Read The Lilac House Online

Authors: Anita Nair

Tags: #Bangalore (India), #Widows, #Contemporary Women, #Domestic fiction, #General, #College teachers, #Fiction, #Cultural Heritage

The Lilac House

To the memory of Paul Marsh
O, what land is the Land of Dreams?
What are its mountains, and what are its streams?
—William Blake
There is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.
And then all the grace, all the joy will be hers.
All of life heeding her bidding.
One perfect day.
H
era, usually taken to be a Greek word for ‘lady’, could also mean Herwa (Protectress).
She is the daughter of Cronus and Rhea. Her childhood was spent in Arcadia, where the Seasons were her nurses. Hera’s twin brother Zeus banished their father Cronus and wooed her. However, she disdained him until he disguised himself as a bedraggled cuckoo. Hera’s pity was stirred and she gathered the cuckoo to her tenderly, warming it in her bosom. Thereupon Zeus took on his true shape and ravished her. Hera was so shamed that she had no alternative but to marry him.
Zeus and Hera’s marriage was tumultous. Humiliated and hurt by his constant infidelities, she often resorted to ruthless intrigue to get her own back. Their constant squabbling would end with him flogging or even hurling a thunderbolt at her. Strangely, Zeus would confide his secrets to her, and even at times accept her advice. But he never fully trusted her.
Hera had several children but she bore Python parthenogenetically, to spite Zeus. Another of her sons was Hephaestus, the Smith-god.
The winds were originally the property of Hera, and the male gods had no power over them. Her symbol is the pomegranate and it represents death and the promise of resurrection.
 
—adapted from
The Greek Myths
by Robert Graves
CYCLOGENESIS OF DESPAIR
A child, awake or asleep, has no sense of evil. No presentiment of what may happen in the time to follow. A child’s brow rests smooth, unlined, untroubled, until knowledge descends upon it.
In the painting
Infant Moses Brought Before Pharaoh’s Daughter
by William Hogarth, let us for once turn our eyes away from all the supporting cast – the maids and the Pharaoh’s daughter; let us not dwell on the dark shadows or the building clouds. Instead, let us seek the child Moses who is a child as children should be, without the burden of a past or the knowledge of a future. It is that perfect moment when we believe all of us and all around us are in harmony. Only children know it, and the clouds and the seas.
But even the clouds and the seas are not untouched. For with no real warning, with neither portent nor omen, it is quite possible for a quiet wave to begin within what is considered a closed system. A stream is activated. When the wave turns counterclockwise, it does so by turning on its head all that is known and understood, causing a deeply intense and unstable atmosphere.
When despair strikes, it is the same. There is a mad scramble to make sense of what is happening. The mind whirls, turning every event over, seeking an explanation, a reason … The only certainty about a cyclone or despair is the uncertainty it triggers. And as with despair, the cyclogenesis of a tropical storm is seldom announced. What is certain is the resultant turbulence.
 
 
Professor J. A. Krishnamurthy
The Metaphysics of Cyclones
T
he scream pierces the house. The lilac house. A long drawn out scream of terror.
Meera wakes with a start. Her hand goes to her mouth. Has she been screaming? She waits for the lights to be switched on, doors to be opened. But there is only silence and darkness and hair that stands on end.
Meera gets out of bed, pushes her feet into flip-flops and creeps into the corridor.
 
A grove of shadows, where Meera who fears nothing can chase that shout of panic, shackle its goat legs and slit its throat. In all these years, Meera has forbidden panic entry into her lilac house.
When Daddy died leaving very little behind, when a silver oak came cascading down on the kitchen, when Giri was laid off work, when Nayantara left home at seventeen, when Lily’s ankle broke, when the septic tank overflowed and the mushy sweet pong of faeces began permeating their every breath, when Lily’s maid and Meera’s anchor decided that henceforth every new moon night the goddess of Melmarvathur, Parasakhthi, would seek her out as an oracle, high priestess and repository, when nine-year-old Nikhil’s class teacher called Meera to say that he had smuggled in a bra to school as part of a dare and Meera didn’t know whether to laugh or cry or worry if the bra was an ancient one with frayed lace or an extravagantly sexy red confection of nipple net and underwire hoist, when silverfish chewed their way through all the notes she had been making in the hope that one day she would do her dissertation ‘on the role of water tanks in American fiction rooted in suburbia’, when she discovered a lump in her breast and in Giri’s briefcase a secret sheaf of bills – lunches, drinks for two, a bottle of perfume – each time the furies and fates disturbed the quiet fabric of siesta that was her life, Meera strangled panic even before it made known its presence. Who dares panic in her home now?
She pauses outside the door of a bedroom. Her mother’s. She can hear even breathing punctuated by a gentle snore. She smiles, a curl of grimness. Mummy, who actually claims that most nights she doesn’t sleep a wink, and that’s what causes the dark circles around her eyes. The next time she uses her sleepless nights as an excuse to get out of something she doesn’t want to do, Meera will tell her. It just might wipe the smugness off her face for a second.
 
Next, she pauses outside her grandmother’s door. Two sets of snores heave within. The old woman on the bed. The maid on the floor.
 
As she walks towards Nikhil’s room, she hears the muttering. He is talking in his sleep. Meera opens the door and creeps in. The thin quilt he covers himself with is tangled around his legs.
She caresses his brow. ‘Hush, hush, baby!’
Nikhil’s eyes snap open. ‘Daddy! Is Daddy home?’
‘Go to sleep, darling. He’ll be home in the morning, you’ll see!’
‘I dreamt Daddy’s car was perched at the edge of a cliff. He was trying to get out before it went over. He was shouting for me to help him.’ Nikhil shakes at the horror of it. ‘I tried to run to him. But my legs wouldn’t move. I really tried, Mummy, I did…’
‘Ssh …’ Meera murmurs, cradling his head against her.
 
Sheela, the woman from the PR company, had arranged for someone to drop Nikhil and her home. A man who was at the party and lived in her neighbourhood, Sheela said. He was perfectly safe, even if he was a stranger. She and he had been friends from their college days.
Meera was relieved to hear that he was a stranger. She preferred that to going with someone she knew. A stranger would ask few questions and wouldn’t speculate about Giri’s going away.
She had watched Nikhil’s eyes scan the road. He searched faces, parked cars, number-plates. When the scream resonated through
the car, the blood drained from her face. What on earth? Then she saw Nikhil’s grin and felt as if she wanted to burst into tears. How could he?
And Giri, she wanted to scream. What is this game you are playing? Where have you gone?
As if from a distance, she thought she heard the man say something. And she heard herself replying on auto pilot, ‘Oh, what you need is a recipe for a quick cold soup! A gazpacho, perhaps.’
What had he asked?
 
The car pulled up outside their gate. Nikhil and she stood watching it drive away. A little blue car.
‘Did you see the inside of his car? What a mess! He has groundnut shells in a paper bag along with a million books and files. Do you think he treats the back seat as his office?’ Nikhil chattered.
She listened without registering what he said. All she could think of was Giri and his disappearing act. What was it all about? So when he suddenly asked, ‘Did Daddy text you?’ she said automatically, ‘No.’ Then, because she was afraid of what she might see in his eyes, she said carefully, ‘Nikhil, don’t tell anyone yet that Daddy went away without telling us. You know how they are…’ she finished, not knowing what to say next.
‘But where do you think he went, Mummy?’ Nikhil asked, more curious than afraid.
Meera shook her head. ‘I don’t know. Maybe he had an urgent business meeting to go to.’
‘Why couldn’t he have just told you that?’ Nikhil said, accepting her explanation and kicking the gate open in one swift boyish act of innocence.
 
Meera watched him walk in. She followed, wondering what excuses she could make for Giri’s absence. Unless, of course, he was already home. She hurried in, the thought lending speed to
her step. Maybe that was it. Something, the heat or the alcohol, had triggered a migraine and he had rushed home before it became unbearable and he couldn’t drive. He knew, if he told her, she would have insisted on their leaving together and he wanted her to have a good time.
He must be in their room with the curtains drawn tight to block the light and with the fan whirring at top speed. He would be lying there reeking of Tiger Balm, his arm over his forehead, as if only by this careful arranging of his limbs would he be able to leash the pain. If she were to even exhale, he would growl, ‘Can’t you keep it low? I have a headache!’
The bathroom would bear the stench of vomit. That, too, was routine. The throwing up. Mostly, he cleaned up himself. He was a meticulous man. But if he was really unwell, then that too would be waiting for her.
For once Meera longed for the growl and the irritation, the bits of food and bile splattering the toilet bowl. For the stench and for her own insides to heave involuntarily. Poor baby, Meera thought, rushing to minister comfort to the migraine stricken Giri.
 
Meera walked into the house to hear Nikhil say, ‘Dad’s gone to the golf course.’
Her mother said, ‘Your father doesn’t play golf!’
‘Actually, he doesn’t play anything.’ Her grandmother laughed.
Nikhil pushed his hands into his pockets. ‘Did I say he was playing golf? He’s gone with a friend.’
‘What friend?’ her mother asked.
‘He has no friends,’ her grandmother added.
 
She wondered if she should go to the police. The very thought was daunting. She had never been to a police station before. What did one do? What did one say? Then there was the matter of bribes. She could hardly slip notes into the policeman’s waiting
hand under the table or into his pocket while muttering, ‘A little tea money!’
From the movies, she knew that twenty-four hours had to go past before a missing person complaint could be made. She was panicking for no reason. He would be back soon. She would wait twenty-four hours before she worried, she told herself as she removed her earrings, sitting in front of the dressing table.
In the mirror, she could see the bed with its coverlet stretched tightly across and the plumped up pillows resting against the bolsters. A pristine bed, strangely forlorn.
 
At seven her mother settled in front of the TV with a notebook and pen. ‘Please Nikhil, no chit-chat!’ she told the silent Nikhil who was plugged into his iPod maze of 1756 songs.
‘Why don’t you just ask me to shut up?’ her grandmother said.
‘Please Mama, it’s my favourite programme. I have a library meeting next week. I need to know what to recommend!’
‘Rubbish! Do you think that man reads any of those books? All he does is read the back of the book! How can you be taken in by him? And I think he wears foundation cream. Can’t you see that line by his jaw?’ Lily mumbled querulously.
‘What do you know of books? All you do is watch movies or talk shows all day. I don’t know how you can watch such mindless nonsense.’
‘Better than those travel and living programmes you watch. Where do you think you are going? Or, for that matter, when was the last time you cooked anything? Ha!’
 
The bickering continued. Meera rubbed her forehead. Her head throbbed. She wished she could turn and snap, ‘Shut up! Shut up! Can’t you see that I am worried? I don’t need this as well.’
But she couldn’t. No matter what, Meera never lost her temper. She never flared or snapped. She was just not like that.
Hoping to restore peace and some calm in her head, she intervened with a ‘Lily dear, can I fix you a drink?’
Lily dear gleamed. ‘I thought you would never ask. And pour her one too. She’ll say no if you ask and then steal sips from my glass when no one’s looking.’ Lily gestured to her daughter with her chin.
Meera sighed.
Lily pounced on the sigh. She scrutinized Meera carefully. The drawn face and the shadows beneath her eyes. Lily frowned. What was wrong, she wondered. Then she put it out of her mind. One of the benefits of growing old was this: being able to push aside any troubling thoughts that entered one’s mind with, it will resolve itself or somebody else will do it! No need to get your knickers into a twist.
Nevertheless, Lily reached across and touched Meera’s elbow. ‘What about you? You look like you need one!’
Meera shook her head. ‘I had plenty to drink at the party. Too much, in fact!’
She caught Nikhil’s eyes on her face. What was he thinking?
 
Meera thought of the image they must make. Three women of three generations and a young boy, cast in a room of fading splendour. The pools of light, the shadows, the long convoluted histories of how they came to be where they were.
In the 1930s, when Raghavan Menon began working in Calcutta, he fell in love with a way of life. Calcutta reminded him of his Calicut in many ways but there was more. Art flourished in every home and in one of those soirees he had taken to attending, he met Charu, a Bengali woman. When he married her, he became a born-again Bengali. Charu died some years later and Raghavan Menon decided to send his daughter Leela to Santiniketan. ‘I want culture to course through her veins. I’d prefer culture to blood, in fact!’ he told his brothers who advocated that he send Leela to study in Calicut instead.
The brothers shook their heads in sorrow. If the girl had come to Calicut, he would have returned home perhaps and made a life there. Now, he was lost. Soon thereafter, they sent him a cheque as his share of the family estate.
Then a well-known Bengali director spotted Leela, and Lily was born. Hindi cinema already had a Leela and so it was decided that the name she was called at home would be her screen name. Lily the actress did only offbeat cinema and just as the movie-going world was getting interested in her, she married Sandor, a Hungarian painter. They came to live in Bangalore in this house that Raghavan Menon found them.

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