GOWANUS Summer 2002
by Anjana Basu
all in the hair. Thick black silk more priceless than the most expensive
kanjeevaram. It had to be the hair, which was why she sent the maid again
and again to the bazaar for another and yet another type of coconut oil.
The moment it was delivered into her hand, all crusted with the dirt of
the bazaar as it was, she poured the oil out into her palm and rubbed it
into her scalp. And then she sat with it plastered to her head for three
hours. In summer the oil was cool and calmed her. In winter it gave her
a chill, and she coughed and wheezed, but no matter how much she coughed
and wheezed, she refused to abandon the oil.
And after the oil there was the shampoo, so many variations to choose from there. In the beginning the more expensive imported bottles of chamomile, green apple and henna and indigo, declining to Indian egg and lemon and then, finally to the maid’s warped yellow bar of tallow. But that was only at the very end, when time had almost run out. Before that the bottles ranged her bathroom shelves in their myriad bubbles and facets. After each shampoo she towelled her hair forward, as they did in the film advertisements and ran her fingers through it as she dried it. Sun drying was best, it made it less brittle, though on ambitious days, she spread it over a brazier sprinkled with incense so that the smoke perfumed it as it dried. When her hair was almost dry, she wrapped it in her mother’s old, soft silk sari and had the maid run her hands up and down the bundle. Finally it flowed down her back as it was supposed to, like the thickest finest silk, only to be taken up again and twined with flowers.
The hair was her last hope after the
face failed. How could it possibly have failed to appeal? True it was not
a starlet’s face but the cheek
Tonight was a new knot from a French magazine that she had found at the hairdresser’s. It had taken a lot of haggling to make them part with it, but in the end they had tired of her persistence. She had come rushing home with the glossy thing and she and her maid had pored over it deciding how exactly the styles were to be accomplished. In the end, it was the easiest one they had chosen to try, a simple twist held in place with a flower. “Just one flower, not these stupid jasmine strings that everyone wears, “ she had told her maid decidedly.
Tonight was a concert of classical music, a young singer who had perfected a strain of the Rampur gharana, just the sort of thing that he was likely to go to. She had heard about it from the Indian classical music teacher. Mr. Pinaki had given her a ticket the moment she asked him. “It’s the third row, “ he had said shyly, “I’ll be sitting next to you, if you don’t mind. The owner of the auditorium is a friend of mine...” She knew that his eyes followed her from classroom to classroom and she also knew that she should not be taking advantage of his liking, but she had to get to the concert and the third row was almost close enough...
Pinaki had such thin hair, she thought, idly, as the maid pinned the final knot into place with the gardenia. Thin hair and pleading eyes, not like his thick head of curls and commanding glance. The charcoal eyes had swept her from head to foot and the mouth had curved into a smile of involuntary pleasure. “Such a surprise to find someone like you here, “ he had said, as she raised her head from her namaskar. That had sent a flutter through the teacher’s room. “Imagine, he said that...””Such a blessed one you are, Rani...”
Her parents had named her Rani because they were certain that she was going to be beautiful. No one in the neighbourhood had approved of the name, her mother had told her, softly rubbing oil into her round arms. That was because they were all jealous - who else could boast such a pretty little girl, a girl who was going to grow up to marry a maharajah ? As a child she did not go from room to room but from mirror to mirror, chasing her face in their silver depths, trying to catch a glimpse of a girl who might marry a maharajah. “You’re spoiling her, “ said both pairs of grandparents. “Where on earth would a maharajah see her ? Would he set foot into this part of the world ?” And that was true. They lived in a ramshackle town, that barely escaped being a village, three train stops from the bright lights of Calcutta.
She went to the local school which was run in three rooms of an old broken down mansion. “English, “ her mother told her, “you must learn to speak English...Now, if we had money...” There was just enough to spare from her father’s earnings as a clerk for that. Every day she quenched her bright eyes and flawless skin in the dark recesses of a room that echoed with chanted ABCs.
By the time she was old enough to understand that Maharajahs never visited their part of the world, she had managed to become a good student. Her arithmetic was flawless. “She has a natural gift for it, “ her teacher told her mother proudly. “I would recommend that she become a teacher.” Her mother would have preferred a marriage, but the kind of marriage that Rani had been brought up to dream of was not to be found in the narrow winding alleyways of the old city. The more successful of the young men ran garages or electrical hardware shops and though the more persistent of them jostled to carry her books after class, none of them made her heart beat any faster. No one stayed in the town. Sooner or later, they found themselves jobs in Calcutta. Once in a while, they came home with their mouths spilling over with the wonders they had seen the big city : a film star glimpsed swinging her slender body out of a long car, a woman entering the sweep of the Grand Hotel, cut out of the night by the fire of diamonds. Compared to them Rani was a very pale shadow, they implied.
After a while, she learnt to shut her ears. Her parents would not waste money on the train journey to the city and whatever she earned went to eke out her father’s income. She would be untouchable, she thought, and wrap herself in learning like a shield. Her life would begin and end with the soft powder of the chalk crumbling against the hard slate of the blackboard. And whenever she thought that, invariably she would encounter a particular hard piece of chalk which would screech on the board, setting her teeth on edge. It should have been a simple life: as black and white as her chalk and her board and as straight as the lines she drew under her sums. But then everything changed.
The school was a small school but it had been blessed into life at the wish of a pious maharani. The broken down old mansion had been one of her father’s properties and, on an impulse, visiting that small town miles way from anywhere, she had gifted it to the girls of the place. Perhaps it was the wistful eyes that had done it, because the girls had taken in every detail of her attire as they had clustered around her with their garlands. She had waved a long white hand at her aide de camp and ordered it done and, much to the scepticism of everyone present, it had been done. The school was known as the Basanti Devi school, but it took its name from her, not from the goddess of learning who nursed a swan at the entrance. That had happened long before Rani’s birth, possibly long before Rani’s grandparents as well. Which was why the whole town was jolted out of its placid existence when Maharajah Jit Singh and his entourage arrived to survey the school.
The royal train had apparently been halted at the station to allow a Delhi-bound express carrying urgent letters for the Viceroy through. His Highness, bored, had asked the name of the station and recollected that his grandmother had spoken of having a house there. It was possible that he had seen a bright eyed local girl whisk down the track carrying a basket of marigold garlands because he looked very hard at all the local flower sellers, but the school teachers were not to know that. The vision that descended from a rickshaw into their dull black and white lives was the stuff of fairy tales. A Maharaja in flaming colour, sarpech and all, standing on their doorstep! “Maharani Basanti Devi was my grandmother’s mother, “ he told the headmaster, and he insisted on being introduced to all the teachers, smiling and shaking hands, until he came to Rani.
Luckily she had been wearing her saffron yellow sari. It was almost new and the colour shone softly golden on her skin. She raised her head from her namaste and looked up into a pair of eyes that were not quite black and not quite grey. The Maharajah’s mother, she had learnt, was an English model, who had met his father on the Continent, married him after a whirlwind courtship and divorced him equally suddenly after learning that the Viceroy would not allow her the title of maharani. Jit had been born abroad, baptised in enough champagne to sink a battleship, and brought triumphantly home by his father. Jit had inherited his eyes from his mother, along with their potent charm. Rani raised her own to them and was lost.
She had accompanied him on an all too brief tour of the three rooms and sat beside him while the students stumbled over their speeches of welcome and recited the poor little pieces of poetry that they knew. Once he yawned and she stole a sidelong glance at him, only to meet the mischief sparking in his eyes. Then the Station Master stumbled into their intimacy to announce that the signals were up and the royal train could proceed. “If you ever come to Calcutta...” he said.
“But where will I....”
“Oh, anyone will tell you where to find me.” His smile embraced the gathering of teachers and students. “Anything I can do for you, a coat of paint....don’t hesitate to ask.”
And then he was gone, and the day relapsed into its grey routine, a routine that was duller because of the vibrant colours that had swept through it. No one could talk of anything else: the girls muttering, “Such large diamonds....a prince from across the seven seas and thirteen rivers...” The teachers, “So lucky you are, Rani, he sat next to you...” “What did he say, tell us..” “No wonder her parents named her Rani. “ The headmaster, “Jokhon rong lagbey...I think, Rani, we’ll send you to ask for a donation...” And all she could think was, “Calcutta, I must go to Calcutta.”
His eyes sparked at her all through the night so that she tossed and turned and lost herself in their brilliance. But when she stretched out a hand to touch him, it encountered the rough plaster of her bedroom wall and she woke up.
The next morning, heavy eyed with lack of sleep, she began to lay her plans for going to Calcutta. She had enough money for a ticket, but she would need new clothes. There were two saris on the wooden clothes horse which were just about adequate: yesterday’s saffron yellow and a dark red with a green and gold border. She felt the folds of the latter thoughtfully. Too much washing had almost reduced the weave to coarse net, but perhaps he wouldn’t look too closely. She sat on the floor staring at the red sari lost in a kind of dream, a dream that was only broken when her mother swept into the room. “Rani, what is the matter with you today? If you don’t eat and get dressed, you’ll be late for school !”
She had to run all the way and, even then, was late for the first time in her life. Brinda, the English teacher, who had never liked her, muttered, “How easily people lose their heads after fraternising with maharajahs!” All she kept with her as she swept into class was the word ‘maharajah’. Jit’s eyes came between her and the blackboard and turned her fractions into nonsense. Pleading a headache, she sat in the staff room with a handkerchief over her eyes feverishly planning how to catch the train. She would take the part time maid with her : Jit would not expect her to travel alone to Calcutta. From Howrah station, she would take a taxi, it would be demeaning to sweep up to a palace on foot. The taxi would cost...
The maid was terrified :”I’ve never done it before, Didi...Kolkata, but...”
“But you’ll be coming with me. We won’t be alone.”
“But...but...” She had to promise
the maid three rupees before she
“Calcutta!” the headmaster’s eyes brightened. “Then perhaps you could talk to the Maharajahsahib about some paint.” She saw that there was a point to agreeing : he might let her stay away in Calcutta longer. He even asked her if she had enough money for the ticket, offering her her return fare. She thought airily that once Jit made up his mind, she would have gold enough to throw away, and her refusal was uttered with regal magnanimity.
Her parents were the least part of
the problem. They looked doubtfully at each other, but whatever doubts
they felt died stillborn on their tongues. Her mother parted with her wedding
sari and her father saw her and the maid onto the train without a murmur
of reproach. “The Maharajah’s sent for your daughter, eh?” asked the Station
Master. “Well, we’ll be hearing of some good fortune soon.”
“Maharajah Jit Singh, “ she said, though not with so much certainty as before.
“Jit Singh, what Jit Singh ? Is he the Maharajah of Burdwan, of Cooch Behar, of Assam, of where? Do I know Maharajahs by their first names ?”
Rani looked helplessly at her maid. Her maid shook her head. Panic welled up in her. “Can’t we ask someone?”
“Well, while you ask, I’m going to lose a fare. Look, you look like a nice country girl - why don’t I take you on a drive round Calcutta and bring you back here again ? It’ll only cost you two rupees.” She clutched the door handle and wondered what to do next.
“Ask anyone, “ he had said, “and they’ll tell you where to find me.” The taxi driver had to be lying. She looked desperately out of the window wondering what she was to do next. At that moment there was a bustle at the station gate. A file of liveried men passed out carrying bulging hide bags. “Maharajah bolechho, “ said the taxi driver, “there’s the Maharajah of Jaipur’s men. He must be in town for a polo match.”
“Wouldn’t they know?” she whispered. “Couldn’t you possibly ask them, Dada?”
“Them? I don’t even think they’d bother to talk to the likes of me. “But he was moved by her helplessness and possibly by the involuntary ‘elder brother’. “Ho, Bhai Saheb!” he hailed one of the tallest of the Jaipur turbans. “Could you tell me who Maharajah Jit Singh is?”
Miraculously the figure halted. “Jit Singh? And what kind of village do you come from ? He is our Maharajah’s cousin’s son.”
“Where does he live?” Rani burst desperately from the window. The figure ignored her, and continued his conversation with the taxi driver. “Sometimes here, sometimes there. He should be Calcutta for the big polo match on Sunday.”
“These women have come to Calcutta to see him,” the taxi driver said, indicating Rani and the maid.
The turban did not turn once in their direction, not once even out of curiosity. “If he is here he will be at Rang Ghar. “
Rang Ghar was a big red half moon of a building set well back from the road in the middle of a vast garden. She and the maid stared at it in awe through the iron railings. The shutters were closed and chiks screened the verandahs. A long dark blue and silver car was drawn up to one side under an archway, but not a soul moved anywhere in the heat of the afternoon. “Didi, how will you get in?” asked the maid. Rani moved her head from side to side trying to catch sight of someone she could call. There was a small building set to one side of the gate whose doorway gaped darkly. She stared at it, hoping to spy a movement. “There’s no one home,” said the maid. “What a huge house! Even Ratan Babu doesn’t have one so big.”
“Ratan Babu’s not a prince, silly !” She put out a hand and rattled the gate. Like magic, the silence was shattered by the barking of a huge dog. It raced out at them from the gate house, its maw gaping red and horrible. Rani and the maid backed away from the railings. On the heels of the dog came a guard.
“What do you chits want? Don’t you know whose house this is ? Get away from here !”
“Maharajah Jit Singh, “ Rani managed
to utter, backing away from the menace of the dog.
“I spoke to him at,” and she mentioned the name of her town. “He came to the school. “
“The Maharajah spoke to you?” He threw his head back and laughed. The laughter provoked the dog into a further frenzy of aggressive barking.
“He came to the school,” she persisted, while the maid clung to her, terrified.
“Well, even if he did come to this school, I have no orders to let you in. And we don’t need any more maids. The Maharajah sahib doesn’t bother himself with that sort of thing.”
She still flushed red with rage whenever she remembered that first futile visit. The guard had vanished with his dog and left the two of them stranded outside the iron railings in the hot sun. A passerby had called out sympathetically, “You won’t get in that way. Your only chance is to hope that the Maharani comes out and throw yourself at her feet.
She’s very kind.” It had never occurred
to Rani that Jit might be
They had caught the evening train back home and she had truthfully said that she was unable to meet the Maharajah. However, she had every hope of meeting him on a subsequent visit. Everyone sympathised with her and said what a shame it was that she had to go all that way to find the Maharajah busy with a visiting dignitary. Everyone agreed that she had to go again. But all that night, she could hear the guard jeering at her.
The visits had begun from then. But she had learnt her lesson. On the second visit, she took the Headmaster with her. They went in the morning and the Headmaster asked at the gate for the Maharajah’s secretary. The guard allowed him to speak to the secretary on a phone in the gate house and from there, they proceeded, under guard, into the palace. She knew it wasn’t a palace now, just the Maharajah’s residence in Calcutta, but then she had stared in goggle eyed awe at the gleaming black stone floor and the black stone table that stood on it. There was nothing in the hallway except the table and the black sweep of stair that led upwards.
They were made to wait in the hall and she looked around surreptitiously, trying to pretend that all this was not new to her.
The secretary had ushered them to the Maharani and the moment she had set eyes on her, her heart had slowed with relief. Jit couldn’t possibly love her, a woman with a sharp edged face chiselled out of white marble. And then she forgot the Maharani because her eyes fell on a silver framed photograph of Jit on the gilt table at the Maharani’s elbow. He swam in soft shades of brown and white, his hair glossily waved back and what looked like starlight reflected in his eyes. “Don’t trouble yourself by coming to Calcutta, Masterji,” the Maharani said, “a letter to my secretary will see all your needs met. Is this your daughter, what a pretty child.” Seething, she had forced herself to touch the Maharani’s feet.
She contrived the next visit on the
pretext of taking that marble faced woman a basket of sweets for which
their town was famous. It was a graceful gesture. Even the Headmaster acknowledged
it as such. This time she was more confident she and the maid were ushered
into the black hall and, finally, conducted into the Maharani’s presence.
This time, he was there. He was sitting at a writing desk and, the moment
she saw him, she knew that all her prayers were not in vain. But she had
to stand there with a modestly lowered head, clutching the basket of mihidana,
until Maharani deigned to notice her. She was certain that Jit had felt
her standing there - how could he fail to feel that she was near ? The
Maharani smiled, “So charming. Jit, one of your fans has come all the way
from her village to see you.”
She thought it was because his wife was there. Soon the Maharani would leave the room and he would reveal himself in the true colours of his passion. She had promised the lingam in the temple an extra offering of rabri if this happened. She waited while he went through all his many pretenses: the slow remembering, the thoughtful consideration of the situation and finally a distant, gracious little smile when he professed to remember. A servant was summoned and sent scurrying for a spoon so that he could taste the mishti. “I have a shamelessly sweet tooth,” he confessed, with that boyish smile that made her heart leap. “My wife refuses to indulge me.”
“I indulge you far too much already,” the Maharani retorted. “And Dr. Chakravarty keeps telling you that ghee is bad for you.” She rose. “I have a meeting with the Ladies’ Council in half an hour, so I must get ready.”
“On the lawn again?” He laughed, “Don’t I get to meet them?”
“No, I think you’d be very bad for them.” She bustled out on a wave of flowery perfume. Rani’s eyes were already clinging hopefully to Jit’s face, waiting for the suppressed recognition to break out like a fire. However, the secretary stayed to usher in the servant with the spoon. The Maharajah tasted the mihidana with all the zest of a naughty boy and even offered Rani a spoonful, but she was so dejected once she realised that they were not to be left alone, that she shook her head. She returned home that evening with a photograph of the Maharajah she had torn out of a magazine at the station and his verbal thanks for the mishti. He had not asked her to come calling again or suggested that he wanted to see her. His eyes had not focused once on her face or even sparked with interest the way they had. She had to find a way to reawaken the interest.
The Maharani’s gift of paint arrived in due course, accompanied by an officious aide de camp. The aide de camp, bored in a small town, was only too charmed to talk to the interested young teacher about life in the Maharajah’s household. She wore her saffron sari and smiled tremulously, as she lifted her eyes with awed effort to his face. The Maharajah was known to be a connoisseur of beautiful, elegant women. There was a different one with him at every polo match, hanging on his lips. No, the Maharani might not be beautiful, but she was one of the best dressed women in Calcutta and the parties she threw were legendary. On full moon nights she arranged classical music concerts on the lawns of Rang Ghar, where struggling young artists performed and where anyone could wander in to listen. The aide de camp never understood why the young teacher’s lips curved into such a warm smile when she heard that. He saw the paint duly bestowed, paid the painters and made his privileged way back to Calcutta, thinking that the women in small towns were really very pretty.
Gradually, her interest in her schoolwork dwindled as the daily focus of her life became the issue of seeing Jit again. What little she had seen of the Maharani had convinced her that the few poor saris she possessed were totally inadequate. She might shine in them in a small town setting, but if she was to glow against the vast lawns of Rang Ghar, she had to compete with the Maharani. Her savings went to buy two new balucharis. They were not generously figured, but they were balucharis, with the weight of good silk. “What was the need for this?” her mother asked, after the weaver had left. She had nothing to say to her mother these days: she spent her time staring at the saris she possessed, or counting the thin gold bangles that had been part of her mother’s dowry.
Two thin bangles rented her a room for two nights in the city, with enough left over for a small bottle of perfume. She and the maid sniffed at it ecstatically before she sprinkled some onto her handkerchief. There was no jewellery to accentuate the woven silk, so she twined jasmine in her hair and around her wrists. So adorned, she set out for Rang Ghar. No one stopped her at the gate - she wandered in and made her way through the drifting mass of bodies trying to catch sight of Jit. The women there sparkled as brilliantly as the red and yellow fairy lights and every so often she wondered whether Jit was smiling at one of them. As she hunted, she heard murmurs of, “Brilliant as usual,” “Rukmini has out done herself,” but not one of the murmurs told her in which direction to look. Helplessly she stood by a fountain turning her head from side to side. He was the flame, she told herself, and she the moth, and moths always found their way to the heart of the flame. She would find Jit because that was the way that it was meant to be.
If it was a prayer, it was answered. He was standing very close to the fountain talking to a woman in scarlet. The lights in the fountain caught the jewel in his sarpech. He kept glancing away from the woman and combing the crowd with his eyes, as if he were looking for Rani. She moved forward a little, and his eye fell on her. For a moment he stared and she saw a little pucker crease his forehead, then his gaze roved on. She stood there expectantly, waiting for his attention to return to her. Instead, the woman in scarlet took him impatiently by the arm and steered him away. The crowd closed behind him like the waves of a great sea.
The following day she returned home, with nothing achieved beyond a new scheme for visiting Calcutta.
Soon the Headmaster was sending for Rani and asking her why she needed to take so much leave. “If this goes on, “ he told her gently, “we will have to find someone else to take your classes.” He said the same thing to her parents as well. After he left, her mother flung herself in front of her little shrine and wept. Rani watched it all as if she were dreaming. “It’s worth it, “ she argued. “If the Maharajah sahib is interested in me, we will be rich.” It wouldn’t matter she told herself, if he were poor. He would always be rich with those brilliant eyes and that smile. “We must have sinned at some time in our lives, “ her mother wept. There were only two thin gold bangles left - the rest had been turned into saris and moonlit Calcutta nights. Her mother asked for the bangles and Rani refused to return them to her. “I need them, “ she insisted. “You said you were going to give them to me.”
“When you married, I said, “ her mother replied. “Tell me that you will marry that nice boy in the kerosene shop and I will not ask again.”
“You said I would marry a Maharajah, “ Rani retorted.
“People say many things, “ her mother replied. “We were foolish. You should not suffer for our foolishness.” And she was persistent about the bangles.
Love made Rani cunning. “Perhaps, “ she suggested to the headmaster, “if you could find me a teaching job in Calcutta.Then I would not need to take leave so often.” The headmaster agreed that that might be possible - he had a friend who was headmaster in a mofussil school two bus stops from the heart of Calcutta. Every evening he was at Rani’s house, deep in discussion with her parents. Rani saw him walk in with his black umbrella under his arm. Sometimes she brought him tea as they sat together in the large outside room. But she never took part in the discussion or was invited to join them. In any case, she spent her evenings at the Shiva temple, watching Jit’s face form out of the clouds of incense that billowed during evening prayer.
Her mother cried when she saw Rani on to the train with all her bundles. By then there were so many silk saris that she had nothing to wear on the train. Her mother cried even more when she saw that. “Where will this obsession end?” And she bought her some cotton saris to replace the threadbare yellow and the faded red. However, the silk quite transformed the bare little room that the headmaster’s friend gave her to live in. And she knew that every full moon night she could go to Rang Ghar and hope to meet Jit.
Her life was suddenly reduced to a series of full moon nights or classical music concerts where she fluttered in the hope that a certain pair of eyes would meet hers. It had to happen. She was certain it would happen. It was a matter of the right clothes, the right hair, the right appearance. So far, everything she had attempted had not been correct.
The velvet pouch became a velvet clutch bag, the magazine clipping of the Maharajah acquired a frame. News of a gala night at the Grand Hotel sent her pacing up and down on the pavement outside in the hope of catching sight of him. Limousine after limousine streaked through the sleek black night revealing their glittering passengers. One of them spoke insinuatingly to her, a man with a black moustache, whom she shrugged off and forgot in the next moment because Jit slipped through the night with the same brief authority as his long car and disappeared into the lighted heart of the restaurant. She stood there transfixed for so long that the doorman threatened to call the police.
In Calcutta she could be certain of flipping through a paper and catching sight of Jit receiving a trophy, even if she didn’t go to Rang Ghar. He was a heartbeat away at the end of a telephone. Rang Ghar was in the telephone directory - she had ruffled through the S’s and R’s, frightened that she had missed it, until she found it under ‘Simurkot’.
She had a thought that she could dial the number from the school and find his voice greeting her on the other end of the line. Once or twice she was tempted to do it except that she was not sure what to say after the initial ‘hello’.
The walls of her room were papered with pictures torn out of newspapers and magazines. Her maid was displeased. “Here you should have pictures of gods and goddesses all around to help you think good thoughts and you put up pictures of this Maharajah ! Is he a god ?” Her mother had sent Rani the maid in the hope that she would have some stabilising influence. “You will write to me twice a week, “ she instructed her, “and tell me what Rani Didi is doing, if she’s eating properly, where she’s going...”
“If you do anything of the sort,” Rani threatened, “I’ll send you home.”
Not that she wanted to. She needed
the maid to bring her bottles of oil and perfume and run to the dhobi with
her silks. And the maid gave her someone to talk to, otherwise she had
no friends in Calcutta. Of course, she could have invited the rabindrasangeet
teacher and the dancing master home anytime she wanted. She exploited Mr.
Pinaki’s goodwill shamelessly when it came to free tickets for concerts.
She sat two rows behind Jit at the Rampur concert and watched the back of his turban move from side to side. He had the Maharani with him and, from time to time he bent to ask her something. Frequently he raised his hand to his face and then the Maharani’s head would turn, setting her diamond pendants earrings flashing and dancing in the darkness. She suspected that Jit was bored. Rani was bored too, because the long drawn out notes held no appeal for her, despite their mathematical precision. She had met the Maharani face to face once and the Maharani had smiled and asked how Rani was doing and how the school was progressing and Rani had had to smile back at the woman and pretend to be gratified at her interest. She had met Jit face to face too, several times, and every time his forehead had puckered with that same little troubled frown, as if he were trying to catch an elusive recollection. “The Maharajah!” she had heard someone exclaim on the Rang Ghar lawn, “he has a memory like a sieve ! If it weren’t for his wife and his secretary, he would forget his own name.”
A second voice spoke up softly and hesitantly. “But you must admit he’s very charming !” The second speaker, of course, had been a woman.
By now the face Rani studied in the mirror was as polished as that of any of the women she had met at Rang Ghar. It had the best of creams and lotions lavished on it and the finest of French powders. She had learnt in snatched conversations that French was better than the commonplace English. She had arranged her hair around her face the way one frames a fine picture, with discretion, so that the brushstrokes were highlighted. What was strange was that it still struck no answering chord in Jit’s memory!
Unknown to her, her anxiety took its toll. “Didi, your hair is turning silver !” her maid exclaimed one morning, oiling her hair. She twisted and turned in the mirror in a vain attempt to see how great the damage was. Grey hair! But she wasn’t old enough for grey hair ! Not while her mother’s hung down as black as a young girl’s ! “You’ll have to dye it, “ the maid opined. So dye was added to the list and every other week she and the maid wrestled with blackened hands to give her hair back its youth.
Time was her enemy. If it touched Jit at all, it did not show. The Maharajah smiled with unchanging serenity from all his photographs. She fell ill: there was no money to spare for the doctor. The maid slept beside her bed and started with terror when she coughed. After ten days of fever, she looked into the. The grey shrivelled person who stared back at her was no one she could recognize. She painted her beauty back on the skull she had become with desperate trembling hands.
‘Come back,’ her mother wrote and sent the headmaster to Calcutta to seek her out. He too looked grey and old. Rani gave him a cup of tea, asked after her parents and chatted about this and that. He left, defeated, carrying her promise to return one day when she had leave. She might have gone, too, but she needed the money for the silks and the shampoos and for her feverish evening prayers. “I’ll say an extra special one for you tonight, “ the pundit promised, “ a very strong one. A ten rupee prayer.”
Mr. Pinaki came to visit and offered to take her out for a meal. She accepted because her meals were reduced to chapattis and a handful of vegetables.
Her father died. Reluctantly she snatched a day away from her obsession to return home. Her mother stroked her arm with hands as light as the dust that floated in the air and begged her to stay back. Rani ignored her. Her colleagues from the old school slunk around her at the sradh and obliquely asked her how she was. They did not meet her eyes.
“Has the Maharajah given you an autographed
picture yet?” asked Brinda who was the only one who dared look her in the
face. They were all jealous, she reflected, jealous of the great love that
had given her the courage to break out of the confining boundaries of their
People stared at her openly as she drifted through the gardens of Rang Ghar, playing her game of hide and seek with Jit. A few tried to drift into conversation with her, asking her her name, but she shook them off after a few sentences, terrified that she had missed him. Once she stepped out into the light in front of Jit and surprised concern in his eyes. She lingered hoping, but he turned away instantly, his head bent attentively towards the singer on his arm.
The hair had failed and she did not know what else to rely on. The pundit’s strong ten rupee prayers, too, were obvious failures. “Give me fifty,” he said greedily, “ and I will give you a ring of such power that it will bring love into the heart of a stone.”
“Think of religion,” advised the maid, who was practical. “Make a prayer out of your life.” And she left pamphlets of holy songs wherever they might catch Rani’s eye. The love songs of a princess to a dark god. She sat dully in front of her mirror reading the roughly printed words, glancing up every so often to meet Jit’s many printed eyes. She was too listless to want to go back to school. The white chalk that had crumbled into figures on the black slate seemed to symbolise the futility of her existence.
Like a skeleton she wandered through the Calcutta streets with a velvet pouch dangling at her wrist. Lampposts glimmered silver in her distorted sight. Gold flashed everywhere. Silver water gushed into gold urns at the pumps. The priest at the Shiva temple had promised her a gold ring to bind Jit to her. She would have to sell three saris for the ring and she could not wear a ring to Rang Ghar. “Why don’t we go home, Didi?” questioned the maid. “The priest at home makes better prayers. “
She sent the maid home and put what would have been her salary, along with a sari into the ring. What she really needed were her mother’s last two bangles. ‘I need money, Ma,’ she wrote home, ‘I need your bangles...’ The ring that came after three weeks of chanting was much smaller than she imagined. “But very powerful,” the priest assured her. “Very, very powerful.”
She followed the ring like a torch through the gardens, but it did not light her way to Jit. Jit was nowhere to be found, not on the marble benches, or under the arches or by the fountain. There was a chance that he might be inside the palace, but the way was barred to her. Finally, desperate, she picked a face out of the crowd that she had spoken to a few times, and asked for Jit. “Out of town,” she heard. “He and the Maharani have gone to Simla for the Viceroy’s banquet. Of course, Rukmini didn’t want to disappoint the classical music fans...” she left the face in mid sentence. The last she saw of the ring was when she sent it glinting and flashing into a fountain.
When she staggered out of the train, the whole town had gathered to stare at her. She covered her face the moment she saw them. For days she did not leave her room. Then, one morning, her mother found her in the garden blazing in her threadbare silks. She went forward joyfully to speak to her, Rani turned, and she saw that her daughter was heavily veiled. “I am in purdah,” Rani declared loudly. “ I am a royal woman !” After her mother died, she was to be found on the steps of the Shiva temple, her lips in constant motion under her veil. Passersby could catch whispers of ‘royal... Rang Ghar...the Maharajah, my lover...’ Those who knew her story would throw her a coin, and on her better days, she would scrabble frantically for them - but no one ever saw her face. Her story ended when, one morning, she was found cold and crumpled on those steps. Inside her faded velvet pouch was a picture of the Maharajah.
(Anjana Basu is the author of The
Agency Raga, a collection ofshort stories [Orient Longman], Her
poems have been featured in an anthology published by Penguin India. Her
work has also appeared in Wolfhead Quarterly , Amethyst
Review, The Blue Moon Review, Kimera and Recursive Angel.
Her novel, Curses & Poetry, is scheduled for publication in
2003 by HarperCollins India.)