GIRL ON A BRIDGE

 

The sun burns my left cheek as I walk down the lane. I turn left and walk through the open gate, into the shade of the old tamarind tree. Home.

There is no one in the front courtyard. Of course, it is the hotter side of the house at this time of the day. Must be past three. My watch is in my shoulder bag. Three steps, then the calling bell. I drop my bag, kick off my shoes and my feet touch the cool black oxide floor, scrubbed and washed everyday. Home.

A window opens to my left. Anitha looks out of it and grins, her face widening. Some bustling, and the front door opens. Ani smiles, and it is Nisha who is smiling at me. I stoop to pick up my bag, step in, and breathe in and out, slowly.

“Hello!”

“You’re early!”

“Do you mind very much?”

She sighs dramatically. “Well, I can’t help it, can I?”

“I’m so… sorry.”

She shrugs. “Had lunch?”

“No, I got on the bus at eleven or so. I’m starving.”

“Go wash and come, I’ll have everything ready in a minute.”

“Do I really have to wash?” The rituals come easy.

She puts her hands on the hips. “Yes you do, you naughty girl.”

I go to my room, and drop my bag on the bed, then spend what must seem like an eternity in the bathroom.

The water I just splashed on my face drips down into the basin as my bloodshot eyes stare back at me. I shut them and they burn. More water, soap, water.

 

In the dining room, I use the tip of Ani’s sari for a towel. It smells of soft, fragrant things.  

“Where’s the baby? And Father and Mother?” The car was not in the porch, I remember. And they would have been down by now if they were around.

“The baby is asleep, after a long morning, and your parents are at a wedding somewhere. They should be back by evening.”

 I sit down in front of the lone plate on the table.

“I’d have eaten in the kitchen, Ani. You didn’t have to ‘guest’ me.”

“Hey, for once your mother is not around, and you don’t let me pamper you? And,” a thoughtful afterthought, “I know you are tired.”

Ani goes back into the kitchen. I pick at my food in silence. I’m home, but my appetite isn’t back.

“Here is something you haven’t had in a long time.”

Ani has returned with a bowl of mango chutney. Freshly prepared.

“Mm, mouth watering.” But it is my eyes that have watered. This was just Ani being Ani, thoughtful, affectionate, and considerate of people, doing things for them without even having to think of it. But after all these weeks, even unconscious acts of kindness touch me like something tremendous. I feel unworthy.

“The sambar is… quite hot.” My voice gives midway.

“I know. It wasn’t made the way you like it.” She pours a glass of water. And pushes it towards me. I grab it, and sip slowly, not looking up. I can feel her gaze on me. She senses something wrong, but does not say anything.

The clock in the hall strikes four. The light goes out, the stabilizer on the fridge stops humming, and the fan creaks to a halt. Elsewhere in the house, Ani’s baby wakes up, and starts crying.

“She must be hot,” Ani gets up and goes out.

I force my rice down with curd and chutney, clear the table, and put away the dishes.

 

In the hall, Ani is rocking her baby back to sleep. I curl up on a sofa with the newspapers. I do not want Ani to start talking to me. I go through the newspapers, reading everything, retaining nothing. Sometime in the middle, I fall asleep.

I have a dream, involving Nisha, an old woman, Ani’s baby, and a boy, at the end of which, I wake up drenched in sticky sweat. I am at home. Ani’s baby, just “Baby” till her father gets back from abroad and finishes his bitter battle with my mother over her name, is lying on the other sofa, alone. I go over to her. She is sleeping, peacefully. Even babies dream, they say. I am sure her dreams are bright and beautiful. She smells of talcum powder, and milk, maybe. I brush a finger against a reddish pink cheek, as softly as I can, then place it on a tiny palm. She clutches it. They are delicate, beautiful things, babies. I watch the slightly open mouth, and the smooth little tummy, rising and falling. Kneeling is a bit uncomfortable, but I daren’t move.

Anitha is behind me.

“You want coffee? Or tea?” she whispers.

“Nothing,” I whisper back. She is too close. I do not turn back.

“Will she wake up if I take my hand away?”

“No.” She holds her baby’s hand, and the grip loosens. I get up.

“I’m thinking of bathing.”

“So you do bathe!”

“Once in a while. What’s the river like?”

“Should be fine. Enough water to bathe, but you may not be able to swim. But wait till the sun goes down some more. It’ll be hot outside.”

I look at the clock. Fifteen minutes past five.

“This heat is nothing, after the full-fledged urban variety. I’ll walk around in the woods some.” 

“Sure.”

 

The riverbank is deserted, only our household has access to this part of it. I sit there for a long, long time, watching kingfishers hunting, dot-like people on banks far away, wind in the paddy fields, and wind swaying the coconut palms.

I had promised Nisha I would bring her here.

“It’s the most breathtakingly amazing view ever, at sunset.”

Her eyes were far away. A slow sadness crept into them.

“We can go swimming in the river.”

“Can’t swim.”

“I’ll teach you, idiot.”

Still distracted. I regretted having said anything about nature and romantic scenery.

 “He once told me… ” I didn’t want to hear a word about ‘him’, but kept quiet. “… about walking together on the riverbank, on a moonlit night. It’s the same river, isn’t it, yours and his?”

It was. I said nothing, but edged closer to the girl, and put an arm around her. Her head fell on my shoulder. She had beautiful hair. I wiped her tears away with my dupatta. She began to sob.

“Hey… Nisha…” I held her till the sobbing stopped, and then lifted her face towards mine. Her eyes were large, and full. She blinked, and a tear rolled down. I wiped it off her cheek

“Now smile.” A half smile.    

“Good girl. Now go wash your face. And change, we’re going to play badminton.”

 

It was meant to be a disaster from the start. But I felt responsible. After all, it was through me that they had met. I should have known that he was exactly the kind of guy Nisha would lose her head over. He was the kind of guy all girls went silly about. I’d have to be deaf, blind and stupid to have been in his class for more than a month and not know that. He was beautiful, granted. But he was narcissistic. I knew, don’t ask me how. I just knew that he was not all that innocent of the attraction he held for women and he played it. That spoiled the whole effect for me, but girls kept dropping left and right as he marched on, with a smile of triumph hidden well out of sight.

And Nisha arrived on the scene. He looked like a poet, and she wrote poetry. What could I have done?

“No. That is one guy I won’t introduce you to.” Hah!

And I had no reason to believe that he would behave like he did. I had neither first-hand nor second-hand knowledge of his style of functioning, and I couldn’t direct her to those who had. A look caught in an unguarded moment is not evidence. Even if I had told her about those who went before her, she would have thought her case different.

And so I had stood by and looked on as it happened. There was the initial excitement. She was keeping it a secret, even from me. As if I needed to be told. I could spot them even before they knew they had been hit. The elation was short-lived. He tired of them pretty quickly. It was in the heartbreak stage that I finally took charge. She wasn’t taking it very well, and I felt that it was up to me to watch over her. She was just a little girl.

But why do I think of her in the past tense?

 

The crows are flying overhead, noisily. I take a dip in the river, and come out to watch the sun set. It slowly grows dark as I walk home. A half moon is up in the sky when I step in.

Anitha wants no help with the dinner. So I go sit in the hall. Today’s sunset has somehow stayed with me. I fetch pencil and paper and board, and sit on the easy chair and sketch. My parents aren’t back yet.

The sun is setting behind the mountains far west, and the river flows gently through the valley, lingering beside the paddy fields, and nodding in greeting to the coconut groves it passes.

Sunset #n. I have lost count of the sunsets I’ve done.

Ani’s baby gurgles in the sofa next to me. She is smiling. Or is it supposed to be gas?

 

“Hey! What have you done to my daughter?”

Ani’s baby is floating in a crib on the river. Ani is standing behind me, just the way I used to stand behind Nisha.

“Don’t worry, she’ll find her way to you.”

She sits down, picks up the baby, and gently sings to her, rocking her softly.

I remember that I have to do a portrait of Anitha some day. Oil, or maybe acrylic.

“Will you sit for me sometime?”

“Sit? You mean for a painting? Can I sit with my baby?”

“Sure.” Ani has become more beautiful in the months since her baby was born. She has remained as slim as ever. And she has become more radiant. She has grown, whatever that means. There is no trace of the shy, girlish woman my brother had married. She has more personality now. And she finally looks like she is older than me, and wiser, which she always was.

I feel a sudden impulse, to tell her everything. To lie with my head on her lap and confess. To pour out all the guilt and confusion of the past weeks, and cry.

“Is anything the matter?”

“No. Nothing” I cannot live here faced with another person who knows. After all, it is just for a month. I shall keep myself busy. Then I fly away, to a new city, my first job, and a new beginning.

 

My job was probably how it all began. I had not known it at the time. But most of the boys were mad at me when I beat them to it. They had been the better students, with better grades and more ambition. They were the ones who prepared seriously for the placement interviews, even. And the only thing I had done seriously in my life was to give some postgraduate entrance exams. Till then, life was something to drift through, studying enough to get decent grades, reading novels, and teasing my mother. Apart from art, of course. Then one day I realised that I had turned twenty-one, would graduate in a year, and would have nothing to show for it but my degree, and some paintings and plaster figures, which I knew weren’t worth much. I had to do something with my life, or I’d regret it when I’m about to die. Being an artist by profession was a preposterous idea. I don’t know whether I’ll ever create a work of value.

My brother is the one with the bright ideas. “Have you thought of studying design?” Good decisions don’t take time. Design it was going to be. Until that interview happened.

I had given it for fun, not really fun, more like curiosity. A design firm, and a really prestigious one at that, had come scouting in our little college, among all the boring software companies who come to trawl every year. Would they have me? The answer turned out to be yes, and the liking mutual. But I was supposed to go on for a Masters. But there was the fascination of going to work. And that too with those interesting people on the interview board. They clinched it with an offer to send me abroad to study, after a couple of years, of course.

The others found out the next day. ‘’Some companies go out of their way to hire females.” Oh yeah?

I basked in the general hatred, stopped talking to my classmates, and spent my time completely with Nisha, taking her out, drawing her out, cheering her up… I vaguely knew that I was making enemies, but was too happy to care.

 

“Why the ferocious frown?” I wipe it off my face.

The car honks outside the gate. We go to the door. They drive in, park, and get out, my father, in creased cotton, straightening stiff legs, and my mother in sweat stained silk, tying up disheveled hair, with a strand of fading jasmine in it. She hugs me, and I feel that catch in my throat again.

“You should have told us you were coming back today,” my father says. “We could have brought you home with us.” Good. I needed that bus ride alone.

“I had not planned on returning today…” Only as early as possible.

We all go in, Ani to her baby, and my parents upstairs, to change. I go to my room to put the sketch in my cupboard. On top of the stack is a pencil drawing of Nisha. I look at the face, and remember that she is not as much like as Ani as I first thought. The large eyes, the pale skin, yes. Even the shy smile that had first drawn me to her. But the underlying themes were different. I push the drawing somewhere to the middle of the stack.

 

My parents are down in the dining room. We sit around the dining table, talking. With my parents around, things seem almost normal. Ani comes in, and giving the baby to my mother, goes into the kitchen. My mother orders me into the kitchen, turns to the baby, and starts talking baby-talk to her. As I leave the room, my father gets up and goes into the hall. I can hear the news on TV as I cut vegetables up for Ani. A word here or there makes me start, and strain to listen, my heart racing. Now the news is over, and I watch Ani cook. Woman mixing salad? The colouring is perfect. I must do a series of salads, in pastels.

 

I don’t like setting plates, so Ani does that as I carry the food into the dining room. Conversation takes a tame course, and by the end of dinner, I am almost at ease.

 

Sleep comes early at home, and I go to bed with the rest of them, too sleepy for the late movie I was planning to watch. I fall asleep as soon as I close my eyes, and sleep much more peacefully than I have slept in weeks.

 

Life at home is a matter of routine. I wake up, bathe, go to the temple with Mother if I can gather enough goodwill, eat – I have an appetite now – mangoes, mainly, help around the house, talk to my father, play with the baby, read and watch TV, turning the page or changing the channel when something reminds me of college, and sleep before ten every night. I am learning to cook, and I like it. I have started a portrait of Anitha and her baby, in oil. It is coming on well. I hope to finish it before I leave next month.

The painting is doing me good. Looking at what was to me Nisha’s smile everyday, and realising that it is not really Nisha’s smile. Trying to capture the exquisite fragility of a sleeping baby and the beauty of her mother hands holding her. I am more at peace.

But I still start violently whenever the phone rings. The shame, fear and guilt are all still there, like ugly bulky furniture in inconvenient places, and I can’t help bumping into them. I have just put dust covers on them, not even pushed them out of sight. But I have a gift for not seeing things, which helps. That same stupid blindness which caused all this, maybe.

 

After accepting that job offer, I had gone through the rest of the semester on wings. Though I spent most of my time with Nisha, I did not really pay much attention to her, I guess. Not for a minute did I have any idea that anything was wrong. Things must have gone really bad during the exams. It was when the semester started that I noticed that she had been refusing to go anywhere with me. At first I thought that it was the silly business with my idiot classmate. But that was a long time ago, and she had seemed to recover pretty well. When I first questioned her, she tried to shrug things off, and I let it go. The next time was when I saw her crying into her pillow, when I came back from class one afternoon.

“You are not going anywhere without telling me.”

There was a lot of to and fro, in the middle of which she started sobbing again. To put my arms around her had become the natural thing to do. I held her till she grew calmer. Then I made her face me.

“Tell me, dear, what happened?”

“They…”

“They?”

“They say…”

“What do they say?”

“They… they say that, you and I…” And she broke down again. Then it all came home to me. My hands dropped to my sides before I even got angry. I did not get enough time to be angry, or react in any way. Someone knocked on the door. I went and opened it.

“You two are wanted in the Warden’s office.” A couple of juniors, and a tone of contempt I had never heard before. And an undercurrent of glee.

“Nisha is not well. I will go.” The sun got in my eye as I closed the door behind me. Summer was not far away.

As I walked away, I heard the sniggers and saw the looks for the first time. Why this shame? Exploding, instead of shrinking was more like me. Then what happened?

 

The warden was a nice woman. Not my department, but she had taught us some course a long time ago. I think she liked me. Her expression was stern as I walked in.

“My roommate is not very well, ma’am. So I came alone.” I could not look straight at her. But I had done nothing. Done nothing at all.

“Better, perhaps.” She took off her glasses and started to wipe them with the end of the sari. “You see, there are certain rumours…” She spoke the word with obvious distaste.

“But I assure you ma’am there is no truth to-“

“Truth,” she held up a hand, “has nothing to with it. I want the rumours stopped.” I nodded meekly.

“You have hardly a semester left in this place. But that girl is just in her second year. And not necessarily capable of handling it.” A drop of sweat was collecting near my temple. I waited for it to acquire critical mass and run down.

“We can’t arrange for her parents to take her away…” They were abroad, Nisha’s parents. “I think the best thing for you to do is to change rooms. What do you think?”

“Yes, ma’am” I was still numb. Dazed.

“I’ll put her in a room where she won’t be too uncomfortable, and I’ll keep an eye on her. You stay where you are.”

“Okay, ma’am.”

“I’ll go talk to the girl then. Please return to your room after an hour or so.”

She was wise enough not to tell me to avoid Nisha. If she did, I would not have…. Perhaps.

 

Why did I act as I did? Because I am a coward.

My new roommate was a classmate. Vidya, a decent, studious girl, whom I had never gotten to know well before.

The few times Nisha came to see me after that, I pretended to be busy, or about to go out, or something. Whenever I could, I used Vidya to shield me from Nisha. I had reasons, of course. I had a lot to do. I was sick and tired of what I had come to think of as the waterworks. I was mean, thoughtless and cowardly, and I let the irrational impulses take over. I did, or did not do things out of vague feelings that resemble reasons in poor light. Looks, words, whispers… when did I start caring for them?

 

“Are you coming?” My mother, dressed for worship, is opening her umbrella

“No.” I manage a winsome smile. “You pray for me.” For my soul.

“What should I pray for?” She thinks I want her to hand-deliver my prayers.

“Pray…,” I wipe the sweat off my brow. “Pray for this summer to end.”

I miss what she says next, as a girl’s photograph in the newspaper catches my attention, and my breath, for a minute.

 

It was after she stopped trying to talk to me that I started watching Nisha. Whenever I could, for she was rarely to be seen. Her attendance in class was erratic at best. I never saw her in the mess. Has she stopped eating?

But I did not step into her room when I saw her sitting there alone, did not stop her on the road when I passed her, did not extend a hand when she was this close to me in a corridor. No. I averted my eyes, and went on with my life. With my classes, project, and study sessions with Vidya. And then exams. And I came home. Ran away.

The last day of exams, I finished all the paperwork. My packing was done days before. On my way out, I saw Nisha walk to the main building, slowly, dragging her feet. Shoulders hunched, eyes downcast. She had never been a picture of sprightliness. But this was too much.

Still, I hurried away before she caught my eye. I made the perfunctory visit to the warden’s office. I nodded and smiled as she bestowed the general good wishes and stuff, screaming inside.

“You said you would look out for her. Have you seen that girl? She neither eats nor sleeps nor goes to class. Have you any idea what is happening to her?”

Well, who exactly is guilty?

 

All it will take is an email, or a phone call. But don’t know what to say. So I neither write, nor call.

 

“Careful, you’ll cut yourself.” Mother is watching me. “Is anything the matter, child?”

“No. Nothing.” I am standing in the kitchen, slicing beans. It is a sharp knife. Just like the one we, and later Nisha had – has.

So?

Don’t kid yourself.

One of these days that phone will ring. It will be for me. Vidya, probably. I will go to it, receive the news, and regain my composure during the conversation. I will calmly put the phone down, and give whoever is around the news. We will all wonder what happened. Then I will go back to playing with the baby, or painting, or whatever. Sometime, years later I will remember her in paint. Girl on a bridge… Oil?

“Get me two small cups of rice.”

You are over-dramatizing, just being morbid, I tell myself, as I go to the storeroom. I hope.

The phone rings in the hall. My walk becomes a run.