‘You said no phones, Vikas.’
‘Yes, yes, I know. I am just seeing if mom called.’
He returned his phone to his jacket pocket and held out his hand to Ritu. Her fingers felt cold and soaked as they clasped around his palm. Just like the mud underneath their feet. Funny, he thought. There had been no rain during the night or in the morning. Early May was not the season for rains.
‘Some water?’ he asked, but Ritu shook her head. Vikas pulled out the half-empty water bottle from the netted side pocket of his backpack and took a thoughtful sip. The straight stretch of road ended a few meters ahead, and bent away to the right from in front of a marble quarry. Trees stood like pillars on either side of them, and if they had to look up at the grey sky, they had to do so from between green leaves and dark branches.
‘Do you remember when it rained this morning?’ he asked.
‘No,’ said Ritu. ‘Maybe it rained just here?’
They walked a little distance, hand in hand, and arrived at a break in the road, where a muddy path branched away into what looked like a village. The road stood on higher ground, and standing at the edge, Vikas saw that a peaceful white layer of mist had settled like a carpet over the thatched huts. No sound came from within, though; not of bleating calves, of fighting schoolchildren, of bicycle-riding milkmen. It seemed the village was asleep.
He turned his left wrist and took a look at his Rolex. Eight A.M. His grandmother had told him that a village always woke up at 4:30.
‘I guess the rooster is sleeping in,’ said Ritu. Vikas chuckled and nodded. In her touch Vikas could feel some distance, some lingering hesitation. She did not hold his hand with a firm grip like she normally did; today her fingers stayed limp, weak. With her free hand she twirled the ends of her hair.
She was still thinking of last night. Unnecessary things had been said. The ‘hate’ word had made an occasional appearance. So had phrases like ‘I am not sure if this is going to work’ (from him) and ‘How can you say something like that’ (from her). They had been sitting on the opposite sides of a table at a dhaba. Their voices had risen without their knowledge, and when they saw that they were attracting stares and sniggers, they had picked up their bags and left.
This morning, though, things seemed to have calmed down, somewhat. They had always been that way. Their fights were loud and venomous, and they tended to happen at nights. Their marriage counsellor had advised them never to go to bed with an unresolved issue, but after trying their best for a while, he and Ritu had had to accept that they were not the ‘let’s go to bed happy’ kind of couple that Dr Mehta wanted them to be; they were more the ‘let’s wake up happy’ kind of couple.
And this morning, both of them had woken up happy. Even though the ashes from last night’s fire remained.
‘We don’t have to if you’re not ready for it, Ritu,’ he said.
‘But you have to remember neither of us is getting any younger.’
A twitch of the fingers. ‘Hmm.’
‘Do you want to take a walk in the village? It seems like a peaceful little thing.’
Ritu smiled, just with the lips. ‘Sure.’
As they got off the road and descended to the mouth of the path leading in, they found an old man sitting cross-legged on the ground to the side. He had a white cotton sheet laid out in front of him, and on it were arranged an assortment of mirrors. Brown, pink, yellow, white – he had them all.
Ritu’s steps fell that way, and though Vikas felt like protesting, he didn’t. One had to tread carefully on cold mornings such as these. What harm would looking at a few mirrors do, anyway? It wasn’t like they were pressed for time. They were on a vacation.
So he allowed himself to be led to where the man sat, wrapped to the neck in a black blanket. He held a stick with his left hand, and when he looked up at them, Vikas saw that his right pupil was long dead, white as ice.
‘Come, sir, come, madam,’ he said. ‘Mirrors of all kinds. Small and big, clear and coloured. Look at yourself and fall in love. My mirrors will last you all your life, madam. You never have to clean them, and they will never break.’
* * *
I hate the way you bring up past issues in every fight.
Ritu crouched in front of the mirrors and picked up the one with a pink handle. She did not want to look at her reflection yet, because she was certain that her eyes would be stained with all the crying. Vikas did not notice it, or at least he pretended not to. Every morning after a fight, he would act as if everything was all right, as if they just had to crack a joke in order to move on.
They came with alarming regularity these days, both the fights and the jokes. After that first year, everything she did seemed to get on his nerves, and though she didn’t admit it often to herself, much of what he did got on hers too.
I hate how you make it all about yourself.
Vikas never said ‘I hate you’, but he used the word a lot. And he had a way of making a low, guttural sound when he said it, too, just so that she would feel every inch of the ugly intensity he wished to convey. His favourite lines were that Ritu should realize that the world did not revolve around her. They had responsibilities. To their parents, to their friends, to society.
She replaced the pink mirror and reached for the more ornate yellow one.
‘Ah, yes, this one has more design,’ the man was saying. ‘It is more fancy, yes?’
‘What is this place called?’ Vikas asked. Ritu stared at the mirror, holding it away from her, as though it was a leech. Ever since she had lost Nimmi, looking into mirrors had become an ordeal. When she had to, she felt as if she was being dragged to the edge of a precipice with her hands tied.
What? You gave a name to a four-month-old foetus?
‘Yes, sir. Rudrakshapalem is the name. The local people call it Palem.’
This vacation had been recommended to them by Dr Mehta, and they were meant to not talk about Nimmi at all. That had been one of the conditions they had agreed on, and yet they had spoken of nothing else. Granted, she had been the first to break down when she saw baby pink woollen sweaters at the Nepali store on their first night. But since then, she had done all she could do push thoughts of Nimmi away and to enjoy the trip, but Vikas seemed intent to draw out a ‘yes’ from her at all costs.
It would start with an innocuous conversation about the weather, or about honeycombs, or about cars, but before either of them knew it, they would be discussing – no, they never discussed, they argued, violently – about babies. He would nod at everything she would say, he would reassure her that he loved her, and then he would tell her why a miscarriage was ‘no big deal’ and how they had to ‘put the past behind them’ in order to ‘move forward as a team’.
Vikas had just become a project manager at work. It showed in his speech, at least when he was not angry.
I hate being the only one caring about this marriage.
Ritu set the yellow mirror to the side, and picked up a black one. It had the picture of a spider on its back, hanging down by a single white thread.
‘Why is it so quiet here?’ Vikas asked.
‘The village likes to sleep, sir. Lazy fellows.’
‘Will it take long to walk around it?’
‘No, sir. Very small village. I think you will like it, sir.’
Ritu ran her finger along the mirror’s handle. It felt cool and rubbery, though it looked like metal. She felt that she would be able to twist it out of shape with little effort. The frame in which the mirror was set had the look of varnished teak, and emitted a faint odour, one that she could not quite place. But it made her think of Nimmi, and without her knowledge tears had begun to collect in her eyes.
‘Madam?’ said the old man. ‘You must take a walk in the village, madam. You will feel better.’
At that moment, Ritu turned the mirror around to look at her reflection.
* * *
With a shriek she tossed the mirror at the man and fell back on the muddy ground. Vikas got down on one knee and took her hand in his. She had been told by Dr Mehta to stay away from mirrors, for some time at least, but did she listen? He wanted to reprimand her for being such a fool, for being unable to deal with this small hurdle that life had thrown at them, but that would turn into another fight. He knew.
So he said, ‘Are you okay?’
Ritu frowned at the mirror, then looked up at the old man.
The man was looking at her too, with the white eye glittering in the misty morning light. ‘What did you see in it, madam?’
‘I think we need to go,’ said Ritu.
‘Go?’ said Vikas. ‘I thought we were going to take a walk in the village.’
‘Yes, madam,’ said the man. ‘Take a walk in the village. You will like it as much as you like your own home.’
‘No,’ said Ritu, pushing herself up to her haunches. ‘We will leave. Please.’
‘Hey. Hey. It’s all right. Here, have some water.’
Ritu shook her head, adjusted her hair, cracked her knuckles. Her hair had become thin and grey over the last few months, and she had gained a good five kilos of weight too, around the stomach. All his efforts to put her on a diet had come to nothing. She had been a track and field athlete in college. After graduating, she had taken up salsa, and until they had gotten married they had gone dancing and cycling three times a week. But ever since –
‘Where are you from, sir?’ The old man was setting his mirrors back on his sheet, faces down.
‘Oh, the big city. You came in your car, did you?’
Vikas nodded, and felt his back pocket for the keys. He did not find them.
‘Where is it?’
‘Where is your car?’
Vikas started to answer, but the words would not come. He realized for the first time that morning that he had no idea where their car was. They must have woken up early and left the car parked somewhere around here, before they set out for their walk, but he remembered none of it.
The old man looked at the road by which they had come. Vikas followed his gaze. A straight stretch, covered on both sides by black and green trees. A white Maruti Dezire sped past them in a flash, windows down, driven by a tattooed young man with shoulder-length hair.
‘That road,’ he said, inclining his head in that direction. ‘Where you came walking. They call it Kanakangi road. They say that Kanakangi was a prostitute here in Palem a few years ago. She had a son – nobody knows whose – and she left him on the steps of the Shivalayam. But after taking a few steps away from the boy, she found that she loved him too much, and she ran back for him, but he was not where she left him. From then on, they say she walks up and down this road, looking for her baby.’
Vikas looked at the wet road. Ritu’s grip on his hand became tighter. ‘There’s always a story like this in every village,’ said Vikas.
The old man continued to stare. ‘If you hold up a mirror, close your eyes, and say ‘Kanakangi’ three times, they say you will hear the sound of a baby crying.’
‘Vikas, let’s just go from here.’
Vikas looked at the old man, a thin smile playing on his lips. ‘Let’s test this.’
‘No, Vikas, please.’
He picked up one of the old man’s mirrors in one hand, and shielded his eyes with the other. Ritu’s fingers clawed at his jacket sleeve. ‘Kanakangi, Kanakangi, Kanakangi,’ he said. His breath had quickened, he noticed, and he felt ashamed. For all the bravado, something in him had expected to hear that baby’s cry.
He handed over the mirror. Then he opened his eyes and said, ‘Where?’
The old man nodded, and raised a finger to his lips.
After a second, the pristine morning silence was broken by a clear, ringing wail of a baby.
* * *
Ritu clapped her hand to her mouth. Her eyes bled tears. She listened to the sound coming from deep within the green woods, and it seemed so much like how Nimmi would have sounded if she had not been suffocated to death in her womb.
‘This is ridiculous,’ Vikas was saying. ‘You set this up, didn’t you? You set this all up.’
The old man met Ritu’s gaze and asked softly, ‘What did you see in the mirror, my dear?’
‘I am talking to you, mister. You stay away from my wife, all right?’ He pulled her up to her feet and pointed a finger at the man. ‘Is this village full of tricksters like you, huh? Scaring away women with tales of ghosts and babies? Your tricks won’t work on me, you understand?’
The old man did not say anything. He just kept looking at Ritu with a sad smile. Ritu turned her head away from the glass eye, and said to Vikas, ‘Let’s go. There is something creepy about this place.’
‘Sir, madam,’ said the old man, ‘your home is here. In Palem.’
Vikas took a step forward, ready to argue, but Ritu took him by the hand and led him away. She did not know where they were going, because she did not remember where they had parked the car, but she knew they had come walking up the road. They just had to walk back.
‘Such charlatans, everywhere. That’s why nothing will ever come of this country.’
Your home is here. In Palem.
It all seemed such a waste, suddenly. All those arguments and fights about Nimmi. All that bickering about who was giving more to the relationship. All the nights of hurt and hate, all of his big words, all of her tears. All those unspoken feelings, the techniques that Dr Mehta suggested to them, the methods they were to use to work on their marriage, to fall in love with each other again…
Such a waste, all of it. It no longer mattered.
They walked, hand in hand, up the road, to the end of the straight stretch. Then they turned right along with the sharp bend, at the row of five coconut trees that rustled in the wind. Somewhere in the distance, a stream gurgled. Now Ritu remembered what she had smelled on that black mirror. It had been the smell of fresh blood. Her own blood. Nimmi’s blood. That night in the hospital, when they had showed her a stain of blood on a cream-coloured towel and told her that it was all they could salvage.
She had hugged that blood-stained cloth to her bosom that night. She had wept into it, smelled it, kissed it, sung lullabies to it.
‘How dare he make such fools of us. Tell you what, Ritu, we should go back, and I should give him a piece of my mind.’
Ahead of them, they saw a gathering of fifteen or so people, looking at something. Some of them were speaking on their phones. Others milled about and stared. ‘Do you know what I saw in the mirror?’ she asked him.
‘What is going on here?’ said Vikas, looking ahead.
‘I saw nothing.’
‘I saw nothing in the mirror.’
‘How is that possible?’ said Vikas, laughing, but his face had turned pale. ‘You’re seeing things, Ritu. You and mirrors – you have a bit of history together, in case you’ve forgotten.’
Ritu did not reply. None of the people there took any notice of them. They went to the front of the crowd and saw the shattered Ford Falcon. Yes, thought Ritu, it did not matter anymore. Even as they stepped slowly along the side of the vehicle, examining the damage, she knew what she would see in the front seat. Vikas had been stunned into silence; surely he must see now why they had not remembered where the car was.
‘Ritu,’ he said.
Ritu nodded. ‘Yes.’
The phone in the jacket of Vikas’s body rang, and someone from the crowd came trotting forward, answered it. Vikas retrieved his own phone from his pocket and looked at the screen. No missed calls. No unanswered messages.
‘There has been an accident,’ the man was saying into the receiver. ‘Both the driver and the passenger have died on the spot. I am so sorry, madam…’
They stood to the side, listening.
* * *
The man at the mouth of the muddy path to Palem looked up from his mirrors. The couple with bags strapped to their shoulders were returning, their hands clasped tight together. As they passed him, the girl looked at him and smiled.
‘You were right,’ she said. ‘This is our home.’
And they walked on to the village, in the direction of the mist.