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Authors: Anita Rau Badami

Tags: #Historical

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BOOK: Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?
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Bangalore
1946

T
here were those who called Leela Bhat a snob, a difficult woman, with a too great sense of her worth in the world. Her cousins Narayana and Vishnu and their spouses were among the people who portrayed her thus. It could be argued that their animosity had deep roots, extending to the time when they were children growing up together in their ancestral home in Balepur, which had now been gobbled up by and assimilated into the super-high-tech city of Bangalore. It could also be argued, as Leela did, that people who said she was difficult and a snob were just plain envious.

To be fair to Leela, it must be acknowledged that her cousins, in particular, could not help feeling peeved
whenever they saw her sharp, wheat-complexioned face, with its peppering of dark freckles across the bridge of her nose and cheeks, her grey eyes and her small, bustling person always dressed so well—whether in starched cotton saris, light printed silk ones or the Canjeevarams heavy with gold embroidery, as the occasion demanded—ordering, bossing, arguing, correcting and generally queening it around as Mrs. Bhat, the wife of Balachandra Bhat, daughter-in-law (the only one) of the famous Gundoor Bhats. They found it difficult to forget that she had once been Leela Shastri, the pale-eyed, thin daughter of Hari Shastri and Rosa Schweers, a half-and-half hovering on the outskirts of their family’s circle of love. It was a time that Leela herself had shoved to the remotest corner of her mind, although she could never really forget that day in February 1946 when, as a child of eight, she had watched her mother die.

The day had begun well enough. A photographer had arrived to take pictures of the entire extended family that lived in the Shastri home: Akka the matriarch, Hari Shastri, his brothers Cheenu and Rama, and their wives and children. They had all arranged themselves in the sunny central courtyard of the house in various groupings and poses. Only Leela’s mother, Rosa Schweers, was not in the picture, for she had refused to come downstairs from her room.

Now the photo session was long done. Leela finished her lunch and washed her hands. She looked over at her cousins Vishnu and Narayana, who still had mounds of rice piled on their plates, and decided she had enough
time to go outside the house and see if the custard apples hanging on the tree in the backyard were ready for picking, and get back in before the two boys finished their meal. The house was quiet. Her two uncles had retreated into the cool, shuttered bedrooms surrounding the large courtyard for much-needed rest with their wives.

Leela had left through the back door and wandered around the yard, humming an improvised song to herself, touching the walls, peering into the well, which was covered with a sheet of tin to prevent nosy parkers like her from falling in, gently squeezing a low-hanging custard apple and finding it still too hard to pick.
“This is the house that Rama Shastri built,”
she sang.
“This is the well in the house that Rama Shastri built. This is the tamarind tree by the well in the house …”
She felt overwhelmed by a hazy sense of contentment. She
belonged
here. She was part of the family of Well-Known People living inside these walls. All this was hers as much as it was her cousin Vishnu’s or Narayana’s, no matter what they said.

The thought of her cousins sent her hurtling back into the house, to the central courtyard where her grandmother Akka sat in an easy chair. As soon as Vishnu and Narayana arrived at her side, Akka would, as she did every day, start to tell her grandchildren stories from the
Mahabharata,
the
Ramayana
or the
Panchatantra.
This, she said, was how she taught them what was good and bad and how to live a proper life edged with righteousness and decency and goodness. Leela was determined to get to Akka before her cousins did so that she could sit in the favoured spot, right beside the old lady. This way, she
hoped she might get a loving pat on her head the way the boys did, or perhaps some of the sugar beads from a silver box on the table beside Akka.

But it was no use. Moments after she had settled down close to Akka’s chair the two boys strolled into the courtyard, emitting little burps in imitation of the men of the house and thumping their fists against their bare chests as if to beat out a frog stuck there. Akka’s dark eyes, which were stones whenever they looked on Leela, turned to melted tar. She beamed at her grandsons and crooned as if she had not seen them for a year, “Aha Naani my pet, aha Vishnu my monkey, come, come and sit next to me!”

And somehow, without quite knowing how, Leela discovered that she was no longer right next to her grandmother but off to one side.

Now Akka began her story: “Many centuries ago, there was a king named Trishanku who wanted to take his body with him to heaven when he died. He went with his absurd request to the great sage Vishwamitra, who agreed to send the king to heaven in his mortal form. He chanted mantras and performed such powerful penances that the three worlds shook with the force of his will. Soon Trishanku began to rise heavenwards. This unnatural occurrence raised such chaos in the three realms that the gods became alarmed and begged Vishwamitra to stop defying the laws of the universe, which decreed that human beings should shed their worldly skin before leaving earth. Vishwamitra gave in to their pleas, but because he had promised Trishanku that he would send him to heaven, he stopped the king in the void between heaven
and earth and created another heaven around him. And so the poor king was condemned to hang upside down between worlds, unable to do anything other than wait for the universe to end. And so, when somebody is neither here nor there we say that they have attained Trishanku’s heaven, not a very pleasant state of being at all!”

Leela waited for Akka to add an example of a real person who resided in this state of perpetual indecision—this was how she ended each of her story sessions. Yesterday, when she had told the story of Lakshmana, the faithful brother of King Rama, who left his wife and a life of comfort to serve his older brother in exile for fourteen years, Akka had pointed at Leela and said, “Your father is a lucky man to have such devoted younger brothers. Why, if not for them, goodness knows what your father would have done in his time of difficulty.”

At the mention of her father’s “difficulty,” Leela had blushed. Was it her fault that her father, Hari Shastri, had strolled down the street in London on which Rosa Schweers had lived? That a potted geranium which she had been watering had fallen off the windowsill and hit Hari on his head? That Rosa had come running down the stairs to help the unfortunate young man get up? That Hari, on opening his eyes, had seen a pair of charming breasts threatening to spill out of a lacy nightgown (Rosa had a weakness for that garment), topped by a pretty, anxious young face and, as her mother had often told Leela, had promptly fallen in love? And, carried by that tide of affection, had married Rosa Schweers, a casteless German woman of no known family? Was it Leela’s fault that she
was the product of that union? Leela wished that she had the courage to fling these questions at her grandmother. But the old lady terrified her almost as much as she inspired a desperate need for approval in Leela’s small heart. Leela wanted more than anything to see a look of pride in Akka’s eyes.

Beside her, Narayana nudged Vishnu and whispered something. Vishnu shot Leela a look and giggled.

Her grandmother’s dark eyes turned to her favourite child. “What is it, Naani, what are you and your brother laughing about? Let us all hear this joke,” she said indulgently, stroking his thick, curly hair.

Narayana wriggled about and shot his brother sly grins but kept his mouth shut. Vishnu, however, could not keep quiet. “He says that our Leela is up-in-the-air like that upside-down king, Akka.” He covered his mouth with his hand and giggled again.

“Like Trishanku?” Akka asked. “And why do you say that, Naani, my pet?”

Leela glanced from her cousins to her grandmother, not sure whether she was supposed to feel flattered or upset by the comparison.

“Because she is also half here and half there, that’s why,” Naani explained. “Like the Anglo-Indians of Cox Town.”

Leela felt as if her heart would burst with shame and hurt. To be compared to those people, so reviled by good Hindu families like her own—it was unbearable! Tears burned twin trails down her cheeks as she rose to her feet and ran to the drawing room, where her father usually spent his afternoons, alone, lying on the divan reading
law journals or the newspaper, while her mother rested upstairs in her darkened bedroom.

Rosa was always resting; everything made her ill or nervous—the dust, the heat, the food, the old neem tree outside her window, which she had had trimmed so thoroughly that it listed to one side away from the house, as if in weary disgust. Most of all Rosa was sick of the people in this house, particularly her mother-in-law, Akka. Her dislike was reciprocated with much malice. Akka made it clear to all that she thought the foreign daughter-in-law was a disgrace to the family name, a conniving trollop who had snared her innocent son while he was lost in a foreign country without any of his family to guide and advise him properly. She refused to call Rosa by her name or to acknowledge that she was married to Hari Shastri.

During the first few years of her life in the house, Rosa had energetically countered the old woman’s nastiness with her own sallies. Her favourite method of annoying her mother-in-law, who maintained a strictly vegetarian household, was to order the servant Savitri to bring her a tiffin-carrier full of mutton curry or a chicken biryani from a Muslim restaurant in the town market. The maid, who loved the dramatic confrontations between Rosa and Akka, would promptly report to the old lady that she was off to get the white wife some food from, of all places, a Muslim restaurant. And Akka would bang the heel of her hand against her forehead, call to her sons and complain, “I am telling you, if dead animals come into this house and are eaten by that woman, your mother will go away. She will leave and
die
on the street.”

The maid would be sent back to Rosa, a tennis ball between two strong-armed players. Sometimes Rosa would win the fight and the maid would be successfully dispatched to the restaurant. And Akka would sit in tight-lipped silence, her eyes red from weeping, her suitcase packed and ready beside her so that she could move out of the house and expire as she had threatened, while Leela’s uncles would touch her feet and beg her to stay, saying, “Akka, if you go away who will be our mother?”

Venki the cook, whose hatred of Akka predated Rosa’s arrival, was the only one who refused to be involved in this family drama. He would stand at the door of the kitchen, in his dhothi, stained with turmeric and oil and other kitchen ingredients, tied high under his chest, leaving much of his spindly, hairless legs bare, and smile cynically at the histrionics in the courtyard.

On days when Rosa lost the battle she would sulk spectacularly in her bedroom upstairs, either shouting abuse-in German, English and the small amount of Kannada that she had managed to acquire—at anyone passing her room, or marching out the front door to the veranda in one of her cotton nighties, the outline of her panties and bra and her shapely legs clearly visible through the thin fabric. She knew her near-nakedness appalled Akka, especially when the bangle seller was at the door.

“Go back!” Akka would hiss when Rosa drifted back into the house, a pleased smile etched across her pretty face, her arms jangling with the fragile bangles. “Go back where you came from, you piece of trash!”

Many times Rosa had considered divorcing her husband and his family and returning to Germany or England, but she had lost contact with her family long ago. Then in 1938 Leela was born, and the following year World War Two broke out. After that, the energy and lively sense of self-preservation that had sustained her for so long seeped out of Rosa. She lost interest in everything, including quarrelling with Akka. She locked herself in her bedroom for long periods of time, ignoring the maid who brought the infant to her to be fed. She grew corpulent on a diet of forbidden meat that she ordered regularly from the Muslim restaurant and on which Akka had ceased to comment. On rare occasions, at dusk, just before the family gathered for dinner, Rosa would wander down the stairs and out, alone, into the backyard.

This was about the time when Hari Shastri left his wife’s bed and began sleeping in his library. He too abandoned his daughter to the servants, waking early to leave for work and returning only late in the evenings.

In the end, it was Venki who brought up Leela. Perhaps he did this to spite Akka, who refused to touch the child even while making a great show of cuddling the children of her younger sons. Or perhaps there was something about the frail baby, her eyes grey as the monsoon sky and with her desperate wailing, that tugged at the old cook’s heart. Whatever the reason, Leela became Venki’s child. She might not even have known that she was related to the pale woman who lived upstairs in a bed shrouded in mosquito netting, and who emerged once in a while at dusk to wander through the thicket of trees and
plants in the large backyard, if not for Akka’s barbed reminders.

“Half-breed,” Akka would mutter out loud. “Worse than an untouchable. At least a toilet cleaner has caste. But this girl, where does she belong? Tell me, somebody,
where?”

And when she was a little older, the reminders of her mixed origins came from Rosa, who would send the maid to fetch Leela up to her. The little girl would tiptoe into the dark, shuttered room to find her mother lying huge in the centre of the bed, cocooned in the white mosquito netting, the gramophone playing soft western classical music or German songs. Leela would advance reluctantly and stop just outside the netting draped about the bed. Her mother then would hold the net open, and Leela would be obliged to crawl into the stale-smelling space. Rosa would press Leela close to her spongy body and murmur in a mixture of languages that Leela only half understood. “Never forget you are mine. Even though you have their brown skin, you see the world with my grey eyes. They are wicked, filthy creatures, pigs, dirtyevilpigs.”

BOOK: Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?
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