Authors: Karan Mahajan
Poor woman, he thought. Trapped in a doomed marriage with my depressed cousin (Vikas was ten years younger than Mukesh, but they were cousins)âa man who never knew how to handle women, who, with his nervous shifty mannerisms and sudden uncomfortable smiles, seemed to attract bad luck. You could see misfortune imprinted on people's faces years before it hit them. Mukesh had always known that Vikas, the academic star of the family, would be a failure. Which is why he'd been surprised when Vikas had come one day to the communal drawing room with this sexy item at his side. Women work in mysterious ways; men do too. “Will you have biscuits with your chai?” he asked.
“No, no,” she said. “You have a nice office. Tushar and Nakul always wanted to see your construction machines and excavators.”
“You should have brought them.”
I thought you didn't even own the machines, she wanted to sayâyou're only a middlemanâbut she kept quiet. Mentioning the boys had opened up a door of mania and sickness right in the very center of her chest. She put down the tea.
Mukesh watched her sympathetically, his head slightly askance, as if looking at something around a curtain. His brows were distended with worry; he drummed the table in a way that suggested he was watching but that she was free to continue; that what she was going through was natural; he wasn't going to draw attention to it, not until she wanted him to.
Deepa had always disliked Mukesh but she saw now that he had a certain natural comfort with women, surprising for such a bearish, hairy
fellow, one who always barked at servants and saluted everyone as he passed them on the street. “It's been very difficult,” she said.
He remained quiet; she saw that the whites of his eyes were filigreed at the sides with red capillaries.
“We'll make sure you meet the terrorists,” he said, standing up and coming around to her. He was behind her now, with his hands on her shoulders. “You don't even worry for one second.”
Why did she want to meet the terrorists? She suspected it was because she was on the verge of parting from life, and she wanted all the loose ends tied up before she went, joining her boys wherever they were. So there was a galloping excitement within her: the thrill of meeting the men who had killed her sons; also, the thrill of her own death.
“Naidu won't be able to help you,” Jagdish Chacha, the former cabinet secretary, said when she went to see him at his flat in the complex. “Mukesh likes talking. The person who can help you is Jagmohan or Kiran Bedi. I'll phone them. But tell me: How is Vikas?”
“He's OK, uncle. Busy with work.”
“Good. He has another film project these days?”
“Yes, uncle. A documentary.”
“It's good that he's outside,” Jagdish said. “Being outside I've found is crucial. Inside, one's soul starts to get poisoned. When Indira-ji died,” he said, referring to Indira Gandhi, “I went and exercised every day. Now, tell me, what kind of meeting do you want?”
“Whatever is possible, uncle,” Deepa replied.
“You can meet them as people do in prisonsâthrough a window in the meeting room. You go, queue up all day, and then you get to meet the person for five, ten minutes. If you go, you'll see everyone has come there with tiffin boxes. Of course you won't have to stand in the queue.
“But you can also meet them, or one of them, face-to-face in a room. Technically this is not allowed, but a jail is like a schoolâif you know the principal you can do anything. It might be that we'll have to say you're a journalistâcan Vikas bring his press ID?âotherwise they, the terrorists,
won't want to meet you. Just to warn you, I'm not sure how much you'll gain. When the militancy was happening in Punjab, I remember, many politicians wanted to meet the militants in jail, to shout at them. But the meetings were never satisfactory. They always found that the militants were reasonable men, which was even more difficult than finding out the opposite.” He was lost now in the halls of his past power, traversing them for impressive tidbitsâDeepa had seen this before with Jagdish Chacha. She wasn't friendly with him but knew his wife well and so had an idea of his idiosyncrasies.
When he was done, he said, “Now, you go rest. The family is behind you. All his life Papa-ji fought against this kind of fundamentalism from the Muslims. We'll make sure you get everything you want.”
Funny, Deepa thoughtâhow this kind of tragedy unites and energizes a family. I've not just asked these old men for favors; I've reinvigorated their lives with purpose.
A few days before the blast, Tushar had come into the kitchen in the morning to watch her at work. An earnest boy, he loved the hectic action of the kitchen. “And how much frosting do you have to make for the order, Mama?” he asked.
“Two or three kilos since it's a bulk order,” she said. “And we'll let it cool in the afternoon. Hopefully we'll have electricity so it won't turn green from mold. You want to mix it?”
He did. With the whisk tight in his hand, he churned the butter and the sugar. He was not as effeminate as his father made him out to be. It was a matter of context. In the context of the kitchen he was an expert. As he mixed the frosting, Deepa hugged his small frame from behind.
Later that evening Nakul played “Edelweiss” for her on the small guitar they had bought him. “Edel Vyes, Edel Vais, every morning you greet me,” he sang.
Now, back home from visiting Mukesh, Deepa reflected on the tragic oddness of her own life, how she'd grown up in a tiny family in Bangalore,
the only daughter of a reclusive man who ran a famous bookstore and could talk about nothing but sixties rock 'n' roll (he had not been a recluse before his wife died, though she could barely remember that); how she'd been a shy and frightened but persevering creature, doing well in school and ending up in Delhi and working for Arthur Andersen, the CA firm, thanks to a family connectionâDelhi, that odd world, so much more spacious and rude than Bangalore; Delhi, a place where no one was firmly rooted and there was a sense that if a better city presented itself just fifty kilometers away, the opportunistic inhabitants would immediately quit the city, caring not a jot for the earth that had nurtured them. And, of course, out of all these Delhiites, these savage North Indians, she'd picked Vikas. Or Vikas had picked her. She'd liked him because, in the middle of the rude crush, he had the disarming gentleness of a South Indianâhe was a Punjabi but he could have been sprung from St. Joseph's. Calm, sympathetic, patient, he was a good listener, marked with none of the prejudices she imagined North Indians carried toward South Indian Christians (and she wasn't wrong about these prejudices: years later, when she became a de facto Punjabi as well, she learned that most North Indians thought all Christian women were maids); and their courtship had an easy, light quality; they'd melted like two shy creatures into one another.
Tears came to her eyes remembering those early daysâdays of infatuation. After that everything had gone to ruin. Vikas slipped into a depression about his career as a documentary filmmaker from which he never recoveredâangry first at his family for not understanding why he wished to be an artist rather than a CA (“There's only one artist in the whole bloody family and they can't even handle that!”) and then at himself for having chosen such a nugatory, ascetic path at a time when India was booming with money and rupees fell from the trees like soft petals, enriching even the fools of his family, whose property values shot up. How many times had she told him to quit? To go back to being a CA? To do something else? To sell his inherited lands in Patiala? But he refused. Descending into bitterness, surrounded by the braying, pointing, mocking audience of his
family, he had become attached to his own pain. He did not want to make changes because that would mean losing his precious exchequer of bitterness.
And then there were the kids. He had, in his bitter, depressive way, been opposed to having any, but she had pushed him and pressured him, sending subtle messages through family members, thinking that children would rouse him from his emotional torpor, give him a reason to
. And, in fact, there was a change in him after Tushar was born. Vikas loved the boy in the obsessive, cuddly way he loved animalsâconstantly nuzzling against him, singing wicked, demented songs; he was energized (as many artists are) by his own creation.
But soon he lost interest in Tushar and Nakul and returned to his depressive stateâin fact, he blamed the boys for exacerbating his depression. “We should never have brought them up here, with the influence of this family. They've also turned out to be Punjabi brutes with no understanding of art.”
“I've told you many times we could move to Bangalore or Bombay,” she said. “And the boys are much more like you than anyone else.”
“And who's going to pay the rent, my dear? The fees for their school? This property is my curse. I'm stuck here. The property is probably my
, though I'm not sure how to make a documentary about all these oafs.”
Such self-pity! She wouldn't stand for it. “You have more than enough money locked up in lands. Why don't you sell it?”
But Vikas was incorrigible. “Do you realize how complex it is? I'll have to deal with Mukesh, Jagdish, Rajat, Bhim. It's not worth it. Better to let a few of them die off,” he said viciously.
How had he become like this? Where had her husbandâthe sweet man she'd known the first few yearsâgone? She began despairing that this was his true self, that she'd been fooled those first few years. Such bitterness could not be minted overnight; it had to be implanted at a young age. Maybe he wasn't so different from the bad-tempered, cynical people in the complex that he despisedâbut whereas those people pinned their cynicism
on the decline of the family's reputation, he pinned it on the decline of his career. It was all the same, in the end; it produced the same results. It occurred to her that she could have been married to any one of the shrieking, sniggering fools on the family campus. That she was like Draupadi, wedded to the
, not to a person. “You used to be different,” she had said at the end of that conversation about selling the lands, trying to keep herself from cracking.
“No,” he'd said. “I was just on a break from being myself.”
Then, one day, in October, five months after the boys' deaths, they went to Tihar Jail to meet a man named Malik Aziz. Malik, it was said, was the ideologue of the JKIF, the man behind its violent philosophy. A bookish student of chemistry at the University of Kashmir, he had turned out to be a dangerous, charismatic figure in the student protest movements, egging his fellow students on from stone throwing to kidnapping a vice chancellor of the university to assassinations and finally terrorism. “According to RAW, he's one of the most dangerous terrorists in the country,” the police escort whispered as he walked beside Deepa through the winding inner roads of Tihar, small paths canyoned on either side with high dirty yellow plaster walls, the walls overlaid with snaps of shattered glass and barbed wire.
A lotâtoo muchâof family was present. Jagdish, who had organized the meeting, was in his small specs and crinkled face, looking short and wide in a safari suit as he walked with his hands behind his back. Mukesh: sticking out his chest, smoothing his mustache, constantly asking the police escort questions, as if to flatter him and overpower him at once. And Vikas, of course: slinking behind the two men and Deepa, acting even more distraught than he probably was, showing his displeasure about these men's presence by not standing next to his wife. “Come in the front, yaar,” Mukesh said, grabbing him by the shoulder.
“No, no. I'll keep watch of the back,” Vikas said, as if there was a chance they'd be attacked by escaping prisoners in these narrow Benares-back-lane-like channels.
“Why are they coming with us?” he had asked Deepa a few days before, when she told him that the meeting in the jail was confirmed.
“They organized it, yaa.” The South Indian
. These old tics were returning.
“They didn't even know the boys. In all these years, tell me one time they took interest in them. All Jagdish would do is go up to them and make faces and say, âWho is Kumbhkaran and who is Duryodhan?' And Mukeshâhe'll act like a chaudhary and take over the whole thing, as if
kids have died.” He flushed, as usual, at this phrase. He'd become a man whose kids had died. This was his chief distinction. It occurred to him now that people are defined much more by their association with death than by what they do in life.
Poor thing, she's a widow
, they say.
She lost her mother when she was ten to cancer
. I've been immune to all this, he thought.
His parents had not died earlyânor had they died late. He was the third of four siblings; his parents were thirty-five and thirty-three when they'd had him. They'd both died in their early seventies. People lived for much longer now but he had not grieved too much for themâthey'd led unhappy lives and they were especially unhappy in each other's presence. Mama's stroke of genius, he thought, was to die first. Her poor husbandâangry, stingy, abusive, like all the men in this familyâhad been unmoored.
What a bitter man I am! he thought with some satisfaction. Can't feel anything for my parents and soon I won't feel anything for my dead children either. I care only about myself and there's the rubâI'm not even worth caring about. Self-pity welled in his chest. It was a familiar, even comforting sickness, like the pleasure that a bulimic must feel when the food first starts rising in the elevator of her gullet. He thought again of his failures, thought of his wasted promise, thought of the way in which even Godâyes, God!âhad confirmed his suspicions about himself by murdering his children. I'm not fit to live! Everything I touch turns to shit! Now look at this poor womanâthis lovely woman who's thrown in her lot with mine (he looked at her as these thoughts swirled through his head, gathering together the threads of his life: only a second or two had passed in the drawing room, where they were having the conversation. She was icing a cake again, as on
the day of the blast). What has she got? Nothing but years and years of heartbreak, of being pushed physically, I am sure, into the country of her mother's cancer. When she married me, with my encouraging smile and my famous family, she probably thought she was gaining securityâexactly the thing she craved after that tiny lifeboat of a family in Bangalore. Instead she got the opposite. Or not the oppositeâjust a continuation of her childhood. Secretly we are all looking for ways to continue our childhoodsâthe hurt, the pain, the love, the fear, the shame. So just as I recognized in her someone who would let me carry on with my bitterness, she must have recognized in me someone who would let her down repeatedly. Lead her straight into the waltzing, frizzing arms of cancer.