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Authors: Anita Rau Badami

Tags: #Historical

Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? (11 page)

BOOK: Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?
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Her aunts and her grandmother shook their heads and laughed at the thought that a man from such a well-known family, such a high Brahmin, should wish to marry the little half-and-half. Had they not already gone through a virtual parade of prospective grooms for Leela, all of whom had left without uttering the word that presaged an engagement, the simple “Yes”?

When Balu arrived with his parents to see her, Leela wore a yellow printed silk sari, a string of jasmine in her braid and little jewellery. She had spent the previous two weeks reading books on British-Indian history as well as a novel by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. In addition, she reread
which she had first studied in high school. She struggled through the play, reaching the end feeling as if she had been through a dark maze, full of boulders made of words—large, bumpy, strange—which frequently tripped her up. But she intended to capture this Balachandra Bhat, most eligible of bachelors, and what she lacked in understanding Leela made up for with a prodigious memory. And she found she did like Lady Macbeth—she recognized something of herself in her ambitious ways. Still straddling two worlds, she also prayed round the clock and acquired two new amulets from a sadhvi who was known for her ability to resolve matters relating to love, marriage and childbirth. Thus prepared, Leela went to out to meet her future husband.

Balachandra Bhat was thoroughly enchanted. Compared with the numberless overdressed mamas and their eager daughters, Leela did not simper or giggle or flutter her eyes nervously at him. She looked him straight in the eye like a western woman, and when he asked her if she liked reading, she said that she had read
He had not read it himself and was duly impressed. Then Leela
him on Lady Macbeth. He didn’t agree with her views, thought them a bit gory as a matter of fact, but he considered himself a true Enlightened Indian Male: he was all for free speech and democracy. Everyone had a view. Moreover, everyone had the right to express it. So he uttered the much awaited word, not once but twice.

“Yes,” he said. “Yes.”


as it the letter from Canada, or the arch that collapsed, that caused Balu to leave everything solid and stable and permanent in their lives and move across the world? Leela was certain that it was both. For almost ten years she had lived the comfortable life of Mrs. Bhat—a full and happy existence, punctuated by weddings, birth and death ceremonies, and the dozens of festivals that marked the Indian calendar. She had borne her husband a son and a daughter, Arjun and Preethi, and had believed him as satisfied with their life as she was.

Balu, however, was looking for more. Perhaps his discontent with Bangalore, with the street on which they
lived, with their home, had begun with his friend Venkat Rao’s letter from Toronto two and a half years ago. Looking back, Leela had little doubt of it, for there had been not a single mention of travel abroad before that. Every morning Balu had gone willingly to his job as a chemistry lecturer at a college close to their home and had returned at exactly five o’clock, looking just as fresh and good-natured as when he left. He never complained about either his colleagues or his students, or the load of exams and class assignments he had to deal with. But now that she thought about it, Leela recalled that he had become unexpectedly preoccupied soon after reading the letter from his friend. A few photographs were included with the letter—of Venkat and his wife, wrapped up in winter jackets and standing against what looked like a high-school geography textbook illustration of the tundra in winter.

She had laughed then. “You can barely see their faces, poor things!” she said, passing the pictures back across the table to Balu. “Imagine walking everywhere in those thick clothes! Imagine the cold!”

Balu, on the other hand, was entranced by the fairy-tale quality of the frost-edged pine trees in the background. “It looks so soft,” he had said, touching the picture wistfully, as if he could feel the snow. “So new and clean. You know, Leela, I have never seen snow!”

The following week, Balu had gone to the railway station to see off a friend who was leaving Bangalore for New Delhi. Later, when he tried to explain to Leela his desire for them to leave the country, he described his feelings as he watched the train steaming away, his nostrils
filled with the smell of the dark smoke of departure, of distant places. He too wished he was heading out somewhere into the world, away from the life he had inherited from his ancestors. Filled with this new yearning, surprising even to himself, he had walked slowly towards the great stone arch that led out of the station. The arch had been built by Balu’s grandfather and had the family name inscribed on a copper plate embedded in one of its pillars. There was no escaping the family, at least not in this town, he had thought as he passed underneath it, his eyes watering from the sudden brilliance of the sun after the dark of the station. He wondered whether he had the courage to pull up his roots—those deep and tangled roots that reached at least two hundred years into the soil here— and move to a new place.

“And then I heard this enormous roar,” he told Leela, and she had shivered.

As if a giant hand had struck him from behind, Balu had fallen flat on his face on the ground. He had lain there stunned, wondering wildly whether this was God’s response to his desire to get away from the town of his ancestry. He heard screams and feet stampeding around him. He scrambled up and started to run, stopping only when he was a good distance away from the station, at the outer edge of the taxi stand. When he turned to see the disaster that had occurred behind him, he discovered that the massive arch had collapsed and that two people who had been standing directly beneath it had died. A few seconds earlier, and one of them might have been Balu, killed by his grandfather’s grand gesture.

“Maybe this is a sign that God is angry with us for something,” Leela said when she heard Balu’s story. “Maybe we need to hold a puja.” Alarmed by the near-tragedy, she worried the gold and black marriage beads around her neck, sending up a silent prayer of thanks that Balu hadn’t been injured in any way, that she hadn’t become a widow. “Yes indeed, that is what we will do,” she said, feeling her equanimity being restored, as always, by the prospect of working hand in hand with the gods to maintain the Bhat family happiness.

“Of course it is a sign,” Balu said, more quickly than was his wont. “Your gods are telling us to leave this place. Go,
they are saying, before the rest of this town buries you as well.” He paused and then nodded, as if he had reached a decision. “Yes, it is very clear to me now. We shall go to Canada.”

Leela stared at him as if he had lost his mind. “Canada?

“As you yourself pointed out, your gods are sending us a message. And that letter from Venkat—it is as if everyone is sending us a message—don’t you see?” He waved his arm to encompass the sunny yard outside the window, the row of coconut palms leaning against the compound wall, the sparrows pecking and chirping in the red dust that turned into a bloody mush when it rained, all that was so familiar and beloved to Leela. “I have been here too long,” he said. “Too long.”

Leela lay awake for a long while that night. When a potted geranium had fallen on her father’s head, he had come home with a white bride who in turn had given
birth to a half-and-half child. Why, Leela wondered despondently, did her destiny appear to be linked to things that fell from the air?

Events moved rapidly in the following weeks. Balu travelled to Madras and came back with a file full of information, addresses, phone numbers. He took some money out of their savings account and sent off immigration applications. All their conversations seemed to be about Abroad. He wrote to Venkat. He asked his friend to send him job advertisements from Canada. For three days in a row he took Arjun and Preethi to see old Hollywood movies, as if the films held the key to that distant continent, as if Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly and Charlie Chaplin would prepare them for the journey he had planned for them. He bought them ice creams and chocolate bars, an extravagance that delighted the two children, although when they returned home it was to meet Leela’s disapproving gaze.

The immigration papers arrived in due course. Balu left first to find a job and now, a year and a half later, Leela was preparing to follow with the children. He hadn’t told her much about his job in Vancouver, other than that it was a teaching position at a community college. He had rented a house for them all—a small one, so Leela was not to bring too much.
How small was small?
Their landlord was a Sikh named Pa-ji. His wife, Bibi-ji, had offered to show Leela the ropes when she arrived.
Bibi-ji? What kind of silly name was that?

As Leela packed the possessions she thought they would need, stuffing things into every crevice of the overloaded
suitcases, she was overcome by a sense of betrayal. She had married Balu because of his apparent stability. She loved his ancestors—purebred Hindu Brahmins, untainted either racially or in their religion—whose photographs hung in solemn, garlanded rows on the wall, their glassy foreheads smeared with kumkum and ash, their saintly eyes looking down at the serene, uneventful span of their offsprings’ lives. And she loved the living relatives, every single aunt, uncle, cousin and second cousin, all bearing the stamp of unambiguous stolid perfection.

When she met somebody at a wedding or a birth ceremony or at one of the procession of feasts, celebrations and festivals, Leela would introduce herself: “We belong to the Kunjoor Bhat family—you know, the well-known one?” She would end this statement with a satisfied nod of her neat, oiled head, a pursed smile and a quick tug of the end of her silk sari, which she wrapped around both shoulders because it made her feel matronly and responsible and Bhat-ish. There was not a doubt in her mind that the whole world was aware of the existence of this deeply respectable family. In return, the Bhat family repaid Leela’s devotion by never referring to her mother, never remarking on the colour of her eyes, never asking her why she did not return home to visit her own family during festivals. As far as they were concerned she was married to Balu, she was one of the Bhats; and that was all that mattered.

On the day they were to leave, Leela wandered slowly around her house, touching every window and door in farewell. She stood for a long time in the airy room that
had been her father-in-law’s study and was now Balu’s. Her father-in-law had died a year after she had come to this house as a bride. She remembered him sitting here quietly day after day, reading books in English, Kannada, Sanskrit, working his way through his library. He was a quiet man, with so many ailments that no one knew which malady needed to be treated first. Every second day the town doctor arrived, checked his vitals, scolded him for not following the prescribed diets and left behind another set of small maroon or dark blue bottles of medicine. The old man rarely opened them.

One day, not long before his death, Leela had come into his study to bring him a tumbler of hot coffee. He was staring intently out the window, and when Leela entered he beckoned her to him, pointed a long, shaky finger out of the window and without turning around, asked, “Can you see him, ma?”

Leela shook her head, “See what, Appa?” she asked.

“There he is, coming to me, I can see him,” the old man murmured.

“Who, Appa? I don’t see anybody,” Leela had said nervously.

“Why, it is my old friend Yama-Raja, girl. He has been waiting a long time for me, and I have been saying, wait, wait, let our doctor try another of his medicines on me, let me finish reading this book and this and this. But he is getting impatient now, he can’t wait any longer. And I have finished reading all my books, so perhaps it is time.” The old man was silent for a long moment. Then he turned to look at Leela with his faded eyes.
can you
see him? There, that dark fellow riding a buffalo, swinging his lasso. See?”

This time, when Leela had looked out she thought—no, she was certain—that there, behind the mango trees, the neem trees and the coconut trees, ambled a large black buffalo with curving horns, and on his back rode a god with green skin and a curling moustache.

She glanced down at her father-in-law, catching such a look of peace on his face that she wanted to weep. And as if he had read her thoughts, the old man murmured, “What a blessing it is to die in your own bed, under your own roof, with your family surrounding you, full of the knowledge that you have lived as thoroughly as you wanted to.”

Yes, the young Leela had thought, yes, she too would like to die in this home that had received her with such love, she too wanted to be heralded out of this world with the chop-chop-chop of mango wood from her own backyard and the fragrance of a few drops of precious sandal-wood oil.

Finally departure day arrived. Her mother-in-law accompanied Leela, the children and their mound of luggage to the railway station, where they would catch the train to Delhi, spend a day with Vimala—one of Balu’s innumerable cousins who were conveniently stationed all over India— and then fly to Vancouver. At the station, Preethi and Arjun leaned down and touched their grandmother’s feet. Both children were hugged and wept over in turn. They boarded the train in sorrow, and as it began to pull away, Leela
pushed her arm through the window bars and waved to the elderly woman who had become like a mother to her.

BOOK: Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?
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