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Geetli made long and regular visits home, restricted only by the school schedules of her children. But whenever she came, it took only a very few hours under Thakurda's roof, to wipe out the tense lines which she brought on her face from Ravi's home.
But the transformation was even deeper; it was not too difficult to recognize the emptiness gnawing at her insides, washing away her limited beauty and turning her into a sharp-eyed shrew, constantly chewing paan and spitting out her spittle and her spite at everyone and anyone.
The boys corresponded with me; they wrote that Laajjo hardly seemed to miss home; she had a large circle of friends and activities to keep her busy.
It was the little one, Latika, who hungered for India. Every summer, there was a tantrum; and as she grew older, she would write to me, demanding to come to India. I trotted out weak excuses, droughts, floods, epidemics, riots, the house under repairs etc. etc. etc.
One year, Latika just turned up at my doorstep. I looked up from my book at the noise at the door and saw two bedraggled souls seeking entry at the gate and then approaching me in the garden.
The female was dressed in the loose shirt and skirt favored by hippie tourists, her hair uncombed, except for a thin chuttiya in the middle of her head, dressed in flowers. She pulled her companion in long hair and dirty jeans along by the hand, to stand before me.
Taking off her dark glasses, she stood straight in front of me and gave me a long direct gaze. " Dada, I ran away to meet you. Don't you know me ? " the voice was almost plaintive and the lovely eyes pleading.
I looked at her and felt my mouth falling open. I stood up; it hit me between the eyes. ' how could I have not recognized her ?'
I placed my hands on her shoulders, looked at her carefully and then closed my eyes to contain the tears of thanksgiving. " Thank you God, thanks. Shukar hai twada, Rabba, meherbani ". wordless thanks to the grace of the Almighty.
Slowly, I opened my eyes and allowed the swimming tears to wash over her head, as I pulled Latika into my arms. After a while, I again pushed her back and examined Latika carefully; how did I not recognize her ? I examined every feature separately.
God had been great to us. Time had done its work well. The early baby cast of her face, which replicated Ravi's, had changed with the years. some femininity had cropped in; the eyes had taken on Laajjo's doe-like cast. Only the nose and lips belonged to Ravi. the firm chin was not his, it was Thakurda's. Except for those of us who knew, no-one would recognize her as Ravi's daughter.
Thakurda's memory was safe. As I sent up another silent prayer of thanksgiving, Latika shrugged out of my grasp, crying plaintively " am I such a freak... what are you staring at ? Meet Randy."
I smiled. " My little sister, who has grown into a beauty, why are you in such rags. Doesn't your mother buy you clothes ?"
" Dada ! don't be stuffy. we're hippies, visiting India and these clothes are fine, thank you." she pirouetted. " Mummy would want to stuff me into a sari, if she could. Please, we're hungry ..."
With a snap of fingers, I led them in and arranged breakfast, gazing at Latika and her boyfriend stuff themselves and lick their fingers. ' What had Laajjo taught the girl ? I must take lots of photographs ? ' I thought to myself.
Two weeks later, Laajjo landed in India, in response to my cable informing her of Latika's arrival.
Again, I failed to recognize her. She had grown grossly overweight, complete with a waddle and multiple chins. But the flash of the eyes and the charm of the smile were vintage Laajjo. She put out her hands in supplication, asking with that old smile of hers, " Must the past always haunt us ? "
A part of me felt myself melting. Looking at her lush, polished appearance, I thought of the gaunt misery permanently etched on Geetli's face. ' had it been worth it ?' I wondered.
Justice would only be served when Ravi and Geetli arrived post-haste. Prema pointblank refused, had all these years.
Ravi entered the house eagerly, a glint in his eye. He was stopped short by the sight of Laajjo at the foot of the staircase. He looked closely and perhaps in that instant, some fond memories evaporated. He turned away impassively " Where is she ? " leaving Geetli face to face with Laajjo. Geetli looked her stepmother up and down, noted the pain hidden at the back of her eyes. Laajjo put out her hands and repeated " Must the past always haunt us ? "
' Had she practiced that ?' I wondered. Geetli showed no signs of thawing. She turned wordlessly away. Lekha was bringing up the rear. Laajjo took her in, Geetli's lanky frame with Prema's fragile beauty.
For the first time some genuine emotion appeared on her face; regret flashed. Latika was just a year younger than Lekha, even less.
" Where is she ? " Ravi demanded.
I was off-hand. " Laty and Randy have gone for a walk."
" Who is Randy ?"
" Randy, " I announced with some relish, " is Laty's latest (emphasis added) boy-friend, who helped her to run away to be a hippie in India".
The stunned look on Ravi's face was worth the wait. Then his face took the stern cast of his old age " where is she now ? "
" Probably around; they should be home for breakfast."
" When did they go out ? did they not know we were coming ?"
" They left for the Woodstock show two days ago and promised to be back today. ....here they are now."
Ignoring Laajo, Ravi looked searchingly at Latika. She was her off-hand self, greeting him with a manly shake , " Howdy brother-in-law."
Ravi was crestfallen. He raised an eyebrow at Laajjo, who shrugged her thick shoulders expressively. There was a cruel smile on Geetli's sad face.
I was watching the whole play, which escaped the two young people totally. Ravi was stunned by the appearance of Randy, by Latika, clothes, her flippancy, so reminiscent of his own, once upon a time. his expression said ' did I father this ? what has Laajjo mothered ?' There was a pointed accusation in his eyes when he looked over Lekha, Geetli's docile, seen-but-not-heard daughter.
I looked him full in the eyes and gave myself the satisfaction of remarking " Can she erase her father's genes ? " turning to look at Laajjo, I thanked the Lord again for my bachelor status. One Ravi and one Laajjo are enough for any family.
Ravi had quickly gotten over his initial distaste for Laajjo's gross appearance; she had explained complicated health problems. and very quickly, Ravi and Laajjo's relationship slipped into the laughing camaradie of twenty years ago; Laajjo's ready giggle was heard often, with his rumbustious teasing, their earthy humor and of course, the nostalgia of Prema's wedding.
They had moved out of their once-favorite corner of the central aangan to the massive lawn outside. Laajjo sat on the swing, the awning shading her still delicate complexion. Ravi sat on a cane chair, placed carefully just under the tree to received a dappled shade.
Geetli watched them from her bedroom window for hours, as they revived their short-lived past and caught up with the years in between.
But when she closed her eyes, Geetli saw Thakurda's massive frame, taking in the silvery laughter on his beloved Laajjo's lips. She opened her eyes and blinked at the spare bald bespectacled frame of her husband, leering flirtatiously at her stepmother, as he popped a tea-sodden biscuit in her open mouth.
From the vantage point of twenty years later, it no longer seemed to affect her. She even wondered why she had resented Ravi's attentions to Prema or to Laajjo.
Try as she would, Geetli could not invoke the old bitterness. She tried to pinpoint the emotion; it seemed more like relief. she was so close to freedom now, if she made the right moves. Geetli crossed her fingers.
Taking advantage of the family's presence, Ravi pushed his luck when everyone had gathered for breakfast.
" Why don't you invite your ma and Latika to go home with us for sometime ?"
Geetli gave Ravi her stone-faced look and raised an eyebrow in query. " For twenty years, you have been making your point. Now let me have sometime with my daughter " he bleated.
Geetli gave him mirthless smile and a knowing look. Ravi could barely stand Laty and her Randy, eternally in tow. Even when Randy was not in tow, her modish flippancy jarred on Ravi's hid-bound paternalism and her questioning often punctured his colossal ego. Ravi's interest was obviously not in his daughter, but the daughter's mother.
Latika butted in unceremoniously " Wrong number. I have only a few days left of my vacation and I want to see either Jaipur or that sex temple, not the back of beyond to see one of Mom's old flames. I have plenty of old and new ones of my own to keep up with. " Randy had not been seen for a couple of days.
Geetli took courage from the openness of the girl's approach. She looked straight at Ravi " I seem to remember that you often said that a mother had no place in a daughter's home. Haan, if it is another saut or sajni, that is another matter altogether. Go, if you wish. I plan to stay here for sometime. The festivals are coming and there is plenty to be done."
The others were stunned. Only Latika was unaffected. The tension at the table was palpable. Dada's knuckles turned white on his spoon. Laajjo put her hand tight on Ravi's forming fist.
" Twenty years ago, I did not have' the courage to say it. Now it is there and I can stand up and say ' this is the man I do not want. " Ravi started. " do you have the courage to say ' that is the woman I want ?
Geetli drove home her point " Take her home, if you want to. but do not ask me to be a convenient excuse anymore. in any case, no-one will even know about it. and when they come to know, you will have settled in already. after some twittering, things will settle down, people will forget you and you can get on with your lives. I intend to get on with my life here, at Thakurda's. Lekha's doli can as well leave from her Mamu's house, as from her father's."
Ravi drank from his glass of water and pushed back his chair to come and stand behind Geetli's. His tone was ominous. " We have private matters to discuss."
Geetli's gait remained staid and measured as she went up the stairs with Ravi's fingers digging into her elbow. Several pairs of eyes watched their progress.
" Any judge would give me an immediate divorce on the grounds of desertion. "
Wordlessly, Geetli marched deliberately to the cupboard, took out her purse and searched in it. She pulled out a pen and came to Ravi " Lao"
" What ? "
" The divorce papers. I'll sign them just now." Ravi retreated a few steps. " What are you talking about ? "
" You mentioned the divorce. Did you think you were frightening me ? Wake up Ravi, this is not the 1950s when divorce was a living death for a woman, nor am I 26 and scared of society any more. Oblige me, give me that divorce so I can come and spend the rest of my life in my own Thakurda's home. You retired after 25 years of service to the government to your ancestral home. I have put in as much time, I also want to retire to lead my life as I want it, in my own home."
The fight visibly left him " Geetli, what are you talking about ? after all this time, divorcing at this age, we'd be a laughing stock. for what ? "
In the evening, the four elders congregated on the lawn. Laty was missing. Ravi cocked his head at Laajjo " Ab to tum wahi chalo, hamare wahan "
Laajjo gave him a considering look with a slight smile " Ravi, you are my jamai, I am your saas. nothing can change that."
" Why not ? " countered Ravi carefully. " for twenty years, Geetli has used you as a barrier between us. now she wants to make a permanent break and come home, if not to Thakurda, at least to her Dada. You at least come with me."
Laajjo's eyes swept over the foursome. She noted the sudden pale creeping into Dada's cheeks and met a steady look from Geetli. With a shock, she realized that the emotion flooding Geetli's face was relief ' she actually wants out, a divorce ??' Laajjo gave Ravi a speculative look and marshaled arguments.
" What will people say ? "
" Damn them, " countered Ravi. we're too old to bother now". Satisfied with what she had started, Geetli got up and walked away.
" You still hold Latika against me, I know you do .."
" of course I do and shall to the last of my days. what a mess you have made of her; and in all those years, you never once bothered to get in touch with me. this bitch would not give me your address. now I'll have to take her in hand, more reason for you to come...."
" fat chance you have of taking her in hand, as an old flame.." she giggled. ' nevertheless the offer seems interesting enough to be looked into; I still have a few more weeks in India before I go back and nothing particular to do......
" what the hell does that mean ? am I stop-gap gigolo ? "
" no, a bald-headed one ... "
Dada's chair crashed as he walked away.
The muted discussion continued into the night. Dada kept his vigil on his balcony. Well past the hour when anyone they knew would be about on the streets, high up on his eerie, Dada heard Ravi's car doors open and then shut. The car moved towards the gate. No sound of footsteps entering the house.
White to the lips, Dada heard his own footsteps echoing silently as he went downstairs to lock the front door.