Authors: Kunal Mukjerjee
We turned around and looked towards the palace. Looking at the tall Corinthian pillars gracing the large portico and the flight of marble stairs leading to the front door, Ranjan said with the deep sigh and frown of envy that I had come to know so well in the past few months, ‘Oh, Rahul. You are so lucky to live in a palace! I wish my father worked for the Mint too. Then we would also live in a place like this.’
‘But I love your home,’ I protested, feeling nervous like I always did when Ranjan was upset.
‘Yes,’ he grumbled, ‘but not as fun as your palace.’
My palace, I thought proudly as I looked at the imposing facade. Feeling magnanimous, I said, ‘Come, let’s see if we can find any new humming bird nests.’
I took Ranjan to the thicket of tall trees and shrubs by the main gate. I looked around, hunting for some sign that the humming birds were nesting. The nests from the year
before were gone, blown away by the late-summer storms and rains. Then I saw it at the same moment that Ranjan did—a new brown nest, perfectly woven by the baya, the weaver bird.
‘Wow, it’s perfect,’ Ranjan whispered under his breath. The nest swayed gently in the warm breeze. A long tube led up to the nest, which looked like a human stomach. I knew that the tube was made in such a way that it fooled predators so that they were unable to get to the eggs or chicks. Had the bird laid any eggs, I wondered as we sat quietly in the bushes close to the nest. Ranjan stared at the nest for a while, mesmerized, then shifted impatiently. Without a word, he walked over and reached out to touch it.
‘Don’t do that,’ I whispered urgently, running up to him.
‘Why not? I just want to see if there is anything inside.’
‘No, you will hurt the baby birds inside. Besides, if you touch it the parents will abandon the nest and the babies,’ I exclaimed, remembering what Rani had told me.
‘That is just a story made up by old ladies.’ Ranjan was scornful. ‘So what if the story is true? The parents can make another nest and lay more eggs. Most of the chicks die anyway—you know that, don’t you? I see dead sparrow chicks every time there is a nest up in the rafters. I would love to have this nest on the wall in my room.’
Surprising me, he lunged towards the nest and tugged at it, standing on tiptoe. Luckily, it was too high for him to grasp firmly. The nest was securely anchored to a branch of the tree—it bent sharply under the pressure, but did not come loose.
‘No!’ I pulled Ranjan away with more force than I had intended to use and we both fell back. I hit my head on a tree stump and was momentarily stunned from the impact.
‘Ow! That hurt!’ I was angry now and tried to get up, but fell back, feeling dizzy. Without offering me a hand, Ranjan got up and towered over me.
‘Relax. Don’t be such a girl. You know what they say about girlie boys at school,’ he taunted me, his face turning ugly with disgust. ‘Anyway, since I have touched the nest, the parents will abandon it. We might as well take it.’
‘No, I won’t let you touch it again!’I leapt up unsteadily and stood between him and the nest. I had had no idea that he could be like this. I wished I had never invited him over.
He pushed me again and roughly shook the nest. Something fell out onto the carpet of dry leaves and I went cold. It was a little baby. The feathers were still not formed and little black spikes protruded from the skin. It cheeped in distress, trying to hide. I ran over to see the chick. Its eyes were open as it moved around in little circles.
‘Look at what you have done!’ I shouted in anger as I knelt down. ‘Now the bird will die.’
‘Put it back in the nest if you care.’ Without another word, Ranjan stomped off in the direction of the palace.
I tore some leaves off the mulberry tree with shaking hands and tenderly cradled the bird, taking care not to touch it. I slid it back in the nest and shook it gently till I thought it was back in the hollow.
‘Rahul, where are you? Ranjan and I are waiting for you. Lunch is ready. Let’s go eat.’ Rani called out from the veranda outside the dining room.
I stayed for a moment, looking at the nest to make sure that the baby was safe. I washed my hands and joined Ranjan and Rani at the table. Ranjan looked sulky. He behaved politely with Rani and Ma, but ignored me completely.
The kitchen smelt lovely. My mother had made special
dishes for Day Spend. Instead of regular rice, we had biryani. Made in the Hyderabadi style, it was seasoned and flavoured with cumin and saffron. The daily curries too had been replaced by slightly more formal ones—the sauces richer and more aromatic. The dal had been seasoned with special spices and crisp fried onions, just the way I liked it. The fish kebabs had been smoked all morning in the traditional style and the saag curry was moss-green and blended with a special sauce. As Ma served the food, I looked at Ranjan being his charming self and hoped he would not bring up the matter of girlie boys in front of Rani. She would never let me hear the last of it.
‘You are so lucky,’ Ranjan said to me and Rani. ‘Your mother is such a good cook! I wish my mother was a good cook. She is too busy all the time at the mental hospital.’ He sounded envious and I wondered if Dr Bose, his mother, cooked for him at all. I knew that, unlike us, his family had a cook. When I had visited him a couple of times, Dr Bose had never gone into the kitchen and the servants had done all the serving and cleaning.
‘I feel like I am going to burst,’ Ranjan groaned at the end of the meal, holding his distended stomach with both hands.
‘Shall we play some indoor games?’ I asked, ready to move on to the next item on our agenda for the day.
‘Rani, will you join us?’ Ranjan asked my sister.
I glared at him. I did not want to risk him telling her about my punishment at school. But it was too late. She accepted his invitation.
‘Let us play Snakes and Ladders. Or do you boys want to play Ludo or Monopoly?’ she asked.
‘Monopoly,’ Ranjan and I both said. We were fascinated
by all the stories we read in school—they were set in London and made the names like Charing Cross and Mayfair and Pall Mall that were written on the Monopoly board appear super-attractive.
I got the Monopoly set from my room and we sat down on the carpet. Ranjan rolled the dice and we began to play.
After playing for a while, I was on my way to winning the game when Ranjan said suddenly, ‘You are cheating, Rahul.’
‘Of course, I am not,’ I retorted.
‘You know you are cheating. I bet you cheated in class too,’ he said, sounding resentful. ‘Hey, did you tell Rani what happened in class the other day?’ he asked, his eyes glinting with a strange hardness.
‘What? Nothing happened …’ My voice faltered. ‘Ranjan,’ I continued, filled with terror, ‘don’t you dare tittle-tattle!’ The spectre of my humiliation in class rose in front of me again and my heart pounded. Rani must never find out.
‘Rani, did Rahul tell you that he got into trouble in class? Rahul, you better be careful. Remember Amit and how he got into trouble …’
‘What? What?’ Rani was very interested. ‘What happened in your class, Ranjan? Tell me.’
‘That’s not funny, Ranjan.’ I glared at him. ‘Nothing happened, Rani.’ I turned to her. ‘Really, nothing happened. He is just teasing. Aren’t you, Ranjan?’
‘Rahul!’ my mother called from the dining room. ‘Help me set the table.’ She entered the sitting room and we fell silent. When she left, I stayed, reluctant to leave in case Ranjan told Rani anything about school. But I was again saved by Ma, who came back and said, ‘Rani, I need your help too with the cake. Ranjan, please excuse them for a few minutes.’
‘Sure, Aunty,’ he said.
Upset and angry, as I left I squeezed his arm as hard as I could, whispering in his ear, ‘If you tell Rani about Mr Swaminathan, I swear I will never ever talk to you again.’
Ma had made everything I loved for high tea. Sandwiches made with green chutney, mango chutney, tomato, cheese and eggs were placed on a platter. There were also freshly fried samosas and alu tikias. And Ma had baked a pound cake and frosted it that very day. The frosting was already melting in the afternoon humidity. We tucked in greedily and, for a long time, no one spoke.
‘Who wants to play on the swings?’ Rani asked after we had eaten our fill.
‘Go ahead, I will clean up after you,’ my mother generously offered.
So off we ran to the swings. There were only two of them.
‘Who is going to get on first? ‘I am taking my favourite side,’ Rani announced. She smiled coyly at Ranjan. ‘As our guest of honour, you can swing on this one. Will you race me? Let’s see if you are stronger than Rahul. I always win. Rahul, you can get on the swing later, since you are the baby.’ I stared at Rani—my tomboyish sister was acting coquettishly!
Ranjan swaggered to the swing and jumped on, his chest puffed out as he gave Rani a flirtatious smile. He turned to me with a victorious look. ‘Hey, don’t feel bad, Rahul. That’s what happens when you cheat at Monopoly. I always find a way to even the score.’ He hissed the last part at me.
Neither of them noticed as I left to go to the gulmohar tree. I could hear them egging each other on and arguing about who was stronger and faster.
The sun slipped over the palace walls and the shadows lengthened soon after. The chorus of birdsong increased in volume and frogs started croaking in the pool. The crickets joined the symphony and the melody of nature preparing for dusk enveloped us. Tiny flecks of black lace flitted across the sky—the bats had started their nightly explorations.
A car came up the driveway, its lights sweeping the tree trunks. It was Ranjan’s father’s car. Ranjan was leaving and I was ready to forget the unpleasantness, wanting his goodwill back. As we ran over to the car from different parts of the garden, my heart stopped. Ranjan’s father was at the wheel with Shubho in the backseat. I was surprised to see a young girl sitting next to him.
‘That is Shubho Dada’s girlfriend,’ Ranjan whispered.
‘Isn’t your father angry with him? Does her father know that her boyfriend is Shubho Dada? How does he allow this? Isn’t he just fifteen years old?’ I asked.
Ranjan looked surprised as he said, ‘No, he is sixteen. And why should either my father or hers be angry? Our parents expect us to date. My father dated my mother when he was in higher secondary school too, just like Shubho Dada.’
My head was spinning. I could not reconcile the openness and casual attitude of his family to the values that prevailed in mine.
‘You are so lucky,’ I said, thinking of all the times I had been told that dating was not respectable and that my parents would find Rani and me our spouses when we grew up. It was my turn to envy Ranjan and Shubho and the freedom they enjoyed.
‘Hey, Rahul, I really like Rani. She is so much fun and really beautiful, you know,’ Ranjan said as he poked me in the ribs with a wink.
I shifted uncomfortably.
‘Bet she has a boyfriend and you don’t even know about it,’ he said with a nasty laugh, as if he knew something I did not.
‘Of course not. My parents would never allow it.’
‘Sure. Whatever you say.’ He shrugged as we reached the car.
Mr Bose smiled at us and got out of the car. ‘I have left the keys in the car. Don’t take off and leave without me,’ he joked. ‘Call me when you are ready to leave. I am going to chat with Rahul’s parents.’
Shubho looked at us, his genial smile welcoming. All of a sudden, I felt really shy.
His strong jaw and chin were speckled with a faint shadow of an early beard. He reminded me of the old Amit in some ways, but he was older and manlier. I pushed away the heaviness I felt when I thought about my close call in front of Rani that afternoon. It wasn’t too difficult to do that in Shubho’s presence. I noticed his sinewy arms again, the veins outlined clearly against his rich brown skin. His shirt was open at the neck and I felt an irresistible urge to reach out and touch him and breathe in his scent. I felt a movement in my groin and turned red with embarrassment. I’d never got hard down there in the presence of a man— only in my dreams and fantasies.
‘Rahul, this is my girlfriend Anamika,’ Shubho said.
Smiling, she said, ‘Hello, Rahul.’
‘Hello,’ I mumbled.
‘Rahul is Ranjan’s best friend. He will be a handsome fellow, I tell you. All the girls will be after him,’ Shubho told Anamika as he reached out of the car and patted my head with his right hand. ‘Hey, Rahul, got a girlfriend yet?’
I just stood there, tongue-tied. My scalp tingled at his touch and I wanted him to touch me again.
‘Oh, Mr Bose, you must stay for a few minutes,’ I heard my father say hospitably as he took Mr Bose towards the palace.
‘Rahul, what is the matter with you? Are you frozen or something? Let’s go. I have to go inside and get my bag,’ Ranjan said impatiently as I stared at Shubho. He ran off and I followed him inside. When I realized that I had left my slippers by the gulmohar tree, I turned around. It was almost dark and I walked swiftly towards the garden. As I neared the car, I saw Shubho and Anamika kissing. It was dark enough that I could not see too well, and they certainly could not see me. I hid behind a pillar of the portico and peeped cautiously around.
I could hear soft kissing sounds and light moans. Shubho was holding Anamika’s face in his hands. Her eyes were shut, like his. It was getting darker and I stepped out from my hiding place. The windows of the Fiat were down, so I could see inside. Hot and flushed, I wanted to see Shubho better. I wondered if his mouth was open when he kissed, like when James Bond had kissed the Japanese girl in
You Only Live Twice
. I had heard the boys in class talk about kissing girls and none of it sounded very interesting. But this was more than interesting—it was exciting.
As I watched, one of Shubho’s hands moved from Anamika’s face down to her shoulder and lay on the hollow of her neck. She sighed and arched her back. Shubho’s hands moved lower down her body, towards her breast. I was as excited as I was scared. I wanted to see Shubho more clearly and I stepped a little closer. Just then, to my horror, I saw him open his eyes and look directly at me.
My excitement was replaced by instant dread as I steadied myself for being scolded for spying. But nothing happened. Shubho’s eyes sparkled in the dim light from the dashboard and he continued to look at me as he kissed Anamika and touched her breasts. I watched for a few more seconds more and then turned and ran towards the garden.