The Billboard

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169

Mohan Sikka

THE CHIRPING wakes Meera Kapoor from her short afternoon nap. She rises to get the mobile from the dressing table, wincing as she catches the old muscle in her back. It’s her Bombay sister. The non-stop clanging from outside makes it hard to talk. On every side of the colony they are building, building, building.

Her sister brings her up-to-date about her nephews’ own real estate speculations, providing frank details on how much they are making. The sums make Meera lightheaded. As she ends the call, her lips press tightly in a sharp line. How cutthroat her sister can be, right behind that guileless, gushing manner. She picks up her book bag and begins to review the lesson she’s teaching tomorrow – on Temperate Zones.

At 5:00, Meera changes into her evening sari in anticipation of her husband’s arrival. Balo Kapoor is Chief Engineer with Delhi Metro, in charge of housing construction for employees. He’s responsible, in a way, for the dust and noise around them. The Metro is growing, and with it the multistoried flats of its Officers’ Colony.

Meera puts on a little make-up, the everyday kind, some lipstick, a pat of concealer. She knows she doesn’t need much, and the affirmation of the long, slightly warped dressing table mirror cheers her a little. Her hair is still dark; her cheeks full; the cavities under her eyes slight, easily masked. It’s a source of abiding satisfaction for her that Divya, her daughter, has inherited her best features: her shapely nose, clear skin, and light eyes, along with the pleasing length of Balo’s face.

Bhim Singh, the Kapoors’ bachelor peon, enters the flat from the kitchen side and begins dusting. In between, he presents himself to Meera, his leathery hands folded in front of him. Meera says: “Knowing Divya didi, make some extra dal. Otherwise we’ll be scrambling eggs at the last minute.” Her daughter will say one friend is coming, and then three will arrive. And lately Divya has developed the habit of not calling at all, leaving her mother guessing.

Balo and she sit down for tea at 6:00. Minutes later Divya walks in. Only Norbu, that Tibetan boy, is with her. In an unusual gesture, Divya brings him to the living room. The boy is stocky and muscular, and wears flared jeans and fancy boots. His face is handsome, not too round, although the nose is broad, and misaligned, as though broken in some old fistfight. When he turns his head, Meera can see the tattoo mark just above the nape of his neck: a single Tibetan alphabet, visible through his buzz-cut.

“Aunty,” the boy says sweetly. “Divya told me you are planning to get a puppy.”

“Yes, beta,” Meera replies. “Ever since Blacky died we are missing an animal. Although this time Divya’s father has promised to assist with walks. What kind of life for the dog if he only gets the servant’s attention?” Balo nods abstractedly.

The boy talks about his sheepdog growing up outside Dharamsala. How his headmaster father was recognised by the long-haired, snow-white Objoo, who walked by his side every morning. How no one could disturb his father’s time with the dog.

At dinner, Balo says: “Son, your brothers and sisters? What line are they in?”

His older brother has a technology business, Norbu tells them. He installs network systems in hotels and restaurants.

“Must be just starting?” says Balo hopefully. “So much competition these days.”

“Actually, Uncle, quite successful. He says I am wasting my time in a PhD.”

“Norbu helps his brother part-time,” adds Divya. Meera sees now how he affords his fancy boots.

After the boy leaves, Balo says, to no one in particular: “A decent boy. Family doing well. They deserve it, I think. These people have really suffered.” Meera sees Divya gazing at her father with a tiny, wavering smile. A first ping in her own heart, which she quickly suppresses. There is no room there for more calamity.

As they get ready for bed, Meera knows what Balo is thinking. Both the US firm and the BPO will use my software, Atul, their son, had told them four years ago. As their business grows, we grow with them. Eventually we’ll get bought out, naturally. Compensation through shares and directorships.

Such big dreams, but they’d encouraged him. After three jobs in three cities he was finally focussing. As a family they were on a collective upward trajectory: Balo had just left the Railways and joined the Metro Corporation as Chief Engineer; Divya was accepted into St Stephen’s College. In the moment’s white hot confidence, success in any venture seemed a matter of moving strongly forward, of taking the leap.

For a while Atul came flying home on a monthly basis. He looked so handsome in his business clothes, his slicked-back hair and polished shoes, her gawky, too-thin son so transformed that Meera thought she would burst with rightful pride. She stopped asking him about settling down; and the drying up of his monthly remittance felt like a worthwhile sacrifice. Money would flow again soon, followed by marriage – that’s what Atul insinuated and that’s what she believed.

NOW, OF course, Atul doesn’t visit at all. He won’t tell them who his clients are. All he asks for is their patience. And two years ago he asked for a bridge loan. A temporary situation. Just till the second financier comes through. His tone was so grave and wooden. Hearing him had dried out her mouth, a first taste of the parched season that was coming.

Balo says from the bathroom: “Atul’s mistake was to set up from America. People here need more handholding.”

“Maybe, Balo. But after a long time I am feeling confident tonight.” At the dressing table Meera wipes her face with a cotton wad dipped in cleansing lotion. She points her chin towards the dining room, the night’s guest. “If such people can be successful, Atul will get his chance too.”

Balo changes into his white pajamas. The scar down his lower leg shines like a vein of marble against the pinkbrown skin. The chest scar is darker; the healed stitches make a zipper-like pattern between his almost hairless breasts. Meera vividly remembers the ICU after they wheeled Balo from the operation theatre. She’d drawn a sharp breath; her hand went to her mouth. His shaved cheeks were flat and grey; the rest of his long body puffed up. He resembled a beached corpse, his legs sticking out from the bottom of his inadequate gown.

Since then she tries not to stare at the scars. They are disheartening to look at, as though he’s been branded with the marks of his suffering, all the anguish of the past two years.

The following week, the boy, Norbu, is over three nights out of five. Meera feels her elbows ache when she sees him. A new pattern begins: Divya rings her mother in the afternoon and says, “Tell Bhim Singh to make chicken tonight, Ma. Not too much chilli.” If she doesn’t call or makes no special request, Norbu doesn’t appear.

By the third dinner, it’s hard to ignore the smiles and gestures between Divya and the boy, the quick, flirty exchanges poorly disguised as harmless banter. Meera is entirely hospitable, of course, insisting that the boy eat more, asking Bhim Singh to put another hot chappati on his plate.

Divya clucks her tongue. “Leave him alone, Ma. He’ll take if he wants.”

The boy smiles. “Don’t scold Aunty, Divs. I don’t mind being treated well. After the hostel mess, this is fantastic.”

“See,” Divya replies. “Even so-called liberated men enjoy being pampered.” Balo smiles indulgently: such incongruous remarks from Divya are not unusual. To Meera’s ears, however, the exchange is ominous, subtly establishing terms.

***

It’s Saturday morning. The flat is quiet when Meera wakes up. Balo is taking his walking exercise in the park. There is no sound from Divya’s room.

Meera’s hands and feet are cold, there’s a knot like a fist in her stomach. Bhim Singh has placed a cup of tea by her bedside. She sips the lukewarm liquid. It soothes her a little.

Two years ago she’d been resistant to sending Atul the money. If they were going to be investors, she wanted to know Atul’s Plan B.

“Have faith. Have patience,” Balo had said. “There are bigger fish than us on the line.”

“Then why can’t you sleep?” she’d replied. “If our contribution is so insignificant.” Only when they wired the check was he able to rest through the night, cleaned out but at peace.

Faith. Patience. She is tired of praying and waiting. Lately she’s been feeling that some other attribute is needed to control one’s fate. It’s something her Bombay sister’s family has in abundance, a kind of brash positivity, a self-confidence that makes barriers fall before you.

After dealing with Atul there were a few peaceful weeks. The construction on Balo’s line, the one he was hired to supervise, went on at a brisk pace. The city wanted it completed in time for the Commonwealth Games. The Metro bosses wanted to show how little disruption the building work could cause. And Balo and Meera had their own incentive to hurry. One of the General Managers above Balo looked likely to be promoted to Director. Balo’s career, long stymied by rank in his home railway, finally had an opening, one he might just fit through with the thrust of an achievement behind him. Hope crept into their conversations at home, not too much, but enough to allow them to forget Atul’s troubles at times. Enough to make Meera imagine her children’s weddings as a GM’S wife. The cards showing Balo’s title in small gold letters. A small platoon of officers supervising the construction of the tent. The cars with Metro logos ferrying guests. Her sister subdued for once.

Then one evening Balo didn’t come home at his normal time and didn’t call. She couldn’t say why, but a harsh gastric drip began in her belly. As it got later and later she was less and less able to pick up the phone and call him herself. She turned on the TV, and there it was, her confirmation.

THE ACCIDENT was on his line. The pillars looked like a row of toppled giants, the cantilever beam crashed over them at a crooked angle. With almost prurient delight, the TV kept playing the mayhem of the rescue scene – the grey dust and debris, the lights and sounds of sirens, the pushing and shoving by bystanders to get before the camera, the 50 uninformed opinions. And that was only the start. The recovery operation the next day was its own calamity, with its toppled cranes and further casualties. The papers shifted wickedly from complaining about building delays to railing against criminal haste. Labourers are fodder for the city’s construction appetite, said one headline. Second-class safety record for world-class Metro? Balo’s face like ash when he came home every evening, returning as though from a battlefield.

Meera goes to the kitchen and begins to cut fruit for her husband’s breakfast. Bhim Singh has the day off. “Give me more notice next time,” she told him last night. One thing she feels entitled to these days is knowledge of everyone’s intentions. She has little appetite for surprises or aggravations, small or big. She has absolutely no taste for the game that Divya is playing, dangling the Tibetan boy before them like a stray puppy, hoping to make his presence normal. Making him squat into their consciousness, first with a group of friends, now solo. That is what he is, she thinks, a squatter. It is in his blood.

As she pulls out the steel container with the dry porridge, her mobile sounds from the dining room. She goes to see who it is. An unfamiliar number.

“Hello,” says a young woman’s voice, cracking slightly in the ether. “Hello?”

Meera’s heart skips. She doesn’t feel quite ready for the conversation she has to have with her daughter. “Beta, are you on the bus? Whose phone are you using?” Tonight, there’ll be an explosion of emotion. Before reason sets in, there’ll be days of bad blood and silence.

“Grover Gardens?” says the voice on the phone, the tone impatient now.

“Wrong number,” says Meera coarsely, peeved at the mutual mistake.

“What number am I calling?” persists the voice. Meera can picture its owner: a chaloo businessman’s high-class secretary, a pert, pretty, cigarette-smoking tramp. How could she have thought it was Divya? She loudly gives her the number.

“That is what I dialled,” preens the woman. “Gro-ver Gar-dens.”

“Say it a hundred times, madam,” replies Meera, serenely fierce. She presses the red button on her mobile, once, then again, an unexpected roiling in her chest. “Stubborn woman.”

When Balo walks in, she can tell from his eager face that he’s ready for a deep-fried offering. She brings the porridge and the fruit to the dining table. He pouts like a little boy. His zest for life has returned in this way after his bypass, in a sharp appetite for things that are bad for him. Meera says: “Balo, please –”

Her phone rings again. A man’s voice, rough and phlegmy, asking for Grover Gardens.

“Janaab, from where did you get this number?” Meera says, as Balo glumly pours himself some porridge.

“Arré, from your notice only, where else?” It’s not courtesy they teach in Delhi, Meera thinks. In Dehradun, her hometown, people are altogether more polite.

“What notice, janaab?”

The man clears his throat and hacks, making Meera cringe. “Madam, when I have passed your Q and A, allow me to ask you one or two questions. Are you a booking agent? What floor number is available for 25 lakhs?”

‘This time Divya’s father has promised to assist with walks. What kind of life for the dog if he only gets the servant’s attention?’

As the day wears on, Meera becomes sure that Divya has caught wind of her intention. She does not pick up Meera’s calls. Just before dinner, there’s a call from her. She’ll be home late, she says.

It’s Saturday,Meera wants to say. The library closes early. Instead she says: “How will you come all alone at night?”

Divya laughs. “Is it the first time, Ma? I’ll take an auto with someone from CP. Or one of the boys will drop us.” Meera notices her good humour these days, even in exam season.

Are you in the dark corner of a coffee shop? Is he pawing you? All around the city you see these couples, their hands on each other, making their lips into the shape of kisses.

DIVYA COULD have been happily married by now, Meera regretfully considers, instead of being trailed by second-class men. Her last boyfriend, Vijay, was from an excellent family. Divya, in Meera’s opinion, had been too sure of herself, always taking the boy’s devotion for granted. After the accident, for example, she’d told her mother that Vijay didn’t care about the news reports, that they didn’t even talk about it. Meera had been sceptical. Vijay’s family, she knew, would certainly care about reading Balo’s name next to the word “inquiry” in the papers. But Divya had pretended there was nothing to manage and told her mother to stop interfering. Until the night she came home looking like someone had wrenched her insides out.

Balo is asleep when Divya arrives, close to 11:30. Divya follows her mother to the kitchen, saying that she’ll help herself. But then she lets Meera heat the dal and vegetable, and even serve her. Her face looks tired.

By the third dinner, it’s hard to ignore the quick, flirty exchanges between Divya and the boy, poorly disguised as banter

Meera opens the steel box with the rotis. She smiles. “Dark circles under your eyes, beta. Your skin needs rest and so does your brain.”

“Stop, Ma. Till my exams I’m going to hear this?” Standing, she tears into a roti.

“My child, sit down properly and eat.” My soni beti, my ladlee, she thinks, suddenly filled with anxiety about her mission.

At the dining table Meera hovers around her daughter. She brings out yoghurt, opens a bottle of pickle, asks if she wants rice.

Divya looks up from the magazine she’s flipping. “Go lie down, Ma.”

“Just not sleepy, beta. My mind is racing. All day long I have been getting these calls. This name, Grover Gardens, has bored into my skull like a six-inch screw.”

Divya, scanning her magazine, is not paying attention.

“Beta,” says Meera, deciding to take the plunge. “Your father and I were discussing this earlier. Let’s take a holiday to Mansaul this year. Your uncle is not using his cottage, and after your exams –”

“I don’t know. I can’t think that far ahead.”

“It will be a good break for your father.”

Divya clears her throat. “I may go on a rafting trip with my friends, actually.”

Meera feels the heat on her face. Which friends? “Give us time, too, beta,” she says quietly.

“You’re in a funny mood, Ma. You see me almost every day.”

He pouts like a little boy. His zest for life has returned in this way after his bypass, in a sharp appetite for things that are bad for him

“Hardly. You come and go as you please. There’s never a chance to sit together in a relaxed way. We should plan something, even a short trip.”

“I’m afraid of what lurks inside your plans, Ma,” Divya says with a light laugh.

“Why? We’ll sit and talk in a nice atmosphere. For once we’ll have a chance to discuss the future instead of the past.”

“My future?”

“Yours too, why not? Your MPhil will be over soon.”

Divya looks up sharply. “Such a discussion can be had right here. Why the pretence of going somewhere?”

Meera falls silent, as though stymied. Then she says, in the same measured tone: “Beta, when you broke up with Vijay, you made me a promise.”

“He broke up with me, Ma.”

“You said after your degree you’d make a quick decision.”

“You love to make up stuff. I said I’d think about it after my degree. Since your solution was to find the first available substitute for Vijay.”

Meera can picture the voice’s owner: a chaloo businessman’s high-class secretary, a pert, pretty, cigarette-smoking tramp

Meera says ruefully: “I thought you were past Vijay. Now it’s clear to me you are not.” Divya sucks on her teeth, but Meera persists. “Why else play these underhanded games?”

Divya looks at her plate and says fiercely: “I’m happy, Ma. Why should I hide it?” She pauses for a breath, then says more evenly, “We haven’t made any decision yet. I’ll let you know when we do.”

“Better you hide it,” snaps Meera. “Have fun if you want — no other mother would say this — but don’t come to us with a serious proposal. Even we are not that broadminded.”

Divya’s eyes are sharp little pieces of coal. “Does Papa feel this way also?”

“Check with him. He’s borne so much. He can bear this as well.”

Divya abruptly gets up and clears her plate. When she comes back from the kitchen her face is hard. Her mother has arranged her own expression into a pleading look.

“Divya, my child. We have survived two black years. Your father’s health. Your brother’s unsettled state.”

“All this will change if I have an arranged marriage?”

“Friendships. Boyfriends. When have we restricted you in any way?” Their tones are becoming raised, forgetting their sleeping father. “But the time comes in every child’s life –”

“I haven’t let you restrict me, Ma. Please don’t think I’m going to start now.”

Sunday is slow. To her great relief no wrong numbers light up Meera’s mobile, although she’d have liked to let loose, once, at a stranger. Meera feels Balo’s eyes wander between Divya and her. Finally, he mumbles something, and Meera replies: “Must be exam stress. Ask her yourself.” He coughs uncertainly, and Meera shakes her head. Last time, she alone had salved Divya’s heartache, in the midst of all their troubles. Once again she’ll handle the matter.

Have fun if you want — no other mother would say this — but don’t come to us with a proposal. Even we are not that broadminded’

In the evening there is a call from Atul. Meera exchanges a civil greeting with her son and passes the mobile to Balo. At times Meera chides herself for her stubbornness, for the still raw rupture in her heart. But it feels impossible to salve the indignity of Atul’s selfishness, his sheepish absence from his father’s tribulations. Am I really needed, Ma? If I’m really needed, of course I’ll come, he said, so eager for her to excuse him. Today, however, there is something different in Atul’s voice. She pays close attention to Balo’s face as he speaks into the phone. Eventually Balo momentarily puts the mobile aside and mouths the words:He has signed a contract. She smiles a tight smile, but distrust palpitates inside her. How much money? What kind of contract? And even: What about our loan? She does not ask for the phone. Balo looks perplexed for a moment and then goes in search of Divya. “Divya… Divya beta, speak to your brother. Very good news.”

On Monday, there is a call for Grover Gardens as soon as they rise. A young man’s voice.

“I am 79 years old, beta,” ad libs Meera, in an impressive croak. “I am resting from a hernia operation. Getting these calls non-stop. May I ask your name?”

“Sorry, Aunty,” the boy says pleasantly. “Actually my Papa asked me to procure an information packet. My good name is Atul.”

Balo dresses with the distracted reluctance of a recently released prisoner making his social debut. He smiles at his wife

“My grandson’s name,” says Meera, bending reality to conform to her act. “Can you help me please, Atul? The strain is intolerable. Where is this Grover Gardens?”

“It is a building development,” says the namesake. “Papa saw the notice. I will check with him this evening and ring you back. Promise, Aunty.”

BALO SHUFFLES out of bed, fussing with his pajamas. His lower right leg is swollen. Meera feels for him: this post-operation symptom has lasted for many months, along with radial pain in the leg. “Very sweetly you are talking this morning,” he says. “An admirer?”

“Yes, the same one calling for the last two days.”

At breakfast, Divya says: “Pa, I’m thinking of moving to the PG hostel. Until finals and maybe in the summer also.” Her voice is raspy and strained. Her facial muscles are tight.

Very nice, thinks Meera. Countermove. Raise the stake.

Balo drops his head in mock devastation. He is happy because he’s eating his Monday omelette. “Have pity. Your mother and I may get a divorce if there is no one else to talk to.”

Divya gazes at her parantha. “This way you can have an extra room when Atul visits.”

“What is the cost of the hostel?” Meera says.

“250 rupees.” Divya says to her parantha. “A big sacrifice, I know.”

“Absolutely. For those who daily track the price of milk and onions.”

“I’ll ask Atul directly if it is such a burden.”

“Your brother is himself in debt right now. Don’t you know this?”

“Order, order,” says Balo. “No more talk of money at the table. Ruins the taste of food.”

On their way out, Balo says: “Why would she stay in the hostel after her exams?”

“Don’t ask me, Balo. Those days of confiding in her mother are over.”

They used to call her from the Railway Club: Meeraji, we are waiting to start the rummy. Without you and Kapoor Sahib it’s no fun.

TUESDAY IS a national holiday. Balo and Meera are taking a taxi to a house blessing in Trans-Yamuna, their first big outing since Balo’s operation. It is a cool, perfectly clear spring morning. Meera puts on a light silk sari, a pleasing pale mustard with a blue border. She looks radiant, unbreakable. Balo dresses with the distracted reluctance of a recently released prisoner making his social debut. As they leave, Balo smiles at his wife, an attempt at signalling composure that only makes him look more tense. Meera tries to smile in return, but she is bothered by how dirty the taxi seat is.

Before the accident and inquiry, Balo would have asked his driver to bring the office car with the white coverlet on the back seat, or a contractor would have sent his sparkling clean vehicle for Chief Engineer Sahib. But now they avoid any public act that brings attention. Meera misses those days. The office car would take her to her school after dropping Balo. At the closing bell, the driver would once again be waiting. She’d give her fellow teachers lifts, about which they were loudly appreciative. After lunch she might go to Lajpat Nagar market for household knickknacks or Sarojini Nagar to her tailor. She never had to bump along in a smelly, smoky auto or take a filthy taxi. If her sister was visiting from Bombay, Balo would grumble but let her keep the car late into the night. This little luxury made Meera feel elevated in her sister’s eyes, even if her sister was the one buying diamond pendants and zari-laden saris.

Now Balo and Meera feel the pinch of the 500 rupees it takes to hire the taxi for the round trip. But this is an event they cannot miss. The new house belongs to Harsh Gupta, formerly a Chief Engineer like Balo, and now General Manager (New Projects). This was the position that fell away from Balo and Meera, a domino effect of the tumbling Metro pillars.

“Turn it off. Turn it off,” says Balo, as they pass by the shattered black walls of the Old Fort and the zoo. The bird in Meera’s phone has been making its brain-fever calls. “Or kindly change your ringer. I feel I am trapped in a jungle.”

“What if Divya calls?” Meera says hotly. “What if there’s an emergency in New York?” For years her phone has never been off. Even on the day of the accident, when Balo didn’t call.

“Non-stop emergency,” mutters Balo. Meera turns the ringer down. She sees the glower on his face, the small movements of his jaw, and wonders if they should have made an excuse today.

In a little while they cross the Yamuna pontoon bridge. Meera raises her voice into the receiver: “Look here. My husband is assistant to the Assistant Home Secretary. If you call again, he will put a block against your number.” Balo waves his hand for her to desist.

“Hello, this is Atul,” says the voice on the phone. A truck veers past, honking loudly.

It is Our Father, the Metro Chief. He has a square face, short grey hair, and cold eyes behind rimless glasses

“O beta!” says Meera, discombobulated. “Is everything OK?” She puts a hand on her open ear.

“Aunty,” repeats the voice. It’s the namesake, not her son. “Sorry to bother. I checked with my Papa. Your number is posted on a billboard on Faridabad Road. One of the booking numbers for this residential complex.” He provides the details of the builder. Meera asks Balo for his pen and scribbles the information on a scrap of paper from her purse.

“Any other service, Aunty?” says the helpful Atul.

Meera responds in the old-lady voice. “Thank you. I will pray for your long life, beta.”

Meera, triumphantly holds up the paper before Balo. “See, my dear. My number is on billboards now. This developer is the culprit. Contact him. Make him correct his error.”

Balo leans away from her vehemence, his arms folded, his expression sullen.

Meera puts away the paper. She knows she’ll have to be her own advocate.

At the house blessing, Meera notices that the floors are grey marble instead of terrazzo, the kitchen countertops are Italian granite, and every room has paneling of dark imported wood.

“The overall impression is gloomy,” says Meera in an undertone. “Why not go for a lighter touch? Such showiness, but ultimately a businessman’s taste.”

“Their son must have sent the money,” says Balo.

It’s as if he carried the children in his belly for nine months, birthed and fed them. Their roles have always been reversed

“Their family has enough here.” She knows it rankles Balo that Gupta was chosen for the GM’s job despite his limited construction experience. Gupta joined the Metro after Balo. He was always Balo’s follower, until he leapfrogged ahead. Through small and big favours he won the affection of the Metro’s CEO, the man they all call Our Father.

“Even the bathroom tiles are Italian,” says Balo.

“I did not dare go inside,” Meera says.

With a determined expression Balo wanders off towards Gupta, a tiny, energetic man who is standing with other officers in the concrete front lawn. Gupta welcomes Balo with clasped hands. He has the springy demeanour of an errand boy, ready to jump into service at any time.

Meera heads towards the ladies’ group in the living room. Mrs Gupta is a stocky woman whose relatively light complexion is ruined, in Meera’s estimation, by a prominent moustache. Once, years ago, Meera had mentioned that she was going to a beautician and casually invited her along. “You are the beauty, Meera,” Mrs Gupta had responded. “You must keep up.”

Today, Mrs Gupta says: “Meera, no drink or plate in hand? You want the servants to consume all the food?”

Meera nods and greets the ladies. She hasn’t spoken to most of them in months. They used to call her from the Railway Club:Meeraji, we are waiting to start the rummy game. Without you and Kapoor Sahib it’s no fun. The forward ones would compliment Balo on his singing voice: We are keen to hear a Faiz ghazal tonight, Baloji. We are whiling our time until your second drink.

Now there is a round of Praise Be for Balo’s rapid recovery. Meera thinks: They look at me as though I have a mark on my forehead. Thank God I don’t have to see them again till Diwali.

‘This is not New York, understand? A girl still needs protection in this country, regardless of what magazines you read’

She pulls out a red gift envelope and offers it to the hostess, who makes a rote refusal before handing it to a hovering peon. “Raju will be pleasantly surprised,” Meera says loudly. Raju is the Gupta boy, Atul’s childhood cricket friend. “This house is better than anything I have seen in America.”

“Don’t say,” says Mrs Gupta, touching her earlobes. “It’s Raju’s anyway. We were planning something much more modest. He scolded me: Ma, I’m spending, so don’t be cheap.” Raju’s marks in school were always lower than Atul’s. Meera has a sharp urge to blurt out that Atul, too, is doing well.

Mrs Gupta, the clairvoyant, says: “What is your news, Meeraji? It’s past time for Atul to settle down. He is keeping his younger sister waiting.”

Meera provides her standard explanation: they are selfreliant children; they’ll tell us when they are ready; we don’t make their choices; that’s how we raised them.

“Hmm,” says Mrs Gupta sceptically. “I’m giving you fair warning, Meeraji. Raju and wife were in New York recently. They met Atul at a bar. Raju said he looked very well.” The emphasis suggests just the opposite. “I got the impression there was someone with Atul. I did press Raju, but you know how discreet these friends are.”

Meera forces out a high indifferent laugh. Underneath she feels a surging helplessness. Atul has a girlfriend now? Serious? Casual? She has to learn about it from such people? She wonders what is said behind her back: Brilliant boy, but not doing well. The girl is pretty but also unattached. Parents distracted by their own misfortunes. It chills her to think what could be said if Divya’s situation became known.

Meera starts a timer in her head. She must bear its silent ticktock for 45 minutes, and then she can make a polite exit. Luckily, the phone in her bag rings in less than 30. She tells her hostess that it’s Divya waiting for them in Connaught Place. What to do? she says to Mrs Gupta. We are at our children’s disposal.

Mrs Gupta steps away from the ladies for a personal farewell. “You should come back to the club now that Kapoor Sahib is better,” she softly advises. “How is his mood?”

Meera’s pulse rises. She knows exactly what is meant by the word “mood”. “Balo’s spirits have never been brighter,” she says sharply. “All things are in perspective now. Of course we will come.” Mrs Gupta looks at her pensively. Meera thanks her with folded hands, more sure than ever why she keeps away from public gatherings. She walks over to her husband. With a look of relief, he says he too is ready to leave. She stands to one side while Balo bids his own farewells. The obligatory visit is over, and Balo, at least, appears to have remained unscathed.

A broad-shouldered man in a blue blazer enters the compound. It is Our Father, the Metro Chief, gracing the housewarming with his presence. He has a square face, short grey hair, and cold eyes behind rimless glasses. He wears a politician’s tight smile. He looks like a well-built, well-dressed General. Two lackeys follow him, one on either side.

‘Every labourer in a mishap has his two minutes of TV fame these days. My pain and suffering 82 deserve no recompense?’

One minute earlier Balo and Meera would have safely escaped. Now their path runs right through the man. They stop, stiffly, before him. He’s shorter than Balo, but solid as a brick wall.

“How is your health, Kapoor?” says Our Father, in a surprisingly guttural accent.

“Very well, Sir,” Balo says, cocking his head and bowing brightly.

“We need officers of your calibre. Final phase after Commonwealth Games, we’ll need every man. So please take care.”

“Thank you, Sir.”

“Personally, I find Art of Breathing very beneficial. Along with weightlifting, when the body is able. Fifteen minute meditation morning and night.”

“Definitely. Breathing. Meditation. I am feeling quite recovered actually, Sir.”

“So your current assignment is not too much strain?” Meera, listening, wonders if he’s mocking her husband. Any assistant engineer can supervise the building of employee flats. Officially, the change in responsibility is till Balo’s health improves, but Meera and Balo both suspect it will be the last job of his career. He’ll retire as a glorified contractor with the title of Chief Engineer.

Balo gives a self-deprecating laugh. The words “Indirect Responsibility,” the finding of the accident inquiry, may as well be tattooed on his forehead. He’s expected to be grateful: two junior officers were suspended. Our Father himself had to make the gesture of a sham resignation, a loss of face he’s never forgotten, according to Gupta.

“And Kapoor, one more thing. Don’t dwell on regret. Positive attitude towards the future, no matter what.” Our Father’s smile widens for a sharp instant, and he raises his palm as if in blessing. Then he’s moved on to Gupta and the other officers, shaking hands and nodding like the big man he is.

In the taxi Balo says: “I’m feeling quite tired, jee, and my leg is beginning to hurt.”

Meera looks at him to check if he’s serious. She tells the driver to take them home. A few lanes away, as they pass by a small plot, Balo blurts out: “Fine. Fine. Five minutes only.” Meera leans forward and orders the driver to stop.

THESE SUBSIDISED plots across the Yamuna were offered years ago to railway officers, so they could plan for the eventual loss of government accommodation. In their plot, the Kapoors have so far been able to lay the foundation and put up the boundary walls. Then their attention went to Atul, which was followed by other distractions. Still, they stop by every few months, to reassure themselves that no one is squatting on the property and no bricks or metal have been stolen. If the local watchman is in sight, they slip him a 50.

Moolchand has long shown an interest in Divya, gaping at her and saying: ‘Such a beauty you should not let out of the home, Meeraji’

The watchman is nowhere to be seen today. Steel rods jut out of the raw foundation, flopping over like a bundle of dead stalks. From the gate Meera sees plastic scrap and vegetable peels strewn about. She enters and begins to briskly collect the trash with a short broom and a basket she’s brought along for this purpose. Balo checks for water stagnation and cracks in the concrete. It is a ritual they complete in silence, marking with their steps the floorplan of a house that stays fallow even though Balo builds housing every day for other people.

“I can take out another loan,” Balo says tentatively, on the ride home. “Borrow against the Provident Fund.”

“Yes,” says Meera, surprised by her own alacrity. “Yes, we should start, jee. It makes me unhappy to come here and gather rubbish.” A small flame kindles in her chest; she can supervise the construction; she still has the will.

“Maybe after Divya’s wedding,” he mumbles, dousing Meera’s nascent ardour. “That is the next expense.”

“No,” says Meera flatly. “We’ll find a decent boy who doesn’t ask for much. We can’t sacrifice our security for them anymore.”

“Don’t say that,” says Balo, with a catch in his voice. “They never unduly burden us. Atul only asked as a last resort. And things are moving up for him.”

She turns away and gazes outside the window. The East Delhi Metro, recently completed, is running on an elevated line above them. But the traffic on the street is just as bad as ever: the dust and smoke and loud congestion. To Balo, she thinks bitterly, the children will always be angels. She alone has to hold the anger and disappointment that Balo never allows himself to feel. She alone has to ask for accountability. It’s as if he carried them in his belly for nine months, birthed and fed them. Their roles have always been reversed.

For the next two weeks the wrong numbers continue at a steady pace. Meera calls the builder’s office and speaks to a phone attendant. It takes her many minutes to explain the situation. The woman on the other side is either unnaturally slow or acting dense. “Madam, this is the corporate number,” she says in Punjabi. “For bookings call ___” She has the temerity to give Meera her own number.

“That is what I’m saying,” Meera cries. “The number you are giving out to the public is mine, MY PRIVATE NUMBER.”

“How can it be, Madam? We are getting numerous calls daily.”

“ONE of the numbers you are advertising is wrong. Understand? It’s a simple matter.”

A man comes on the line and addresses her in English. “Madam, are you interested in Phase I or Phase II?”

“My interest is in speaking to your Chairman.”

“Impossible, Madam. He is currently travelling abroad. May I send you our pamphlet?”

“You please listen. I am getting your calls night and day. I am 81 years old with a heart condition. Who can rectify that?”

The man says: “Madam, please send your complaint in writing with your name and address.”

“You must think this old woman is a fool. You don’t even bother to apologise. You think I will give you my address? Kindly remove this mobile number from your listing immediately. Next time I will not be so courteous.”

“… Letter form, Madam.”

“Let me speak to your manager.”

“I am the manager.”

“What kind of people are you?”

“Namaste, Madam.”

“Hello!” cries Meera. They have hung up.

THE FEUD between Meera and Divya also continues, sometimes loudly. Balo and Meera argue about the best approach regarding Norbu: He believes that with less interference Divya will make the right choice. Meera says: “Blind faith is not a mistake I’m going to repeat. It cost us too much with Atul.” She feels some satisfaction that Balo cannot reply.

At dinner, Balo asks Divya if she is serious about moving to the hostel. Yes, she replies. There is a waiting list, so it may take two or three weeks.

“So close to exams?” Balo says. “What is the point, beta?”

“She is doing this out of anger with me,” explains Meera.

“I need to study. I need to know I am not being monitored.”

“Who does that? You come and go as you please, with whom you please.”

Divya says: “Papa, my professor wants me to continue for a PhD. Some of the work may be abroad. I’ll be studying for qualifiers this summer.”

Meera can’t tell if this is another feint. If so, it’s purpose is perplexing, because leaving India would mean leaving the Tibetan boy. A distressing idea enters Meera’s head: Unless he is planning to leave too.

“So casually you throw these things at us,” she says. “I’m doing a PhD. I’m going abroad. How old will you be when you return: 30, 35?”

Balo hastily adds: “We are not saying you shouldn’t go. Just consult us on such big decisions, is all we are saying.”

Divya continues to chew for good, long moments. Then she says: “Norbu would like to talk to you and Pa. I told him it’s useless, but he wants to.”

Meera is prepared. “He’s a good boy, Divya. Your father likes him very much. Definitely Balo will speak to him. Make him understand.”

“No, you understand. I’m not breaking up with him because he makes you uncomfortable.”

“Beta, I want to be clear about something.” The effort to stay composed strains Meera’s voice. “If you leave this way, then don’t return. If you want to be a free agent, fine. But don’t eat our salt and pretend to be our captive. We are not going to hold a room for you, for the day you come to your senses – ”

“Meera!” says Balo, looking distressed.

“It’s alright, Pa,” Divya says, voice tremulous. “Your choice, Ma.”

“Don’t puff up too much, my girl. This is not New York, understand? A girl still needs protection in this country, regardless of what lifestyle magazines you read.”

AFTER A reasonable interlude, Meera leaves the table, so father and daughter can commiserate with each other. She is happy to play the role of the household villain. As she walks to the bedroom, the mobile rings from a side table — cheep, cheep, cheep, cheep — the other ringtone that also annoys Balo. She does not pick up the call, but she silently addresses her nemeses at Grover Gardens: Husband-eaters. Sisterviolators. Sons of dogs and whores. If she had a gun like one of those avenging heroines in Baywatch, she would mow the lot of them down.

Some days later Meera hails an auto after lunch. The auto driver is a cadaverous man with a filthy cloth tied all around his head and jaw. They ride east on Mehrauli Road through eight sluggish kilometres of bus fumes and chockablock traffic. The auto groans and sputters over flyovers, as though valiantly completing its last journey. As soon as they turn right on Faridabad Road, Meera watches both sides of the highway. They are close to the billboard location given by that boy Atul. At first there are the usual hoardings for mobile phones and insurance plans. Then they pass a series of industrial plants and a huge billboard for Grover Gardens appears. “Stop, stop,” she shouts above the din, but the driver’s mummy head mutters: “Madam, I cannot. These days police are patrolling national highway.” She sits back, frustrated, but quickly other billboards appear, six in a row. They show a battlement of pastel towers rising above a garden courtyard. The buildings are handsome, gleaming structures with clean lines. They are surrounded by palm trees and fountains. The painted skies are a permanent blue. RIGHT ON GURUKUL ROAD, the billboards say. GROVER GARDENS HQ, 2 KM FROM INTERSECTION. “Should I turn around?” says the driver, clearing his throat and spitting a thick globule into the wind. “One minute,” Meera says. She’s taken out a tiny notebook and is noting down all the numbers listed on the billboards. The second to last one. She’s jolted hard as the auto snags a pothole. It’s mine. She feels a quiet vindication at having the hard proof.

Balo’s eyes light up at dinner that night. “Wah! Wah! What is the occasion?” Meera has asked Bhim Singh to make lotus stem gravy with chickpea flour dumplings, a dish she has little taste for herself, but which reduces people from her husband’s side to drooling.

“Nothing,” she says. “Bhim Singh found some good lotus stems in the market.” Divya is missing tonight; her presence is erratic now, irritating Meera. She neither says anything nor acts on her threats. When she feels like it, she shows up for home-cooked dal and rice, sitting mute at the table.

Balo eats with relish. As they finish, Meera says: “Balo, I was thinking. Maybe we should send the Grover Gardens builder a stiff letter. Can you ask the lawyer? This is a small matter compared to the business we have given him over the years.”

Balo stops eating. Meera knows she has to tread carefully. “You want to provoke Fate?” he says. “One public experience wasn’t enough for you?”

“My number is already on public billboards,” she snaps. Then more gently: “We also have rights as peace-loving citizens.”

“The right to remain peacefully in your home.”

“The right to be free of harassment in and out of our home.”

“Nothing good can come of whatever you are planning.”

“Every labourer in a construction mishap has a spokesman these days, and their two minutes of TV fame. My pain and suffering deserve no recompense?”

Balo looks at Meera closely. But he does not say anything further until they are in bed. “At least this means Divya is off your mind. Talk to the lawyer yourself if you are hell bent on it. He will know how to dissuade you. He deals with unscrupulous people every day.”

But Moolchand, their family lawyer, is surprisingly sympathetic to her story. Perhaps it’s because Meera opens the conversation by inquiring when his son is completing his MBA. Divya, too, has almost finished her Master’s, she tells him. Soon they’ll decide the next step. Moolchand has long shown an interest in Divya on behalf of his offspring, gaping at her when he’s over and saying: “Such a beauty you should not let out of the home, Meeraji, until she’s ready to depart to her sasural.” It’s something she’s tried to ignore in the past.

Moolchand says: “Absolutely we have a case for damages.” He ticks off a list. The number of locations where the mobile number was displayed. The volume of calls. Balo’s health. Her own pain and suffering. “We’ll make a reputable doctor certify your hypertension. Twenty lakhs sounds right to you, Meeraji? As an opening bid?”

Her scepticism can’t quite quell her excitement. To calm herself Meera explains Balo’s reluctance. Moolchand replies: “Arré, everything will be signed under my name. Balo Sahib will only be mentioned as husband of the aggrieved. In any case you people are the victims here, so why should he be worried?”

“Still, initially at least, please talk to me only,” Meera says.

“OK, jee. Think about how far you want to go. If there’s public shaming the builder is more likely to settle. I’ll find out if there’s a foreign investor. They get more scared than our desi bhais. Of course you took the photograph of the hoarding?”

“Of course,” she replies, kicking herself. “I will send them over in a day or two.”

Two days later Meera asks Balo for the office car. “If she’s really going to the hostel, Balo, I have to buy her sheets and towels,” she says. Balo grumbles but can hardly refuse.

IN THE afternoon the car arrives. Meera waits until she hears the tinkle of a bicycle. It is Bhim Singh, coming home early at her request. From the window she sees a tall, skinny passenger perched sideways on Bhim Singh’s back seat. The man’s trousers are too short for him, showing sockless ankles. Hanging from a cord around his neck is a camera as large as his head.

“This looks like a portrait camera,” says Meera, when Bhim Singh brings his hostage upstairs.

“Yes, madam,” says the photographer, whose name is Bansi Lal. “First-class, all-purpose camera.” He shows how the barrel extends and recedes. Meera asks for a price, and he says: “Pay what you think is right. These days business is at a standstill.”

Meera descends to the parked Ambassador with her two companions. The photographer tries to climb in the back of the car, and Bhim Singh curtly directs him to the front. The three men — Bhim Singh, the photographer, and the driver — squeeze in together. Madam has the entire back seat, which is protected by a white coverlet.

They traverse the same route that Meera took the other day, only faster. Meera sits back, looking out of the tinted windows. So much better than riding an auto, she thinks, although the constant ribbing between the men must be tolerated. Bhim Singh asks the photographer about the price of a quality digital camera, and Bansi Lal talks at length about how digital has killed the art of picture taking.

They pass by the stretch of Faridabad Road with the billboards. Meera sees them through her darkened window, but remembers there is nowhere to stop. “A little bit ahead, Mike,” she says to the driver. “Take a right on Gurukul Road.”

She didn’t go this far last time. This new stretch holds the promise of sighting the actual Grover Gardens. The driver, as though infected by her eagerness, suddenly speeds through traffic, blaring his horn and veering between cars and buses. “Mike,” she shouts. “Stay to the right. Slow down.”

Another family of billboards appears. They show an interior scene: grandpa, parents, children, lounging in a living room with dark wood paneling and a chandelier. A golden retriever splayed at their feet. Smug, self-satisfied faces that say: We’ve made it, Meera. Year by year our investment is going up.

Meera has a sudden awareness that she is on a fool’s errand. The window to a better life has closed. People with pennies have become millionaires overnight. Ordinary, dull people like her sister are rich and untroubled and happy. While her smart family insists on the right to make bad decisions, to squander their gifts and opportunities.

“Stop!” she says. She has to hold on to the slimmest hope. Even five lakhs could erect a decent house on their barren property. Or they could demand a subsidised builder’s flat. She could crawl to her sister for a loan.

Bhim Singh and the photographer get out by the side of the road. Meera comes out, too, holding her purse close. Several labourers are resting on dusty pushcarts. A wall of concrete slabs has been raised a few yards from the road. Through breaks in the slabs they can see a jumble of ramshackle huts and the potbellied children of construction workers. Some of these children emerge at the sight of the car and one of them approaches Meera.

The three men and Meera gaze at the giant billboard above them. From this short distance the artwork looks much less impressive. Meera can see the black sketch lines that the artists drew before they painted the colours in. The faces of the model family appear splotchy and two-dimensional, especially the grandfather’s eyebrows and moustache. The photographer isn’t hesitating, however; he begins to shoot the billboard from all angles.

A beggar child attaches itself to Meera, making low, groaning sounds and feeding gestures between his mouth and his stomach. Meera gently pushes him away and rechecks the phone numbers on the billboard. For a second she’s confused. Something isn’t right. Then she realizes. The second to last number, her number, now has an 8 in the middle instead of a 3. She can’t believe it. They’ve painted over their mistake. Even this close up you can barely tell.

She has missed her prize by a single digit. The rest of the crew looks at her expectantly, but the burning sensation in her throat prevents her from speaking.

THE CELL phone in her bag rings. She lets it, and it dies after five rings. But it promptly starts up again, and she reaches in and takes it out, thinking it might be Moolchand, the lawyer. Maybe he will have a suggestion. Maybe just one lakh and a letter of apology. But it isn’t Moolchand. It’s Divya.

“Beta, I am a little busy right now,” she says hoarsely.

“Ma,” says her daughter, her voice breaking. “Norbu and I… today… I wanted to let you know…” Then a longer heart-stopping gap. “Tomorrow evening… about seven…”

“What did you say, beta?” says Meera in a vivid, spinning moment of confusion. “Reception is so bad here.” Meera wiggles the phone for a moment, hoping to catch the signal. The beggar child has brought reinforcements and is moving towards her with purpose. Her three helpers are sitting on a broken concrete block and sharing bidis – Bhim Singh on hiatus, apparently, from the basic courtesy of not smoking in front of his memsahib. Cars and trucks rumble by, raising dust, heading in the direction of Grover Gardens.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, Ma,” Divya says, in a short burst of clarity.

“But I didn’t hear you, beta,” Meera cries. “What did you say before? Please don’t do anything foolish. Divya!” she shouts into the ether.

But the call has dropped completely. She looks for the bars on her phone and there aren’t any. The dead zone has shifted around her.

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