written by: Maria Zach
A chorus of caws erupted as a flock of crows took flight from the mango tree growing next to our back gate. Its branches were spread; the arms extending over the wall into the street, beckoning to all the children in the neighborhood.
Every evening the children would gather in our yard. Some chased each other up the tree and swung from it like so many little monkeys; showing off while the younger ones watched in open-mouthed awe. Others would sit in a huge ring around the storyteller - everyday a different teller, a different story - munching upon mangoes. The children were long gone. Darkness pervaded that corner of the garden.
The sky is robed in hues of red, pink and orange as the sun prepares to dive over the horizon. Acha sits in an easy chair on the porch as I survey the yard. There's nothing and nobody to be seen.
"Where are you child?" I call out, the sour taste of bile building in my mouth.
"Here!" answers the lilting voice of my little girl. I hear rustling. Squinting into the gloom around the mango tree, I see the small figure emerge. Her blue frock is soiled. I purse my lips. "Haven't I told you to ...... "
Before I can complete, I hear a car turn in at the front gates.
A coffee coloured ancient Mercedes trundles into the drive with Jeeva behind the wheel. He unfolds his limbs and steps out. Arms crossed, I stand upon the veranda. As he walks up, he kicks an empty watering can that lay in his path and the can skitters into the laurel bushes that line the drive. He looks around the garden. I follow his gaze, giving the garden the kind of critical once-over I expect of Jeeva, the landscaper. His gaze skims over the orchids, the marigolds, the jasmine trailing over the wall on the right. The lawn has a slightly overgrown appearance. I should have trimmed the grass on Sunday. On the extreme right, bedraggled gulmohar flowers litter the yard.
He saunters up, hands deep in the pockets of his denims. Shaking hair off his forehead, he flashes me his signature lopsided grin. "Just thought I'd check out the old place," he says, gesturing around with a tilt of his head. My mind is a blank. It's annoying to be caught ill-prepared. Yet, I berate myself, I should have expected it. I do not want to invite him in, but he enters anyway, with that silly smile plastered on his face. He has no business grinning at me.
The first time I saw that grin, yonder, in the meadows behind my house, I was pursuing a truant calf. He rushed into the calf's path - the only time I've seen him move at such a pace - caught hold of the trailing rope and pulled hard. His feet dug into the mulch and he had a hard time getting the caked mud off his sandals but the runway calf was brought to a halt.
We walked home that day, in the gathering dusk and every day for the next five years, arriving home just as the group under the mango tree disbanded.
I wish I could turn back the clock and bring the wheels of time to a stop. Perhaps, if we'd never met. Perhaps, if we'd stayed sixteen. Perhaps - but, I digress.
I follow him into the house. The sitting area is cloaked in relative darkness. Jeeva stands uncertainly in the middle. There's a heaviness in my gut as I reluctantly switch on the tube-light and fan. I stand near the kitchen entry passage. I do not know what to say. I do not want to talk to him.
"My condolences," I say finally.
He has been looking around. Turning to me, he says, "It was peaceful, I hear. Besides Mama has been waiting nine years." I raise my eyebrows. "To join Acha," he adds.
A pattering behind me announces Ananya's arrival. She sidles up to me and eyes Jeeva around the edges of my long skirt. I know the exact moment Jeeva spies her, the sparkly black eye that is staring at him. Jeeva's smile freezes for a couple of seconds. Then it animates; more lopsided than ever. He takes a step forward, apparently changes his mind and rushes out into the garden.
Before I can comprehend what he is about, he is back, clutching a handful of gulmohars. I grimace. The wretched gulmohars again! He holds them out to Ananya and the four-year-old wades eagerly towards him. Halfway there, eyebrows drawn together, she turns to face me. I wonder whether I should caution her. As the doubt fades, she shyly holds out her arms to him. Jeeva kneels down and tries to place the flowers in the cup of her tiny hands. A few of them drop to the ground. He picks one up and affixes it to her hair clip with some difficulty. She stands still while he does so. She is charmed. I wonder whether she knows; in the way that children and Gods do. Flower in place, she trips back to me; tilting her head, trying to see, trying to show me.
Acha hacks and coughs out on the patio. "Go, show your flower-clip to Granpa," I tell Ananya, giving her a push in the direction of the door. She pads off through the kitchen, still clutching the flowers to her chest, creating Hansel's trail in red as she goes.
Jeeva stands looking at her retreating back. "She's mine.” Of course, I'd known that he'd guess as soon as he set eyes upon her. The heaviness in my gut - I identify it now - fear.
"You never told me that you changed your mind," Jeeva says as he settles comfortably into the three seater and throws an arm across the back of the settee. I am pretty certain that my eyebrows are in danger of disappearing into my hairline. I remain silent. "Didn't you think that I had a right to know?" he asks. Frowning, he adds, "Obviously not!"
He pulls at a loose thread on the settee and I bite down upon my tongue. Ananya is giggling out on the patio. Can't he go home and continue his monologue? Why is he here, in my home, wasting my time?
"You told me you were going to get rid of the child," he finally accuses.
I am goaded into speech. "I said nothing of the sort. You asked me to kill my baby," I reply.
"And you let me think you had," he counters.
"So? So what?" The last part escapes me as a scream. My ears are on fire.
The giggles from the patio have ceased. I struggle to think evenly, to rein myself.
Jeeva stands up. "I did not come here to fight with you, Maya." He cups the back of his neck. "I'll come by tomorrow."
"Don't!" It's out before I can stop it. Jeeva pays no heed. He cranes his head in the direction of the kitchen; seems to think better of it and walks out the front door.
* * *
The next day, I rush home from school. Heart pounding, I turn my car in at the gate and find his car parked in the drive.
“Been here since noon,” Acha tells me. "You did not forbid it."
No, I did not. They are out in the garden playing some sort of game with stones. As I watch them, Ananya jumps enthusiastically into the chalked square instead of hopping. Jeeva patiently demonstrates how to hop. The mango tree has been abandoned. But, the gulmohars are pinned to her hair and dress.
One week later, he's gone. Walking into the house at five in the afternoon, I feel relieved and cold. He has promised Ananya to visit next month. I may safely forget him for another five years or perhaps, this time, it will be eternity. I sweep the last of the gulmohars off the patio.
* * *
Stabs of pain run amok through my shoulders. Opening my eyes, I find myself surrounded by blinding white - walls, linen. An errant cyclist - that's all I remember.
When I sit up, my head spins eliciting an involuntary whimper. Ananya runs up to me. "Mama, you are hurt," she says her eyes filling up with tears.
"I'm fine, darling," I assure her, narrowing my eyes at Jeeva, who stands in the doorway, listening to the doctor. He shrugs. The doctor tells me to lie down and rest. Except for my jarred shoulder, I'm unhurt.
"Aren't you going to give her the flowers?" Jeeva asks Ananya. She has brought me gulmohars. I glare at Jeeva certain that it had been his idea. Jeeva does not meet my eye, instead, he hoists Ananya onto the bed.
After scrutinizing me closely and asking a few hundred questions about the wires attached to my hands, Jeeva shushes her kindly. They soon start a silent game of 'Ham, Cheese'. As I drift off, I think that perhaps it's fine to tell Ananya that he's her father.