. It was time for babies, grandchildren to warm the old people’s hearts, and to justify their years of work and struggle. But no children came. And, five years later Girijan, her husband, had died in a motorcycle accident. She had returned to her father and now took care of him in his retirement. That was the only role left to her.

As they talked, Nagarajan drank. di@k had brought him a bottle of duty-free whisk as a present. Nagarajan steadily drank his way through it. He had always been a heavy cigarette smoker but now he smoked beedies; thin, hand-rolled, black tobacco sticks which gave off an acrid smoke and choked anyone who inhaled it. The room was soon filled with smoke.

‘The horse races begin again soon,’ he said, coughing his dry smoker’s cough. ‘I’ve got some good tips for winners this season. I could certainly use some extra money. The company pension is miserable. Look at this place.’ He gestured around him at the room they sat in, with its cement floor and bare stone walls. ‘I always knew there was something funny with that bit@h Molly,’ he said, abruptly changing the subject. ‘It was her who got me sacked you know. Her and her bastard of a husband. They didn’t like the questions I was asking about the Hosur factory contract. Somehow they got to Lennox with stories about me - unreliable, dishonest (me, dishonest!), interfering, inefficient and all that. So, one morning, not long after you’d gone, I got this letter. I’d been given early retirement, just like you. Only I got the minimum payment. There was nothing I could do about it. I wrote letters to Delhi but never got a proper answer. What the hell was going on there, di@k?’

‘I’d hoped you might tell me,’ said di@k. ‘How is it that the Visvanathans always seemed to have so much power?’

‘I don’t know for sure, di@k,’ said Nagarajan, becoming more and more informal as the whisky took its effect. (He had never before called di@k by his first name!)

‘But you know that they all knew each other in the old days, don’t you? Madras was Lennox’s first post with the company. I remember because I’d only just joined as a typist. Vish was a typist, like me, and Molly was a telephone operator.

That Molly was quite a girl in those days. She knew how to enjoy herself all right. Plenty of rumours about her, I can tell you. I think old Ned, Ned Outram, he was in the factory at the time as Chief Engineer; I think old Ned fancied her. They went out together I think, for a while. I’m pretty sure it was Ned. I don’t know, it’s all mixed up in my mind now. Lennox was around too, without his wife to start with. She only came out to join him later. It was all such a long time ago. It wasn’t long after that that she went off to the UK on special leave - Molly I mean. That caused some gossip, I can tell you. She told everyone she was going to look after her sick uncle in Birmingham. No-one believed that though. Some people even said she’d gone to have an abortion in secret. I don’t know about that, but I know she didn’t waste any time in marrying Vish when she got back. And they never had any children. I always wondered about that. Of course Lennox had gone to Egypt by then - on promotion. I always thought he was a crafty bastard, that one. Was it Ned? I don’t know. Have another drink, di@k.’

‘Doesn’t anyone know what she really did when she was in the UK?’ asked di@k. ‘Surely someone must know.’

‘Maybe Percy Hancock might know, if he’s still alive. He was in charge in Delhi at that time. He must have approved the leave. I always thought they were perfectly suited to each other - Molly and Vish I mean. Both as evil as each other. I hate their guts. I just hope they get their punishment one day. Have another drink…’

Nagarajan’s confused conversation was interrupted when Lakshmi brought them lunch. It was simple vegetarian food - rice, dal and vegetable masala with chappaties - but the aroma was delicious. Lakshmi, in traditional Indian style, did not eat with them - she would eat later. di@k ate hungrily but Nagarajan only picked at his food while continuing to smoke yet another beedie. As soon as the meal was over, Nagarajan excused himself and tottered unsteadily across the courtyard to his room for an afternoon sleep, leaving di@k alone at the table.

It was some time before Lakshmi returned to clear the dishes. She said nothing and went about her work with her eyes lowered, not looking at di@k. As she was about to leave the room, di@k asked her, ‘How is your father? What has happened to him?’

‘As you can see,’ she said, ‘he has lost hope in life. It has happened since he retired. My mother died the same year. He has not forgiven himself, though he was not to blame. Now he drinks quite a bit; it helps him remember the good times. He often speaks of you. He has never forgotten what you did to help when my mother was so ill - before all this happened.’

She spoke softly but in a dark, warm voice that sent a tremor through di@k. He did not want her to leave the room.

‘How long have you been with him here?’

‘Just over a year now, since my husband was killed.’

‘Your father told me. I am so sorry. It must be very difficult for you.’

She raised her eyes to look straight at him. There were no tears but they seemed full of hidden suffering.

‘It was an arranged marriage. We never, how can I explain…? What has happened, has happened. It cannot be changed. Many people are less fortunate than me.’

‘But don’t you get lonely here with only your father for company?’

‘I am not lonely. It is not hard work to look after my father. As you can see, he eats little. He is often out of the house. I have time to think… and to read. I read a lot. Books are good company. In any case they are what I have.’

He was about to ask another question - anything to keep her with him for a few more minutes - when she suddenly changed the subject.

‘You must be feeling tired after your journey. I will show you the guest room. You can take a sleep too. My father will not wake until teatime.’

Their eyes met briefly before she led him across the courtyard to the room next to her father’s.

‘Enjoy your rest. I will call you at teatime.’ She turned away from him and walked slowly back across the courtyard.

He lay on the bed. His thoughts were confused; Molly and her mysterious year in Britain, Nagarajan’s dead existence in this small town, his own sudden fascination for Lakshmi. The thoughts came and went, moved in and out of focus. If only, he thought …

He was woken by a gentle knocking and Lakshmi s voice, ‘If you are ready, I am serving tea to my father in five minutes.’

*

Tea was an uncomfortable experience. Nagarajan’s mood seemed to be heavy without alcohol to lighten it. (The whisky bottle now stood empty on the table.) He still seemed half-asleep. He silently smoked one beedie after another while slowly sipping his tea. Lakshmi said nothing, though di@k occasionally caught her eye. After drinking two cups, di@k rose to leave.

‘Why don’t you stay?’ asked Nagarajan, roughly. ‘Isn’t my house good enough for you?’

Lakshmi opened her mouth to speak but he silenced her with a look. ‘Anyway, I thought you would stay for one or two days. There’s no-one to talk to here except fools.’ He seemed unaware of the insult to his own daughter, but no doubt she did not qualify as someone fit to have a conversation with.

‘Anyway, go if you must. But you’re always welcome to my house. I’ve never forgotten what you did for Mrs Nagarajan. Ask Percy Hancock. He must know something.’

di@k left him slumped in an old chair in the corner of the darkening room, still smoking. The sound of his cough followed di@k out. Lakshmi accompanied him to the door leading to the street. His car was waiting. They stood for a moment before he got in.

‘Please excuse my father for his rudeness. He doesn’t mean it. It’s the way he is now. It’s not always easy to…’ Her voice trembled as she looked down. He saw the tears filling her eyes.

‘There’s nothing to excuse,’ said di@k. ‘I’ve had a good day and you’ve been very hospitable. I think I shall take your father up on his offer to come again.’

‘I hope you will.’ Her voice was steady again and she smiled.

As the car drove off, he looked back. She was still standing in the street. She did not wave. Behind her, rising above the town, he saw the dark shape of the Nandi Hills in the gathering dusk.

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