She Spoke in Tongues - 5

Glory Sasikala

Serialized novel, by Glory Sasikala

'to find a way through darkness, an endless fight 
no respite, no respite, on a moonless night

“Please sit properly Sitara!”
Sitara was seated on a chair with both feet propped on a side table that was at a higher level than her chair. She had on a short skirt that had moved back to reveal her panties. She was reading a book, and she ignored her mother's order and continued to read.
"Sitara! I said..."
"I heard you." But she still did not move.
"Sitara, move right now!"
Sitara lifted her legs down and shut her book. She turned to her mother. "If not what? You'll beat me up, is that it?"
"Don't talk to me like that!"
Yamini and Sheila, who were seated at the dining table, watched, wide-eyed.
"Okay, I'm sorry. It's not correct to show one's panties, right?"
Tharani coloured, "Yes. You have to learn to sit gracefully. You're growing up."
"Thank you for telling me that. Otherwise how would I have known?"
"Why the sarcasm, Sitara? What have I done?”
Sitara shook her head restlessly, “I don’t know! …I don’t know. I just think it’s funny the way we’ve shifted like this, so soon after Karishma Aunty died.”
“Our shifting had nothing to do with her death.”
“She was your friend. You were with her so much of the time.”
“Yes, and I’m sorry that happened.”
“But you must have known!”
“I wasn’t there, Sitara. I went out shopping.”
“But you must have gone to the landing to leave. Didn’t you smell the gas then?”
Tharani started despite herself, her eyes wide.
“There was no smell when I left.”
“You’re sure? Because Karishma Aunty had anosmia. She wouldn’t have smelt anything. But you would have.”
“Are you trying to implicate that I knew but kept quiet? Is that what you’re saying?”
“I don’t know Mom! Seems strange that she died the way she did.”
“That’s enough. I’ll have none of your cheek! Stop talking rubbish and get back to your studies.”
Sitara opened her mouth to argue but caught Yamini’s eyes and retreated. Sheila looked up at Yamini, a scared look on her face. She hated confrontations; they terrified her. Yamini smiled and said soothingly, “It’s okay. She’s just tired and cranky.” Sheila nodded. “Go in and finish your homework. I’ll come later and take a look.” Sheila left the table with alacrity. She was too small to understand what was going on but she sensed that something wasn’t quite right. But apparently Yamini thought it was all going to be okay. Yamini was always right.
Tharani was more worried and scared that she was willing to show. They had shifted to a new house a month after Karishma’s death. Rashmi was not back yet, but Tharani received a call from her. She had sobbed over the phone. And then, she had begun saying something, but her voice had trailed off, “I warned her….”
Tharani had not dared to ask what she had warned Karishma about. “I’m sorry, there’s someone at the door, Rashmi. I’ll call you later.” She had hung up.
Careful not to raise any suspicions, she waited a couple of months, and then shifted her family to an apartment right at the end of the colony. Sushanth had come down to help with the move and had gone back to Mumbai. They were now quite comfortably settled in the new place, an apartment once again on the second floor.
However, there was a subtle change in the behaviour of both the older girls, Yamini and Sitara. Yamini did not protest outright, but she tried to avoid her mother if she could. She buried herself in her books, spoke more to Sitara and Sheila, and kept a distance from Tharani. Sitara, on the other hand, was openly insolent.
“They sense something,” thought Tharani, biting off the thread. She was stitching a blouse. “They’re not sure what it is, but they sense it.” She pondered whether this was a good thing or a bad thing. “They’d come to know sooner or later. I could not have kept anything from them. Not about Karishma though. That was a bolt from the blue what Sitara said. The girl is too sharp for her age. She’s only twelve! Too observant for her own good. But the other thing, the suicide…they’d have to know about that. I can’t hide that from them forever.”
“It’s best,” she concluded. “This is the reality of their existence too. They’d have to learn sooner or later that we live by different rules. In fact, rules act like obstacles sometimes…” She turned the blouse inside out. It didn’t occur to her that there were hundreds of immigrants in the country who lived by the rules and still managed to settle down quite nicely.
That night, after dinner, Sitara went out and banged the door shut.
“Where is she going?” asked Tharani, “Call her back in. She can’t bang the door like that.”
Yamini came over to her. “She’s gone to the terrace, ma. Please relax. I’ll talk to her.”
They looked at each other. This was their first normal interaction since they’d moved to the new house. Tharani was closest to her eldest daughter and she tended to confide in her, knowing she would not be judged. She had missed that more than she was willing to admit. She wanted to plead with Yamini not to judge her, but it turned out there was no need for her to do that. The girl’s eyes held nothing but gentle compassion. Tharani nodded gratefully. “Talk some sense into her.”
“I’ll try.”
Yamini went to the terrace and looked around. She found Sitara standing near the wall on one side and staring at the street lights that overlapped the stars and owned the sky. For a moment, Yamini felt her heart leap to her mouth in terror. Was Sitara trying to commit suicide? But she wasn’t moving…she was just standing there and staring.
“Hi,” said Yamini, going to stand beside her, “What…” she stopped. Sitara had been crying. She was still crying. 
“Hey!” said Yamini, “Why’re you crying? Is something bothering you?”
Yamini was a simple and direct person. She did not mince words nor did she overuse them.
Sitara shook her head; then she turned to Yamini, “They’re being so rude to me!”
“The kids in my class. You know the son of that banker who hanged himself? His name is Ashok. Ashok Sharma. He’s my junior—Class 8. He told everyone that mom is responsible for his father’s death. He says she seduced him.”
“You know what’s seduction?”
“Oh, come on, Yami! I’m not a kid!”
Yamini smiled, “I thought you were….but continue.”
“No one’s talking to me. Yesterday I washed my hands and came in for lunch. They’d emptied out my food and thrown the box in a corner. My bag was hanging over the door.”
“That bad?”
I’m so sorry Sit. I didn’t know. I’ll look in on Monday. I’m not having a great time either. No one will talk to me. They’re not willing to share notes either. I have to figure out everything on my own.”
“I don’t want this Yami! I can’t take it anymore!”
Yamini was silent. She looked into the horizon. Then she said simply, “I can.”
Sitara turned to her in horror, “What!? How!? You can’t go on in a place like that! You can’t survive!”
“I can because I know that if she did what they say she did, it’s because of me.”
She turned to Sitara. “Suddenly it’s become affordable for them to send me to school and Daddy has become a partner with Vineeth Uncle now. All that’s happened after…you know. If she did it for me, I can take it. I will.”
“But what she did was wrong! You can’t live off…or sponge off someone!”
“Takes two for a seduction to happen, Sit. You can’t seduce a man who doesn’t want to be seduced.”
Sitara turned back to the street lights in the horizon. Then she threw back her head arrogantly, shaking her hair like a wild horse’s mane, and stated, “I can!”
Yamini looked at her younger sister, then laughed, “You wretch!”
Sitara looked at her sister laughing and she laughed too. Their childish laughter rang through the cold, silent night. Sitara put her head on Yamini’s shoulder and Yamini put her arms around Sitara, “You know, these are not the people who are going to certify me. It’s board exams, and as for my character, they don’t have a thing against me. I’ll work my way out. I’ll study hard and pass my exams and go to college and become an engineer. And then I’ll take care of you and Sheila and Mom and Dad.”
A hand came up to her face and poked her eyes, “Ouch!”
Sitara looked up from her comfortable perch, “You forgot an important fact. I’d be working too.”
“So you’re okay with what mom did…does?”
“We’re immigrants, Sit. We work by different rules. Have you seen her buy anything for herself? She fasts, she goes barefoot to the temple. She’s thinking of us all the time: clothes for us, food for us, nice house for us, and good education. If we let her down, everything she’s done this far becomes meaningless.”
“That’ true! I didn’t think of that. What about Karishma aunty, Yami? I really feel she had something to do with it.”
“She didn’t Sit. Maybe she didn’t tell her the gas was leaking…that we’ll never know.”
“And that doesn’t strike you as wrong? It sounds like murder to me.”
“She wasn’t a very nice lady. She set Mom up.”
“Set her up? How?”
“Well, she pretended to be Mom’s friend, but all the while she was trying to put Mom down as being a lower caste person. She was making fun of her behind her back.”
“How do you know?”
“I heard Mom crying the night before Aunty died. I asked her and she told me. I’m the eldest child, so she finds it easier to talk to…sometimes, not always.”
“Oh! Karishma Aunty did that?”
“But that doesn’t make it alright if mom knew the gas was leaking and didn’t tell her.”
Sitara’s voice sounded doubtful now, “I don’t know…”
Sitara grinned, “Relax. I know it’s not alright. I wouldn’t do a thing like that. I’d wish her in hell though. I understand Mom’s anger, especially after being mistreated in school.”
Yamini sighed, “I dream of growing up, Sit. I dream of getting past all this and being my own person, with a job and a house and…”
“Taking care of all of us. What about marriage?”
Yamini shook her head. “I won’t get married. It wouldn’t work after what’s happened in our lives.” She turned to Sitara, voicing her deepest fear, “This is just the beginning of things, Sit. We haven’t been involved yet….” She hesitated, and then she said, her voice trembling, her eyes bright with unshed tears, “We might be.”
“What do you mean involved?” asked Sitara.
And then her eyes widened, “You mean…?”
Yamini shrugged, “We’re not children anymore.”
Sitara opened her mouth to protest, and then stopped. The gravity of what Yamini was trying to tell her dawned on her. And in that one moment, the girls grew up and became women.
The next day, after the children had left for school, Tharani got ready and went out shopping with Shanthi. She and Shanthi had become quite close, supporting each other in the absence of their husbands. They went out together quite often and kept in touch. They never discussed their personal nefarious activities, but it remained an understanding between them. Shanthi was currently involved with a rich diamond merchant who lived uptown. The man had a large family and a big well-known shop in the heart of the city, but he liked to have a little fun on the side. It cost him a few diamonds’ worth, but on the whole, it was no very big pinch on his pocket. His family, especially his wife, was aware of his adventures, but his sons were now partners in the business and they took care that he did not overstep his limits. His wife made her peace with it, and, in some ways, she felt it helped the monotony of their marriage. He certainly was more lenient now and allowed her more freedom; he was less possessive, and yet, was guilty enough to take good care of her. Not much to complain about really. The arrangement suited Shanthi as well as there was a steady flow of income. Besides, the supermarket in Mumbai was doing well, and soon there would be no need for her or Tharani to try this hard.
As they walked along the road towards the bus stand, they passed a shop, which was actually more of a store place of grains and pulses. A little further from the shop, a young man in his early twenties stood talking to three beautiful young teenage girls. The laughter, body language, and expression, all indicated that he was trying to flirt.
Shanthi nodded towards the group. “See that boy over there,” she said to Tharani, “He’s the only son of a zamindar. All the products you see there in the shop are from their lands. He has a sister. She’s married to another landlord. Useless, good for nothing playboy, always going after girls. His father’s trying to teach him responsibility. That’s why he’s sent him down here to take care of this shop. They have several shops. He’s supposed to learn discipline. A supervisor comes in twice or thrice a week to check in on him.
Tharani listened intensely, “He doesn’t look like he’s learning anything.”
“Yeah, he’s having fun. When things come that easy to you…”
Shanthi turned to Tharani and an understanding passed between them. It was like, “Here’s your sitting duck.”
Meanwhile, the boy in question stood smiling at the three teenagers. His name was Ramesh.
“Yes, all the products are from my farm. We’ve got a lot of land.”
“Obviously,” said a quiet girl, who looked quite intelligent, “You’re a landlord.”
“We have animals too. Cows, pigs, horses… We have small animals too.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, we have a goldfish farm, and a duck farm.”
“That’s fantastic! Where’s this wonderland?”
“In my village. I could take you all there one day if you’d like to come?”
The girls squealed with delight. “Of course we would!”
“I can’t come,” said the quiet girl, “My parents won’t allow me.”
“She’s not allowed to go anywhere,” said another girl.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Ramesh. He turned to the other two, “What about you?”
“Oh, we’ll come for sure. Let us know a date.”
“Sure,” said Ramesh, satisfied at the way things were going, “Meanwhile, how about I take you girls out to dinner?”
“Dinner? Well, that would be nice. But I’ll have to check it out with my boyfriend.”
“Oh…you have a boyfriend?”
“Yes” said the girl, laughing, “Does that put me out of the picture.”
“Well, what?” said the quiet girl, angrily, “You were hoping you’d have three girls in tow and look good? If that’s what you do, you can just move on. Come on girls, let’s go!”
The other two girls got on their bikes rather reluctantly. They didn’t mind if towing them and looking good was his thing. He sounded fun. What a spoilsport she was!
“I say! Don’t go! Wait! I’m not that bad!”
But his pleas fell on deaf ears.
The supervisor, a huge hefty man who looked like a wrestler, came over.
“If you’ve had your fun, can we get back to numbers?” he said. He had been with the family for a very long time and knew Ramesh from since he was a baby. He’d been given permission to treat the boy roughly if necessary.
“Okay, I’m coming.” Ramesh walked dejectedly back to the shop.
“That didn’t work out, eh?”
“No, it didn’t. One was a prude, the other one had a boyfriend.”
“What about the third one?”
“The prude spoilt it.”
“Ah, well, you tried. Now come on, come here boy. See this is the cost price….”
Ramesh gave in ungraciously and got down to brass tacks. But once the supervisor had left, he just sat there and daydreamed about girls. He was a strange boy, talk, lanky, and handsome is a watery kind of way. He was rather weak and giddy for his age, but intuitive and sensitive too; although he was unaware of it, his charm lay in his inherent humility; he was a non-judgemental person who was willing to think the best of everyone, and was quite gentle. Perhaps later on, with a real purpose in life, he would be stronger and firmer, but it seemed that he was taking his own good time growing up and getting there.
“I want to buy some rice,” said a husky voice.
Ramesh looked up. A lady stood there.
“Yes, please,” said Ramesh, getting up. He came over to the front of the shop. “What kind of rice do you want?”
“I want raw rice. Can you show me some varieties?”
“Sure” said Ramesh, a little more enthusiastically. The lady was not young but she was beautiful. She had lovely features, was pleasantly wholesome without being fat. “Such eyes!” he thought, “Gold with dark flecks in them.”
“I can show you quite a few varieties. See this one is a jasmine variety. It’s been twice polished.”
“Too much polishing is not good?”
“I agree with you. You could try this one; it’s single polished. Or this one here, which is hand pounded and unpolished.”
Tharani bent over a bag of rice and the pullo of her sari fell over. She seemed unaware of the fact as she continued to talk about rice and take some in her hand.
Ramesh stared transfixed at her breasts hanging low over the rice and his heart raced. The boy was a flirt but he had never been with a woman, not even this close.
Tharani got up and lifted her pullo casually and draped it once more over her shoulder.
She looked at him, “What about the one there.”
“Ah…yes! Yes, please take a look.”
And once more, Tharani bent over, and once more, her pullo fell down. But this time when she straightened up, she looked at Ramesh directly and an entirely sexual awareness passed between them. They stood there staring at each other, and a pact was made in that moment.
It was Ramesh who broke the contact. He moved to the other side of his desk, suddenly wishing to shield himself. “How much would you like to buy?”
“You sell wholesale, right?”
They were still aware of each other.
“Yes. But I could give you as less as one kilo.”
“I’ll take a five-kilogram bag.”
“Okay. Will you carry it or shall I have it sent over?”
“I’ll take it.”
Ramesh left his perch and moved to the bags and measured out the rice. Tharani walked out of the shop and waited. He tied the bag and brought it over to her.
“Thank you,” she said, looking up at him, and the awareness was back.
Once she left, he went back to his desk and sat down. What had just happened? The lady had made a pass at him! She’d thrown him a line! What in the world! And who was she?”
Ramesh was no fool. He didn’t believe that a woman that age would flirt with him for no reason. He could quite as well be her son. She must want something. What? Money? If only he knew who she was.
He got his answer sooner than he expected. Just as Tharani was leaving the shop and down the street, the supervisor came back. He saw her carrying the bag of rice. 
“That lady came to the shop?” he asked Ramesh, sharply.
“Yes. She wanted a bag of single polished rice.”
“Why what’s the matter? That’s just a customer.”
“Customer rubbish! She’s a fleecer.”
“A parasite if ever there was one. She lures men, and then, before they know it, she’s fleeced them off their money. Didn’t you hear of the old banker who committed suicide?”
“Yes, I did. Oh!”
“Please be careful, Ramesh. She’s no simple miss. She means business.”
“Sure. I’ll be careful,” said Ramesh, but in his heart, he was very excited. So she’d thrown him a line. She wanted to fleece him in return for…Wow!
What was a little bit of money in return for…?? He’d be learning so much! She was an experienced woman. Maybe it was all worth it. Ramesh spent the rest of the afternoon conjuring up the picture of Tharani bent over the rice.
A week later, a schoolgirl of about 12 got down from her bicycle and came into the shop. She handed a sack and a tiffin box to Ramesh. “Mom told me to give you this,” she said, tonelessly.
Ramesh looked at her and smiled, taking the sack and box from her, “Please thank her for me.”
The girl looked at him with disdain and asked rather sarcastically, “You get kheer from your customers regularly?”
“No, I don’t. Why?”
“You’re acting like you know who my mom is.”
“I do. Because you look just like her. Same beautiful eyes…”
“Right!” snorted Sitara, completely disgusted, “I should have known!”
“Does your mom give kheer to all the shopkeepers?”
“No,” said Sitara, colouring and looking embarrassed. “It’s her birthday today. And I guess she likes you.”
“Nice! Please wish her on my behalf.”
“Do it yourself,” Sitara threw back her head and walked away. Then she stopped and turned and gave him a thoughtful look, “Just making a point: I’m not like my mom. Okay?”
Ramesh gazed back at her, understanding her dilemma and wanting to sooth, “Sure. I got that.”
“So long as you did,” she said and got on her bike and sailed away.
“Like mom, like child,” said Ramesh to himself. “Like mom, like…” He opened the box. “Kheer. So what’s next?”
He ate the kheer and cleaned up the box. “Next, of course, is that I take the box back to her and thank her. In person.”
He rang the bell tentatively, and then moved in line with the peephole. Someone was looking at him. Then the door opened. Tharani stood there in a dark nightgown. She had been cooking and was slightly sweaty, “Come in” she said, “What a surprise!”
He went in and she closed the door. For a moment, he felt completely trapped and contemplated escaping; then he braced himself. He was a grown man for God’s sake! Not a green innocent child. Surely he could take care of himself?
“I brought you the box,” he said, handing it over to her, “The kheer was delicious. Thank you!”
Tharani smiled. “You’re welcome.”
“I heard it’s your birthday. I’ve brought you a little present.”
He gave her the box. “Oh! You didn’t have to!” she exclaimed. But she took it from him and went to the side table. She picked up a knife and slit open the package. It was a clay statue of a beautiful bathing woman. Her white transparent sari clung to her skin, marking brown here and there. Her hair was tied in a knot over the top of her head, with dark unruly ringlets that escaped and crowned her face. Water dripped from them over her shoulder, and she had one foot in a small puddle. It was a very beautiful work of art indeed.
Tharani looked at it in delight. “Wow! So beautiful!” she said. She loved beautiful things, being something of a connoisseur. “It’s also very…sensuous,” she said, thoughtfully, looking at him. He blushed and looked out the window. “Thank you so much! Please sit down.”
Ramesh sat down. “Can I get you some tea?” asked Tharani. 
Ah, yes. Yes, I would like some tea,” said Ramesh, looking hungrily at her. She did not miss the look.
“I’ll be back.” She went in and made tea. She brought it over and bent over him. He realized as she walked that she had removed her bra and that the front buttons of her nightgown were now open. Now, as she bent over him and handed him the cup of tea, he could see all the way down to her breasts. The musky natural body odour swamped him and he could barely hold on to his senses. 
“The tea is just right,” said the husky voice.
“…thank you,”
“Let go,”
“Let go of control. It’s going to be okay.”

“Come,” and taking him by the hand, she led him to the bedroom. He followed her unresisting and docile, pretty much like the foolish lamb being led to be slaughtered.

[To be continued ...]

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