A dish best served cold

So it’s the end of Brangelina. And thank goodness we can finally put that awful, media produced moniker behind us. Sad as the break up is, it isn’t particularly surprising, given that most celebrity unions don’t seem to last a creditable length of time. There are of course, repercussions. The children, the assets and the carefully cultivated images that will be dismantled publicly. Just as their union was a three ring circus, the dissolution will no doubt be an equal media frenzy.

Why then has Jennifer Aniston, who’s clearly had nothing whatsoever to do with the split, been getting so much coverage?

Karma.

Karma, that elasticised bitch that rebounds in your face when you least expect it. For over a decade, while Angelina set out to become the next Mother Teresa, wiping her slate clean of all wild child behaviour, poor Jen was relegated to the position of the rejectee; forever seeking love and never finding it. Poor Jen, who despite all her career success, her good looks and undoubted talent was a loveless, childless spinster.

Angelina on the other hand, didn’t just have Brad on her arm, she had the entire United Nations under her roof. Her multi racial adopted children were a testament to her beautiful and brave soul. Her double mastectomy another courageous move that we stood in awe of. This was the poster child of modern womanhood. Team Jolie were winning, and how!

Then it all fell apart.

Out came a thousand memes, each one with Jen’s knowing grin underlining what Team Aniston were gleefully shouting from rooftops:

What goes around, comes around.

He who laughs last, laughs longest.

As you sow, so you reap.

Except, Jen had said none of the above. No doubt, she must have felt in some way vindicated. However, she has moved on. A new marriage, a successful career, and a fulfilling life. Brad and Angelina’s split might have produced a wry smile, but poor Jen was probably way too busy to indulge in a victory dance.

And so, contrary to the belief that Revenge is a dish best served cold, the best revenge really is to live one’s life, and live it well. Karma will take care of the rest.

The Black Dog

I heard him first. It was just a low growl that starts at the back of the throat, and then develops into a full bark. Only it didn’t. I slipped out of bed, and peeked out from behind the curtain. In the dim light of the moon, I saw his silhouette. He sat outside the house, growling. Minnie slept undisturbed, oblivious; her chest rising and falling in a gentle rhythm. I watched her for a minute, and then turned back to the window. He was gone.

*

“How’s it going darling?”, her citrus perfume enveloped me, making me gag. I leaned away.

“I don’t like that scent. I wish you’d stop wearing it.”

Minnie giggled. “Adam, you bought it for me”

Did I?

“Anyway, I just wondered if you’d finished writing your article. It’s nearly noon. We should be making tracks.”

My heart sank at the prospect of another Sunday afternoon in the company of her parents. Her father’s bombastic views, her mother’s saccharine simpering.

“No, darling I can’t. I haven’t made much headway, and you know what the boss is like about his deadlines.”

Her face fell, and instead of feeling sorry, I felt like smacking her. Spoilt bitch.

“Okay. I guess I’ll just have to make our excuses.”

“Don’t be silly. You go. It’s the only afternoon you get with them in an entire week. I insist. Go.”

She left soon after, taking the sunshine with her.

As the clouds gathered ominously in the afternoon sky, I knuckled down to research. I was elbow deep in numbers when I sensed I was being watched. My breath caught in my throat as I looked into the brown eyes at the window. His head was cocked, and he seemed to be eying me quizzically.

“Shoo”, I whispered weakly. “Shoo”

He didn’t move. His gaze was unwavering. Beads of sweat broke out on my forehead. Whose dog was this? Where was its Master? Why didn’t he wear a collar? Why was he hounding me?

I looked around me for something I could frighten him with. The Miriam-Webster dictionary was large and thick enough. Even as I approached the window with it, he got up and sauntered off, of his own volition, as though bored of the watching game.

*

“There is a black dog on the loose”, I spooned the soup in as I casually inserted it into our dinner table conversation.

“A black dog?”, asked Minnie, perplexed.

“I’ve seen it a few times. Just be careful. It could be dangerous, and the owners seem to let it run around.”

“Okay, but are you sure? I mean, there aren’t that many houses around here, and I know most of our neighbours. No one owns a black dog. What breed is it?”

“Oh for fuck’s sake woman! What do I know what breed it is?! It’s big, it’s black and it’s an ugly motherfucker!!!”

“Adam please! There is no need for such language. Just calm down. I’ll watch out for it, okay! Okay?”

*

There were pumpkins everywhere, and ghouls and ghosts that came knocking. Trick or Treat they lisped, and Minnie handed out handfuls of sweets gleefully. She was dressed as a witch, and had insisted I put on a Count Dracula costume.

I hated it. The collar itched and the false fangs made my gaunt face resemble Christopher Lee more than I wished.

“It’s Halloween darling. Get into the spirit of things, come on.”

The only spirit I wished to get into was the Jack Daniels in the liquor cabinet.

That night, the witch undressed for me. She had a pumpkin in her belly. Her long green hair swung over me as she bucked and moaned. Flesh slapped against flesh, and it was all I could do to not dig my fangs into her neck.

*

Autumn leaves crunched under my feet. My walk was leading me to the stream that ran a few miles behind the house. I remembered doing a similar walk with my old man.

“Why is Mama so sad, Dad?”

“She lost the baby. You know that, son.”

“Yes, but that was two years ago. Why is she still sad?”

“Sometimes, people take a long time to recover. Sometimes an entire lifetime.”

Mama didn’t last that long.

A solitary tear rolled down my cheek. I stopped to wipe it, and the footsteps behind me stopped too. I turned around to face him. Of course it was him. How long had he been following me?

He stood there, watching me with that same quizzical expression.

I don’t like dogs. Never have. But perhaps this was a friendly one? I held out my hand hesitantly. He looked at me and at my hand, and then bared his teeth. No. Not friendly. Definitely not friendly.

I backed away slowly, keeping one eye on him, and another on anything I could use as a weapon, to attack or defend.

I picked up the branch quickly, ready to swing, but he had already disappeared.

*

“Such foolishness! Who’s ever heard of being stalked by a dog? Moreover, no one else has seen this animal. Minnie says the police checked the neighbourhood, and found no evidence of it. What have you been smoking Adam?”, Jim guffawed loudly.

“Oh dad! Don’t be mean. Maybe it’s a wild dog that’s taken a shine to Adam?”

“Darling, didn’t you say it growled and bared it’s teeth?”, asked Sheila helpfully.

“Look, let’s just put all this dog business aside and enjoy our Thanksgiving dinner. Lots to be thankful for!”, said Minnie,smiling and rubbing her pregnant belly.

I put on an act that evening. I laughed and joked, and ate Turkey. I drank brandy with Jim and discussed business. I kissed Sheila on both cheeks before escorting her to the car. Then I went inside and threw up in the bathroom.

*

My head was pounding as I made my way in the dark to the kitchen. A couple of Tylenols would take care of it. I’d forgotten to drink a gallon of water before bedtime. That would have preempted a hangover. Anyhow.

I leaned on the sink, drinking my water, and watching the first orange fingers of dawn reach up to lick the cerulean sky. Through the dull throbbing of my head I heard another sound. Panting. Near the kitchen door. I could make out his dark shape behind the pane of glass that separated us.

“Why?”, I asked him. “Why?”

I leaned against the door, and it was as if his hot breath was on my face.

*

The tree was too big for the living room, but Minnie insisted on having it there. She handed me all the baubles, and I placed them carefully as per her instructions. That was still not good enough.

“Oh Adam! What a mess! Get off the ladder. Let me do it.”

“Minnie, I don’t think that’s a good idea in your state.”

“Oh hush! You men are useless. It’s a woman that makes a home.”

I watched her balance the star on top of the tree, her pregnant belly distended beyond belief, and felt a wave of revulsion wash over me. How could I have ever made love to her? Her ankles were thick, her neck an unpleasant shade of grey, her hair wild and unruly. She was snappish and irritable. I couldn’t stand to be in the same room as her.

So I left.

She was weeping when I returned. I cradled her, and apologised, and said all the right things at the right times. All the while I felt nothing. Nothing at all.

*

“I hear you’ve been promoted Adam?”, said Tina, leaning into me.

“Yes, that’s right”, I smiled and tried to move away.

She slid closer, her body rubbing up against mine.

“So, what does a gal have to do to get a cigarette off a fella?”

We stood on the fire escape, smoking our Marlboro’s in silence. Jazz music wafted out of the open windows, and sequins and glitter competed with satin and silk indoors.

“When is the baby due?”

“Another four weeks”

“Hmmm. Minnie looks well.”

“She’s tired a lot”, I paused, “A lot”

The tip of her cigarette glowed, and then she stubbed it under her heel.

I pushed her up against the wall, my tongue snaking into her mouth. She tasted sour, like a cheap Chardonnay. In her I went, up and down, pushing, pushing, and our grunts were masked by the tinkle of the glasses.

*

He was waiting for me that night. Outside the front door.

“There he is Minnie”, I whispered urgently, trying to shake her awake.

“Who? Whaaa….?”, she looked around, confused, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.

I opened the car door carefully. No sudden movements.

“You wait. I’ll tackle this.”

“Adam….where are you going? I can’t see anything. Where are my glasses?”

I grabbed the garden hoe and walked quickly towards him. I was going to be rid of him tonight come what may! I swung the hoe towards his head, and felt his jaw clamp over my ankle. The pain…the pain…..I screamed and lost consciousness…….

*

My ankle was in a cast when I woke.

“You’ve broken it”, Minnie informed me flatly.

“The dog..?”

“There was no dog. You were swinging the hoe like a madman. Then you tripped and twisted your ankle. I had to call 911.”

She looked at me with distaste. Like I was a foul smell that she couldn’t get rid of. I shrunk back into the hospital bed. “I’m sorry”

She had already left.

*

Minnie’s waters broke in the evening. Sheila came and collected her. She was frosty with me. But Minnie hugged me before she left.

“We’ll ring as soon as we have some news”, said Sheila.

I nodded gratefully, and hobbled to the door to see them off. Minnie gave me a watery smile, and then doubled over in pain. Sheila drove off, her tires screeching.

I hobbled back indoors, feeling sad and spent.

There was an old black and white rerun on the Television that I watched with little concentration. With every passing minute my anxiety increased till each nerve felt like it was stretched to breaking point. I poured myself a drink. Then another. And another.

The shadows grew long, and the clock ticked loudly in the corner. One movie melded into another. Dorothy’s house blew from Kansas and landed on a scooter in Rome. A Princess kissed a pauper, and a Tin Man found his heart.

A black dog waited at the door. Crouching low, growling deep. It asked to be let in. Pant. Knock. Pant. Knock.

I couldn’t stand it anymore.

I opened the door.

He went straight for the jugular.

THE END.

 

The Return

Yamuna stopped attending school at age eight. That was all the education she was ever going to get. She cried a little because she was a curious little thing, and she had enjoyed attending the village school and thumbing through the few dog eared books there were. She had liked tracing the large alphabets, trying to make sense of the lines and the squiggles, matching them up with the pictures. It seemed to be a doorway into another, mysterious, fascinating world.

Then she ceased, because she was also pragmatic, and understood that her place was in the fields with her mother, and other siblings.

It wasn’t till Badri came back from the city that her urge to learn reared its head once more.

He swaggered into the village, all suited up. The gaggle of children around him grew larger, pulling and tugging at his shiny jacket sleeves. He swatted them off cheerfully.

“Bhaiyya, bhaiyya, brother, brother”, they chanted.

“Shoo”, he laughed, “I’ll bring out the sweets later”

He caught her eye and beckoned her over.

“Where’s Ganga?”, he asked, fiddling with his collar, and looking embarrassed.

“Sister is in the fields with Maa. I only came to fetch their lunch”

“Will you tell her I’m back?”

She examined him and then stuck her tongue out.

“Tell her yourself !”

His yell was still ringing in her ears, as she raced with her little bundle towards the fields.

 

***

 

 

The sun beat down a little less fiercely in the afternoon upon the small village of Rampur. It was just another anonymous place within the vast expanse of India. Boasting a population of roughly 1500 inhabitants, it’s only claim to fame was that once a holy man had passed through. A well had been dug in his honour, and even in the most scorching of Summers, the well never failed to provide the village with cool, thirst quenching water. The villagers firmly believed it was his blessings that ensured the continuous supply, and so erected a temple in his honour too. As no one knew which of the pantheon of Hindu gods he had actually worshipped, they settled upon Shiva, the yogi god. The temple, aside of the Chief’s house, were the only solid structures of bricks and mortar. The mud huts that clustered together like a huddle of old women, was where the rest of the population lived.
They sat on their haunches, grouped around his solitary chair. She could tell he was uncomfortable, unaccustomed to being treated this way.

“So, Badri bhaiyya, you make good money in the city?”

“Yes, yes. Very good. The Seth is kind to me. He has even given me a room above his garage to live in.”

There was a collective gasp. A room! Their mud huts did not compare.

“I drive his car, fetch his groceries, take his dog for a walk. He trusts me.”

“You’ve done well Badri” In strode Kedar, their village chief and clapped his hand on Badri’s back, nearly dislodging him off the chair. Someone hurried to bring the charpoy over. They placed it in the shadiest spot under the Peepul tree.

“That Master must’ve taught you well, huh?”

The villagers mulled this over as they looked between Kedar and Badri. It was no secret that Kedar had loathed the teacher they all fondly referred to as Masterji. He had been vehemently opposed to the higher education that Master Raju had tried to impart to the largely illiterate village. Kedar had used very trick in the book to sabotage his attempts. From threats to intimidation to the mysterious fire that engulfed the ramshackle structure they called school.

Yet, a few like Badri, had persisted, and gone beyond the basic alphabet. And look where it had got him!

Unfortunately, Raju had eloped with Kedar’s only child Tapeshwari, and all learning had effectively been replaced by Kedar’s incandescent rage.

The timid teacher who had replaced Raju was a lackey, and once again, the villagers learnt no more than signing their names. The female teacher came once a fortnight from three villages away to teach the girls the alphabet. It was a requirement by the regional government to be seen to be educating the poorest. So, Kedar had pocketed the grant money for the school, and allowed the farce of education to be carried on in a hastily constructed one room mud hut that was uninhabitable most of the year.

Now, here sat before him, an example of what might have been, if Master Raju had not been sidetracked by love. An upstart that was being alleviated and placed on a chair!

Badri knew all too well that his return was not going down pleasantly with the Chief.

He quickly stood up and touched Kedar’s feet.

“You are our Mai-Baap. Our father, our mother, our protector. How else could I have flourished, if it were not for your blessings?”

Somewhat appeased, Kedar indicated he should sit. Badri, wisely, chose to squat with the other villagers.

“So, what brings you back after all these years, heh? What has it been- four, five?”

“Four and a half, Sir.”

“You’re a city lad now. What do you want with us country bumpkins?”

Badri looked down at his feet, and mumbled something.

“Speak up!”, said Kedar, annoyed.

“I would like to get married”

 

***
And so it came to pass. Ganga, the sister she had always adored, married her childhood sweetheart Badri. It wasn’t without the usual hurdles. Her parents had to provide the dowry. They had very little to offer Badri. He knew and didn’t mind. But Kedar could not allow the opportunity of a wedding pass by without profiting from it. So they had to take a mortgage out on the last hectare of land they owned outright. The rest of the land was also mortgaged to Kedar. It was a win-lose situation and all parties got thoroughly drunk in the euphoria of the moment.

“Eh Badri!”, Kedar slurred into his ear. “Don’t come back, okay? I don’t want you giving these villagers any ideas. You got lucky my boy. Not everyone does. Got it?”

For a moment, as Badri looked into Kedar’s face, Yamuna saw his mouth pucker, almost as though he was going to spit into it. Then he re assembled his face into its usual subservient set, and nodded and smiled.

Yamuna sighed. For once she would have liked to see someone stand up to the Chief. But it was not going to happen. Not in her lifetime.

 

***
They all lay together in a late afternoon siesta after the wedding. Her father snored loudly, and her mother coughed in her sleep. Her two younger brothers slept, curled into each other. She could hear Ganga’s breath deepen as even she slipped into slumber. She sneaked a peek at her fifteen year old sister, still awed that she was now married and someone else’s property. That someone else was also gazing at his young wife with something akin to pride and wonderment.

“Badri bhaiyya”, she whispered into the shadowy room.

“Hmmm?”

“Are you still in touch with Master Raju?”

There was a moment’s pause, and then Badri answered. “Yes”, he said, “Yes- but don’t mention it to anyone.”

“Where is he? What is he doing? Does he plan to come back?”

“Yamuna- don’t be naive. There will be a lynch mob waiting for him if he does. Besides, he is happy. He is teaching in a Government school in the city. He has no plans to return.”

“And Tapeshwari didi? How is she? She must miss home. She must miss the Chief.”

“I’m not sure Yamuna. I don’t interfere in women’s business. If she does, that’s their problem, not mine.”

“Badri bhaiya…. will you never return either?”

He turned and gazed at her a minute before speaking.

“Not for a while Yamuna. Not while Kedar still holds his grudges.”

“Why does he not like you?”

“It’s not me he doesn’t like. It’s what I represent. I represent freedom and opportunity. Something that has been denied to the people of this village.”

“Is it because you studied? I want to study. I want to make something of myself!”

“Yamuna, you are a girl. What are you ever going to be? A daughter, a field hand? A wife and a mother? Be content with that.”

 

***

 

 

Long after they had left, his sister and brother in law, long after the tears had been shed, the trousseau packed, and the couple despatched by the local bus, Badri’s words rang in her ears. A smouldering resentment started up in the pit of her stomach. She did not want to be just a daughter or a wife. She wanted more. She wasn’t sure what that more could be. But she knew that the how would have to come through education.

Still. There was the dream, and then there was reality. Reality was the daily grind of waking up at the crack of dawn, of milking the cows, of filling the buckets with water from the well, of helping her mother prepare the meagre breakfast for the menfolk, of wolfing down whatever remained, and then rushing to bathe and change for a day of work in the fields. Day after day after day of back breaking labour followed by more house work before she could fall into a deep, dreamless sleep. Only to wake up and do the same again the following day and the day after, till eternity seemed to stretch out into one long, hot, dusty, never ending road.

 

***

 

It was in the month of September that Master Raju returned to the village with his heavily pregnant wife. The Chief’s bellow was enough to frighten any brave heart. At first everyone thought that Raju would not survive the night. Yet some of the tears and the pleading of his daughter and wife must have had effect, for Kedar finally relented enough to house them both.

It was customary for the daughter to return home for the birth of her first born child. As Tapeshwari had been the apple of her father’s eye, his rage all but evaporated on seeing her waddle towards him and awkwardly try to touch his feet. Raju was a different story. A cold war ensued between the two men, and some nights Raju would wake up shaking and drenched in sweat, in fear that a pillow was about to descend on his face to snuff his life out.

The baby girl arrived in October, and the celebrations were subdued. Barfi, a cheaper Indian sweetmeat was distributed in the village, instead of the more expensive and flavoursome ladoos.

“Had I chosen my son in law, the baby would have been a boy!”, insisted Kedar darkly.

The baby was sickly, and Tapeshwari, never the most robust of girls found it difficult to nurse or care for her. A rotation of the village women who helped, soon tired of the scenario, and they resumed their own lives and duties. Tapeshwari sank into a listless apathy. Her mother despaired and begged her husband to hire full time help.

“Do you have to be so miserly? This is our child, our blood, and she needs help!”
Yamuna was not their first choice. She was too young, and despite displaying impressive stamina, she was not the most amenable of creatures. Yet with the Autumn harvest nearly upon them, few families were willing to spare an extra pair of hands. Yamuna’s persistence paid off and she was hired for the grand sum of Rs 350/- a month.

“Too much”, Kedar growled but there was little he could do.

The bathing and feeding of the child did not seem like work to Yamuna. She was used to taking care of her younger siblings.

“You are a natural”, Kedar’s wife, Gulabi, remarked as she watched Yamuna oil and massage the baby, who had started to get healthier with each passing day.

“I like babies”, said Yamuna, and it was true. But it was only half the truth. She no more saw herself as a field hand than she did as a nanny. Her only agenda had been to get into the household, and somehow, anyhow, persuade the Master to resume teaching.

 

***

 

Two months passed by with her barely getting a glimpse of Master Raju. For such a young and dynamic man, he had nearly disappeared inside himself, post his return. Fatherhood ill suited him, and he looked like a lost puppy most times. Tapeshwari would not hear of returning to the city. So he was caught in a no man’s land with nothing to do except retreat into his books, trying at all times to stay out of harm’s way.

One late afternoon, Yamuna finally managed to corner him.

“Master Raju, you must come and play with the baby. She has started to smile now.”

He looked startled. “Has she?”

“Yes, yes. Babies are amazing. Like little sponges. They absorb everything around them. Why, even Tapeshwari didi enjoys her more now!”

“Well…well…”, he seemed lost for words.
So he started to come and sit with his wife and baby more often. Tapeshwari blossomed once again, and Gulabi observing the change, would not stop singing Raju’s praises to Kedar.

“What a dear little family we have. Look how much he loves her. Would any of your prospective matches, those no good, land grabbing zamindars have taken such good care of our daughter, huh?”

Yamuna smuggled a few of the alphabet books into the house, on the pretext of showing baby the pictures.

“See how she follows my finger, Master Raju. See? She likes it when I crow like a rooster. Look how her eye turns to the picture every time?”

She appealed to their pride in their child, and saw how quick they were to believe that the baby was no less than a genius. With such subterfuge, she got Raju to start teaching his six month old daughter the alphabet. Tapeshwari would giggle and comb her hair, while Gulabi would snooze on the charpoy next to them. Kedar would glower from a distance, unwilling to upset the fragile happiness that had once again crept into the house. While Yamuna would tickle the baby’s toes, and silently learn as much as she could.

 

***

 

“Tapeshwari didi”, one day she mildly inserted herself into a conversation between mother and daughter.

“Yes, Yamuna?”

“Wouldn’t it be nice if some of the village children could come to Masterji’s lessons. He would feel like he was doing something useful again. And baby could have some children to play with too?”

Before Kedar could so much as raise an eyebrow, his front yard was converted into a makeshift school with lessons three times a week. Raju’s long suppressed talents came to the fore again. Soon the syllabus included the times tables, and a few basic books. History and Science started to get a look in as well. As for Geography, even Kedar would lurk around as Raju expounded on the different continents, and the different people that inhabited the world.

“We are only a small dot on this planet. The planet is an even smaller dot in the Solar system…. Imagine how big the Universe is if the size of our village is like that tiny little ant that’s crawling up your leg?”

Word spread of Raju’s classes, and the villagers started to ‘drop by’ for a chat with the Chief. Kedar found his house becoming a thoroughfare, and him becoming some kind of a local hero. Unused to being this popular, he was abashed and alarmed in equal measures. Things came to a head on the day of the annual village celebrations. Where in previous times, he would have led the prayers with the local priest, with a largely recalcitrant populace mumbling along, this time it was a joyous occasion with him being carried on the shoulders of the villagers to the temple.

“Our village has been blessed by Goddess Laxmi herself! “, the priest exclaimed.

“Saraswati” muttered Yamuna under her breath, for while Goddess Laxmi denoted wealth it was Goddess Saraswati who symbolised learning.

 

 

******************************

 
Twenty years later when a government councillor finally decided to visit the village of Rampur that had been making waves in the media, he was astounded to see a flourishing place with three times its original population. With a 90% literacy rate, the villagers employed the latest agricultural techniques, alongside their own rural experience, and their harvests were rich and plentiful. The young men that left for the cities often returned with funds and acumen, ploughing it back into their own lands, enriching them further. Badri and Ganga were amongst the first to return, happy to shed the frenetic pace of city life and return to a gentler, kinder, more welcoming land than they had grown up in.

Kedar’s statue adorned the square. It was freshly garlanded every day, and visited once a week by his family. He was widely acknowledged as a pioneer who had recognised the necessity of education amongst the poorest. His grand daughter was a teacher in the local school, which had grown far beyond its humble origins. Master Raju was the much revered Principal. He remained his unpretentious, good self and still enjoyed teaching the youngest in the school. “Catch them young!”, he’d say and laugh uproariously at his private joke. His own expanding brood had given him life skills that books themselves never could have. He often wondered at the transformation in his fortunes, yet superstitiously, never examined it too closely.

The old priest would tell anyone who wished to hear it that it was the holy man’s blessings that had transformed the land.

As for Dr Yamuna Jha.
Wife, mother, anonymous patron of Rampur. Stem cell researcher, living and working in the US. Delving into recombinant DNA methodology, finding treatments for hitherto incurable diseases, she was too busy to remember what had rekindled her indefatigable ambition.

Like a comet she blazed on, and in her wake, all else lit up.

 

THE END