THE MAN UNDER the black umbrella had a half-smoked cigarette in his mouth. He held it between his teeth, behind pursed lips. He stood some distance away from the bus shelter, as if taking refuge from the harsh white light of the solitary street lamp. Everywhere else in the village, it was utterly dark. The rain had tripped the main transformer in Dhavaleshwaram, they said. It would probably take the whole night to fix.
It was the kind of rain that was common in Palem; warm, incessant, windless. The man wore black cotton trousers that had not been ironed in a while, and their edges, dampened by mud, clung to his ankles. His brown Bata chappals were sodden; his right toenail, which had been chipped a couple of years ago when he was helping move a table in the staff room, now throbbed with a dim ache. Every time the season changed, his toenail bled around the corners, and it needed him to go to Dr Annamalai, who would tut-tut and give him an antibiotic. Then the doctor would ask if it wasn’t time to remove the nail for good. And the man would nod and say yes, it certainly seemed like it.
He took a puff of his cigarette. The suddenly fierce red glow of the tip warmed his nose and cheeks; both gaunt and brown, the kind one expected to find on a math teacher. He did not yet have glasses, but he was now thirty three; in seven more years he might begin to realize that he can no longer see the letters on the blackboard clearly. And Dr Annamalai would prescribe for him a pair of those dark-rimmed square frames. That would complete the image.
The rain pattered down on the top of his umbrella. Small rivulets of water flowed all around his feet, half-immersing them. A small breeze blew from the direction of Dhavaleshwaram Barrage, and a smattering of raindrops fell on him. From long habit he kept the sleeve of his right arm folded up to his elbow. He wore a yellowing white shirt that he had bought at the Raymond shop in Dhavaleshwaram two Diwalis ago; the clerk had assured him that he looked like a proper gentleman in it.
That was not the reason he wore it tonight, though.
He looked along the main road, to the north. The nine p.m. bus from Vishakhapatnam had not yet come. This was not surprising, because the route was a long one, and Palem was the last stop before Dhavaleshwaram. No one expected an incoming bus to arrive on time; a thirty minute delay was par for the course. The man flipped his wrist, consulted his watch; it said nine-forty-five.
He took the last puff of his cigarette, threw it away with an expression of disgust. Then he waved at the air in front of his mouth.
A faraway honk came to his ear. A couple of head lights on high beam glistened in the distance on the soaked tar road. He squinted past the rain and watched for a couple of seconds. The bus came into view.
* * *
It was almost empty. Only two people descended at Palem bus stop. One was the woman the man was after. The other was her son. He recognized her from the bright yellow umbrella she opened as soon as she stepped off the last step of the bus. In her free hand she held an army bag of clothes. The boy clung to her dress.
‘Madam, you got everything, no?’ said the conductor. ‘Just check once; if you forget anything we’re not responsible.’
‘Haan, haan, got everything,’ she said. ‘Come, Rudhir.’ They ran, feet splashing in ankle-deep water, to the shelter.
‘Right, right,’ said the conductor in a tired voice. The man stood still, not intending to make his move until the bus had left. He waited until it had turned the southward bend and disappeared.
Lavanya and her son were attending to themselves in the shelter. The man heard Rudhir ask for water. The cap of a water bottle was opened, and then closed. She was admonishing him gently, was asking him not to gargle. The boy giggled and spat out a mouthful into a nearby puddle.
The man looked to the left, then to the right. It was not the kind of night for people to be around, but it never hurt to make sure.
Then he walked to the shelter.
* * *
She was glad to see him, he could tell. She noticed the shirt. But she also caught the smile in mid-flight, and wrenched it out of shape, into quite something else. Narrowing her eyes she said, ‘Sandesh? I asked you not to come.’
‘I thought you would need a friend, on a night like this.’
She pulled out a phone from her handbag, and cursed at the black screen. ‘It had to rain tonight, huh, Rudhir?’ she asked. The boy was considering him with a suspicious sidelong gaze. ‘I say we walk all the way home. What do you think?’
‘I’d suggest you stay here in the shelter until the rain stops,’ said Sandesh. ‘All the snakes of the village come out on nights like these.’
‘Snakes!’ She laughed in the old way, with a guttural whoop. She hauled the bag of clothes onto the wooden bench, unzipped it, and brought out a red raincoat that was too small to belong on an adult. ‘Come, baby,’ she said to Rudhir. ‘Don’t worry about this uncle, okay? There are no snakes in Palem. We will be at thathayya’s house in ten minutes. I know the shortcut.’
‘Okay, Mummy,’ said Rudhir, but his eyes were on Sandesh.
Sandesh winked. The boy looked away, unsmiling.
‘You would rather walk through the rain than spend some time here with me?’
The whole time she went to great lengths not to catch his eye. When they stepped out into the rain, mother and child, Sandesh came abreast of them under his own umbrella, half a meter or so to Lavanya’s left. She slung the bag of clothes over her shoulder now, and held Rudhir’s hand, out of Sandesh’s view.
They walked up to the Hanuman statue in silence. Only the sloshing of their feet interrupted the steady hum of rain on their umbrellas. With the light of the streetlamp behind them, they were now making their way through pitch darkness, guided by muscle memory alone.
Lavanya had more of this than he did, of course. She was born here. But he had been a Palem resident for a decade now too, long enough to make his way around without the need for light.
‘How are you?’ he asked her.
‘I am fine,’ she said. ‘I would be finer if you left me alone.’
‘That was not what you said last time you were here.’
When they passed under the Hanuman statue, it protected them from the rain for a few seconds. The rapping on their umbrellas ceased. Sandesh took that moment to observe Lavanya, to gauge something from her expression. But he could see nothing. She was half a foot shorter than he was, and it seemed that she was holding her umbrella at a convenient angle, just so that it would become a barrier between them.
‘I was not myself then,’ she said at last, after they had emerged onto Venkayya Veedhi, Palem’s main street. Saraswatamma’s house stood at the very end of the road, tucked into a cul-de-sac. ‘I told you right from the beginning, right from the beginning, that nothing permanent can happen between us.’
‘Last time,’ said Sandesh, doggedly, ‘you said you wanted to run away with me. Your exact words were, “take me away. Take me away from all this.” Do you not remember?’
‘You told me at the top of the clock tower. I know the date, the day, everything! Do you deny that you said those words to me?’
Lavanya sighed from behind the umbrella. ‘I was not myself then. It was a weak moment. All right? People say things that they don’t mean.’
‘So you no longer want to come with me?’
‘Where are you going?’
‘I am going away – I applied for a lecturer post at the university. Hyderabad.’
Silence. They walked past Sivayya’s shuttered paan shop. Sandesh’s toenail began to hurt him each time he took a step. He felt this mad, exasperating anger directed at her. He wanted to knock off that umbrella, look into her eyes, and then have this conversation. He believed – yes, even now he believed – that she wouldn’t lie to him if they stood face to face.
‘Mummy? Who is this man?’
‘All the best,’ said Lavanya. ‘I’ve always thought you deserved to be more than a schoolteacher.’
‘What is that supposed to mean?’
‘Exactly what I am saying. Hyderabad will suit you. Plenty of women you can practice your wiles on. Just be careful, huh?’
Sandesh ground his teeth. His free hand balled into a fist by his side. He wished for a cigarette.
‘I applied to the post for us,’ he said. ‘You know that.’
‘I know nothing,’ said Lavanya. ‘All I can say is that I wish you well. I hope you don’t forget me.’
‘I don’t want to forget you. I want you to come with me.’
‘I cannot.’ Almost without their volition, their steps had gathered pace, and Rudhir was having to trot to catch up. Lavanya pulled him along and said, ‘We have to walk fast, baby. I don’t want you catching a cold.’
‘Why can you not?’
She did not answer. He repeated the question.
‘The universe does not revolve around you, Sandesh,’ said Lavanya. ‘What do you mean why can I not? I am married. I have a son. I have a life in Vizag.’
‘Yes, some life,’ replied Sandesh. ‘Is that why you keep coming here every three months? A life that you cannot wait to get away from.’
‘Shut up. You have no right to speak of me that way.’
Sandesh laughed incredulously. ‘You told me of all the things your husband does to you!’
‘You’re being too loud.’
He immediately lowered his voice. ‘You told me. He manipulates you. He insults you. Your parents. He keeps telling you that you’re no good for his – for his navy colleagues. Tells you how to dress, how to act – you told me all of this. Remember?’
‘Shut up and walk,’ she told him.
‘Okay, Mummy. Tell the man to go away.’
‘Did you hear my son?’ Lavanya asked Sandesh from behind the umbrella. ‘You’re making him uncomfortable.’
‘Does he know?’ Sandesh said.
‘He knows all that he needs to know,’ said Lavanya.
‘What does that mean?’
‘Forget about what it means. I want you to go away and leave us alone right now. And you go and have your life in Hyderabad. Plenty of young women to prey on in that city.’
‘Prey on?’ said Sandesh. ‘Prey on –’ he caught himself. ‘I will take good care of you. Better than he ever can. Do you know how much my salary is going to be at the university? Eighty thousand rupees a month. Plus benefits. They give us quarters to stay in, school for the boy – everything!’
Lavanya laughed as if in disbelief. ‘And what will they say of us here in Palem? What will my father and mother go through? Have you ever thought of that? No. And why? Because you’re the only one who matters in your world, Sandesh. No one else exists.’
‘Your father and mother will be glad that you’re out of this abusive marriage. They know as well, don’t they? Or have you hidden it from them?’
Lavanya did not reply. Saraswatamma’s house was approaching fast, too fast for Sandesh’s liking. The rain was falling as hard as it had all night, but now he could only hear his own thumping heart, and the deep sting of the toenail.
‘I am not going to come with you.’
‘Why? Give me one reason,’ said Sandesh. ‘What do you have with that man?’
‘I am married to him.’
‘And? What else do you have with him? Can you look me in the eye and tell me that you have a happy marriage?’
No answer. But Sandesh pressed on.
‘Can you look me in the eye and tell me that you will be happier with him than with me?’
Again no answer. They were coming up to the big black gate that stood outside Saraswatamma’s compound. Lavanya’s steps seemed to quicken as it came into view. Sandesh kept pace with her, biting back pain.
Finally, in desperation, he said, ‘Can you look me in the eye and tell me that the boy is his?’
Lavanya stopped, and for a moment the three of them stood amid flowing, falling water.
‘Mummy?’ said Rudhir. ‘Why have we stopped? There’s something under my feet, Mummy.’
Lavanya did not say anything. Sandesh took a breath, then another.
‘Is it a snake, Mummy? Will it bite me?’
Lavanya turned around to face him. They could not see each other well, of course, but Sandesh could make out her outline, the shape of her ponytailed hair, the slender wrist holding up the handle of the umbrella, the prim, petite frame which was now clad in a half-wet Punjabi dress. For the life of him Sandesh could not make out its colour; a vague memory nudged him and suggested that it may be orange.
‘The boy is his,’ she said, in a flat, toneless voice. ‘Happy?’
‘I don’t believe you.’
‘Of course you don’t. You don’t want to believe me.’
‘What will convince you? Shall I get a DNA test done and send you the report? Will a scanned copy of the report do or do you want the original mailed to you at your university quarters?’
Sandesh took a step back almost by instinct, because her words seemed to strike him physically. Then he gathered himself. ‘Even then,’ he said, but his words wavered. ‘I’ve seen the boy. He – he looks nothing like his father.’
‘And he looks like you?’ said Lavanya. ‘Is that what you think? Almost everyone we meet tells me he looks exactly like my husband.’
My husband. Sandesh shook his head again. ‘No,’ he said. ‘You’re lying. Aren’t you?’
Rudhir had fallen silent, and was looking up at him from behind Lavanya. He was no longer complaining about things under his feet.
‘I am not,’ she said, in the same cold way.
‘But – you said – no, you never said, you said – no, you hinted –’
‘I’ve always told you, always, that you and I can never have a future together. Haven’t I? Have I or haven’t I?’
‘But you also dreamed with me. Did you forget? Up on the clock tower, all those nights – before your son – and after – as recently as three months ago –’
‘I dreamed, yes!’ said Lavanya. ‘And even a child knows that dreams are dreams, Sandesh. And reality is reality.’
‘So you were just – what were you doing with me, then?’
‘If you don’t understand that, Sandesh, then there’s nothing I can do to explain.’
‘What if I want you to explain?’ He stepped forward and took her by the arm.
‘Mummy?’ said Rudhir.
Lavanya was calm. She looked down at his hand. ‘Let go,’ she said.
‘Come with me. Please.’
‘If you don’t let go, Sandesh, I will make sure that everyone in the village knows that you’ve been harassing me. I’ve put up with all this only out of respect for – whatever we had in the past. But don’t let me take this step.’
Sandesh held his grip on her arm for a moment longer. Then he let it drop and took a step back.
‘Thank you,’ said Lavanya. ‘I would not have hesitated to write to the university about your behaviour, if you’d kept that up.’
‘Right,’ said Sandesh. ‘I am sorry.’
They walked the rest of the way in silence. At the gate, Lavanya turned around and said, ‘Take care of yourself.’
‘I want to take care of you.’ His plaintive voice disgusted him, much as a smoked cigarette did. And yet he looked at her with hope. Mad, all-but-dead hope.
‘You only say that because you think you’ve lost me.’
‘Well, I have lost you, haven’t it?’
‘I – forget it. Good night. And good luck.’
Sandesh leaned forward and lowered his voice. Again he held her arm; this time she did not resist. ‘I am taking the seven a.m. bus tomorrow, out to Vijayawada. And from there I am booked on a train to Hyderabad.’
‘I will wait for you at the bus stop.’
Lavanya smiled. Even in this darkness, even with the umbrella half-shrouding her face, Sandesh could tell that she did. ‘I won’t come.’
‘I will still wait. If you don’t come, I will leave your life forever.’
‘You have said that before.’
‘This time I mean it.’
The skin of her arm was warm; a different kind of warmth, not the kind that Palem’s rain brings down, a fuller, more wholesome warmth, the kind of warmth you found in bonfires and steamed rice. His thumb was pressed to the crook of her elbow. He lightened the pressure, and squeezed it back again.
‘Don’t make it hard for me,’ she said, in a whisper.
‘The time has come,’ he replied, more harshly than he wished. ‘The time has come for some hard decisions.’
Lavanya looked at him, shook herself free. ‘There are no decisions to make.’ To Rudhir she said, ‘Come, baby.’
‘Okay, Mummy. Bye, Uncle.’
* * *
Saraswatamma opened the door with a hurricane lantern held close to her face, and her sleepy eyes became wide when she saw Lavanya standing there with a bag in one hand and a folded umbrella in the other. ‘You didn’t – oh, your phone lost charge again?’
‘Come, come!’ said Saraswatamma. ‘Oh my god, look at the rain! At least Prakash should have called and – forget it. Come, come. Sambayya! O Sambayya! Wake up and ready some hot water, will you?’ She took Rudhir by the hand and started unzipping the raincoat.
Lavanya stepped into the front room, and closed the door behind her. Her father came out of the bedroom, in his white vest and blue lungi, putting on his glasses. ‘When did you come, Bujji?’ he said. ‘Why didn’t you call?’ And he also seemed to get the answer without anyone telling him. ‘I see, I see.’ He chuckled as Rudhir leaped into his arms. ‘In any case you know the route from the bus stop. It’s not like you’re going to get lost.’
* * *
‘Mummy?’ said Rudhir in their room later, when Lavanya was helping him out of his wet clothes, ‘who was that Uncle?’
Lavanya led him into the bathroom, where Sambayya had arranged somehow for a vessel of hot water. ‘Careful with this, okay, baby? You will have to mix some cold water with it. Half the bucket for you and half for me, okay?’
He stayed quiet while she soaped him, but as she was washing it off, he asked the question again.
Lavanya sighed and said, ‘I guess I have to tell you.’
* * *
‘You know what I found when I came home from work tonight?’ Prakash was saying. ‘The geyser was on. Did you forget again to turn it off?’
Lavanya made a guilty face. The lights were on in Saraswatamma’s house. The rain had let up, the power had returned. Both Lavanya and Rudhir had had their baths, and Saraswatamma had fixed them both up with a glass of milk each. Lavanya was drying her hair with a towel when the video call came from Prakash.
‘Yes, yes,’ Prakash said, ‘you keep forgetting all these small things, and I will keep paying electrician and plumber bills all my life. And what of your phone? I’ve been trying to call you all evening. Did you forget again to charge it properly?’
‘Sorry abba,’ said Lavanya. ‘How was I to guess that it would be raining in Palem, and that we would have no power on the bus?’
‘Haan, you keep giving excuses like this, and one of these days somebody will kidnap you.’
‘What if they do?’ asked Lavanya with a chuckle. ‘My husband is a Lieutenant Commander. He can afford a ransom, can’t he?’
‘I can afford a ransom, yes,’ said Prakash with a straight face. ‘The question is whether I want to pay it.’
‘Daddy!’ said Rudhir. ‘Do you know, we had such an adventure while walking home from the bus stop! We were attacked by a ghost!’
Prakash raised his eyebrow at Lavanya, and she shrugged back at him. ‘A ghost, huh? Tell me more – what did she do?’
‘Not she, Daddy, he. A male ghost. He waits alone in the dark for lonely mothers and children who have to walk all the way from the bus stop to their homes. And he asks them to come away with him to Hyderabad!’
‘Yes, yes, Hyderabad is a city. A big city far, far away. He wants to take the mother and the child away to Hyderabad, where has his own place. And once he takes them there, god only knows what he does to them.’
‘My, he sounds rather dangerous, this ghost.’
Rudhir nodded vigorously. ‘Yes, very dangerous! And you know, you cannot run away from him, because he is a ghost, so he can run faster than you can. Much faster. The only way to escape from him is to keep talking to him, and keep him walking, so that before he knows it we have reached home. And then we can say, I have to go, bye!’
Prakash raised another quizzical eyebrow at Lavanya, but his lips were smiling. ‘Right,’ he said. ‘That’s a nice plan, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, so Mummy kept talking to the ghost, and she kept telling him that we were not going to come to Hyderabad, and by the time we reached the gate, the ghost just disappeared and left us. So Mummy saved us, Daddy. Mummy saved us.’
‘I see,’ said Prakash, in his humour-the-child voice. ‘Well, good on Mummy. Thank you, Mummy.’
‘You’re welcome, Daddy,’ said Lavanya, as Rudhir jumped off the bed and ran off into the other room to play with his grandfather. ‘Don’t disturb thathayya for too long,’ Lavanya called out.
‘Okay, Mummy! Just five minutes!’
Lavanya held the phone in front of her and leaned back against the bed’s headrest. ‘Hmm, so have you eaten?’
‘Yes yes, at the canteen,’ said Prakash. ‘Say, where does he get those ideas?’
‘Oh, god knows how a four-year-old’s brain works!’ said Lavanya. ‘I am sure it’s because of all the horror shows that you show him on TV all day. I keep telling you – and now watch!’
Prakash laughed. ‘Let him be. Boys must think of all these things. Ghosts and cars and guns – where would we be without them?’
‘Like father, like son,’ said Lavanya with a crooked mouth, and Prakash laughed again.
* * *
Her alarm went off at 6:30 a.m.
She found her phone on the second buzz, and stole out of the room without waking Rudhir. She went out into the front yard, and took the steps up to the terrace, barefooted. Standing amid the pools of water that had collected from the overnight rain, she craned her neck to watch the hollow dial of the clock tower that stood in Palem’s main market. From here she could see just the top half of the stone structure, and the perfectly round hole in its face.
Lavanya found herself breathing through her mouth. She walked over to the edge of the terrace, close enough to the four-feet-high parapet so that she could place her hands on its mossy surface. Something in the air reminded her of him, of all those nights and days, of promises made despite the knowledge that they would one day be broken.
Could it be that no one in Palem knew of her and Sandesh? It was impossible. Stuff like this did not remain hidden here. But she was the headman’s daughter; whoever saw closed their eyes, whoever heard closed their ears. Maybe they spoke of her and him behind their backs, in hushed whispers. But they allowed her her privacy, an impression that she was getting away with it.
What had begun in a moment of weakness – of boredom, of exhilaration, who can tell? – had gone on for long enough. Today – she looked at her phone – in ten minutes, she was going to be freed. No more constant fighting of temptation, no more oaths taken in the throes of passion, and no more lying – not to Prakash, not to Sandesh, not to Rudhir, not to anyone.
She stood there until ten minutes or so past seven, until Sambayya hobbled up the staircase to the terrace and told her – without her asking – that the teacher had left for Hyderabad. She nodded at her old manservant, the man on whose shoulders she had played as a girl. He watched her with brown, sad eyes, bent over on his walking stick.
‘Go on down, Sambayya,’ she told him. ‘I will come in a minute.’
And as soon as she found herself alone again, Lavanya allowed herself to quietly cry.