The evening sun painted the western sky; hues that stirred a certain feeling of restlessness tinged with future dreams in the minds of mortals who were given to romantic notions. The peacock’s cries resonated with a restlessness that echoed of a certain despair. It echoed to the far off place where demons stand guard, the place where your fate was seemingly tangled in itself. Looking down from the apartment terrace Maria could catch the last rays of sun glinting off of the peacock’s feathers. Maria scoured the landscape below, searching for that one peacock that will show off all its grandeur. Hopefully it would spread its feathers today, instead of strutting around in the brambles down below.
“Oppa, it is defenitly going to rain today.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I can smell the rain coming…can’t you?”
Tasha’s long face glanced at me, with her unruly curls blowing in the breeze. “Here, let me help you with her.”
Tasha was cradled in her mother’s arms as Maria lifted her small body onto the porch. Maria pointed out all the sights possible. Tasha loved listening to Maria’s stories of peacocks dancing before the rain god, a beggar down the street who lost his leg running away to the Mittaiwala. Maria’s stories were always entertaining. Even the vegetables tasted good when she came.
Suma Aunty would come to visit whenever Maria came. She would put on a show in the backroom that comprised of the new dance moves she had learned. Then of course Maria would try to do some dance steps, mimicking the way Suma Aunty twisted her body. Once Suma Aunty even told her that she was sure Maria knew more dancing than she let us onto. Suma Aunty had to practice so long to contort her body in the exact way, whereas Maria could do it without any practice. She felt Suma aunty was right in that opinion.
“How can you predict so definitely that it is going to rain? There isn’t even a drizzle now.”
“I’m sure. I can smell it, Oppa.”
“Thomas you have such a wonderful wife. She even predicts when it is going to rain. You are really lucky. She is so kind - and no pretenses even.” Oppa’s words trailed off into the kitchen. It was no snide remark, just a statement of the obvious, as Oppa always did.
Tasha played with her dolls, but kept her ears open for any lull in the conversation. She liked to play with Maria, but now Maria was with her mom and aunt. Even Thomas Uncle was there with them drinking that horrible liquid. Kesh (their neighbor who practically lived with them) was so loud today. He would be smelling of them drinks too. They wouldn’t even enjoy the tasty vegetables, a waste really if you asked her. But nobody ever asked her, she was just the little child...
“You must visit us more often. It’s no trouble - we can always add a handful of rice and a few more pappadums. That will be enough to feed ten more like you,” Oppa said.
“Take good care of Maria.” Oppa’s advise followed them like the distinct smell of liquor as their goodbyes floated across the air. Earlier she had read about wives being burnt at the stake, as though they were witches on trial. Even this, however, could not bring Maria down from her bright mood. After all, how could she be angry on such a sunny day? She was happy that they took a detour through the Mogul gardens in
Central Delhi. She wanted to walk barefoot, dream about
the grand times of the past, close her eyes and see the Sultan ride majestically
through these gardens.
Maria closed her eyes and took off her sandals. She could see the tigers among the wild animals that the king Akbar kept at the back of the garden. She recalled reading about Akbar in her small third grade social studies textbook and saw history come alive before her eyes. She could hear the music and smell the aroma from the “gulab jamuns” and “ rasmilai” that were served to the courtiers. She let her imagination soar, just so briefly. Then, Thomas took a turn.
She had lost him and this alarmed her quiet a bit. She back tracked few steps and called out, but no response. She went in the direction where they were heading and called, still nothing. Beyond the reeds she could not see. She called out and walked fast along the path that lay in front of her. Yet there was no sign of Thomas. Now stop panicking, breath; Oh God; Then, suddenly Thomas appeared at the far end of the path. Maria ran up to him, grabbing his sleeve she said , almost inaudibly, “I was so scared.” Maria wanted to tell him how afraid and upset she was.
“Where the hell did you galavant off to? Let’s go.” he glowered. Did she do something to anger him, upset him, her master and God on this earth, sent from heaven to care for and protect her.‘ Pathi vruthe, bhavathi’—words from some ancient Sanskrit text rang through her mind.
They walked through the ornate gates and the arbor covered in jasmine. The scent of the jasmines trailed behind as they walked towards a nondescript shop front. The place, called Kulfi palace was overcrowded, people expectantly waited for a seat and strayed as a feathery crowd. Tired and sweaty men and women spilled out of the Kulfi palace and onto the sidewalk. Children waited with the adults cranky and impatient, anticipation written all over their faces. Looking at all those who were waiting, Maria felt exhaustion, no it became an awareness…Yes, an awareness of exhaustion.
She wanted to try new flavors, may be Chaat from the Chaat-Walla at the next corner, “chatt”, Thomas had spat out the words in disgust. ‘What even that coolie wont eat that if he had a choice”, he shook his head in the direction of the sweaty crowd that the green bus had regurgitated as it groaned away .The day progressed to “Rasmalai” at a sit-down palatial booth in south Delhi followed by Paratha and thick buttery chicken curry from a roadside vendor as take home fare. ‘ Chaat is for stupid people from the south who apes the northerners, mindless fools like Rajesh’ he expanded by way of an apology. Well she is the wife , now its almost two months . if only that hefty dowry was all cash, then…at least the stupid girl cannot read his thoughts.
The city crowds thinned out and then thronged along the theaters—people milling on the roads after the movies .These are times and places where one can be lost, never to be found again.
“Please hold my hand, I don’t want to be lost. Can we go home quick, please”.
“wait” . .. the rest of what was said was drowned in the noises of the evening .
Maria wanted to cry. Life was supposed to have certainties, not confusions
She was quiet the rest of the way. Somewhere along in the span of just a day, fear had crested to panic. Now this gave way to anger, an anger that tried to stay at a quiet simmer. Yet the earlier part of the evening was so peaceful. The crowds thinned out as the hot air clung to the city like a canopy. Their tiny room renamed as an apartment breathed in the heat from the concrete and stiffened more. Cry of distant peacocks mingled with the sounds of traffic and lulled Maria to a fitful sleep.
“Once can we go nearer to a peacock” she asked some time during the night. Thomas had grunted as he turned away. Later as he left for a meeting in the library, She just listened for the whisper of a breeze. “Think not” she whispered to herself, as she uttered prayers to keep company in the night. Intruders in here dreams came in through the broken window, carried on the thin cool rays of the half moon, to taint her sleep with fear as she turned, so she prayed again. Oh how she wished she could feel the depth of a restful night, if only those windows had locks, if only they at least pretended to look secure.
Tomorrow being Sunday Thomas and Maria will start their dance of the day. They will drive past the fields beyond IIT, to a church in Carol-Bagh, on the decaying parts of
. Maria will seek
out any wandering peacocks in the field during their drive. The peacocks will
strut and move in the thickets then stray into the fields, scratching up the
newly tilled soil. Delhi
“A pest” the farmer will curse “protected bird”, he will say as he lay poisoned traps. The rat-snakes and cobras will sway and slide into the undergrowth as they try to avoid the peacock. But today they all have to beat the heat and rest for their dance tomorrow.
She didn’t know when or how Thomas landed beside her, his drunken fitful sleep punctuated by an occasional snore. She was only aware that as she tried to snuggle he had turned away, yet again. Out of habit she said another prayer for her ‘God’ prayed for his health and safety, trying not to wake him even with her gentlest touch.