Five years after she fled to Delhi in an unreserved coach of Lucknow Mail the evening of her marriage, Miranda returned to the town where she had grown to be a woman from a blob in a womb. She found an accommodation in the neighbourhood of the house that used to be home. Mrs Mukherjee was eking out a lonely life after her husband’s demise a few years ago, and her daughter Piyali’s migration to Australia. There was a frame with Piyali and Miranda in pigtails among many photographs adorning the walls of her living room; the girls had been inseparable in younger years. So Miranda was welcomed like a daughter come home, although not without the rider of a monthly rent, which wouldn’t hurt the meagre finances of Mrs Mukherjee in her declining years.
The single room dwelling over the garage of Mrs Mukherjee’s house was constructed with tenants in mind. It had an attached bath and a compact kitchen that spilled into the backyard of the house. A lavish bay window looked out to the front facing north and rendered certain elegance to the extension. A staircase rose along the main wall of the house and turned left to meet the door hidden from view. A metal ladder led further to the terrace from where the view to the east was blocked by the rising ambitions of the row houses and an ugly apartment block that had sprouted in recent years, as if to shield Miranda from her bittersweet past. Far to the west, the bungalow next to the railway tracks craned its ridges above the congregation of concrete, its tiles still proud and hopeful.
Miranda was ordered by Mrs Mukherjee to come down for morning tea with her daily, a ritual observed with much ceremony, in the living room downstairs among exotic porcelain and silverware. She was finicky to the tiniest detail —everything had to be just right, Darjeeling green tea leaves soaked for fifteen minutes in the teapot, and the two sugar cubes, despite the admonitions of her doctor. Much to Miranda’s amusement, she found the crockery changed subtly each day. With a glint in her eyes, Mrs Mukherjee would describe at length how each tea set was acquired and where, and how the patterns on the cups and the shape of the teapot tend to have a bearing upon a day.
‘I am addicted to teas sets a wee bit,’ she confided one day in what was a clear understatement, ‘like your mother was addicted to wind chimes.’
‘What else did she like, my mother?’ Miranda asked.
‘Oh, she was sold on chandeliers too!’ Mrs Mukherjee told her.
‘I too love chandeliers.’ Miranda said.
‘In that case, you should visit the bungalow by the tracks.’ Mrs Mukherjee chuckled.
The spoon in Miranda’s fingers slipped to the floor with a clink. The woman in her memory threw back her head in a peal of laughter.
The chandelier came in a wooden crate large enough to alarm Mrs Mukherjee. Just as she feared, it jammed on the steps where the narrow staircase turned at an acute angle midway. The two helpers somehow wriggled under the crate to hoist it above the railing and then, pirouetting deftly, the younger of the two pressed his back against the wall and shoved the other edge past the banister, transferring a blotch of sweat form his back to the lilac blue paint. For the brief moment it rested on the rail, it scraped an inch or two of the chrome with a squeak, enough to trigger a fit of rage in any landlady worth her salt. But for the fact that Mrs Mukherjee had gone to yoga classes with Miranda’s mother, and had pitied the child half-orphaned at five, the tenancy would have stood annulled there and then.
It was easier to move the crate up after that, a tad carefully though through the door, and pull off the wooden boards, unsheathing the sparkling octopus of glass laden with multi-faceted globes, teardrops and spear-points of many-sized crystals. After another hour of fumbling and puzzle-fixing, and much fretting by Mrs Mukherjee who seemed to vacillate between admiring the glasswork and pitying the ceiling to which it was about to cling, the men from the home décor store were able to fix it to the hook peeking from the ceiling and plug in the wires. One of them flicked on the switch and stepped back into a corner with his arms on his waist and an expression fitting only God having just unleashed the light on Earth. It lit up like a cluster of stars the shape of an octagonal cone on a pristine night, each piece of glass sparkling in a splendour of its own, even as the afternoon swelled in through the window. ‘For absolute beauty,’ the one with grizzled hair said in a grating voice, ‘wait till sundown; for a dreamlike beauty, set the regulator to minimum’. He turned the electronic knob to its lowest power.
Grumbling in mock annoyance, Mrs Mukherjee ambled to the window and drew the curtains in swift jerks one by one, sending the wind chimes fluttering like a flock of frightened pigeons. The confused clamour fell in a pattern of clinking at intervals as they swung to and fro, calming down to a melody as the tubes just stirred about the clappers in a fading alto. The light in the room had mellowed to a crepuscular glow, and the dappled pattern on the ceiling to a shapeless haze. For all her cynicism, Mrs Mukherjee felt transfixed like a kid watching fireworks.
‘You are every bit Tara’s child, Miranda!’ she remarked.
‘And does it feel like this in that bungalow?’ Miranda asked, broaching the subject herself.
‘The person who could have told us that is beyond all lights and sounds.’ Mrs Mukherjee said, with a faraway look in her eyes. Then, recovering her composure, she cast a stern glance at the helpers who were lingering for baksheesh. The older one grumbled as the two made their reluctant exit. Next, it was Miranda in the cross hairs of her displeasure. ‘Please ask Jet Airways to call at my number only in extreme emergencies, like when the flight you are on crashes into some mountain. Anyway, I believe you are merely ground staff there.’
Miranda had bumped around shops deciding on the grandest chandelier she could buy that day. She had balked at the idea of calling her office for a sudden leave in the morning and it slipped off her mind eventually. She tried not to dwell on what might unfold the next day. She was feeling hollowed out and in some ways it was real. All she had eaten since morning was an arrowroot biscuit with Mrs Mukherjee. Most of her savings had transmogrified into a shimmering pyramid hanging inverted from the ceiling above her at the moment. Perhaps it was foolish but then she had been contemplating to get one all these years; it was ruled out at the working women’s hostel at Delhi. There was a bite in the air of the dying November. Soon she would need fresh woollens to boot. She would need a saree too, for an upcoming event next month.
It was the coldest December in forty four years when Miranda had her first conflict with a sari. The nine yards of silk held together by a slippery whorl about her navel was hardly a comfort. She was sorely missing the embrace of her long trusted jeans about her legs. Her forearms were covered in filigrees of henna, her fingertips had turned the shade of amber. Even though she had scrubbed off the muddy green paste the previous day, the aroma had haunted her like an insistent ghost.
‘You look so much like Tara!’ Who was it that kept telling her again and again? Never mind that. What she hated especially was the ridiculous feeling of being naked below the waist. Everything down the groin was just like a tent filled with cold air. No wonder the pockmarked bastard in that freezing train to Delhi offered her his blanket only to feel past her thighs. A teeth chattering virgin in bridal ensemble deserved some warming up after all.
‘No, Miranda, No!’ the woman in her memory yelled; her hair was dishevelled.
The other time when her hair was dishevelled, Miranda had sauntered off to the tracks and loitered around the bungalow; its hedges were high like a forest. She still wondered how she had made that far, considering she was just four, or maybe five. Perhaps she really wanted to watch a train. Someone with eyes like the sky above had picked her up in his lap. They passed by a man selling balloons tied to a bicycle and he bought a bunch of them for her: red, orange and blue, and all the colours she could think of. It was a short-lived joy back at home. Papa yanked them free from her clutches and they flew away into the sky. She could keep looking at them grow smaller and smaller as she had fallen on the grass. Perhaps he had hit her really hard. Then mother was sitting next to her and trying to get her up, kissing and coddling. A lot of people came to their home next day. They wouldn’t let her go near mother who kept sleeping. She never came back from wherever they took her.
Eventually, she started forgetting what she had looked like, her face mellowing in the mist of years. She would search the faces of other women she met, look long and longingly at their eyes and hair, but none seemed to be anything like her. More than a human, she became a memory of a happiness, and the memory of a kiss when lying on the grass, fresh on her lips.
It was 02:00 A.M. in her wristwatch. Miranda realised with a shock she had drooled in her sleep. Perhaps it had happened because of lack of food in her bowels? She had a burning sensation in her face, probably an onset of fever. ‘It is just the cold,’ she told herself, ‘just a bit of cold.’ She curled herself harder in the quilt. Soon someone was banging at the door and calling out her name noisily.
‘You think I can’t figure you’ve been fasting since yesterday? If you can’t live like a respectable girl in this house, you may as well leave now!’ Mrs Mukherjee went off like a cracker the moment Miranda opened the door to the late morning light.
‘I am so sorry —so sorry!’ she managed to mumble.
‘You are going to wash up and come down fast.’
Mrs Mukherjee kept staring at a spot on the dining table as Miranda hungrily went through the French toasts and the glass of milk.
‘You are so much like Piyali. But I must apologize for yesterday evening,’ the old woman declared eventually. Miranda wanted to assure her she had done nothing that was wrong but was hushed with a wave of the palm. ‘Listen carefully, daughter. The past is like an abandoned mine which has exhausted its riches. You have to move to new territory, meet new people. Meet living people.’
That night when Miranda returned from work she found Mrs Mukherjee unusually subdued. Instead of being glued to the television, she seemed shrivelled in a cane chair, next to the corner lampshade with a volume of Tagore in her lap. She remained reticent, and even querulous, for a long time and tried to turn away Miranda. But out of concern, Miranda hung on offering to cook, and eventually cooking fried rice, her favourite dish. The women kept spilling the cups of their miseries well past midnight. It turned out that Piyali and her husband had been coercing Mrs Mukherjee to sell out the house here so that they could buy an apartment in Sydney. A fresh letter had arrived in that day’s post; it was not the kind of letter a discerning daughter would slap on her mother. The subject of Miranda’s own folks was also given its due, although with reluctance, since Mrs Mukherjee would never forgive Mr Kumar for Tara’s suicide, and she struggled hard not to keep calling him a swine.
When Miranda had vanished at the eleventh hour of her marriage, Mr Kumar had offered to marry his stepdaughter Nisha to the groom who then demanded an astronomical dowry. After Tara’s death, Mr Kumar had married a widow who had a daughter with her late husband. It didn’t help that Nisha was not even half as pretty as Miranda, or half as fair. And as if Mr Kumar’s finances weren’t already stretched, his own daughter Isha developed leukaemia. He ran helter-skelter from one doctor to another, and from Delhi to Mumbai, and eventually to John Hopkins Centre in USA, where she died before they could get a hold on her sickness. It needed wagonloads of money and Mr Kumar had no choice but to sell his house. He stayed now in an attic room in the opposite row with a very sick wife.
Miranda had wept quietly as the news of Isha’s fate was broken to her. But back in her bedroom she broke into a whimpering wail. She had to keep buried her face in the pillow for the fear of rending the night with her anguish. There was a chaste bond of love between the stepsisters, or perhaps, they were not even that. What kind of justice was that, what kind of life? Who was at the root of it all? If only she hadn’t wandered off to the bungalow her mother might still have been alive, like Mrs Mukherjee down there. And there would have been no second marriage of papa, no Isha. She had to burst like an ulcer that had accumulated the puss over a lifetime.
Just as the birds began flitting in the sky in the pre-dawn gloom, sleepless Miranda fell in a trance. But she clearly heard his each footstep as he walked up the stairs and opened the door to her room. He kneeled briefly at the side of the deewan and patting her forehead, he whispered tenderly, ‘So we meet again, my long lost daughter, only to bid goodbye!’
His eyes, Miranda noticed, were more like hers than the colour of anything else. A lone teardrop began its journey to the pillow tucked under her head.
Mrs Mukherjee was again banging at her door saying all sorts of things to her. She rushed to unlatch the bolt and began profusely apologizing to her.
‘Don’t bother,’ Mrs Mukherjee snapped. ‘Do catch your breakfast before you leave.’ And she turned to leave.
Left alone, Miranda was perturbed with the clarity of the dream she had had —it had seemed so palpable while it had happened. At the same time, the door was bolted from inside when Mrs Mukherjee had come to wake her so it can’t have actually happened. She resolved to put an end to the mystery of the man who lived in the fabled bungalow, its time had truly come. She had more than a few questions to ask of the gentleman.
With a ponding heart, she began walking towards the railway tracks instead of going to her workplace. House by house, the old dwellings popped up in their places to the left and right, easily recognisable in spite of their recent makeovers or downgrades. The park with tiny swings and a see-saw was still there, only smaller. Even the electricity poles were the same.
She almost retracted her steps before the crossroads once, beyond which there would be a bend in the road and it tapered into a cobbled lane. There seemed to be an unusually large number of people on move along the narrow lane and it struck her as odd. As she hastened her paces she ran into more and more folks till she came to the point from where the bungalow could be clearly seen, and amassed against its gates was a sizeable crowd with mostly solemn faces. She must have been looking lost for someone asked her whether she needed help.
‘What happened there?’ She asked instead.
‘You don’t know that yet? Mr Palmer passed away last night! He has been ailing for a while.’
* * *
There had been a server crash at Jet Airways and there was enough chaos for everyone not to notice her reporting late. She had a gruelling day still, grilled by the passengers and the staff alike. However, she had learnt many chastening lessons in the past twenty four hours of life, not the least among which was that you must not let time run away with whatever you’ve been dying to do or say. Back from work, she marched to her erstwhile home without wasting another minute. The gates of the old house were locked and seemed to be in disuse, the house wore a dark, abandoned look. The little slab of marble though was still in place, with fading black letters that said ‘Kumar Villa.’ It was not hard to locate her leftover family from that point. Soon she was standing before papa in his cubicle of a residence on a rooftop.
‘Look who has come to meet us, Maya!’ he called out excitedly.
The once intimidating man was a caricature of his past form. Gone were the neatly parted hair and the glistening cheeks and forehead, replaced by a greying, leathery mass. His moustache had turned whiter than snow. Mercifully, she was called inside and offered to sit. She tried to make herself as small as possible in the tiny folding chair. Her stepmother kept glaring at her venomously.
‘Yes, I heard you have come back to stay with that Bengali woman. Why am I not surprised?. ’ Papa was at his old, ironic best. ‘I’m sure she has told you about the great times we’ve had of late?’
Miranda nodded weakly.
‘And did you hear about the Palmer of the bungalow next to the railway track? He kicked the stinking bucket yesterday after decades of lechery. I hear he has bequeathed his riches to his bastards sprinkled across the town.’
Something had been squeezing Miranda’s throat for a while but she didn’t realise it was vomit till it ejected itself with a force. She didn’t wait to witness the aftermath and broke into a run. She reached Mrs Mukherjee’s house within minutes but checked herself from barging in due to a shiny black sedan parked close to the gate. She rubbed her lips hastily with her hanky before she opened the gate gingerly, and tried to sneak past to her bedroom. But there was no chance she was going to escape the visitors who were sitting in the porch chairs with the old lady. She immediately called her out to join them.
It seemed Mr Singh, an advocate, had been waiting for Miranda patiently. He quickly rose to shake her hands, stooping for the barest moment. ‘What a pleasure to meet you, Ms Miranda! I have been appointed the executor of Late Mr Palmer’s will.’
When Mr Palmer had learnt about the misfortunes of her family, he had repurchased ‘Kumar Villa’ from the usurious creditors. As the sole heir of the estate of Mr Palmer, her old house too was to be passed down to Miranda. Mr Singh said she need not work for Jet Airways any further, she was going to be so rich she could buy a jet of her own. But all Miranda had ever wanted was a mother, in a bungalow by the tracks.