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Creepers and Grapevines

by Ranvir Singh Parmar

Chapter 1 appeared
in issue 251.
Chapter 2

part 1 of 3

When Muskan Das turned her binocular towards the far side of the lake there was something else she spotted amidst the pelicans and swans. Her forefinger trembled over the knob as she turned the focus this way and that to settle the snow over the lenses. She stood at the edge of the stairs; water lapped over her Rajasthani chappal, on her nails, in an attempt to wash away the nail paint and ended up reflecting sun on their bright surface — ten suns for each of her nails. The upper part of her body drooped over the lake like a branch to get close to the sight; in spite of the posture’s obvious awkwardness it was not without grace. If it wasn’t for Sanskriti’s vigilance and shooing a golden eagle on time it would have dug its claws on Muskan’s neck mistaking her for a branch.

Sanskriti clasped the folds of her sister’s sari to prevent her from falling forward into the piranha waters. ‘What is it?’ Sanskriti asked. ‘I want to see too, let me... please...’

‘Shhhh... ,’ Muskan hissed. ‘Quite.’

Sanskriti wasn’t put off by the reprimand. She started jumping to get hold of the binocular, pulling at her sister’s sari, hooking her fingers into Muskan’s bangles to pull them down. Muskan shooed her away as if she was some fly, and a bitterly annoying one. Sanskriti stumbled few feet away, minutely missing falling into water, and returned to stamp her shoe on her sister’s feet, her Rajasthani chappal, her ten suns. Muskan’s fingers twitched with pain but she didn’t look away from the well of her lenses.

‘Give it to me,’ Sanskriti demanded. ‘It is mine... daddy brought it for me... give it back...’

But on seeing something she regretted her action. She never meant to strike so hard. There were two tears on each side of Muskan’s chin, trembling slightly with an effort to extract free from her skin. Sanskriti struggled to figure out whether those drops were tears or some liquid let out by the glass lens. She could not understand that one could cry with such a heavy thing resting over ones’ eyes. She got under her sister’s shadow, keeping a respectful distance from her feet, and collected the tears on the tip of her forefinger. ‘What is it?’ she asked. ‘Did it hurt? I am sorry... didi?’

Muskan removed the binocular from her eyes, but she remained transfixed with the same spot in the distance. Sanskriti didn’t think it appropriate to leap for the binocular that now hung at an easy distance, and discover what kind of bird or mountain could have seized the attention of her indomitable sister. She decided to carry out apologizing first until Muskan would yield in and smile.

‘Didi, I am sorry, I didn’t mean to stamp so hard, didi, I am-’

Her mouth was left gasping with unfinished words. What she next saw was more incomprehensible and difficult to believe than what all they had taught her in school — about all the reactions that sprinkles colors of rainbow in the sky, and how a thing as pacifying as water could fume potassium. Muskan was no longer at her place; with her sari lifted above the ankles, exposing her silver anklets, she made a dash up the stairs.

People turned to look at this odd scene. How come a sari-clad woman was running with such effrontery, jeopardizing the modesty of her cloth, bringing disgrace to this centuries-old costume that was designed for the species that had no business running. Women who wear saris don’t run; the cloth wasn’t made for the women so they would lift it up to their knees, going bare-legged in front of the whole city, and run, without worrying about the attention those heavy cotton balls on their chests were attracting with their dance.

‘Wait, didi.’

Sanskriti trailed along, not knowing another option. But she could hardly keep up with her. Muskan ran like she was possessed. She knocked the senses out of an old woman who wasn’t quick enough to get out of her way, sent a kid flying off along with his bag of popcorn that landed on his head; pigeons strolling merrily alongside humans took to the sky, once again betrayed by the species who sometimes feed them, and kick them out of the way if need be. Even the muscled men in vests fought back their egos and after a last reluctant look at their biceps cleared the path for Muskan.

There were sounds of disapproval from all around. ‘Such women are disgrace’...’Look where her pallu is heading, has she got any shame?’...’Oh, God, this lady, I guess her bra has come loose’.

Sanskriti ran behind Muskan collecting the reproves that lay scattered in the wake of her sister’s path like wedding petals. Her sister was no longer sane. Sanskriti had come from Delhi to visit her sister and her husband in Chandigarh. Her parents hadn’t even cared to pocket some money in her frock so she could at least call them from an STD booth in case of an emergency. Her return ticket was to be paid by Muskan — price of being married to a rich businessman, price of being an elder sister.

Muskan was heading for the tower; perched on the top of its terrace was a long telescope. For five rupees anyone could view the distant Shivalik hills close to ones nose, pry over the houses on those mountains, rejoice at the sight of the red-throated flycatcher inhabiting those hills, and it was said, if turned towards the lake could see how the piranhas lurking deep in the water ripped the small fish apart into teensy-weensy pieces. But the last one was not allowed to see. The lake association believed that for the race as foolish as humans such live violence could result in humans picking up piranhas’ techniques and tearing each other apart on the roads. Under no circumstances whatsoever the angle of the telescope should be changed without the permission of a fearsome old lady who sat next to the telescope, day and night, looking for a slightest of excuse to pick up a fight.

‘You filthy scoundrel,’ she screamed at a hapless young fellow who tried to remove a hair off the lens. ‘You touch your dirty fingers on that lens once more, and see what I do to you.’ She then opened her mouth to show her piranha-sharp teeth and snapped the air. The fellow left the tower with shaking legs and complaining of fever.

The last guy who tried turning the telescope towards the lake saw the old lady suddenly jumping off her seat, her bangles and anklets letting out an angry noise; she pulled off her hair band while she was in the air, allowing her hair to settle their worm like ends on her shoulders. She landed back with a thump so loud it toppled several boats far across in the lake. She spat out the betel leaf she was chewing and collected her sari above her knees, displaying her old, hairy, muscled legs.

Without a second’s delay, while the man was still trying to figure out whether to jump down the terrace or steal a quick look at piranha, she registered a sharp kick between the man’s legs. There was a loud cracking noise that scared the birds from all the nearby trees. The branches danced under the weight of so many take off, and took a while to settle back.

The man remained standing for several moments, his cheeks puffed, his eyes bulging out of their sockets and hanging next to his nose. People waited with wide open mouths. Men unconsciously slithered their hands towards their groins, and slowly, in the time it takes a broken dry leaf to touch the ground, he collapsed, knees first, hands clutching the wreckage of his balls. The last to accept defeat was his face; it landed over the hag’s feet. His lips let out a trickle of saliva on them that the woman wiped away on the man’s pale cheek, smiling.

* * *

One of Muskan’s anklets broke free. The silver lay shining over the concrete pavement. Sanskriti stopped to pick it, and slid it into her pocket. She could bear no more. It was their mother’s gift. How could Muskan, her responsible elder sister, leave it on the road for the vultures to peck at its beautiful shining surface, and vagabonds to carry it home, sniff it, and slid it over their naked bodies to feed their lust.

Even little Sanskriti could understand the value of female belongings. Hadn’t mother told both sisters to keep their things off boys’ hands — their ribbons, broaches, sandals, bangles, and dupattas. Who knows where all would they touch your belongings if the loiters get hold of them. Hadn’t Nirmala aunty told them about crooked sadhus who could turn women pregnant with mantras if they get hold of their scent? Of the quality of silver to preserve a woman’s scent in its minutest fractions once it had touched her skin?

Sanskriti zipped her pocket to prevent her sister’s scent from oozing out of the trinket. God, knows, behind which camphor, or gulmohar tree, an evil sadhu would be squatted with an open jar in his hands, waiting to trap in it a woman’s scent betrayed by her silver anklet.

‘Didi, please stop,’ Sanskriti begged. ‘What has got into you?’

Muskan headed for the crowded gate of the tower. There was a long queue spiraling all the way from the bottom of the stairs to the three floors leading to the terrace. People waited with five rupee notes clutched in their hands; the one carrying bigger notes asked the others for change. The old woman was notorious for not returning the change. She charged the money in advance and immediately tucked the notes and coins she received in the deep valleys of her heavy slacking bosom. If someone expected change for a bigger note the hag would beat her hands over her breasts and ask the person to fetch the change by himself.

Muskan entered the gates, squeezing herself between the sweaty bodies, escaping the newspapers and handkerchiefs people fanned in large circles to drive away the heat. Everyone resisted this intrusion, but Muskan was not discouraged. She pushed through the bodies, not worrying what all chests and hands her breasts were getting grazed against. Some naughty fingers spotted an opportunity and poked at her backside, unknotted the threads of her blouse, pinched the cheeks of her hips. One of the men placed his hand over her waist to stop her, sliding it slowly in the naked space between her blouse and the petticoat. ‘Queue, lady,’ he said, and slid a finger into her navel.

Muskan stopped and looked into the man’s eyes. The man’s finger carried on its exploration, digging hard into the pit. Muskan brought her face close to the man’s, her lips closed on the man’s lips. The man looked around him nervously. The elders sensing a foul play pressed their hands over their children’s eyes. The man’s hand trembled on Muskan’s belly. Muskan opened her mouth and the moment she was about to swallow the man’s lips into her he pushed her away. ‘Get away, slut,’ he said, turning pale with shame.

* * *

The hag got aware of the pandemonium downstairs. Her body turned taut to pick up the slightest noises, but she remained seated in her rani chair with pursed lips. People checked her expression, as if she was some real queen, and the masses expected her to act on the impending matter. She took her time, as a queen would, adjusting her jewelry, giving a flick to her earrings, casting an admiring look on her gold bangles, and regulating the heaving of her money infested chest that throbbed with the excitement of an impending conflict.

The moment Muskan stepped on the terrace the hag jumped off her seat and wedged her clumsy body in front of the telescope. ‘Now where is the princess heading?’ she said. A venomous smile played over her lips as if she was pleased with her way of handling the matter.

‘Get out of my way,’ Muskan said.

People looked at each other; noticing the smile of admiration for Muskan’s demeanor creeping on the peoples’ faces the hag screamed to gain ground. ‘Do you think these sons and daughters of bitches are waiting in the queue for nothing, bitch? Move back with the same feet or else I will even take away this option.’

By this time even Sanskriti had reached the terrace. She was carried off in the arms of the people and passed in the air from one person to the next before her feet finally touched the terrace. Seeing another intruder who had materialized from the air and hadn’t come through the usual way via the queue the hag’s face contracted as if her ribs were getting crushed under water. She leaped for Sanskriti. ‘You little slut, let me show you another way to fly.’

Proceed to chapter 2, part 2...

Copyright © 2007 by Ranvir Singh Parmar

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