By Salil Chaturvedi
It was Sunday and Nina lay in bed, listening to the morning. Shlick … shlick, she heard Granny shuffle to the toilet at the end of the corridor. A little later, Granny flushed the toilet and cleaned the outside of the bathroom with long sweeps of the broom … swishhhhh … swishhhhh … where she would’ve dribbled a little. She then dragged her feet back to the bedroom and, lying down, asked Jesus for some help with her incontinence, which meant it was about six o’clock.
Nina heard the chuga-chuga-chuga of the motorcycle as it idled past her window. That would be Ophelia’s brother going to the milk booth on his newly acquired Bullet that he rode on the slightest pretext. The motorcycle reminded her of Ramesh’s voice. She thought of him now and smiled. Ramesh had got her again last night, at the end of chapter three where he had slipped in a ‘I Love You, Ninu,’ accompanied with a long, dramatic sigh. It was an old novel that she had heard before, but she hadn’t remembered the love phrase waiting to ambush her. He was such an actor!
Suddenly Nina turned serious. The argument had spoiled it all. Since the argument she had stopped giving Ramesh any new novels to record. She still followed her routine with the old ones, though. Every night, after giving the dogs their post-dinner snack (fish bones that disappeared in seconds) Nina dug a small hollow in her pillow for the earplugs, put a tape in the Sony walkman gifted by Francis and listened to a novel in Ramesh’s delicious motorcycley voice. She loved the way he used his voice to bring colour to the characters, especially when he took on a falsetto for the female parts.
BHO-POO, Bho-Poo, bho-poo, bho-poo, bho-poo ... the poee vendor careened past Nina’s window, honking his way up the incline, towards the houses near the river, from where he’d return in about twenty minutes. His horn was like a morning alarm for the koels. Within minutes the air was bubbling with rapid calls of koel-koel-koel-koel-koel! topped with a shrill, elongated koo-oooo, as if asking, how was that?
‘That was excellent, no?’ Nina responded, nodding her head. She could hear some koels in the distance, too. She guessed they were perched on Mrs Pinto’s mango trees. Do koels all over Goa wake up at the same time? she wondered. Is Ramesh also listening to them? Mrs Kamath must also like koels? I wonder if any koels are born blind.
Still in bed, Nina imagined herself as a koel flying over the forests of the Western Ghats. Starting from Gujarat, she flew south over the wide placid waters of the Narmada, then glided low over the morning fresh waters of the Godavari, flew over Goa, skimming the glassy surfaces of the Mandovi and Zuari rivers, climbed up again, over the slopes of the Sahyadri mountains into Karnataka, finally settling on a Gulmohur tree in her cousin’s house in Mangalore. She covered this sub-continental journey in less than three minutes, and all the while she could hear the koels ringing in the Sunday morning. That was fun re, she thought, and I don’t even feel tired. Flying is such great fun!
Nina really missed being a Coppersmith Barbet on Ramesh’s scooter. The twenty-minute ride was the most thrilling part of her day. She struggled with the scooter as it went up the hill and then she dived downhill in free flight, the wind whistling by her face. She experienced every dip and elevation on the road as unexpected eddies. She slid crazily around curves and swooped through traffic, this way, that way, one hand always on Ramesh’s shoulder telling her which way he was going to turn.
One morning, he had raced his scooter on National Highway 17, calling out the speeds: Eighty ... ninety ... ninety-five ... ninety-eight ... hundred! She had squealed with pleasure, telling him to slow down, but, ‘I can’t! I’m a Peregrine Falcon!’ he had said. ‘Look, I’m diving for the kill!’
After that, he had claimed that he had set a world record for the fastest Kinetic Honda on NH 17. Just then they had been overtaken by a bright-red Kinetic Honda driven by a young boy who wore a red-coloured vest and a big smile. Ramesh had had to revise his record immediately. His was now the fastest speed for a silver-coloured Kinetic Honda. Later, Nina wrote a poem about her experience:
She teeters, totters, twitters in alarm!
She discovers freedom at the tip of her arm,
Have you seen a bird discover flight?
It’s pure delight, it’s pure delight!
Ramesh said, ‘It reminds me of The Parliament of Birds.'
‘Parliament of Birds?’
‘Parliament of Birds. It’s a book by a Sufi mystic. Fariduddin Attar, I think. The birds represent humanity and the hoopoe, represents the Sufi saint. I’m not sure re, but I think The Canterbury Tales are based on this book. There are thirty pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales, right? And there are thirty birds in The Parliament of Birds, so ...’
The koels had quietened considerably now. Nina heard the resonating hoop-hoop-hoop of a coucal. ‘Think of a crow wearing a rust-coloured jacket ... a stylish man-about-town types,’ was Ramesh’s description of it. She waited for her special coucal to hoop under the window, like it used to every Sunday morning. But it had all changed since the argument.
‘No, Ma, I couldn’t find anyone else!’ she had heard Ramesh screaming at the top of his voice that day. She had pulled her hand away from the doorbell just in time. She had stood outside his flat, her back against the wall, listening with every nerve. At first she thought of leaving, but when she realised that the argument was about her she stayed on.
‘Just look at you. Hale and hearty, nothing wrong,’ Mrs Kamath was saying.
‘Why go marry a blind girl? If your father was alive, he’d never allow this. Have I stopped you from anything, ever? But a blind girl! We’ll be the laughing stock of the entire community. It was alright when you two were friends. I thought you were helping the poor girl. But this is going too far! A blind girl, imagine. What’s wrong with Mashelkar’s daughter?’
‘Ma, you must be blind not to see Nina’s qualities. She earns twice more than Rekha, so she’s quite capable of looking after herself. Anyway, money is the last thing on my mind. Can’t you understand a simple thing? I love her!’
‘Love! I’d heard love is blind, but not blind like this. I’ll see what happens to your love when you have blind children. Besides they are Christian. Why can’t you marry within your own religion, forget caste … that’s asking for too much these days!’
‘Are her parents blind? She works in a bank … a nationalised bank. The government thinks she is good enough, why can’t you?’
‘Stop shouting. The government does charity … I don’t have such a big heart. Besides, the government is not your mother. To become your mother, nobody voted for me! All the time I’m thinking only what’s good for you. Okay, she has a Class-A job and a degree from the university but there is more to life than that. Ask me, I know. No one gives a degree for raising children and running a house. That’s what life is about, not college degrees. Deva … It’s all my fault … I should have seen it coming. All those trips seeing birds and I never knew that you were both becoming love-birds. Yes, you’re right, I am blind. Foolish me!’
‘Whatever it is, I’ve made up my mind, Ma. It’s Nina or no one else. No one. I’ll give you two months to think about it!’ and Ramesh had stomped off into his room. The blood had drained from Nina’s face and she had started trembling. As Ramesh banged the door to his room, the novel slipped out of her hand.
Chee-which-which ... chee-chee-which-which … chee-chee-which-chee-chi!
Nina smiled. Her favourite singer had joined the morning lineup. Here was a bird that could sing. ‘She looks like a proud opera singer, with a bloated chest,’ Ramesh had described it. ‘She knows she’s good and likes to show off. She even wears a kind of black-and-white overcoat, with white edges – you could say she’s formally dressed.’
Nina followed the intricate tune of the magpie robin closely. The chirping got more strident, gaining intensity as the bird believed more in itself with each note that fell right. Why can’t Mrs Kamath believe in me the way Ramesh does, Nina thought. I wonder how long she will take to make up her mind. Oh Jesus, can’t you make things all right? It’s gone on for too long. I can’t take it any more, Lord. Please, make her see some sense. Please, please, please, sweet Jesus, show her the way. You know that I won’t run away even though Ramesh speaks of it, you know that, don’t you? You must know that. I’m not a girl that will bring shame to my family, or his. I ask just a small favour, dear Lord. You’ve been good to me, nothing to complain, but, please make her decide quickly. Show her the way, Jesus, and I’ll abide with the decision. It’ll be your decision. I’ll accept it, I swear I will. Oh Jesus, help me build my nest, please, that’s all I ask. It’s a small thing for you.
Nina stretched her arms behind her head, her fingers searching for the glazed glass of the window. She traced the crack in the glass with her fingers right till the edge, where it met the rusted metal casing. Just below this spot was the latch to the window. She lifted the latch and pulled the window open. Then she held the metallic grill, feeling the deliciously intricate floral pattern. With the cool morning breeze came the sounds of be-quick-be-quick! The bulbuls were up! That’s right, she thought to herself, tell Mrs Kamath to be quick. As she thought this, the bulbul changed her call to the longer be-careful ... be-careful. Hey, you aren’t allowed to say two different things, Nina admonished. Then she remembered the time when Francis, then a young boy of twelve, had gifted her a toy whistle. When you blew into it, the breath went through a tiny container of water and produced a bubbly trill that sounded just like a bulbul. Francis had a knack of picking out the most interesting things. Last month he had sent her a speech-reading software that read out everything on a computer screen. The voice had an American accent though, and she wondered if she could get Ramesh’s voice on it. She had asked Francis about it but he had been excited about other developments.
‘Ninu, there are some freaky things happening here … just found out that somebody’s planning to set up a call centre where blind people can send in a photograph. The people at the call centre will read out, means describe the picture to them!’
‘What? How do you mean? Send pictures? How?’ Nina asked.
‘Using a phone camera, silly. They’re expecting blind shoppers to use the service for things like finding out prices of products printed on cartons or just to find out what the sky looks like. All for a fee of course, but just imagine someone waiting at the end of a phone line to describe the world to you!’
‘Will I be able to use it here?’
‘It’s just a phone number so I’m sure you can call too, but hey, listen, it’s just an idea right now …will take some time to happen re. How’s Ramesh?’
‘Any decision yet?’
‘No, not yet. But let’s see …’
‘I’m telling you that witch will never decide. You guys should just go ahead and …’
‘Oh, I forgot, she might end up being your mother-in-law! Better start doing some self-defence courses, El Nino. If you want I can send you some instructional material from here.’
‘I’ll talk to you later,’ and Nina hung up.
‘Say hello to ma and pa …’ Francis managed to squeeze in.
Nina heard the metal squeak of the gate. She followed her father’s footsteps as he climbed the three steps to the veranda, the tea cup rattling in the saucer. The dogs followed him excitedly, panting noisily. She heard father pull the cane chair. He then switched on the fan and … puk! … took out his glasses from the plastic case. He started reading the newspaper.
Was Ramesh also listening to the barbets? Was he remembering that special day when she’d been out on the veranda, mimicking the bird. ‘That’s a Coppersmith Barbet,’ he had called out from the road. It was the first time they had spoken to each other. They’d got talking as if they’d known each other for the longest time. Then he had started dropping her to the bank on his scooter.
‘Early bird catches the worm, no?’ he said, the first time he gave her a lift.
‘So that’s how you think of me ... a worm!’
‘Arre, no, no! I was thinking of it the other way. You’re the bird ... a Coppersmith Barbet ... I am the useless worm. And I don’t mind being eaten.’
‘Cheh, what dirty thoughts. You must really be a worm to think like that!’
But she had waited for the worm every morning. She waited for the scooter to come to life as her father read the newspaper in the porch, and sipped his tea loudly. As soon as she’d hear the scooter she’d kiss her father, pick up her handbag and cane and start descending the steps to the gate.
‘What? Ramesh is on his way?’
‘He’ll be here in a moment, papa. I don’t want him to wait.’
‘How do you know he’s coming? He could be late today? ‘
‘Only the same way I know when you’re reading the editorial, papa!’
That was something her father wondered a lot about. Papa was such a fool. It was simple, really. He read the paper quite energetically, constantly commenting on the news, but when he reached the editorial he would fall silent and his foot would start shaking. ‘What do they write in the editorial today, papa?’ she’d ask when she heard the slipper slapping against his soles. Mr Coelho would look up with a start. Bu... bu… but… how do you know?’ he’d sputter before reading it out to her.
Sweeeee … sweeeee … swit-zizi!
The purple sunbird! She was hearing one after a long time. That was surely a good omen. Was Jesus trying to tell her something? The squirrels were chattering excitedly on the Semal tree now, which meant that the sun was hitting the tree-tops. Nina knew what was coming next. Usually the tinkle of Mrs Kamath’s prayer bell lasted just a few seconds, as she said a casual ‘hi’ to her Gods before rushing to her daily chores, but today she was really going at it. Nina waited for it to stop but the prayer bell went on and on. Ting-Ting-Ting-Ting-Ting-Ting-Ting-Ting! It rang powerfully, drowning out everything else. Nina sensed Mrs Kamath’s resolve. ‘Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name …’ she started saying the Lord’s Prayer.
The prayer bell had stopped ringing, but its sound still reverberated in Nina’s ears. She was saying the Lord’s Prayer for the fifteenth time when she heard the hoop-hoop-hoop of the coucal just outside her window.
Banner picture courtesy of Wikipedia.
Salil Chaturvedi is a poet and writer. He is the Asia region winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Competition (2008) and the Unisun/British Council Short Story Competition (2007). He lives in Goa with his family. His latest book, In the Sanctuary of a Poem (Goa;2017) can be bought from Dogears Margao here or on Amazon here.