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Authors: Anita Rau Badami

Tags: #Historical

Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? (28 page)

BOOK: Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?
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Bibi-ji was not a part of that audience. Deep in mourning, she was locked up inside the large white house, unable to go anywhere, not even to The Delhi Junction. Only twenty-four-year-old Jasbeer attended, his dark eyes full of the same zeal that burned in Dr. Randhawa’s.

June 27, 1975

eela clumped down Main Street, her pink and white sari riding over the tops of her running shoes. Fourteen-year-old Preethi, a head taller than her mother, strolled beside her. They were on their way to Mrs. Wu’s. Leela had received word that a fresh consignment of lychees had arrived.

The street was full of shoppers, though it was only ten in the morning. Unlike Downtown, where Leela went to work at The Bay four days a week and where tall buildings pierced the sky and swarmed down to Burrard Inlet, where posh women in sleek clothes and high heels, and men in suits and with smart haircuts strolled the streets carrying exotic bags printed with fancy names, here on
Main Street, which had its beginnings in the downscale east end of Downtown, the shops were small and smelled of distant countries. The shoppers’ bags were usually made of plain brown paper or tacky plastic. Fabric stores sold embroidered slippers and rainbow-coloured glass bracelets flecked with gold, as well as yards of shining silks and bolts of new cotton smelling of sunnier climes. Fashion Mahal had blonde-haired mannequins dressed in turquoise and pink and gold ghaghra-cholis or saris, their slim plastic arms loaded with bracelets, tiklis hanging down their fair foreheads. There was a new travel agency beside Lalloo’s Far Out Travels, the windows almost identically plastered with pictures of colourful Indian destinations featuring palm trees, beaches, bejewelled women in embroidered skirts swaying across desert landscapes and the inevitable Taj Mahal (the original one). Leela had gone into Far Out Travels once or twice to ask about the cost of a ticket to India and had come out disheartened but determined to save the money for a trip the following year—if not for herself, then at least for one of her children.

Tires screamed as a driver accelerated and roared past, reckless as a trucker on the Grand Trunk road in India. A motorist backed into some pedestrians, calling down a hail of curses on his head, and nonchalantly parked under a No Parking sign. Another stopped right in the middle of the road to converse with a friend on the sidewalk, each calling news of family and friends to the other while traffic backed up and irate drivers leaned on their horns.

“God, this could be India, honestly.” Preethi laughed. “Like Bangalore maybe.”

“Not Bangalore,” Leela said firmly. South India was different from North India, the distinctions still alive in her mind. “Delhi, more likely.” She swooped towards a pile of eggplant on a shelf strategically placed outside a shop they were passing. Leela checked closely to see if they were gleaming purple, their stems fresh and green, and weighed them in her hand.

“Light ones have fewer seeds,” she said, moving away. “These are rock-heavy—no good.”

She disappeared into another small, dark shop and emerged a moment later, annoyed. “Why can’t they keep our South Indian spices also? Only these Punjabi things, and then they call themselves India Market!”

They took a roundabout route to get to Mrs. Wu’s vegetable store so that they could avoid JB Foods. JB was possessive about his customers and would be furious to discover that Leela’s first loyalty was to a Chinese store rather than a fellow Indian’s.

“If you are wanting to buy there you need not come here!” he had snapped at Leela once when he saw the bags from Wu’s Store. Then he had made her wait fifteen minutes, pretending she wasn’t in the queue, until Leela finally smacked her palm on the counter, dumped her purchases on the floor and left in a huff. Never mind that she had run out of dal, sooji, jeera, kalaonji, cardamom. There was
way she was going to allow a stiff-nosed shopkeeper to act funny with her. And as for his claim to Indianness: “He is not a
Indian,” Leela had declared huffily.

Not only was this world divided, with the desis ranged on one side against the goras, the Asians, the Africans, the Native Americans, but there was a further distinction to be made. There were the
Indians, like the Bhats and the Patels and the Majumdars, those travellers who had come from Bombay or Calcutta or Aurangabad. And then there were others, like JB, who had arrived in Canada from East Africa, traumatized by Idi Amin’s decision to confiscate their property and belongings and eject them from Uganda with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. According to Leela their two-hundred-year stopover in East Africa disqualified them from being called Indian: they had forfeited the right to return.

“Well then,” Preethi had teased, “your grandchildren will never be real Indians either, will they? Or your greatgrandchildren or great-great …” She wobbled her head like her father and adopted an exaggerated Indian accent. “We are doomed! We will always swing upside down between worlds like King What’s-his-name!”

“Rubbish!” Leela countered, a little less robustly. “A Bhat will always be an Indian. And we aren’t staying here that long anyway. We will be going home soon.”

“And if I get married to a gora guy and have hybrid kids, then what, Amma?” Preethi had asked, grinning at her mother.

They reached Mrs. Wu’s store and Leela eagerly made for the mountain of lychees, ignoring the exorbitant price per pound. This was a once-in-a-year or, if she got lucky and beat her friend Sushma Patel to the store, twice-a-year treat, and Leela wasn’t overly concerned about the cost.
Her hands landed on the heap just as another arm, loaded with gold and glass bracelets, reached out.


Leela whirled around, startled by the phrase that echoed from her childhood.

“We will share it out?” Sushma asked, smiling at her. “You take half and I will take the other half?” She picked a sheaf of lychees, dangling like wrinkled rubies from their long brown stalks, and filled her basket.

Leela laughed. “I can’t afford to buy up half the stock at this price, Sushma. I just want a pound or two.”

Sushma did not have any such problem. She loaded her basket with lychees as if she were going to feed an army at home. As she moved away she called after Leela, “Don’t forget, at our place, a potluck party for Independence Day. I will phone and tell you what to bring, okay? Write it in your calendar.”

Leela nodded and smiled. Nobody wanted to miss the Patels’ Independence Day party, an annual event to which almost everyone who had roots in India was invited. All her friends were curious to see what new (and often bizarre) decorations Sushma would create using saffron, white and green, the colours of the Indian flag. And of course they would come for the company, the gossip and the food. “Yes, I’ll make a note of it, Sushma.” Leela spotted a pile of bright green beans farther inside the shop and inched towards it, hoping her friend had not noticed them too.

Leela and Preethi entered The Delhi Junction, which was full to capacity, and found Balu and Arjun already there.
Both looked like shorn chickens. Majid the barber had given each of them such a close cut that Leela was sure she could see their scalps gleaming through. The rest of the café’s regulars—Dr. Majumdar, dapper in a white shirt; fleshy-faced, balding Menon, and Harish Shah, rotund and belligerent, his small mouth pursed discontentedly—were discussing something loudly. And of course Pa-ji was at the till, leaning forward, alternately throwing a comment into the general stew of conversation, directing his new crew of waiters and tallying bills for departing customers. Not too far away from this noisy crowd sat Colonel Sam Hunt, reading a newspaper and eating mutton curry with rice, his bald head beaded with sweat from the chilli-hot food. Leela smiled around at everyone and waved to Pa-ji.

“She’s declared a state of emergency in the country,” Balu exclaimed, getting up to take Leela and Preethi’s shopping bags and dumping them on the floor beside the table. “Can you believe it?”

“Who, Appu? What are you going on about?” Preethi asked.

“Indira Gandhi. In India,” Balu said.

“When did this happen?” Leela asked.

“What’s a state of emergency?” Preethi put in.

“All your democratic rights are suspended, free speech and all,” Menon replied. “Like a police state almost. Do you remember when Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act? This is something like that. No habeas corpus, they can throw you into jail without telling you why.”

There was a shuffling of chairs, tables were pulled
together and the men crowded at Balu’s usual table beside the cash desk made room for Preethi and Leela.

“Why has she done this?” Leela asked.

“Indira Gandhi has lost her marbles, that’s why,” said a hoary old Sikh at a neighbouring table. Although Leela had seen him at The Delhi Junction before, she did not know his name.

“Because she was found guilty of two counts of campaign malpractice during the elections four years ago,” Dr. Majumdar explained. “The law of that land grinds slowly, but grind it does. If she were to be convicted, she’d be barred from holding office or running in elections for another six years. So before they could kick her out, she declared a state of emergency. An extremely rash decision on the lady’s part, if I may say.”

“You may say whatever you are wanting to, Majumdar,” Harish Shah interjected. His tiny, pouting mouth set in his round-cheeked, circular face gave him the look of a spoiled baby. “It is not going to make me change my mind.”

“I wasn’t trying to,” Majumdar said. “Why would you imagine such a thing?”

“Mrs. Gandhi is a woman of wisdom and understanding. She knows what is good for our country, and she is doing what she has to.” Shah crumpled his paper napkin. “That is my opinion. Emergency is
In fact I would go a step further and say it is the best thing that has happened to India. Too much disorder, too much gol-maal. This will keep all those Indians out there in order.”

“What does it matter whether we agree or do not agree?” said the Sikh from the next table. “We are not Indians
anymore, are we? We can only sit here and drink Pa-ji’s chai and go jhabbar-jhabbar, that’s all.”

His comment was ignored by everyone but Pa-ji, who tended to side with the old man. Pa-ji wouldn’t deny that he was fond of India, that it was part of his being and was where his memories often turned. But history was a picture hanging on a wall, something of the past to spur the imagination, to write books about. It wouldn’t do to let it swallow you whole. Pa-ji had ambitions for the future, plans, a political glint in his eye. At some point, he had recently decided, after his book was completed, he might enter the political arena. With all this multi-culti business gaining strength, Pa-ji had an idea that in the future he had as good a chance at a seat in Parliament as any gora. These days he tipped his turban at Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

He sat silently and listened as the debate raged around him undiminished. The normally mild and slow-talking Menon was shouting about the tyrannies of Indira Gandhi’s son Sanjay, his heavy cheeks wobbling. How Sanjay was forcing men to have vasectomies. How he was running around the streets of Delhi with a bulldozer and shovelling the slums off the map of the city, people and all. Was all this possible, Pa-ji wondered?

“His mother’s slogan was Remove Poverty, but Sanjay is removing the poor instead!” Menon yelled, thumping his fist on the table and rattling the plates and cups.

“High time somebody did something about that population!” Harish Shah yelled back.
hell! In twenty years we will have a billion people there. I, for one, approve of him.”

“You, for one, need your own balls chopped to teach you a lesson!” Menon shouted at him. “Why did you have three children, if you were so concerned about population?”

“But I am not living in India, am I?” Shah’s voice was smug. “I am building
population. Here we
people for the economy to grow.”

“That is what I am saying. Not living in India but doing big-time jhabbar-jhabbar about it,” the Sikh at the next table interjected in his slow, deep voice. “I say, what is the use?”

“And I say we go home,” Leela declared, finishing the last of her rice and curry combination and rising to her feet.

As the Bhats edged towards the door, they heard Samuel Hunt’s voice making a surprising concession. “But this is impossible. You can’t take things lying down! You need a mutiny, gentlemen, a mutiny!”

And Majumdar muttering, “Indira Gandhi has lost her head, I think. Even the newspapers are not allowed to print what they think. Did you hear, this morning—or was it yesterday?—the
Indian Express
newspaper came out with an absolutely blank front page? Without a word, they said everything!”

BOOK: Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?
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