Creepers and Grapevines
by Ranvir Singh Parmar
part 1 and part 3
appear in this issue.
part 2 of 3
Sanskriti didn’t quite understand what happened next. The hag was agile for her age. She covered the distance between them faster than Sanskriti had expected, taking big leaps like some cartoon character. But the moment she extended her hand to take Sanskriti by the throat, her sharp nails standing erect like a cat’s and eager to dig into Sanskriti’s skin, something pulled her back so sharply that she fell backwards with an open mouth.
Sanskriti saw that Muskan was holding onto the hag’s white hair. The hag appeared like some fish held for display. Muskan pulled the lady’s hair, yanked it hard, as if it were the handle of a jammed drawer. The lady screamed. It was such a piercing noise that several gulmohars instantly shed their yellow leaves; it dug holes in the boats, and forced everyone around to stop clapping and cover their ears.
But Muskan didn’t let her go. She threw the hag on the floor; the coins spilled out of the hag’s bosom as if a grain-sack had been pierced with a knife; they went in all directions, wobbling and turning on their edges, glad as if relieved from a nightmare.
The hag leapt for her treasure, encircling her arms in front of her to trap the coins. But there were so many of them, of all sizes and shapes and years, and holding them was no different than holding a stream of water with one’s arms.
The news of the terrace was being carried from mouth to mouth to the eagerly awaiting people at the bottom of the stairs. The people on the stairs and at the ground level knew about the proceedings as much as anyone on the terrace.
Muskan went for the telescope. But the hag didn’t give up. ‘Don’t you dare?’ she screamed. ‘Vultures feed on you, bitch. Don’t you dare touch my telescope.’
Muskan’s hand was already on the gadget. The people waiting their turn on the terrace pressed themselves against the railing. No one went for the money in spite of the coins’ knocking against their sandals and shoes. Muskan withdrew her hand from the surface of the instrument and walked back to where the hag lay coiled on the floor, struggling to find her limbs and lift herself up. Muskan lifted her left foot and in one sharp movement the heel of her sandal was inside hag’s mouth. ‘I have nothing to loose,’ Muskan said. ‘One more word...’
The dialogue was immediately carried word to word, preserving the tone in which it was delivered. Sanskriti saw people raising fingers at each other the way Muskan raised when she said “one more word...”. Many easily fell into overacting. They gathered their eyebrows to the centre and swelled their nostrils as an added gesture to imitate the rage in Muskan. The sound of applause started all the way from the bottom of the stairs and spread throughout the tower. The whole structure began to shake under its reverberation.
The hag shook her head and Muskan went back to the telescope. She turned it towards the lake. ‘Please don’t disturb its angle,’ the hag pleaded. ‘Not the angle’. Muskan bent and peered inside the lens. Everyone waited. Even the hag let go of the coins, stretched herself on the floor in a more comfortable position and became a part of the community of ‘watchers’. No messages were transferred at this moment and people refrained from fanning their newspapers and notes. There were thick drops on sweat on everyone’s cheeks and forehead, when at last Muskan straightened up, and without looking at anyone said, ‘it’s him, no doubt.’
Sanskriti stepped forward and looked in the lens. There she saw a tiny boat parked amongst thick bushes on the far side of the lake, hidden from all the other boats. She noticed a shirt of familiar print, familiar style of hair over the familiar starched collars, and a familiar face. She recognized it was Muskan’s husband, her jiju, who always pinched her cheeks and addressed her as ‘mermaid’.
She looked up and called excitedly, ‘didi, jiju,’ but the sternness of Muskan’s gaze made her turn back and look again. Her jiju lay on his back, his eyes closed in the rhythm of some music. His hands clasped tightly over the edges of the boat. His legs were parted; a woman sat with ducked head between them. The woman was onto something and not even once she looked up.
Sanskriti withdrew back with a puzzled expression. There was sound of whispering as everyone began cajoling Sanskriti to come to them and announce what she had seen. The restlessness was registered all the way till the end of the queue. Nobody knew what the sisters saw. Everyone lay pressed against the railing, but nobody dared to reach for the telescope. The hag was still breathing. The silence was broken by a sharp laugh, so prickly was its cadence as if razors were being rained down from the sky.
Muskan turned and saw the hag was twisting with laughter on the floor. Her sari had come loose; the hem was spread curled over the length of the terrace, ready for the pickles to be spread over it for drying in the sun. Her once legendary breasts with all the money drained out appeared so shrivel she could very well be a man in disguise. The hag looked at Muskan in the eyes. ‘I saw my husband in the same place,’ she said, wiping the tears of joy from her eyes, ‘several years back, with this same telescope. He was onto what your husband is now. That’s why I never again turned it towards that side.’
Sanskriti held Muskan’s hand and pulled her, ‘Didi, let’s go, don’t listen to her.’
But Muskan didn’t budge. She stayed at her place, not moving a step no matter how hard Sanskriti tried. She looked at the old woman with a certain understanding one has for animals. She wrenched herself free from Sanskriti’s grip and walked to where the woman was lying, close enough as if to once again make her suck at her heel.
‘And what did you do?’ she asked.
The hag stopped laughing. She blew at a tuft of hair hanging over her face. ‘What do you think?’ she said, and extended her hand for Muskan to help her up.
* * *
Sanskriti had heard what the hag had said. She had sensed something terrible in the eyes of her sister. Therefore, she held onto the railing as Muskan shoved her towards the bus. ‘I won’t leave you,’ she cried.
‘You have to go,’ Muskan said. ‘I already bought your ticket and here is an extra fifty rupees. You can buy yourself something when the bus stops for a break. Now get into the bus.’
Sanskriti ignored the money that Muskan slid into the pocket of her frock. She remembered well the looks that had got exchanged between her sister and that withered witch. Muskan had gone forward to help the lady to her feet. Sanskriti had seen how their hands have touched, almost intimately, showing no sign of their initial hostility.
The hag rose to her feet and tied her hair in a bun. ‘Now look what you did,’ she had said, pointing to the coins that lay spread like a silver-sheet on the terrace, some still turning on their edges as if they hadn’t yet fully shaken off the heat of the witch’s bosom. She then smiled and dismissed the coins with a wave of her hand. ‘They are nothing,’ she said, ‘compared to what I have to tell you’. She then brought her mouth close to Muskan’s ear and whispered something.
People were disconcerted at this private show of affection in front of full public view. Many craned forward — their hands positioned over their ears to act as radars — and struggled to hear what she was saying. But the hag was quite like a butterfly; her hand clasped Muskan’s arm as she lifted herself on her toes to attain a whispering distance. Even Sanskriti standing so close couldn’t hear a word of what she said; but when the hag stopped speaking and Muskan turned her face towards the lake the look there suggested whatever words were put into her sister’s ears were no less venomous than the hag herself.
Muskan slapped on Sanskriti’s hand to relieve it from the railing. ‘Let go,’ she said. ‘Do you want me to ask the driver to get you in? Do you?’
‘Try it,’ Sanskriti said. ‘Go ask whomever you want, but I am not going.’
‘Why don’t you understand?’ Muskan cried. She loosened her grip over Sanskriti and collapsed next to her on the footpath.
The conductor of the bus stepped out. ‘Is she coming?’ he shouted. ‘We can’t wait all day for the two of you to finish your fight.’
‘Then go,’ Sanskriti snapped. ‘Who is asking you to wait? Get lost.’
Muskan put her hand over Sanskriti’s mouth to shut her. ‘Please don’t start, darling, I don’t have any more strength to fight.’
‘This little girl’s tongue needs some pruning,’ the conductor said and poked his tongue at Sanskriti. He immediately stepped into the bus and blew the whistle. Sanskriti withdrew her hand from the railing and showed him the finger.
‘Stop that,’ Muskan scolded. She lifted the hem of her sari that was touching the ground and dusting it said, ‘Why didn’t you go? That was the last bus.’
‘I won’t leave you,’ Sanskriti said. ‘By the way, what did that woman whisper in your ear?’
She sat alongside her sister on the footpath. She looked into her sister’s face and saw the same resoluteness in it she spotted earlier. ‘Tell me, what did she say?’
Muskan wrapped her arm around Sanskriti’s shoulder and pulled her close. ‘You are my cute sister,’ she said.
‘No,’ Sanskriti persisted. ‘I won’t fall into that. Why did you allow her to touch your arm?’
Muskan let out a long heavy sigh. ‘All right,’ she said. ‘But first promise me you won’t tell anyone, promise.’
Sanskriti pinched her throat. ‘God promise,’ she said.
Muskan smiled, something Sanskriti didn’t expect to see any time soon after the recent episode with the telescope. She planted a kiss on Sanskriti’s cheek. ‘My kuchi-pie,’ she said. ‘The lady told me my sari looks beautiful, and she said I should give all my saris to my sister, and also all the jewelry and the broaches, the lipsticks, kajal, nail-paints, my everything to you, my devil queen.’
Sanskriti freed herself from Muskan’s grip and stood up. ‘That’s a lie,’ she screamed, stamping her feet in the dust. ‘That’s a lie.’
* * *
Sanskriti kept with her promise and after eating her dinner went upstairs to her room and shut its door. She had no intention of breaking the promise Muskan took from her at the bus stop — she would retreat to her room after dinner and no matter what she heard at night will not step out of her room before dawn. Therefore, she felt hurt when she heard Muskan quietly approach the door of her room and lock it from outside. ‘I told you I won’t come out,’ Sanskriti said. ‘Why are you locking the door then?’
‘I know, dear,’ Muskan said. ‘The door will be open when you get up in the morning. Now go to sleep, love.’
‘I don’t think I will be able to sleep tonight,’ Sanskriti said.
‘Don’t open your comic book,’ Muskan said. ‘Get into your bed and close your eyes; the lights may go off for sometime in the night. Don’t panic, stay in your room, all right?’
‘Lights?’ Sanskriti asked. She got out of her bed and ran towards the door. ‘Why would the lights go off? How do you know?’ She placed her ear on the wood and heard Muskan step down the stairs. ‘Why will the lights go off, didi?’
‘Just for few hours,’ Muskan said. ‘Now get back into your bed and don’t ask any more questions. You promised you won’t.’
Copyright © 2007 by Ranvir Singh Parmar