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Excerpt for For the Love of Parvati by , available in its entirety at Smashwords









For The Love Of Parvati


An Anita Ray Mystery




Susan Oleksiw























Hale Street Press ◊ Prides Crossing ◊ MA ◊ 01965


Hale Street Press

P.O.Box 161

Prides Crossing, MA 01965


First published by Five Star Publishing, a part of Gale, Cengage

Learning, in 2014.


Cover design by Kathleen Valentine


Photograph by Susan Oleksiw



ISBN 978-0-9912082-9-6


Copyright © 2014 and 2016 by Susan Prince Oleksiw


Smashwords Edition


ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and

incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination, or, if

real, used fictitiously.


No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any

form or by an electronic or mechanical means, including

photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval

system, without the express written permission of the publisher,

except where permitted by law.



Dedication Page



For Usha Ramachandran




Acknowledgments



Dr. Charlene Allison and Eleanor Lodge kindly read the manuscript in an earlier form and made valuable suggestions. The Malayalam kinship system is complex, and I have attempted to identify characters correctly by kinship terms where appropriate or important to the story. Any errors in this and any other aspect of the story are mine alone.








For the Love of Parvati









One


The wooden footbridge was a proud achievement when it was first constructed in 1924, thanks to the Maharajah of Travancore. The two dressed stone pillars, one on either side of the narrow stream, tapered ten feet to the top where metal plates secured three wooden planks, which carried villagers across the water to the other side. Almost ninety years later the pillars remained, but the planks had been replaced a number of times until now they were merely scraps of wood held in place by large rocks on either pillar. Crossing safely required the balance of a mountain goat and the faith of a good Hindu.

The man underneath the eastern pillar, his back pushed hard up against the stone, was at first grateful for the haphazardly placed pieces above him but as the monsoon rains intensified, the wooden boards did little to protect him. The force of this year’s northeast monsoon in Southern India, and in central Kerala especially, made a mockery of roofs and shelters of all sorts. The rain pummeled the planks and the wind lifted each one, dropping it again and again onto the now useless metal plate, shifting each board this way or that. The boulders had long ago been moved to the edge, by human hands or storm, the man below couldn’t say. He cringed each time a board came crashing down onto the pillar. The first time, he started and jerked aside, but the rope around his neck pulled taut and he slid back down in the mud, his back scraping against the stone pillar. He gasped for breath.

Torn between fear and rage, fear the pillars and boards would collapse and crush him and rage that he had let himself get caught, he kept a wary eye on the action above. He kept an equally wary eye on the sapling at the far corner of the stone pillar he leaned against. There, whipping in the wind, folding low over the stream and snapping erect again and again, was a thin mango sapling, the anchor for one end of the tether around his neck. From his neck to the sapling. Every time he moved, he felt the cord around his neck tighten. If he tried to pull away, it would strangle him. But he couldn’t get closer to the tree. He’d tried that. The other end of the rope was looped through an iron ring set into the pillar.

At first he thought the crumbling stone around the iron ring was a weakness he could exploit. Even though his hands were tied behind his back, he thought if he could loosen the ropes on his wrists he could pull the ring out. He could get the ropes up to the base of his thumb, but he could work them no further off his hands. Even in the rain he could feel the blood seeping onto his wrists from the flesh rubbed raw by the rough coir fiber; his hands stung with thin sharp cuts.

For two days he had waited, tied to the pillar and the sapling, soaked and cold, his world shrinking to the boards above and the roiling stream at his feet. He didn’t know where it came from—somewhere higher up in the mountains, he assumed—but he knew where it went, into the Pamba River, which twisted and churned all the way to the valley floor and from there to Vembanad Lake on the coast. He had begun there, at the edge of the broad, still lake that shimmered in the sun, its surface a soft warm white, like an old man’s silvery hair. The directions had been to follow the river to reach his destination, so he had.

When he thought about how close he had come to his goal, the rage burned inside him. He didn’t mind dying, but not like this. He had promised to join his sister, to find her and protect her. But with every passing hour, he knew his chances of keeping that promise grew slimmer. He had been stupid enough to trust another, and this was the result—tied to a pillar and left to die here. Despite his careful planning, he had come to this. The hours passed, and he sank deeper into rage and fear, more fear than he would have ever admitted to himself was possible.

His captor said he would return, and he had—once. But that was two days ago. And now the rain was so much worse. With each passing hour, the jungle seemed to grow thicker and more threatening. It was not safe for a man here. But perhaps this was the point. The man tugged at the rope tied around his wrists. He wouldn’t dwell on what might happen to him here—he knew about jungles and how to live in them—he wouldn’t let fear overcome him.

There was one good thing about the monsoon and the decrepit bridge above him—it drove away the creatures curious about a human being resting here at this time. A bandicoot had nibbled at his ankle when he’d nodded off; his sudden awakening startled the animal and it jumped away. But only the clatter of the boards above drove the creature into seeking shelter elsewhere.

The man thought about that warm body skittering away as he pressed his arms close against his body, trying to shut out the cold. He’d never been so cold. Even when he pulled his legs up, kept his knees close, every part of him shivered. The rain was cold, the ground, every part of his body. If he nodded off from exhaustion, his head bobbed, and the rope caught, and he was awake again. The rope chafed and cut into his skin, and he winced at the slightest touch. The rain stung his open sores. That too kept him awake. Oh, how he needed rest, if only for a moment, to curl up and be warm, to be out of the cold and wet. He ached to sleep, to feel warmth and a night’s ease.

Bright shiny eyes pierced the blackness, and he forgot he was tired. He watched for the eyes but they disappeared. Had he imagined them? The wind swooped through again, lifting the leaves and branches, and the eyes shone and blinked again, closer this time. The man watched, calculating where the animal was, how far away, as the shining eyes appeared and disappeared behind the waving branches.

The animal crept closer, closer, placing its paws carefully in the muck, seemingly sensitive to the precariousness of the rain-soaked soil. The man made out the snout, then the ears—maybe a dog. No, not a dog. He had been warned about such an animal—a chennaya, the wild doglike animal of Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. If he saw many of these, he had been told, he’d gone too far, too far into the mountains, perhaps even into the park. But he hadn’t gone so far. He knew by the steepness of the climb, the number of houses he had passed, though there were fewer as he climbed, that he had not left the villages in the foothills of this part of Kerala. No, he had not gone too far. It had to be the rain, driving animals out of their usual habitat, confusing them, pushing them down the mountain into strange territory in their hunt for food.

The man searched the darkness for other shining eyes—these wild dogs didn’t travel alone. He’d been warned. The animal drew closer, the wind clattered the boards above, the animal lifted its head, shifted its gaze left, right, then backed away. Overcome, the man closed his eyes in relief, praising Shiva the Protector, Shiva All Powerful, Shiva All Seeing.

The sky darkened for the third time as the man stared up at the boards clattering and trembling in the wind—they were both his safety and his threat. How could this have happened to him, a sharp-eyed soldier who had never fallen into a trap before? He had been trained well. He had proven it time and again. Yet, here he was. The irony of failing in this, his last clandestine journey and the only one that truly mattered to him, cut out his very soul.

The wind whipped the sapling back and forth, its roots increasingly exposed as rain washed the dirt down the riverbank and currents carried it away. On the opposite shore whole sections of the bank had caved in and been sucked away by the churning water—coconut palms shifted and fell on top of other trees and shrubs; saplings slid like children into the stream.

The man watched his own sapling, his anchor to death, and calculated what might happen and how he could use it if it did. If the sapling fell, and its roots dislodged, he could pull it to him without the tether tightening on his throat. The man had practiced the quick movement he might need to catch the rope with his teeth and pull the sapling to him. Once he had the tree within reach, he could use his feet to work himself loose of the rope. He had been a laborer, a man used to doing for himself and his family. He could build his own palm-leaf house, roof and walls, braiding the fronds with his own feet. His toes were as supple as most people’s fingers. He could catch the sapling, pull it to him, and escape this imprisonment.

As the night darkened, the rain continued steadily, insistently, as though Shiva had determined to destroy the world this time not with fire but with water, all the water of the cosmos. The man scanned the riverbank, recited mantras to keep himself awake. He had to be alert to catch that sapling before it slid down the bank and fell into the stream, where the rushing water would pull the rope taut.

He heard the animal first. It was there, out of sight, but there. He didn’t doubt his ears. The wind rested, gathering strength for its next onslaught. He heard the animal. He knew that sound. The intermittent guttural purr pierced the wind and rain and stabbed at him like a jolt of electricity. It couldn’t be—no, it couldn’t. He looked deep into the forest. These were the Cardamom Hills, on the slopes west of Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, where all sorts of wildlife had been left to live in their own ways. The leopard shouldn’t be down here, so far from the park. Perhaps it was stalking the chennaya, or maybe the bandicoot, looking for food. The man strained to hear.

The animal couldn’t smell him—he was sure of that. As frightened as he was, he was covered in mud and soaked to the skin—no odor of fear could leak from his body. He looked down at his lungi, the wrapped lower cloth that looked like it had been painted onto his limbs, so heavy was the rain. Oh. There, yes, there it was. He had betrayed himself. His captor had left him so long he was now sitting in his own excrement. The animal roared again—low, a warning, unsure of what kind of being hid unmoving beneath the bridge. A paw began to probe the ground.

The man instinctively pulled away, but this time the rope did not grow taut—the sapling had loosened and tilted in his direction. He had room to maneuver—not much; a little. Mud slid in chunks down the riverbank, the roar grew louder; water surged down the stream. Waves churned up the bank, scraping the undergrowth from the shore. The man saw it coming at him, a wall of water almost level with his line of sight. It was certain death unless he could do something. He pulled against the rope tying his wrists together and felt a sharp pain. But the rope tore and his hands flew apart. One thumb wouldn’t move, but he had one good hand. He could smell the leopard. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a muddy, spotted paw reach out. The surge of water hit the sapling; a gust of wind lifted the planks; the water ripped the man from his manacle and knocked the leopard from its hiding place.









Two


“Oh how I envy Lalita Amma!” The middle-aged woman curled her fingers around the pleats in her light cotton sari as she leaned toward the window; the paddy fields stretched all the way to the foothills, the sharp slope of a hillside at the end of a flat expanse. She seemed oblivious to the gray sky and mud.

“You are romanticizing, Auntie Meena,” Anita said. She liked the landscape too, but she had no illusions about what it meant to live in the central part of Kerala and how hard it was to grow paddy or any other crop. She liked good food, but she didn’t want to grow it. Right now the farmers were struggling not only with an overwhelming monsoon but also with the loss of farm workers, the loss of markets, and a decline in prices. Farming was not an easy life.

“Ach! You are cynical.” Meena swung toward her. “And that is why I wanted you to come. You need to have . . . get . . .”

Anita studied her aunt as she stumbled through her list of random excuses. “I thought I was keeping you company.”

“Exactly!” Meena patted her sari skirt.

“So what exactly is it you think I need?” Anita’s eyes narrowed as Meena began to fumble her words again.

“Why, ah, fresh air!”

“We live on the ocean with unremitting breezes.”

“And new perspectives of . . .”

“Of what?” Anita’s eyebrows flattened.

“All that is out in the wide world.”

“You’re going to have to accept Anand at some time, Auntie Meena.”

“But I do, I do.” Meena shook her head. “You misjudge me. You are unkind.”

“You are sneaky, Auntie, sneaky.”

“You must not talk like that. I need you to be cheerful and kind. We are taking this little trip for the sake of your aunt Lalita. She is troubled, sad. Now she is a widow—all her life is changing.” Meena gave a little gasp, and drew back from the chasm that opened before her—she too was a widow, a woman who had lost her husband when they were both relatively young. Even now she was known to burst into tears at the sight of the widow’s traditional white garment. Anita softened—it was rare that her aunt revealed true feeling. She was most often given to histrionics over things others considered trivial.

“Auntie, she has been a widow for over a year now.” Anita patted her aunt’s knee.

“Ah! Even so. But still, there is great change going on. Moving to the old estate, now, that is not to be disregarded.” Meena leaned back in her seat as the car rounded a curve, scattering sand and pebbles into the yard of a house sitting close to the edge of the road.

“And I don’t see what good I can do her.” Anita frowned. She had capitulated to her aunt’s repeated requests that she come along on this visit, but she was beginning to have second thoughts.

“You will be so good for her.” Meena clapped her hand on the back of the driver’s seat. “Joseph! Too fast! You are going too fast!”

“Shari, shari.” The driver slowed, and Anita noticed his shoulders relax. “Very bad driving in all this wet weather,” he said.

“We are soon there,” Meena said.

“Perhaps I can say hello and leave you and Auntie Lalita to enjoy each other’s company. I can return to the hotel with Joseph,” Anita said. It was the middle of November and Hotel Delite was open for the season, but few foreign guests would appear before the end of the month. Meena felt safe leaving the hotel in others’ hands.

“No, no, you must stay.” Meena grabbed Anita’s hand.

“Auntie?” Anita waited but Meena continued to stare out the window. “Meena Elayamma?” Anita knew the more traditional title for a mother’s younger sister would break through Meena’s reserve. Meena’s lower lip trembled and she squeezed Anita’s hand. “So, what haven’t you told me?”

“Why do you always accuse me of such things?” Meena did her best to sulk.

“Do I not know you as well I know my own mother?”

“Ah! Your mother! What will she say when you are thirty and not yet married?” This was entirely rhetorical, and Anita knew it, but she still felt the compulsion to correct her aunt.

“She won’t say a thing. She is happy in America, and she understands I am to be allowed to make up my own mind.”

Meena flinched. “Don’t say such things. Lalita Amma will be shocked.” She nodded to Joseph in the front seat to let Anita know she should be more discreet. “It would be most inappropriate at this time.”

“Why at this time?”

“Valli is there.” It was barely a whisper but Anita heard, and she noticed that Joseph in the front seat did too. The car slowed.

“Why is that something to whisper about? And why didn’t you tell me? I haven’t seen her since her wedding two years ago. This is wonderful news.” Anita smiled at the prospect of a visit with her cousin. “It is good news, isn’t it?”

Meena shrugged. “What is good news, what is bad news? Who knows?”

And that, thought Anita, means you are not telling me everything. Anita looked out at the soaked landscape. She ignored Meena’s melodramatic sighs and stared at the road ahead, gearing herself for whatever Meena was up to.

Joseph swung the car around a pothole and slowed to take a sharp curve; when the road straightened out Anita saw a line of vehicles stopped ahead at a roadblock. She tried to count the number of policemen as the car came to a stop at the end of the line of automobiles and motorcycles. At first she thought they were stuck at a puddle too deep to cross. The northeast monsoon was turning out to be heavier and more intense than anticipated, with the usual intermittent showers turning into unrelenting downpours, and puddles merging into streams that flooded village squares and washed out homes and shops. Families forced to flee with their belongings to higher ground watched pots and bedding and odd bits of furniture float by. But it wasn’t a puddle that had brought the cars to a halt. Two police officers in their starched khaki uniforms leaned against a portable wooden barrier while four more officers peered into cars and read papers clutched in their hands.

Farther ahead, near the next bend in the road, an old bus with the letters KSRTC emblazoned across the front was slowing down. When it pulled to a halt, a policeman climbed aboard.

“Hmm,” Joseph said. “They are searching for contraband again. Rice, perhaps alcohol.”

“No, no, not now.” Meena peered through the windshield. As a hotelier, she felt she knew what was worth smuggling into the state and what could easily be left elsewhere.

“Maybe they’re collecting bribes,” Anita said.

Joseph inched the car forward as the driver of the car stopped at the portable barrier took his documents, got into the car, and drove away. A stout officer waved a small red car forward, then thrust out his hand, ordering it to stop. A second policeman ordered the driver, a man, and a woman passenger out of the car and motioned them to stand to the side of the road. He took the driver’s documents and read them slowly, glancing up at the driver every now and then. With a wag of his head, the officer waved the man to the back of the car and ordered him to open the boot.

“Now this is very curious,” Anita said. “Not small, large enough to be hidden in a car’s boot.” Anita clucked while she considered the possibilities. “Could be drugs, but probably not. These people do not look like they are drug couriers.” When it was their turn, Joseph drove forward to the temporary wooden barrier. Anita and Meena immediately handed over their papers.

“What are you looking for?” Anita asked the policeman. He must have been close to Meena’s age, with a sour, dull look that warned people away, a man who had been passed over year after year for promotion and now had the unenviable job of searching cars on back roads for contraband while his senior officer, a much younger man, stood by, giving the orders to raise the portable barrier, lower it, search this car more carefully, look here, look there.

The officer gave Anita a careful, regarding look before taking her papers and studying them at his leisure. The two women stood by the back door, while Joseph stood at the front.

“Where are you going?” the officer asked.

“To visit a friend, outside Chengannur. In the hills.” Anita noted that he didn’t even start to look up at her as she spoke.

“What place?”

Anita named the small village.

“What family?”

Anita named Lalita Amma’s family.

“Hmm.” His head began to swing in affirmation, but then he stiffened and Anita wondered if he would be warned for breaking the blank wall of official duty, or if he had noticed something in her papers. He began to flip through the documents one more time, though almost casually.

“And you are only going for visit?”

“Yes, yes. Lalita Amma is a relation.” Meena pressed up against Anita.

The policeman looked at Meena beneath his eyebrows, pursing his lips and studying her as though she were speaking a foreign tongue and he found the flexing of her facial muscles of great interest. He sighed. “Boot. Open.” He tipped his head toward the back of the car as he walked around it. Anita popped the latch on the boot. “Remove.” He pointed to the luggage. Anita pulled out two suitcases and a cloth bag of gifts for the family.

“What are you looking for?” she asked. “Drugs?”

The policeman paid no attention to her; instead, he leaned into the boot and with his lathi lifted up the edge of an old rug covering the floor, moved his hand over the rough surface without actually touching it, careful to keep his fingers and palm clean, and again used the lathi to push the rug to the side. He poked deeper into the dark space. He wrapped a clean handkerchief around his hand before pulling out the spare tire and looking into the well. With a sigh of sheer boredom, he motioned Anita to open the luggage.

“Here?”

“Here.”

“Shari, shari.” Anita knelt down and unzipped the two bags, laying them open on a blue plastic tarp the police had spread out on the ground. The officer knelt and began looking through her things, poking, probing, pressing, even squeezing the clothing. He picked up the cloth bag containing gifts and set it in the well of the boot, then pushed his hand in and moved it around. Anita had the awful feeling she was going to be asked to unwrap the two gifts she had tied up in silk fabric. She avoided looking at Meena—and had no trouble imagining her aunt’s stricken look of insult.

A coolish breeze lifted the end of Anita’s dupatta and she glanced up at the blackening sky. It looked like it was about to throw a month’s worth of rain right at them. Rainwater glistened on tree branches and tall blades of grass; muddy puddles covered the shoulders along the roads; cows and goats nudged each other on narrower and narrower paths; lanes were impassible. And it was cool. There was so much rain that the sun barely shone through the clouds long enough to dry up the puddles, leaving the people of Kerala with the odd sensation of feeling a slight chill. Most who lived along the coast had never experienced a temperature below twenty degrees Celsius, and Anita found herself pulling her dupatta tighter around her shoulders and wishing she had kept out a shawl for the drive.

“Done.”

“Of course it is done.” Meena lifted her chin. “Do we look like criminals?”

The officer glanced at her before calling out, “Hari? Okay?”

Anita turned to see whom he was calling to, and found another officer crawling out of the backseat of their car, dusting himself off. Joseph stood to the side, a look of resignation on his face. He seemed to be taking the whole thing philosophically.

“Okay.” Hari nodded and walked back to the officer who seemed to be in charge; the two men studied the front of the car, and the officer wrote something down.

“Are you recording our registration plate?” Anita asked.

“It is all right. Go.” The policeman ignored her question and waved them to drive on. He walked back to the next car, a bright-green foreign auto driven by a young man wearing dark spectacles.

Anita repacked the boot and got into the car as the barrier was raised. She glanced back to see the constable leaning over the back of her car, his left hand resting on the fender. As Joseph drove slowly away from the roadblock, Anita heard her aunt’s mutterings about the police search but didn’t think to reply; she was too caught up in going over the encounter, the way the policemen searched, the notes they had taken of the various registration plates, the questions asked and those not asked. It all seemed typical of an area search for, perhaps, a suspected criminal, smugglers or drug runners, or political operatives. But it wasn’t typical.

“These things are becoming so annoying,” Meena said. “Government is intrusive.” She crossed her arms and pouted.

“Too much of this,” Joseph agreed. “Typical.”

“No,” Anita said. “This was not typical. The man in black hiding in the trees and pointing his rifle straight at us was not typical.”

“What?” Both Meena and Joseph spoke at once.

“The man among the trees. He was the one in charge, not the man at the barrier with the clipboard. The man in black was the one who signaled to the officer that we could leave.”

A man with a rifle, thought Anita, in Kerala.

* * * * *

Joseph maneuvered the car through the narrow streets of Chengannur. This was the last stop on the train line for anyone heading deeper into the hills, and in general, the only ones heading deeper into the mountains were the few villagers who lived there or devotees going to Sabarimala, a mountain where a holy site held an annual festival that was famous throughout India. Beyond Sabarimala was Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, but tourists did not take this route to get there. The car began a slow ascent, weaving through villages, past the great temple town Arunmula. After a while the car turned off onto a narrow paved lane.

This was one of the ways Anita measured the modernization of Kerala—the old dirt lane had turned into a one-lane paved road during her mother’s childhood, and now was a newly paved two-lane road, with wider dirt shoulders to aid cars in passing each other. The car entered a small village.

“We are collecting Lalita Amma’s son, Prakash. He is working here.” Meena smiled, relaxed now that they were climbing into the hills and would soon reach their destination. “He is a priest here, very successful—a rising star.”

So that’s what this is all about, Anita thought. This was more than Anita usually managed to get when Auntie Meena brought up someone she considered a suitable prospect for her niece. Anita was beginning to think Meena was hopeless—after coming to admit that perhaps Anand, Anita’s friend, was not such a bad sort, she seemed to have reverted to her earlier state—the older female relative on the hunt for a suitable spouse for a young woman in the family. Anita pulled out her mobile phone.

“Such a fine young man,” Meena said, starting to preen as though she were his mother and not a distant relation. Unlike most of the men Anita’s age, Prakash had turned away from high-tech work, the booming construction sector, and almost everything else that came his way. After dropping out of engineering college, Prakash sought and obtained his current assignment as an assistant priest and was marvelously content. Anita knew all this because Meena had suffered through his various career vicissitudes as though she were his mother. Aside from all this, Anita thought Prakash was a nice sort, very much the younger brother she’d never had.

“What are you doing?” Meena asked, eyeing Anita’s mobile phone.

Joseph swung the car wide to avoid another puddle.

“I thought I’d call Anand, and let him know where I am.” Anita wiggled the phone in a futile effort to improve the reception.

“Maybe it will work later,” Meena said.

Joseph grunted and glanced at the two women in his rearview mirror.

“It will be nice to see Valli and her mother—and Prakash, yes?” Meena smiled and tapped Anita’s knee.

Anita agreed, and tried to fix in her memory exactly where Valli’s mother fit in the family tree, which right now had so many branches that on some days Anita feared she was related to every other Nayar in Kerala. Valli was sitting on a branch somewhere, but despite their many wonderful childhood summers together, Anita couldn’t quite grasp why Valli and her mother, Lalita Amma, had suddenly become so important to Auntie Meena. Unless . . .

“Don’t look at me like that,” Meena said.

Joseph swerved around a busload of men dressed in black lungis and black shirts. “Sabarimala returning,” he said. “Just finishing their pilgrimage.”

Despite the heavy rains, the pilgrim traffic up to and from the holy site in the hills was unabated, and Anita enjoyed seeing the truckloads of devotees going or coming—they gave a festive quality to the journey. The trucks of those returning also told others the roads were still passable up ahead. The men gathered in their villages all over Kerala and set out in large and small groups for the temple at Sabarimala. The roads were filled with men on pilgrimage.

“We will collect Prakash and be on our way,” Meena said. She moved closer to Anita and lowered her voice. “And with all this rain you and Valli will be confined to the house.” She glanced at Joseph to make sure he was not listening. “And then you can learn the things we need to learn.”

Anita scowled at her aunt. “What things?”

“She is only one.” Meena gave Anita a knowing smile.

“Only one? Oh, yes, I see. Valli has no child yet.”

“And you as her friend are able to learn why this is so.” Meena flicked her head in satisfaction with handing over this task and moved back to the window.

Anita considered her aunt’s words. Perhaps she’d been wrong about her aunt. Perhaps this trip wasn’t about introducing Anita to the idea of Prakash as a prospective husband. Perhaps it really was about comforting Lalita Amma after her husband’s death, and finding out if things were all right with Valli.

But even so, Anita wasn’t sure she wanted this assignment. Valli had been married for almost two years and so far there had been no child—this was unusual for an Indian marriage—but Anita knew there could be nothing to it. Valli was known to be of an independent mind.

Joseph steered around a cow rummaging through a pile of refuse; he drove into a sandy lot in front of a temple compound wall, and parked under a banyan tree.

The Thiruvadnagar Devi Temple was modest by most standards—a high compound wall enclosed five shrines. The central shrine was the largest, about the size of an average village house, and the shrines at the four cardinal points were the size of dollhouses. Each shrine at a cardinal point was painted in bright colors. The back and sides of the main shrine were also painted in bright colors, and two voluptuous women were carved on pilasters to serve as door guardians at the front. Because it was midday, and the morning puja long finished, the compound was empty of devotees; a sweeper woman passed in front of the main gate with a basket of leaves under her arm, her free hand carrying a broom.

“Now to find Prakash.” Meena and Anita climbed out of the car, slipped off their sandals at the main gate, and walked in. The door to the office was open, and Meena strolled over, but Anita decided to circumambulate the main shrine. She set off, passing shrines to Ganesha, Karttikeya, Bhairava, and Parvati, Siva’s consort. When she returned to the front gate, she saw Prakash waving to her from the office.

“You have come! You have come!” He loped over to her, pressing his hands together in anjali, his face one large smile, making him look much younger than his years. “I am so happy to see you, Anita Chechi, so happy.” Anita began to laugh—his exuberance was that of a small child. “Meena Amma has told me—we shall have such a good visit—all of us together. You and Valli and me—like old times.”

“I did not realize Valli would be here too,” Anita said. “Wonderful news. I haven’t had a real visit with your mother in donkeys’ years and I can’t wait to see everyone,” Anita said, wondering what else her auntie Meena had failed to tell her. “The car is outside.”

“Yes, I am almost ready. One delay only,” Prakash said. “First, we have a passenger. I have promised a devotee we can give him a ride to the village.” Prakash lowered his voice. “He is very poor. A laborer. Work is scarce and travel is costly.”

“Of course,” Anita agreed, though it was a bit awkward. Another passenger meant that Joseph would have to share the front seat with two men while Anita and Meena sat in the back. “And the delay?”

“A small matter. The priest wants a few quick words with me before I leave. Just now. It is some technical matter, since I am going only for a short visit.” Prakash loped back to the office, turning to wave to her before he disappeared inside.

Anita decided to use the extra time to get to know the temple better. She strolled over to one of the smaller shrines, walked around it, and strolled back to the gate. The tiles covering the compound wall were thick with mold from the heavy rain but otherwise most were in good condition; the wood doors to the small cells that served as storage or rooms for traveling monks were old but also in good condition. The dirt ground, though damp, was tidy and smooth; door metalware was shiny but, again, old. A small temple, thought Anita, but well cared for. There might be no money for the newer embellishments—brass door decorations, new oil lamps, new doors for shrines—but the temple was not neglected. It obviously had sufficient devotees to keep it going. As evidence of this, a woman came through a side entrance with a bundle of battered aluminum pots still dripping from washing. When Anita heard the prayerful greeting to a priest, she turned.

“Ah, Prakash.” Anita smiled and started to walk toward him, but she paused when she saw his face. Something was different now. He glanced almost furtively at the old woman with the pots as he passed her.

“We can go now.” He managed to smile, but Anita wondered at how hard it seemed to be.

“No passenger? I haven’t seen anyone, so I was wondering . . .”

“What? Oh, yes, he’s waiting outside. This way.” Prakash led the way to the car, and stood, his arms hanging at his side, by the back door. Meena sat in the car chatting with Joseph.

“Prakash?”

“What? Oh, Anita Chechi, I am so sorry.” He seemed to remember where he was and once again became the professional, the new assistant priest. He waved to a man sitting under a tree, who immediately rose and trotted over to the car.

Yes, this man is poor, thought Anita as she watched the stranger. His clothes were worn and faded, and he carried a small bundle over his shoulder; the rubber chappals on his feet looked like they were ready to fall apart. She ushered Prakash and his friend into the front seat and climbed into the back. Joseph turned around to glare at Anita and Meena. But Anita ignored him, and Meena clucked at him. She was not one to take criticism from her driver.

“Do you need directions, Joseph?” Prakash asked. “Anita Chechi? Have you given directions?”

Joseph headed into the hills. The car had not gone far before they were halted at a second roadblock. Anita steeled herself for another delay but to her surprise, the police officers only walked around the car, peered into the front seat and backseat, then motioned Joseph to drive on. When they later arrived at the estate and Anita went around to the boot to supervise unloading the luggage, she understood why the car had not been searched a second time—two thin red pieces of nylon twine marked the seam between boot and body. If anyone had opened the boot between roadblocks, the police would have known—and searched a second time.

* * * * *

The drive into the mountains was not as Anita remembered it. Joseph navigated the ever-narrowing roads, Prakash reassuring her they were on the right track, and Meena chirped that it all looked so familiar, changed but familiar. Anita doubted that anything looked familiar in this year’s rains—old mud walls lay collapsed along the shoulder, shrubs sprawled in ditches, their roots rainwashed clean of soil, and every now and then a solitary and soaked rag waved from a tree branch. When she turned to comment to Prakash about all this, she found him staring abstractedly out the window and his friend lying slumped down, apparently asleep.

“He’s tired,” Prakash replied the first time Anita noticed this. “Construction work in Goa. Very hard. So now he is doing day labor in this area. Very hard.” He delivered this news in a flat monotone and Anita resigned herself to a silent drive. She had started out with pleasurable anticipation and had been quickly deflated. Whatever had gotten to Prakash seemed to be getting to her too.

“Mind the goat!” Prakash called out.

A black-and-white goat jumped across the road, slipped in the mud, and stumbled into a nearby yard. Anita could hear the animal bleating as Joseph drove on. The little houses became sparser as they rode higher into the hills, and the rivulets of rainwater running along the road thickened into small streams in deep gulleys.









Three


The old family house sat in a cleft in the hillside, surrounded by the thick trees and bushes of the region—a few cardamom trees, mango and papaya trees, pepper vines, and more that Anita couldn’t distinguish in the graying afternoon light and thickening mist of a monsoon season. But it was, she was certain, as beautiful as always.

This was a place she loved. Here she’d spent month after month in her childhood with Valli, a distant cousin but also a dear friend. In the early-morning hours they fled the house and the ayah and followed a mahout and his elephant down to the river where he washed his beloved animal. If the mahout was in a good mood, he commanded the elephant to shower the girls with water, which drove them giggling up and down the bank. Sometimes he pretended not to notice them, and the girls crept up close to the other side of the animal before the mahout slapped his hand down on the water and sent them fleeing to the riverbank. Sometimes he scowled at them, and they hunkered down to watch, tossing pebbles into the lapping waves and wondering what they had done to anger him.

The old feelings of blissful freedom from responsibility rose up in Anita—here she had always been a girl set free from whatever ills beset her relatives or their village, her ship loosened from the anchor of duties that held her at home under her mother’s watchful eye. She could drift on a breeze, find a quiet harbor of solitude, a sail for a storm. Joseph drove the car up to the gateway now standing in solitary splendor, time and weather having crushed the baked brick compound wall that used to extend on either side.

“Oh, Prakash! I am so glad to be here. It has been too long! Your home in the North may be grand, but this will always hold my heart.” Anita waited for him to turn around and acknowledge her enthusiasm.

“Ah, yes,” Meena said. “The old ways are the best.”

Prakash glanced at the house, tipped his head to one side, and seemed to think about Anita’s comment. “Yes, it is an old house of memories.” He offered her a ruminative look. “My mother will be glad to see you, Chechi. She has missed you. She often says so and Valli promises you will come.” He tried to smile, but his smile seemed to flag just as it got going. “And so you have. You are here.”

* * * * *

An hour later, Anita unlatched the louvered doors that opened onto a small upper veranda and stood on the sill while the rain fell in sheets. The only sound was the sound of rain. No birds sang or cawed indignantly, no cows mooed, no goats brayed. No car horns honked, no lorries squealed around corners. The rain was a wall enclosing the family in its own private world, as though nothing else existed outside this rambling old house. And crumbling gardens, Anita added to herself as she caught sight of the low walls and potted plants at the far end of the courtyard. Sad, she thought, and went back inside to change her clothes before joining the others for tea.

“Come!” Anita called at the sound of someone knocking on her door.

“Luggage is here.” Prakash pushed open the door and slid a suitcase into the room.

“Prakash?”Anita tried to conceal her surprise. “Where is Thampi?”

“Ah! Going to Sabarimala!” Prakash waved away the question about the old family servant who managed the garden, maintained the house, chased after the animals, and ran whatever errands anyone came up with. Making the pilgrimage to Sabarimala had been Thampi’s dream for years. “His first trip, so he is most particular in his preparations—he is adhering to his austerity vows for almost two months now. Very hard.”

Anita could imagine how difficult this might be for the elderly man—no meat, no fish, no sex, no alcohol, and no abusive words. “Does he come at all to work?”

Prakash shook his head. “He came one day all in black, the pilgrim clothing, and we knew. He is not needing to speak.” He shrugged. “The first group from this village leaves in a few days, I am thinking, and he will be gone with them.”

Anita thanked him and began to unpack. She would miss seeing Thampi, but she was happy for him, and she hummed to herself as she arranged her clothing in the closet. She loved this room. This one had always been Anita’s after both sets of parents decided the girls, Anita and Valli, were old enough to sleep in their own rooms during visits—not so long ago, it seemed to Anita. Her room faced the front, looking out over part of the veranda, and giving her a view of the wing that jutted out to her right. This was called the new wing, though it had been added decades ago. To her left and behind the house were the hills and jungle. The room was the same, the view was the same; only the people were different.

Except for the laborer who had hitched a ride with them and gotten out at the village crossroads, Anita didn’t see anyone as they passed through the village—the rain was keeping everyone inside. When Joseph stopped the car for the passenger to alight, the laborer slipped from the car with barely a word and no acknowledgment of the others at all—merely a perfunctory nod to Prakash. The stranger melted into the mist as though he had been an illusion, a figment of Anita’s imagination. His departure added to her feeling of isolation and even estrangement, of having entered a separate world defined by the rain, created by the rain, at the mercy of ceaseless rain, cut off from the rest of the world on the plains below.

“Come, come. Tea is here.” Valli’s mother saw Anita coming down the stairs and waved her into a large sitting room, with finely carved mahogany chairs and settees covered with brightly colored cushions. Meena plumped a pillow behind her, and smiled the smile of one who feels so comfortable that she sees no need to conduct conversation.

“Lalita Amma, my room is the same!” Anita took a chair close to Valli’s mother.

“Why should it be different? When we moved North, we took so little, so everything is as we left it.” Lalita paused. “I am glad you are pleased.”

“You don’t like the North?” Anita ran her hand over the old fabric, shabby with age but still beautiful. She meant the question kindly, the way she had always teased her aunts when they grew nostalgic or sentimental, but Lalita Amma seemed to take it literally.

“This is my home. But my husband—he found success in the North.”

Anita couldn’t miss the wistful note in the old woman’s voice, and found herself thinking it matched Lalita’s condition—the plain white sari, no gold or colored border, no colored choli, no jewelry, the dress of a widow. Somehow success didn’t seem to glow for her anymore.

“But you must take tea.” Lalita Amma nodded to the maidservant standing nearby. The woman was so quiet and unobtrusive that Anita hadn’t really noticed her. The maidservant picked up a metal cup and its flat-bottomed bowl, and began pouring the hot tea from cup to bowl and back again, to cool it off. The wide arc of chocolaty tea whooshed again and again, until the maidservant deemed it ready, when she handed the cup in its bowl to Anita.

“Now, the news. I must have news.” Lalita settled into her chair, her hands resting in her lap. “First, your mother. How is she?”

Anita searched her memory for news about her mother, which was mostly of the variety of vacation travels or the like.

“Meena, you have told me none of this. You are not confiding in me?” Lalita said.

“Ah.” Meena smiled. “I am tired of hearing of her travels and the ease of her life. I sit in my little office with the accounts books in front of me and my sister’s life is like a fantasy.”

Lalita Amma chuckled. “Perhaps you should tell her, and she will come back to help you. Family duty, isn’t it?”

“Ayoo! Do you think she would give up so much easy living to come back here? My sister has all the conveniences and also a housekeeper. Why would she come here, where she has to argue with servants and do so much of the work herself because no one wants to be a maidservant anymore? No, she is quite satisfied to be an NRI—all the advantages of being an Indian and none of the disadvantages.”

“NRI is it? Nonresident Indian, eh? More likely Never Return to India.” Lalita lifted her hand to forestall any protests.

“It is no matter, Lalita Amma,” Anita said. “She would not be happy here, and besides, Meena Elayamma would then be the younger daughter even in her own home. She would lose status. No, better my mother stays away, where she is happy.” Anita leaned back on the settee and stretched out her feet. “Let things remain as they are.”

“I do not see how she can live there,” Meena said, more to herself than the others. She had been listening to Anita and Lalita bantering, and instead of joining in had grown quiet. “She will always be a stranger, always be foreign. She can never belong. No one knows who she is, not really. They only see the name of her husband. Who is she to them? She is not a woman with a family going back four hundred years, yes, four hundred years with all the documents to prove it. She is only a woman with a strange accent from a strange country with a lot of poor people.” Meena shook her head, looking down at her bare feet peeking out from beneath her sari hem. “No, we should not leave our homelands. Better we stay where we belong, where people know us and recognize us. It is much better.”

The two other women stared at Meena, their mouths agape. Anita hardly knew what to say. She had never heard her aunt talk like this. Coming into an old family home seemed to have unsettled her.

Anita gave Lalita Amma a careful smile, and said, “But shouldn’t Valli be telling me about her new life?” Anita signaled the maidservant for more tea, and the young woman padded across the floor to pour another cup and cool it before handing it to Anita. “Where has Valli got to? She showed me to my room, and then disappeared.”

“She is with her brother.”

For a moment Anita thought she might be imagining it but she knew she wasn’t. The warmth had dimmed in Lalita Amma’s eyes. Her initial enthusiasm while welcoming her guests had been eclipsed by darker feelings. Anita had known Lalita Amma for too long to miss the signs of trouble. Something was definitely wrong.

* * * * *

The cook listened with her head tipped to the side. Vengamma was as old as Lalita, perhaps older, a fixture in the household for as long as Anita could remember. Her earliest memory of the cook was watching her standing in the old cooking annex, now long gone, on the hard-packed dirt floor tending her cooking fires, ordering the helpers without turning around to watch them, putting out her hand for what she wanted when she wanted it, knowing her palm would be filled.

“Hmmm.” Vengamma unfolded the sheet of paper and studied it, then waved it in the air, calling to the maidservant in the farther room. “Parvati! Va!” Vengamma handed her the slip of paper without even looking at her.

“Stupid girl,” Vengamma said returning to Anita. “She is so shy, she would hide in a latrine. But what am I to do? Who will work today? No one will work. They want fancy jobs in big hotels, big tips from the foreigners and money to buy their own televisions. I am lucky I have anyone.” Vengamma continued the litany of complaints that Anita was used to hearing whenever she visited the friends of her parents, an older generation confused and sometimes stunned into silence by the changes going on around them.

The maidservant Parvati withdrew deeper into the cooking rooms, and Anita wondered what the servant thought of all this lamentation. Anita got the feeling Parvati wasn’t from this area; if she were, she’d ignore Vengamma’s complaints or give as well as she got. But instead Parvati seemed to crawl inside herself, staying as quiet and as unobtrusive as possible. Hers was the mentality of the ill-used servant, Anita knew, and one of the worst legacies of centuries of repression. Anita wondered how far the young maidservant had traveled before fetching up here, isolated in the hills from any of her own people, far from her own village. How desperate did you have to be to wander so far for work?

“But she can cook and she is not bothering me with idle chatter about film stars and Bollywood.” Vengamma reached for a plate on the stone counter behind her, and showed it to Anita. “Now, come. Fried banana.”

Vengamma led the way into the family library, where Valli was peering into the bottom drawer of an old wooden desk.

“Ah, there you are.” Anita leaned over the desk and tapped her cousin on the shoulder. Valli sat up and smiled at Anita.

“You eat!” Vengamma plopped the plate down on the desk and left.

“She hasn’t changed,” Anita said, “nor has this room.”

“You talk as though it has been years.” Valli pushed the drawer shut and reached for the plate, pulling it closer to her and examining the offerings.

“Almost two years, I think. Not since you were married.” Anita walked along the periphery of the room, fingering the books on the bookshelves, the odd china cup kept for its delicate painted decoration regardless of the chip in the rim, the baked clay figure of Krishna in bright paint now flaking and fading, and the stack of wooden coin counters pushed into the corner of a near-empty shelf. “What are these doing here?” Anita pulled out one of the counters—a thin piece of mahogany about eight inches long by five inches wide, with a carved handle at the top; the body featured ten rows, each with ten shallow round pockets; each pocket, about the size of the impression of a little finger, could be filled with a small gold coin. The coins of the time were so small and thin that they became impossible to handle individually—spreading them over the board, to fill in the pockets, proved to be a much easier way to calculate the required quantity.

Valli looked up as she finished eating one of the fried banana slices and licked her fingers. “I’m looking for something for Prakash, but not having much luck. What have you got there?” She peered at the wooden counter in Anita’s hand. “Oh that.” Valli leaned back in her chair. “Have you tried one of these?” She tipped the plate toward her friend. “So good. I get so fat here.”

The wooden coin counter was light, the wood smooth from years of use. In the stack on the shelf Anita noted about a dozen in different sizes, and imagined the bags of gold coins, some as thin as paper, carried by property owners to make purchases. Anita wasn’t surprised that Valli’s family had a pile of the counters, but Anita was mildly surprised at seeing them stacked all together on a shelf in the library; the family had a business office elsewhere in the house where such things were kept. She replaced the small counter on the stack and continued her walk around the room. When she had made a complete circuit of the room, she curled up on an old settee, stuffing cushions behind her back.

Valli watched the rain pouring down outside, its roar filling the room. After a moment, she rose and closed the doors to the veranda.

“It’s too bad you got here so late. We could have had a walk to the neighbors. But the rain comes on early and lasts and lasts. This year is very bad, very hard for the farmers.”

“I am sorry we are late. A roadblock delayed us. Our car was searched.”

“Really? A search? This happened to you?” Valli seemed concerned and pulled a chair up close to the settee. “And why are they searching?”

“The police didn’t say, but I was not convinced it was drugs. I saw a man with a rifle hiding out of sight.”

“Oh.” Valli’s eyes widened and she stared at Anita as though she were a complete stranger. Oddly enough, Anita felt like one, too.

“Then we stopped at the temple to collect Prakash.” Anita leaned forward. “Something is wrong there, I am sure of it. He was so happy to see us and we started to plan, but he had to go back to the office; then, after a final word with the priest, he was quite different. He went away happy and came back sad. Something is wrong, isn’t it?”

“Oh, really, Anita.” Valli huffed and flounced back in her chair. “Can’t you be like other people and ignore these little things in the name of etiquette?”

“What rule of etiquette is that? To ignore someone’s distress?”

“Oh . . .” Valli looked around her, her lips turning down into a pout. “I didn’t think it would be so obvious so soon.” Valli picked at the folds of her sari, pulling them into alignment. “I am hoping a visit with us will cheer him up. You are like his elder sister too, yes?”

“Yes, yes,” Anita agreed. Prakash had always addressed her as Chechi, elder sister, and tagged along with her and Valli whenever they went off into the jungle to explore. He was dear to her.

“Why does he need cheering up?” Anita asked.

Valli looked around at the old family library, as though the answer lay hidden somewhere among the books long undusted and even longer unread. Her father had spent his evening hours in here playing chess by postcard with dozens of friends around the world, his miniature chess sets covering a long table and his favorite chess set sitting on its own table by his desk.

Missing, thought Anita. She looked around the room for all the little chess sets, but they were missing too. She waited for Valli to answer but instead the other woman grew gloomier and gloomier. “Did Auntie Meena know Prakash needed cheering up?” Anita was becoming increasingly suspicious of her aunt, but Valli shook her head.


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