Prose Header

Creepers and Grapevines

by Ranvir Singh Parmar

Chapter 2 appeared
in issue 252.
Chapter 3


I slept in my car after securing the locks of all the doors. In the morning when the clamor of the birds outside the garage door woke me, I checked all my body parts — eyes and nose and ears in the rear mirror to see if I was all right. Everything was fine and intact. I realized how silly it was on my part to think Sanskriti would hurt me, kill me for my infidelity. She could never cut my hands the way her sister, Muskan, chopped the hands of her husband when he returned home late that night.

A dark house awaited him; that house too, as Sanskriti had described, had a grapevine hanging like a tuft of hair at the front. The hapless man on hearing the tap went in to close it, and hours later emerged out of the bathroom inside a bin bag, on the back of an old wicked woman.

But Sanskriti could never kill me. I felt ashamed to doubt the intentions of my wife of ten years, a woman whose arms I had sought every night for their warmth and affection.

I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and went to check inside the house. I walked straight to my room. The door was closed. I placed my fingers over the door as gently as if an insect would have landed over it. The door swung on its hinges, allowing a small gap to form.

Sanskriti was lying on the bed. Anyone could tell she was not sleeping. She lay in a contemplative posture — face pointing to the ceiling, hands crossed over her belly, and eyes...? I could not see from this distance whether they were open or shut. But something in the air told she hadn’t slept whole night. She had overseen all the shadows that have flickered on the walls of her room throughout the night, and now at the break of the dawn she greeted the colors of the morning with the same haunting impassiveness.

I left her in her state and went to make tea for myself. The sink was submerged in dirty utensils. Plates, spoons, glasses, and cooking pots, lay in a deadlock. The situation looked so pernicious it seemed even if one spoon was withdrawn out of the heap the whole structure would collapse with a deafening boom. The maid hadn’t arrived for two days, and Sanskriti had refused to get rid of the mess herself.

Her absence had even encouraged the cockroaches; they were conscious of the missing sound of the glass bangles forever adorned over the maid’s arms, and knew there was no swatter watching over their whiskery heads. They strolled over the plates, lazed over the lids of the jars containing salt and sugar and spices, and stood reflecting over the window sill with such calm as if they were sure their civilization had done with its panicky existence and there would be no more hue and cry from now on.

They looked so at peace resting over the utensils that hold our food, that in spite of all my loathing for these creatures I felt reluctant to spoil their morning. They could hang around alongside, as long they minded the poking of their tendrils away from the rim of the cups, plates, and ladles, and never trust their feathers enough to risk sorties over the cooking food.

My vision had just begun to explore the territory of this new world where man and cockroach would be mates till eternity, when all of a sudden a loud noise made me turn around.

Sanskriti was standing in her nightie, peering over the still body of a cockroach. She kept her swatter raised to take another hit in case the creature moved.

‘Is it dead?’ she asked.

I went close and looked over her shoulder at the stiff body in front of me. The creature looked more dazed than dead; no feather out of place, no leg snipped away, no thick juices oozing out of any part; tendrils were still in their graceful droop away from the body and ready to poke at yet another thing — a perfect death.

‘I guess so,’ I said.

‘Do you want me to hit it once more?’ she asked.

‘No need,’ I said. ‘One should be respectful to the dead.’

She prodded the creature with the edge of her swatter, subjecting it to various circular and linear movements before announcing it dead. ‘By the way where were you last night?’ she asked, turning around.

‘I came late and slept in the lounge.’

‘Lounge?’ she asked. ‘Hm... thanks.’

‘For what?’ I asked.

‘For taking care not to disturb me. I was so tired. When you told me you are caught up in a meeting in your office, I made myself a small dinner and went to sleep.’

‘Why was the power out?’ I asked.

‘Power?’ she said, raising her eyebrows. ‘I don’t have a clue.’

Without warning she pushed me out of the path and focused the wrath of her swatter on another creature.

‘It won’t do any good killing a few,’ I said. ‘Just look around.’

‘I know,’ she said. ‘But at least it would prevent this one from breeding. Just look at its size; can you imagine its share to their population?’

I turned towards the sink and salvaged the teapot from deep within the wreckage, resulting in cluttering noises as the whole structure heaved and rose to allow the pot sufficient space to pass. I had my back to her and therefore kept my eyes over the knife stand at my side, in case she was through with the cockroaches, and it would be my turn next.

‘Don’t move,’ Sanskriti said.

‘What?’ I asked.

Before I could turn around to check, a loud snapping voice made its way out of my back. The pain followed immediately, spreading like cracks over an arid land, ripping through my skin. The pot slipped from my hand and landed back into the sink. A mynah bird hopping on the sill looking for way that would lead it to the bounty of the cockroaches inside fluttered away at the sound.

‘I got it,’ Sanskriti screamed. ‘Sorry... I didn’t mean to’

‘Are you out of your mind?’ I said.

Sanskriti didn’t attempt to massage the area on my back. She pointed to the ground but there was nothing there. ‘It was here, I swear, just now. Where did it go? It was a small one... check beneath your chappal.’ I raised my leg and showed her there was nothing under there as well. ‘The rascal could have escaped...I didn’t mean to hit hard, but you know them, these pests don’t die if are you soft with them. What if it had got into your hair, huh?’

* * *

I took my tea to the verandah, along with the newspaper. My body was aching after sleeping in the car; all I needed to recuperate the tortured muscles was a large cup of tea and the relaxing touch of the paper. I still could not get over the fact to what extent I mistrusted Sanskriti even after living with her for so long. Something in the dark night, probably the scarcity of the stars in the sky, or the sight of the creepers covering the walls — that at this moment as I looked appeared very pleasant to me and were being visited by several beautiful birds — had inhibited my thinking process.

I looked up from the newspaper several times and smiled at my foolishness. A cat stopped its march across the wall and looked at my smiling face. Stupid humans, she would be thinking, laughing for no reason. I even realized that what I saw in the mirror was not Sanskriti. She had her dinner in the house and the power cut wasn’t the result of any deliberate foul play, but a minor fault in the power lines that reached our house. The people from the Electricity Department were outside my house, standing on their pernicious ladders with their tools tucked into their waist pockets and their tongues poked out in concentration.

I felt an ache to embrace Sanskriti wherever I could find her in the house, make her sit on my lap, tuck her loose hair behind her ears, and apologize to her for my unfaithfulness. I would admit everything: my infidelity, my mistrust, my foolishness. I would confess that how I had doubted her intentions last night. I would swear never to contact Shilpa again.

Sanskriti would forgive me; she might cry and wrench herself free, but soon she would walk back to my embrace. She knew she was the one who would mother my children, chase them around the house with her sari lifted and knotted against her waist when they would act naughty. Afterwards, I would take her to a flower stall and buy lilies for her hair, and to reinforce her belief in me would visit with her to Ma Kali’s temple and repeat my promises. I will make amends, I promised myself.

A voice jolted me out of the world of flower stalls and resounding clarinets. I looked up to see a small old woman with a rucksack hanging from her shoulder. ‘Sahib,’ she repeated. ‘Is it number fifteen?’

‘I don’t have any change,’ I said, irritated at this intrusion in my thoughts. ‘Try next door.’

‘No, sahib,’ the lady said. She placed her bag on the floor and sat on the stairs of the verandah. She was old and out of breath. She wiped her face with the end of her sari. ‘I am Shakuntala. I am here for work, sahib, not charity.’

She looked up towards the door. Sanskriti had appeared after her bath, a towel was wrapped around her head. There were drops of water all over her face; it appeared she had walked out of the bathroom without finishing. ‘Oh, you are here,’ she said. She stayed hidden behind the door, only sticking her head out to speak. I guessed that she wasn’t even properly clothed.

The old woman smiled. ‘Yes, yes, dear,’ she said. ‘This gentleman here thinks I am here for charity.’ She laughed and clapped her hands. ‘Charity...’ she said. ‘That’s the last thing God will make me do.’

‘Vikram, she is here in place of our old maid. She was always asking for holidays so I told her to get them for lifetime... Shankutala, this is my husband, Vikram.’

The lady looked at me as if ascertaining if I qualified as the chief of the house. She kept staring into my face and I was forced to clear my throat loudly, and clear it again so I almost fell into coughing. ‘That is all right,’ I said in English, addressing Sanskriti, hoping the lady would not understand it. ‘But at least you should have told me. Do you think at her age she can do all the household chores and -.’

‘Don’t get mistaken by my age, sahib,’ the lady said. ‘I can clean the floor and dishes with you on my back. Want to give it a try, I won’t mind.’

Sanskriti giggled from behind the door like a small girl. ‘Shakuntala has gone to college for one year before she dropped out. She writes poetry in English.’

‘Well,’ I said sternly, determined to salvage my respect from the insult the lady had shoveled over me. ‘I won’t be paying you for your poetry, but yes what I love to see from you is fewer holidays and a clean house.’

‘Shankuntala,’ Sanskriti said. ‘I will get you some tea. You can come inside, but it’s cooler where you are sitting.’

Sanskriti closed the door and went inside.

‘What’s in the news, sahib?’ the woman asked.

I folded the newspaper and thumped it on the table. ‘Same old, nothing much,’ I said.

I didn’t like this lady. Sometimes you loathe someone from the very first sight. If it was not for my already weak situation in front of Sanskriti I would have told the woman to pick up her bundle and get out. It let down shivers on my back to think every morning she would sit next to me and watch me reading the newspaper. Even our last servant had her morning tea at the same place, but she never had the temerity to disturb me while I was reading; even if my pupils were bulging out at some news, at most she craned her neck foreword to see the picture but never asked me what it was about.

And this lady hadn’t once taken her eyes off me since she came. She placed her back against the pillar and stretched her legs. ‘Old age, sahib,’ she said. ‘You just don’t understand what to do with one’s limbs; every inch of them pains — day and night. Sometimes you wish to cut them off.’

I didn’t answer her. I decided to take a stroll up to the electric pole where the people were working and confirm how long it would take for the power to come back. The lady was blocking the way so I jumped into the garden from the side to avoid brushing my feet against her starched sari. Who knows what all superstitions she would have against jumping over someone’s feet?

But the disaster struck before I realized. I landed on the wet soil. The gardener hadn’t fully closed the tap and the whole flower bed lined with rose plants lay in an inch thick layer of water. My feet sunk into the moist soil, and before I could regain my balance they went in separate directions, as if the touch of this soil had bestowed them with separate destinations. Before I realized what was happening I found my face touching the ground.

The lady gathered her legs and stood up, but instead of helping me she started laughing and clapping her hands like an insane woman. Her whole body reverberated with the joy of seeing my kurta and knees soiled in the mud.

I somehow managed to get on my feet and started rubbing myself clean. ‘What’s so funny?’ I asked.

‘Nothing much,’ she said, unable to stop her intoxicating laughter. ‘Why didn’t you watch your step, prince?’

I stopped dusting, froze, and looked at her face.

Sanskriti came out on the porch with a steaming cup of tea. She didn’t notice me and placed the cup over the table. ‘Don’t forget to have your tea, auntie,’ she said. ‘Five spoons of sugar, just the way you like.’

Copyright © 2007 by Ranvir Singh Parmar

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