Errands for Sir

On Thursdays, because he got home past midnight, Yadav wouldn’t sound the car horn. He’d wait outside and flick the headlights on and off. If Ramu took longer than usual, Yadav might whistle through his teeth or tap the copper padlock with a stone. The boy would be listening to radio ‘Romantic Hits’ and singing softly to a love song. But usually, Yadav did not have to wait long before the gates were opened. He’d put out his cigarette on the dirt road, flick it into the bushes, and then drive past the gate. Sometimes, as he pulled closer to the house, he would shut off the engine and let the car freewheel until it stopped near the porch. The front door would be closed quietly, feet stepping softly around- soon he would soundless lie next to his wife in the bed that made their home.

Ramu waited outside the front door for several minutes to see if Sir would reappear, whether he would send for a fresh shirt from the ironing pile. He waited some more and then went back to his room- the call had not come tonight. The last love song had faded into a hush, so he turned off the radio and lay back on the divan. He wanted to fall asleep, but his feet dangled uncomfortably off the edge. Tomorrow evening he’d find a stool or a crate for them, for now until sleep overtook him, he would think of Sir and the white lady.

An art teacher, an American, new in town and new to the country, he had heard much about her from the other servants. She worked in the international school and lived in the foreigner’s area. He didn’t know her name, so he just made one up. Brenda, he had chosen, naming her after a heroine in an English film that he had seen in the cinema a few months ago. She was most certainly beautiful. Her long golden hair was tied in a bun while she was teaching. She would let it hang down her back in the evenings though. Her blue eyes never looked straight at you for her mind was always on something else. Perhaps she had left her fiancé Bruce (he was good with names, he concluded) back in America. She was not sure she wanted to marry Bruce and her need to think, drover her further away. Perhaps that is how Ooty had happened to her. He had overheard the other servants’ gossip about how Sir met Brenda, but he chose to ignore those stories for they just didn’t sound right to him. He had his own version of the story:

One morning Brenda decided that she couldn’t go back to Bruce and as if to settle the matter, she went for a long walk to explore her newly chosen home. She had reached the edge of the town, passed the last struggling set of teashops, and entered the forests cradling the Ghat hills. The rains had taken a break, so the air smelled fresh. Her feet would have barely felt the spongy ground, so she stopped instead every now and then to touch her fingers on a moss-covered rock or the lichen of a shola bark, and to dip her hands into a stream to feel the last of the night’s rain. She came to a high clearing then, and on its far end was an outcrop that looked over the Nilgiri valley. Ramu had been there several times and he thought it to be the most beautiful place in all of the Ghats. The western face of the rock looked like a hermit deep in prayer, he mused. The shape of a face emerged from the limestone –the eyes closed, pursed lips, and a wide forehead. Immediately below the elongated chin, an overhang formed the hermit’s arms and his palms hat touched ever so gently, the prayer thrown out high, over the forest tops and above the tea plantations, to a God who lay out there in the wide openess.

Ramu had seen some of the local boys take up friendly challenges of getting past the overhang to scramble up the rock pile. They would jump again and again till they got hold of a crease in what he imagined were the hermit’s robes or his cupped hands, then clamber up past his face and perch themselves on top of his head. But Ramu had never dared to do those stunts himself. He preferred the deep recess at the base, close to what he imagined would be the hermit’s chest. The soft cool earth there never smelt of hurried urine nor was it littered with bidi butts, and he was sure that the view from his place was even better than what the boys could see from where they would often seat themselves.

He could see Brenda playing a game with the pebbles, when it suddenly started to rain. She crouched into the cave and pressed her back against the smooth, straight belly of the hermit. But she could now feel the force of the shower increase, her forehead dampened, the rain whipped against her arm, and sprayed at her feet. It turned into a storm soon after, one would have thought it would never die down. The wind had shifted; Brenda’s temporary shelter would overflow, driving her out into the open.

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She wondered if she could run back the way she had come. She remembered that a bungalow stood just a few hundred yards from the clearing. She had no chance of getting back to her villa before dark. By now rivulets had formed through the moss and grass, and her slippers were muddy as she slipped while sliding down the forest path. The guesthouse, she had stumbled upon, was mostly dark, but a light burnt behind a curtained window. Ramu was all set to have his drenched heroine knock on the door, find it locked, and have her ring the bell. But by then he couldn’t feel the discomfort of his suspended feet anymore, for he had fallen asleep.

**

Yadav left home early the next day. He didn’t want to see Molmol and pretend to enjoy his tea and toast with her. His story about the weekly business dinner on Tuesdays had been wearing thin. He could sense her doubts multiply, hear her questions grow louder. Of late she had begun asking him the names of the colleagues who had to be entertained at the Ooty Club every Tuesday. Why weren’t wives allowed to join in these parties? Why couldn’t they host these get-togethers in their house? She’d make sure that there was plenty to eat and drink. She’d have Ramu string fairy lights up on the trees so their garden would look like an outdoor dance hall. It would be difficult, Yadav had said. They discussed work matters. Wives didn’t come, that wasn’t usually how things were done.

Miriam had begun protesting about them being shut in her small villa all evening. She wanted to walk by the lakeside, go boating, and stop for dinner at the club. Out of question, he had told her. She had then asked about weekend trips. If they couldn’t go out to town, why not leave Ooty and visit the hills and sanctuaries nearby? Nilgiri was very beautiful, she had had been told.

Yadav had planned it. But first, Molmol had to be taken care of, so he made up a business trip, a weekend work visit to meet his Bangalore colleagues. He’d leave Friday afternoon, drive down to the plains to Coimbatore train station, and from there take the train to Bangalore. Yadav mentioned about the guest house to Miriam. Not far from Ooty, a half an hour taxi ride at most, but it was a whole world away. He described the lake, the charming viewpoint, and a rocky hilltop that looked out into the Ghats. There wouldn’t be many others staying there at this point, for it was still too chilly for Indian couples who used the place as a honeymoon resort. They could spend the night there, he suggested. The next morning they might walk up to see the sunrise, have breakfast, and come back home. Miriam looked happy, so he wrote the name of the guesthouse and the address on a slip of paper for her to hand over to the taxi driver.

**

Ramu was rummaging in the shed at the back of the house looking for a place to put up his feet. He had found an old tin trunk that he thought could be placed by his divan and was in the process of dragging it out when Sir sent him on an errand to the market to purchase a dozen red roses. He was then supposed to go to the guesthouse, ask to be let in into the master suite, and arrange the flowers there. Sir had said, “Make sure the room is clean. And finish your errand before dark. My guest will come not long after.”

Ramu was full of excitement after Sir left. He knew who the flowers were for, and who the mysterious guest was. He went back to the shed and found a vase, off-white china with gold filigree work running from the base to the rim. He remembered that Madam sometimes asked for it to be brought into the house when she had guests for dinner, and she always put red or yellow roses in it. He knew that it was perfect for the gift and that Brenda would be pleased by it. He took the vase with him on his errand.

But it wasn’t the season for roses. Ramu remembered this on his way to the flower market. The rains hadn’t stopped yet, and the mornings were still frosty. Just as he had expected, when he got to the flower market, he saw that amongst the fresh new flowers that had been picked, cleaned and trimmed, there was not a single rose. He hunted through all the stalls, weaving in and out of stacks and rows of foliage, scouring vendors’ counters and crates. He inspected rows of funeral florals, sometimes even lifting a chrysanthemum garland or a hibiscus bouquet to see if Brenda’s roses might be found there. He paused by a Jasmine-seller’s stall and begged the lady to help him. He set the vase down on the linoleum-covered table and played absentmindedly with a string that she had just braided and piled in a mound. The Jasmine seller hadn’t seen any roses, she told Ramu, moving away the flowers away from his restless hands.

Someone offered to sell him a bunch of Gerberas, but he declined. Gerbera weren’t meant for that vase. Besides they wouldn’t look as beautiful in the master suite. The room, had a soft cream coloured sofa in the corner by the window. Ramu had imagined placing the vase on a low, dark table with delicately curved legs. The roses would be set off by the cream upholstery and Brenda- that red-lipped, golden-haired lady who lay on the bed, surrounded by piles of silk and lace pillows. Ramu stopped himself then, walked up to a temple florist, and feigned interest in a lone lotus afloat inside a plastic tub.

“If it is roses you want, get out of here,” someone shouted at him, annoyed that he was buying none of what was on display. “Go down to the plains where it isn’t so cold and wet,” another voice yelled out. “None of this is good enough for Mister”, someone else grumbled. Ramu wasn’t discouraged by the suggestions. In fact he thought to himself, ‘why not go? He could take the bus, leave the hills, and go where it was dry and warm. Once down there, he could buy, not one dozen but six dozen roses if he so wanted. There was a bus that left soon, and it was still early, if he hurried, he could reach Coimbatore in three hours, get the roses, and catch the afternoon bus back to Ooty, all before sunset. This was what he ought do, what was expected of him in this situation.

**

The bus that went down the Ghat road was very few people. The driver tuned the radio to a station that blared a religious sermon. There were some protests from the passengers at the back- two teenage boys, but the others who made this trip almost every other day, had accepted the programme as part of their daily commute. As soon as he heard the talk show guest Swami preaching about the path of knowledge, Ramu wished he had brought his transistor along. He could have put it to his ear and listened to the morning ghazals. He wondered if Brenda knew much about Hindi love songs, the ones in which the heroine sang of her betrothed who was fighting in a war, of a man she had once known but who had probably forgotten her name, or of the secret lover she was forbidden to meet. She must know of those songs, he thought then, for a ghazal was mostly likely playing in the guesthouse that evening when Brenda fled the stormy hilltop.

Ramu changed his story slightly, for now, not only was the guesthouse open, but it was full of people, lodgers, diners, waiters and hotel staff. She reached the doors just as lightning struck. She was wet and cold from her walk, but she had money just for a cup of tea. Her salwar kameez (Ramu liked to dress his heroines in traditional outfits) was dripping wet, but he gave her a dupatta so that he didn’t have to picture her bare body under the wet clothes. She asked to borrow a towel and to use the lobby restrooms, and then sat at a table and sipped her tea.

Sir had been sitting in the opposite corner of the restaurant; he must have noticed this foreigner lady. She was beautiful and so very lost. He asked the waiter to attend to her order. When it was set before her, Ramu had her look up and across to where Sir, watching her, motioned a silent cheers with his glass of brandy (this signal, too, Ramu had absorbed from that English film). Thus they sat for the rest of the evening, each in their own corner of the room, and though they didn’t speak or even know each other’s name, they felt that the ghazal that was being played was for and about them.

**

On the way back Ramu sat on the floor in the aisle of the bus. He missed the view from the window, but he preferred this spot. He decided that being so close to the ground meant that he wouldn’t be flung around when the driver managed the hairpin bends uphill. There was a different driver now, for the radio had been tuned to a different music station. The bus was full of honeymooners and college students taking to the hills to spend the weekend. The mood was romantic and mischievous. Ramu was in bliss; even the thought of damaging the roses couldn’t spoil his journey.

He had located the roses in the market without any trouble and, because he was so pleased with himself, he bought more than he had been asked to. Having run out of money that Sir had given him that morning, he had had to pay for the bus fare out of his own wages, but that did not bother him. The stems rested in a tin can, that he had filled with a bottle of water that he managed to buy in the market. The blooms stood stiff and aloof, brushing at times against the lap of the passengers seated around him. The others in the bus, had probably assumed that his flowers were for his sweetheart, and they took care not to brush against the buds. The whole bus it seemed was complicit in seeing Ramu and the roses, home, safe and unscathed, straight into the arms of his beloved. Ramu sang along with the young couples to the songs that were being played on the radio-while his thoughts occupied themselves with Brenda’s reaction to his gift.

**

“Where were you?” asked Yadav. He was angry. Nothing had gone according to the plan. He had reached the guesthouse, but there was no sign of Miriam. There weren’t many guests, and he asked the receptionist whether a “foreign lady” had arrived. “No sir. No one except the restaurant guests.” Maybe she couldn’t find a taxi, or had had to stay in school a little while longer. He dropped his overnight case in the room and noticed at once that Ramu hadn’t followed his instructions. The bed hadn’t been made, hair from the previous guests lay strewn along with dried shampoo in the shower drain, and there were no flowers in the room. He flushed the hair down the toilet, fixed the bed, and went down to the veranda to wait for Miriam.

It wasn’t until Miriam had come in, stumbling through the driveway, and fallen into his arms, that he realised she had walked, no actually run through many miles. Her blouse was ripped, large welts were visible on her neck and arms, and her hair, straggly and limp, smelled of sweat and rain. She didn’t cry but made wheezing sounds from somewhere so deep in her throat that he could barely hear them. What had happened, did someone attack her? Rape her? Why didn’t she take a taxi? He asked again and again. Not wanting to subject her to the curious stares of the staff, he led her to his car. When he opened the backdoor, she fell onto the seat and rested her head on the soft leather seat. He shut the door and smoked a cigarette. They waited like that for God knows how long.

**

“I bought the roses, sir. Not one dozen, but more, many more.” Ramu was late, but he had the roses. Sir looked angry, so Ramu smiled encouragingly, hoping to prove to Sir that he Ramu was capable of solving all problems.  He even held out the bouquet to prove that it was all fine and that the flowers had been arranged after all. In fact they weren’t the least bit wilted from the long journey.

Yadav couldn’t believe the boy. Not only was he late, but he had the audacity to stand there with a stupid smile on his face. He could have hit Ramu then. “Where were you? This is an emergency, don’t you understand?” The boy didn’t move.

“Miriam has been assaulted.” Sir said in a whisper, “Raped, very nearly. You know what that means, don’t you?” Ramu stopped then and tried to look serious. He felt terrible for this woman, Miriam. She was probably travelling alone in the dark. She must have trusted a stranger or got into a car with a man. But he still didn’t understand. What was he to do about it? Why couldn’t the guesthouse staff call the police? Why couldn’t they take care of the situation? He hoped that Brenda hadn’t arrived yet, for the flowers still needed to be arranged and there wasn’t much time left before she arrived.

“Miriam has been attacked,” Yadav repeated, in case the boy hadn’t grasped what had happened. He couldn’t believe it, Ramu stood there smiling, as if he hadn’t heard him at all. No sense of urgency. Must he spell it out? “She needs to go to the police,” he said.

Ramu wasn’t sure what was expected of him. Should he go and put the roses in the room first, then run this other errand? Who and where was this Miriam, and how should he get her to the police station? The bouquet grew heavy in his arms as he waited for further instructions. Then, he heard a small voice from inside the car. The window was rolled down halfway, Ramu ducked his head slightly. It was dark, but he could see a white woman sitting in the backseat. Her head was down, he couldn’t see her face. Her hair, which had come off a ponytail, fell forward. He knew then that this was her. The lady for whom he had he had set off from the hills and gone down to the plains to fetch the roses. Not the golden-haired, cream-skinned Brenda. But Miriam, here, in backseat of this car. And he was supposed to help her.

“You understand, right?” Sir said, “I can’t be involved. Molmol thinks I’m on the train to Bangalore this evening. It is you who has to take her to the police.” Any questions, he asked. Then Ramu knew that there was one that had to be answered right now. He needed to know, was this the very spot where Sir had first met Brenda, no Miriam? Where they had been surrounded by the croaking of frogs, music, and rain?

“Sir, where did you meet?” asked the boy. God knows why it should matter now, thought Yadav. “We met in the bar of Ooty Club”, he said. Ramu, walked around to the passenger door of the car, all the while keeping his eyes averted from Miriam, and sat down. Yadav drove them out of the forest and stopped at the edge of town. “It is not far”, he said to Miriam as Ramu opened the door for her. He sat in the car and watched the two of them walk into the lights. He wanted to go home. He’d tell Molmol he had missed the train or that the meeting was cancelled.

Then he noticed the roses that Ramu had forgotten, they lay in the back seat of the car. He could take them to Molmol, tell her he bought them for her in Coimbatore. But at that moment, he couldn’t stand the sight of them or the faint, musky smell that filled the space around him. He rolled down the window and flung them out into the side street. As he drove off, he saw Ramu hail a cycle rickshaw and guide Miriam into it. Ramu sat beside her without touching her. It would be fine, thought Yadav, he’d take care of it. He was very nearly home when he realised that he had left his overnight case in the master suite at the guesthouse. But that was alright. He’d have Ramu go fetch it the next morning.