Saturday, 30 August 2008

Book review: A Sultan in Palermo by Tariq Ali

Tariq Ali’s fourth novel revolves around the world renowned cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi who lived in the twelfth century and served the Norman King of Sicily, Roger II. The Arabs had taken over Sicily in the ninth century from the Byzantine Empire and ruled it for the next two centuries. Under the Arabs, Sicily flourished. Its population burgeoned. Palermo, the main city in Sicily, became a centre of Arab culture on the lines of and almost on par with Baghdad and Cordoba. The Normans, with the support of the Popes, took back Sicily from the Arabs. Roger II’s father Roger I was one of the Kings involved in the re-conquest of Sicily. Known as Rujari to his Arab subjects, the “arabised” Roger II was a very tolerant King who spoke Arabic and maintained a harem. Arabs were allowed to practice their religion and speak their language. Muslim scholars such as Al-Idrisi flourished in his court.

Tariq Ali has done a particularly good job in portraying al-Idrisi’s character, which is as good as his portrayal of Saladin’s character in the Book of Saladin. Al-Idrisi is shown as a brilliant cartographer and physician with a weakness for women. A man with enormous contempt for his wife (who dies towards the end) and his two daughters (for being stupid), he acquires two more wives and a few children in the course of the story. As mentioned in this review published in the Independent, there is a fair amount of bed hopping, someone of which involves one of the Sultan’s concubines and an Amir’s wife (who are half-sisters), with the full knowledge of both the Sultan and the Amir. I am not sure how much of this is historically true or even realistic. It seems inconceivable that either Roger II or an Amir would knowingly allow Idrisi to have affairs with their women. Al-Idrisi hates the two daughters born to him through his first wife so much that he is friendly with their husbands even after the husbands have deserted their wives. Idrisi is also shown to neglect his first born son who is mentally challenged.

Ali’s Idrisi does not hesitate to challenge anyone. Ali has Idrisi muttering that the Koran may be wrong in certain respects, when his research findings don’t tally with the Koran’s language. Towards the end of the story, Idrisi realises with regret that his first wife was not so stupid or bad after all (please read the book to find out how).

After Roger II’s death, there are minor revolts by the Arabs and al-Idrisi is shown to be sympathising with and even supporting the rebels. The chief rebel, Al-Farid, the Trusted One, is cast in the mould of Robin Hood. I doubt if such a character actually existed, but what the heck, this is a work of fiction. The story comes to an end with the death of al-Idrisi who outlived Roger II by nine years. In the epilogue of the novel, Ali explains how Roger-II’s grandson slowly extinguished Arab culture in Sicily and expelled all Muslims from Sicily.

As in the other books in his Islam Quintet, Ali’s main character Idrisi analyses the reasons for the decline of Islam, in this case, in Sicily. According to Ali, the first Muslims were willing to innovate. The subsequent waves of puritans who came from the desert were not. More importantly, the Believers were always divided.

There were a few things in this book which I did not like. Just as in the Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, Ali uses mostly Arab names in this novel. Siquilliya for Sicily, Siracusa for Syracuse, Ifriqiya for North Africa, Balansiya for Valencia, Djirdjent for Agrigento etc. However, Palermo’s Arab name Bal'harm does not find a single mention in this book.

Al-Idrisi was (in real life), not an Arab. He was a Berber born in Ceuta, a city on the North African side of the Strait of Gibraltar and now an autonomous part of Spain. Just as in Moorish Spain, a substantial chunk of the Muslims in Sicily were Berbers and not Arabs. Ali makes no mention of this in this book. Further, Ali has al-Idrisi excelling as cartographer and a physician. The real al-Idrisi was well known as a cartographer, but I couldn’t find any sources praising him as a physician

Ali claims in this novel that, unlike other Arab Sicilians, the people of Qurlun (Arabic for Corleone) are too much tied to their land and other worldly possessions to be willing to revolt against the Normans. Ali has a few choice words of abuse for the people of Qurlun. I am not sure this bit is true. Corleone was a strategic town and was on the frontline of almost all wars fought in Sicily. It was actually known as “Courageous Civitas”. I guess Ali is trying to show that the Corleone (from where so many mafia families have emerged in recent times) always had the seeds of evil in it. But Ali’s version doesn’t ring true.

One of the key characters in the novel is Philip al-Mahdi, the Chief Amir of Roger II, whose death triggers off an Arab revolt against the Normans. Ali shows Philip al-Mahdia to be born a Muslim, sold to a Greek merchant, forcibly converted to Christianity, but continuing to be closet Muslim. Roger II agrees to execute Philip in order to placate a few monks and Ali’s Philip allows himself to be burnt at the stake after a lot of scheming and plotting by Christian Bishops in order to trigger off a revolt by the Muslim population of Sicily. The real Philip of Mahdia was not born a Muslim, though he was actually accused of converting to Islam and was executed by Roger II a year before his death. I think Ali is stretching history a bit too much, especially when he says Philip allowed himself to be burnt at the stake, even though he could have escaped.

Which brings me to my main criticism of this book and Ali’s earlier novels in the Islam Quintet. Ali has stated in an interview that his main objective in writing these stories was to “challenge the myth that Islam is incompatible with the West.” If so, one would expect Ali’s works to be historically accurate. Instead, one finds Ali taking too many liberties with accepted versions of history and not offering justifications or explanations for his deviations. Also, I think that at times Ali flies the banner of secular Islam too high, as alleged in this review by the Hindu.

Monday, 25 August 2008


When the Director informed Nina that she had been promoted, she gave him a tired smile and said 'Thank you Sir,' without any real enthusiasm. Nina had not particularly wanted the promotion, but it had been in the offing for a long time and she could not bring herself to turn it down. Promotions were given on the basis of seniority and Nina had joined the Institute as a Research Officer or RO two days before Raju did. Which meant that she was senior to Raju and would be promoted ahead of Raju. She would cope somehow. There would be some travel to attend conferences and seminars, the occasional late evenings and a lot of reports to write. But it was a promotion nevertheless. The Director knew that Nina was not that very keen on getting promoted. Hence he was not surprised by Nina's tepid reaction.

'It comes into effect from next month,' the Director added, 'but you can start helping Kunjali prepare the weekly report from this week onwards.' For a minute Nina wondered if she ought to tell the Director to go to hell. If she was to be an SRO, as Senior Research Officers were referred to, from next month, why on earth should she get involved in preparing the weekly report even before that? But it was difficult to tell T. K. Namboodhiri to go to hell. He was not only the Director of the Institute, but also a father figure to most of the employees. He knew the names of all their spouses and children. Most of his discussions with his colleagues started off with a series of rapid-fire personal questions. Is your mother any better? Have your in-laws gone back? Is your son still keen on becoming a doctor? What do you plan to do this Sunday? When are you getting married? You've been married for three years and no children yet? At times Nina found it irritating, but most of her colleagues admired the Director for taking such a personal interest. Which made it difficult for them to tell him to go to hell when he made demands such as this. It was the Director's job to send a weekly report of the Institute's activities to the Agriculture Ministry every Friday. And the practice was for both the SROs to prepare the first draft of the weekly report. The Director would then edit it and send it out in his own name. Ever since Swaroop had quit, Kunjali was the only SRO and he had prepared the first draft of the report on his own. It was understandable that the Director was keen to get the new SRO to assist Kunjali. Two pairs of hands were always preferable to a single pair. The SRO's post had been vacant for over six months - from the time Swaroop quit - and the Director had lobbied hard to get it filled. With the state government of Kerala in a perpetual state of financial distress, it was hard to obtain sanction for any form for additional expenditure. Even for filling up an essential post at the Institute. It did not matter that the Institute, as the Institute for Pathological Studies in Plantation Crops was called, was the main research centre in Kerala for carrying out research into diseases that affected plantation crops. And plantation crops formed the mainstay of Kerala’s economy.

'How's Sebin these days?' The Director wanted to know. 'Is he still angry with you?'

'He's no longer so angry. He has started chattering once again. Even though he was sulking this morning before he left for school.'

'He'll be alright. If you ask me, Sebin is a lot less moody than most children of Gulfies.' Nina did not respond. They had had such discussions before.

'And your mother's thyroid? Is she still taking those Eltroxin tablets?

'Yes, she has to - for another month.'

Nina managed to walk out of the Director's room before he could ask any more questions. She walked up to Raju. 'Raju, I've got some news,' Nina told Raju.

'Have you finally been promoted?' Raju asked Nina.

'Yes, finally.'

'Congratulations!' Raju unsuccessfully tried to hide his disappointment.

Raju must have known that he would not get it. Rules were rules, but Nina knew that Raju had hoped she would turn down the promotion. Someone else heard her and shouted 'Nina has finally been promoted.' Her colleagues crowded around her, congratulating her. Raju looked crestfallen. Since there could only be two SROs, Raju would have to wait for another five years before the Director retired and Kunjali moved up to replace him, before he could become an SRO.

'Let's go to Best Bakery and celebrate this evening,' someone suggested. Best Bakery was one of their favourite joints. But Nina was not too keen. She had the longest commute of them all and hated any activity in the evenings. Sebin would be waiting for her to get back and he hated it if she was delayed.

'I'm so sorry. I just can't. Sebin has just recovered from Johnny's departure. I need to go home as soon as possible. I'm sorry.' They backed off, which was unusual. Was it because she was now an SRO? Even Raju appeared to be slightly defferential. Soon, at this rate, they would start treating her like Kunjali. She did not remember being defferential to Swaroop. But then she had got it all wrong with Swaroop. Maybe if she had been differential or diffident, it wouldn't have happened.

'Tell you what, we'll order a dozen puffs from Anne's.' Anne's was reputed to be as good as Best Bakery, but it was mainly a takeaway bakery, whereas one could eat in at Best Bakery.

'Sahadevaa,' they shouted for the office peon. Sahadevan took a while to appear. 'Sahadeva, this afternoon, can you please go to Anne's and buy two dozen puffs? Nina asked.

'Chicken puffs?'

'Yes. But we need one vegetarian puff as well. Can you please buy twenty three chicken puffs and a vegetarian one?' The Director and two other colleagues were vegetarians at home, but ate meat from restaurants. However, there was one colleague who would not eat any meat.

'Don't we get something to drink as well?' someone asked slyly. Her colleagues had the idea that Nina was floating in money just because her husband was a Gulfie.

'And four bottles of Pepsi. No, make it two bottles of Pepsi and two bottles of Sprite.'

Her colleagues were mollified. Nina went to her seat and started to make a list of things to do. She found that making a to-do list always calmed her down. She would have to talk to Kunjali about the weekly report. She would do that after lunch. She had started some tests last week on the samples from Nilampur and some readings had to be taken. The books she had ordered a few weeks ago from the CUSAT library had not yet arrived. She would have to follow up on that. And the rest of the time till she left for the day at five thirty would be spent on her project, the project on which she had been working for the last three years. With a start she remembered that she had promised to get Sebin a toy when she got back from work. She had nearly forgotten. Sebin had been sulking and refusing to eat breakfast and the promise of a toy was the only way she could get him to dress up and catch the school bus before she herself caught a bus to Kottayam. She knew that she was making a mistake. Rewarding such behaviour with a toy was the worst thing a parent could do. But in her heart she knew that Sebin was justified in throwing tantrums after Johnny left for Qatar. Sebin did that each time Johnny went back after a month's vacation. Nina had been told by so many people that Sebin's behaviour was not that uncommon. As he grew older Sebin would learn to accept that his father could not come home everyday.

It was almost twelve. The lunch break started at twelve thirty. She saw that Raju was gossiping with the Director's secretary. She would have to remind him once more that she needed to discuss her project with him. She had hoped that she would be able to finish it and submit a report by the end of last year. Now it was July already and it looked as if she would need another year to finish it. It was a project that was close to her heart. As a child growing up in Simhapara, Nina had been fascinated by helicopters which sprayed fungicide on rubber trees in the Simhapara estate just before the onset of the monsoon. Farmers with smaller holdings would use long-handed sprays to manually spray the fungicide, which was a mix of copper sulphate and lime. After Nina finished her Ph.D. at CUSAT and started working at the Institute, she started wondering if the fungicide could possibly have any harmful effects of on the grass and small herbs that grew among the rubber trees. Everyone knew that the fungicide had negative side-effects. Her family used to own a couple of cows and they would never let the cows graze amidst the rubber trees for a few weeks after the fungicide had been sprayed. However, no one seemed to have researched into this issue in any detail. Did the fungicide cause more harm to the foliage on the ground if it was manually sprayed rather than from a helicopter? Nina had requested the Director that she be allowed to carry out a study. The Director had given her approval on condition that she do her research in addition to her normal duties. For the last three years, she had been collecting samples and carrying out various tests.

Nina wondered if she could move into the room reserved for the new SRO. It was empty, except for a few boxes of files. She would ask Sahadevan to clear the files and dust the room. If the Director expected her to help Kunjali prepare the weekly report right away, she might as well occupy the room right away. She saw that the Director's secretary had gone into the Director's room. She walked up to Raju and said, 'Raju, you did say you could spend some time with me this afternoon, didn't you? I need to discuss my project with you.'

'You've got your promotion. Why are you still trying to do that project?'

Nina laughed. 'I am going to finish this project so that I get another promotion. They may make me the Director.'

'Well, if you don't quit, you will definitely become the Director one day.' Nina started to laugh, but then stopped when she saw that Raju was not laughing. He had wanted that promotion quite badly. Most probably he prayed every night that she would quit her job. After all, she did not need the money. Her husband was a Gulfie. She had a son with whom she ought to be spending more time.

'So, can you give me ten or fifteen minutes this afternoon? I need to pick your brains.'

'You should go and speak to Kunjali,' Raju said. Nina grimaced. Kunjali was not the friendliest of all people. He did his job, kept to himself, spoke little to others and went home. It was unthinkable to ask him if she could discuss her personal project with him.

'Well, if you prefer me to Kunjali, then my brains are all yours.' It was at times like this that Nina realised how much she missed Swaroop. Swaroop was the smartest bio-chemist she had ever met. He knew his stuff. And he had been quite happy to help Nina whenever she wanted to discuss anything with him. Their families knew each other slightly and Nina had been quite friendly with his wife as well. And then that incident had occurred. For the nth time Nina wondered if she had just over-reacted. It had happened over a year ago. Swaroop, Nina and two other ROs were carrying out a series of tests on a few samples sent to them from a tea plantation in Vandiperiyar. No one could be forced to stay back after five thirty, but the entire team had been infected with Swaroop's enthusiasm and they had all happily worked many extra hours, often staying back quite late into the night. One Wednesday, they had all worked until seven in the evening. Swaroop offered to see Nina off at the bus stop where she would catch a bus to Simhapara.

'So, when's Trisha going to visit her parents?' Nina asked Swaroop. Swaroop's parents-in-law had settled in Hyderabad where their eldest son - Swaroop's brother-in-law - worked.

'She's off this Friday.'

'Is she taking both the girls with her?'


'You will be on your own for two weeks.'

'Indeed. I will be.'

'So, what will you do? Drown yourself in work?'

'I might as well do that.' There was a pause and then Swaroop had asked, 'What are your plans this weekend?'

'What else? Take care of Sebin. Help Amma with some cleaning.'

There was some more silence. And then Swaroop had said, 'why don't you come to Kottayam this Saturday? We could do some work, maybe for a couple of hours and then go for a movie or something.' It had taken Nina a few seconds to absorb the enormity of what Swaroop was suggesting. She had frozen, as if an icy gale had hit her. She stared at Swaroop for a full minute. Swaroop did not even try to laugh it away as if it was a joke. He just looked embarrassed. 'It was only a thought,' he had said and Nina realised that Swaroop’s question had been planned in advance. 'You don't have to come if you are uncomfortable with the idea,' Swaroop had added. Which made it worse. They had walked in silence to the bus stop. Thankfully a fast passenger bound for Kanjirapally had arrived immediately. After that incident, Nina had stopped talking to Swaroop unless it was strictly required for her job. And Swaroop had quit six months later, to take up a job at a research institute in Kuala Lumpur.

Maybe she had totally misunderstood Swaroop. Maybe all he wanted to do was watch a movie. It was boring for a man used to two noisy daughters to spend a weekend on his own. But then Swaroop's eyes had looked so very different when he asked her to come in on Saturday. So very different. And she knew Swaroop pretty well. Or so she had thought. It didn't matter now that Swaroop was no longer in Kottayam, or in Kerala for that matter. He was the only man she had got to know reasonably well. Better than even her husband who was a Gulfie even when she married him. Johnny had come home on a month's leave from the oil refinery where he worked, when he formally met her one wet Sunday afternoon. Nina's parents had been hunting for a groom for many years and there was nothing wrong with Johnny. He was an engineer and had a decent job in Qatar. And most importantly, he seemed to like the idea of a working wife. Nina did not particularly want to be married to a man whom she would see for a month every year. But then she was almost twenty eight and her parents were very keen to get her married off and start a similar process for her younger sister Mina. They had been engaged within a week and the wedding took place after another week. They had to obtain the priest's permission to dispense with the need for the three Banns of Marriage. But it was only a formality. The parish priest was quite used to expatriates from the Gulf who came home for a few weeks to get married. Nina and Johnny had a two day honeymoon before Johnny went back to Qatar. After that, she got to spend a month with Johnny every year. Except once when, after two years of marriage, Johnny managed to take Nina to Qatar for two months. And they had been married for almost nine years now. Which meant she had spent less than a year with Johnny altogether.

Soon it was lunch time and the ROs and other administrative staff gathered in groups to open their lunch packets and eat. Nina's lunch box did not hold any surprises. They had eaten cassava and fish pickles for breakfast that morning and cassava it was for lunch. Sebin's lunch box was also packed with cassava. Nina was thankful that Sebin was not fussy about food. He did not mind having for lunch whatever they had for breakfast. He was actually a good boy. The Director's secretary sat opposite Nina. 'So, you must be very excited - getting a room of your own!'

'Well yes. I will get a lot more space.'

'We'll order a name plate for you. Something you can hang on your door.'

'Hmmm. Why not? Unless I hang a name plate on the door, no one will be able to find me. It's such a large office.' The Director's secretary burst into laughter.

How's mon?

'Oh Sebin is fine. He is much better now. He has started chattering away to his grandfather once more.'

'It must be a relief. When's he coming back?'

I don't think Johnny can come back before next May. Now his refinery is trying to recruit as many local people as possible. So, if Johnny asks for leave, they may send him back on a very long leave.'

'But as of now, his job is not affected is it?' The Director's secretary was very concerned and almost placed her hand on Nina's. She was in her late forties and got along well with every one. The fact that she was the Director's secretary and everyone liked to be on good terms with her, helped a lot in that regard.

'No, his job is secure – for the moment.'

'But you wouldn't mind if Johnny lost his job and came back for good, would you? You would get your husband back full time.'

'Not really. Johnny is not the sort of person who can run a business or something. He is a perfect employee and he will always remain an employee.'

'I know. You've told me that before. But why can't Johnny come back and just live off his savings? He must have saved a lot of money by now.'

'It's his decision. I haven't tried to influence him.'

The Director's secretary then launched into a litany of woes regarding her daughter and her son-in-law who lived in some small town in Tamil Nadu and were forever quarrelling. Nina was relieved when lunch got over. The Director's secretary got up with her. As they both walked towards the washroom, The Director's secretary said 'did you know the Director is travelling to Australia for a conference?'

'Actually I did know. He told me yesterday. But I don't think it is public information yet.'

'No, it is not. I haven't told anyone.' Nina knew that it would become public in a matter of days. The Director's secretary had a way of passing on gossip in instalments. Her favourite people would be told first, before she moved on to lesser mortals. Nina had always been one of her favourites.

'One day you will also go abroad for a conference.'

'I don't think it is such a big deal,' Nina told the Director's secretary.

'How can you say that? May be it is not for you. Haven't you spent some time in Qatar?'

'Yes, two months. But that was almost seven years ago.' They reached the washroom only to find it occupied. They waited outside.

'Was that where Sebin was conceived?'

'Yes. Whenever he demands that he be taken on board a plane, I tell him that he has already travelled by air.'

'Oh! I'm sure that when he grows up he will do a lot of travelling on his own. Nowadays so many people travel by air. My daughter was telling me the other day when she called up, ...' The Director's secretary did not get to complete since the washroom's door opened.

'After you,' Nina told the Director's secretary. The Director's secretary smiled her thanks and went in.

That evening after work, Nina hurried to the small toy store which was on her way to the bus station. She decided yet again to buy a toy gun for Sebin. She had initially planned to get Sebin something other than a gun. Something like a building block or a jigsaw puzzle. But buying something else carried the risk of rejection. Sebin had just got out of his gloom after Johnny's departure and there was no point in making him angry by buying him a gift he did not like. She couldn't make a mistake if she bought him a toy gun. Sebin loved toy guns. He had toy guns of all shapes and sizes. Machine guns that made a rat-a-rat noise. Pistols which fired rubber projectiles. Sleek rifles which were almost half his height. Inside the store, which had a not-so-large counter staffed by a single shop boy, she waited behind a couple and their daughter. They were looking at various dolls. The shop owner sat in front of the till a few feet away. When Nina was young, she had a huge collection of dolls. What had happened to her collection? Some of it had gone to Mina. Surely some of them must have survived. She would ask her mother about it. There was a large mirror to her left. The face that looked back at Nina was - exhausted. That was it. She was exhausted. Exhausted from the commute which took her an hour and a half each day on a good day and two hours on a bad day. Exhausted from having to handle Sebin on her own. She was not bad looking. The acne which had troubled her so much when she was a teenager was no longer so prominent. Her hair had a few grey streaks in it, but no one would call her grey-haired or old. And she had a small stoop. Which made her look a lot shorter than her five feet four inches. The couple decided on a small doll, but their daughter had her eye on a much larger one. Her parents were quite firm with her. The small doll and nothing else. They left, the man carrying his daughter in his arms. She would soon have to learn to be equally firm with Sebin.

When her turn came, the shop owner asked her, 'a gun again?'

Nina smiled at him and turned to the shop boy standing in front of her. 'A gun,' she told him. The shop boy smiled and obligingly brought out a selection of guns. Nina had a quick look at the guns spread out in an arc in front of her. There was a large red pistol with a yellow barrel which Sebin already had. The small brown revolver was too similar to the grey one in Sebin's collection. Without waiting to examine all the pistols, Nina asked the shop boy, 'is this all you have?' She would soon have to find another toy store to find guns which Sebin did not have.

'No, no, we have a lot more chechy,' the shop boy said.

'Take out that box,' the owner instructed the shop-boy, pointing to a shelf that was out of the shop-boy's reach.

The boy bent down, lifted his mundu by its ends and tucked it around his waist so that it was folded by half. He then unfolded a small ladder and set it beside a large shelf. He climbed a few steps and took out a large box from the shelf and brought it down.

Nina was disappointed. The large rifle that stared at her was exactly the one she had bought less than two months ago - a couple of weeks before Johnny arrived. 'But I've seen all these,' she protested.

'Does your boy have a water pistol?' the shop-owner asked her.

'No, he doesn't. And I don't want to buy him one. There'll be water all over the house once he starts squirting water.'

'Ah come on. What's a little bit of water?'

Nina didn't have a choice. She did not have the energy to go to another shop. Maybe she should buy Sebin something other than a gun. No, she would buy him a water pistol.

'Okay, please show me a water pistol.'

The owner now abandoned his till and edged out the shop boy. He picked out a red pistol and showed it to Nina. 'Here, you open the nozzle here and pour water inside - up to this level. You know, just like pouring water into a steam press.'

'How much?' Nina asked.

'This one is two hundred and ninety. Now this one,' the owner took out another blue pistol which was slightly smaller and said, 'this one is two hundred and fifty only.'

'No, I'll go for the red one.' It was obscene, the cost of toys. They were just pieces of plastic, with basic operating mechanisms. There was no reason why they had to be so expensive. The pistol came in a colourful box which had the picture of a water pistol on the outside. Nina tucked the box under her arm and practically ran to the bus station. It was another five minutes away and with luck she could catch the Kumali express. Nina was gasping for breath by the time she got into the bus. The Kumali express would not stop at Simhapara and Nina would have to get off at Ponkunnam and catch an auto, but Nina knew from many years of experience that this was the quickest way to get home to Sebin. Soon the bus crossed Pampady and sped towards Ponkunnam. Nina desperately hoped that Sebin would not go back into a sulk. It was more than a month since Johnny left for Qatar and Sebin had just recovered from his bout of tantrums. Things were not so bad. They had enough food to eat. Enough money in the bank. God had been kind to her. And to Johnny. And to her parents. And to her sister. Speaking of her sister, Mina was expecting her second child. Unlike the first time when Mina had travelled to Simhapara to deliver the baby with all her family members around her, this time Mina was planning to have the child in Mysore itself, where she lived with her husband and daughter. The child was due in three months' time and Mina was sounding out various family members who would be willing to spend a few months with her and help her take care of her new baby. Mina's in-laws had promised to be around for the delivery and for a month after that. Nina's parents were planning to spend a couple of months with Mina. Nina could hardly complain although it meant that she would be left alone with Sebin. Who would take care of Sebin when he got back from school, till the time Nina got home? And what if she needed to work late? What if she had to travel to attend a conference? If her parents were around, she would have nothing to worry about, except for the possibility that Sebin might throw a tantrum when she finally got back. Well, she would deal with things as they came up. Cheer up, she told herself. She was now an SRO, something all ROs aspired to be at the Institute.

Nina got off the express bus at Ponkunnam and took an auto to Simhapara. Most of the auto drivers knew her since she was a regular customer. Make sure you don't spend more than your salary on auto-fares and toys, her husband periodically told her as a joke. If her mother-in-law had her way, she would not be working at all. Instead she and Sebin would be living with her in-laws in their antique house at Peruvanthanam. Peruvanthanam was not very far off from Simhapara. Just another thirty minutes away by bus on the KK Road. But it was as if it was a whole world away. There was only one way to describe her in-laws. Nineteenth century. That was the word. They lived in the nineteenth century. Her mother-in-law was especially antique in her values. She could not imagine that her daughter-in-law could have feelings of her own or that she might aspire to achieve something on her own. An ideal woman, according to her mother-in-law, was one who stayed with her in-laws and awaited her husband every evening when he got back from work. And if her husband took a year to get home as Johnny did, well, then the daughter-in-law had to wait for a year. According to her in-laws, Johnny was a superstar. Their darling son who managed to get admission to an engineering college and then went on to work for an oil refinery in Qatar. If her mother-in-law’s descriptions were to be believed, oil production in the entire middle-east would come to a standstill if Johnny were not around. Nina was so glad that she had insisted on continuing with her job even after she had got married. Her in-laws had taken for granted that she would follow their wishes regarding employment after she joined their household. So much so that they did not even bother to tell Nina or her parents before the wedding what they expected from their daughter. Thankfully, Johnny had put his foot down. If Nina wants to work, let her. It's her choice, he had told his mother. Nina's mother-in-law, the nice traditional lady that she was, was forced to respect her son's wishes.

As the auto turned off the KK Road into the narrow muddy lane with a few houses scattered on either side, Nina opened her wallet and took out twenty rupees. The auto deposited Nina in the courtyard of the compact two storied concrete house with a terraced roof, which her father had built when Nina was an infant. As she handed over the money and got out of the auto, Sebin opened the door and charged out. 'Did you get me my toy?' he demanded, just as he saw the box tucked under Nina’s arm, which he grabbed.

Nina went into the house. Her father was nowhere to be seen, while her mother was on the phone. Who is she talking to? Why can’t she hang up now that I’m home? Nina thought. Her mother must be talking to her sister. Nina was her father’s favourite while her mother dotted on Mina. Her mother would have hung up the phone if it was someone else. She was planning to tell her parents about her promotion. Not that it meant much, but her father would be thrilled. He had always wanted her to have a career of her own. He had stood by her when she wanted to do a Ph.D. after her masters, even though her job prospects were not very high. It was her father who insisted that she find a job before she got married.

Sebin followed her into her room with the box in his hand.

‘Tell me how this works,’ he demanded.

‘It’s a water pistol. You can squirt water with it. You must promise not to squirt water inside the house.’

‘I promise.’ Sebin ripped open the box and took out the pistol.

‘This is where you pour in the water,’ Nina showed him. Sebin ran out to the dining room, opened the wash basin’s tap and filled the pistol with water. He pointed the pistol into the basin and fired. A sharp jet of water hit the basin. He ran back into Nina’s room and pointed at Nina, who had changed into a housecoat.

‘Nooo! You promised not to squirt water inside the house!’

Sebin lowered the pistol to his side.

‘Moné, how was school today?

‘Jayesh got caned today.’ Jayesh was one of Sebin’s best friends.

‘Oh! Did he? What did he do?’

‘He kept talking in class to Lisa.’

‘Did Lisa get caned as well?’

‘No, she was only listening to Jayesh.’

‘And did my daaarling Sebin mon get caned as well?’ Nina took on a singsong tone which signalled a bout of cuddling.

‘No, I did not.’

‘Aaaare you sure?’ Nina hugged Sebin to her.

‘Of course not, I did not get caned.’

‘Aaaare you sure?’ Nina asked him again and tickled him.

That night Nina and Sebin said their usual prayers and went to sleep. They could hear the faint sound of Nina’s parents praying in their bedroom. They would recite the entire rosary and follow a prayer book, which would take them the best part of an hour. She ought to get Sebin to recite the rosary, every night, Nina told herself. He was six years old now. From tomorrow, they would join their parents when they said the rosary. God help me with my new role at work, Nina prayed as she drifted off to sleep.

Nina slipped into the SROs role effortlessly. To her surprise, she found that Kunjali was not too difficult to work with. He recognised that she had to leave the office at five thirty and did his best to make sure that she could do so. The only drawback was that her entire time in the office was taken up with her official duties and she could not spare much time for her own project. It looked as if it would be quite a while before she actually managed to finish it. Raju seemed to have got over his resentment, even though Nina had a feeling he was looking for an opening overseas. So many countries in the west and even other Asian countries like Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia were keen to hire trained researchers. They got paid a lot more and more importantly, they had better research facilities. If Nina wanted a book, she had to request half a dozen libraries to get hold of it. And only after she had exhausted so many libraries could she put in a request to buy the book. It was only recently that all ROs at the Institute got their own PCs!

Her first late evening came up a month after she had formally become an SRO. It was a Friday. A visiting team of bureaucrats from Thiruvananthapuram wanted to meet with the Director and his senior colleagues at five in the evening. The meeting was likely to last for a couple of hours. The Director was decent enough to give her the option of leaving at her usual time if she wanted to. She got to know of the meeting just before lunch time. She decided to stay back. She called up home and spoke to her mother who was not too happy that her daughter had to stay back. She then called up once again at a quarter to five and spoke to Sebin who had got home from school by then.

‘Aren’t you a big boy now? Can I count on you to look after yourself?’ Sebin promised to look after himself. ‘Will you eat dinner on your own, with Velia-pappa and Velia-amma? Sebin was quite chuffed at being trusted to look after himself. The meeting was boring, the only interesting bit was that the normally reclusive Kunjali was quite talkative and went out of his way to butter up to the bureaucrats. He laughed at their jokes, praised every policy statement made by them and swore undying loyalty to the agriculture minister. The Director frequently made eye contact with Nina, as though they were in cahoots over Kunjali’s performance. The meeting dragged on till seven thirty and it was eight forty by the time Nina got home.

Sebin ran out to greet her as she got off the auto. ‘I had two helpings of rice for dinner,’ he proudly told her.

Her mother served her dinner, but did not look too happy.

‘Did Johnny call?’ she asked her mother. Johnny usually called them every Friday evening. Friday was the only day off he had in a week. He usually chatted with Nina and Sebin for ten minutes or so, before he called his parents at Peruvanthanam and spoke with them for a few minutes.

‘Yes, Daddy called,’ Sebin told her.

‘You missed him by ten minutes,’ her father told her. At that moment, the phone rang. Sebin answered the phone. ‘Daddee? Yes, Mummy has just come.’

Nina ran to the phone. ‘Yes, it’s me.’

‘You don’t have to worry. Sebin is a big boy and he will look after you.’ Nina smiled with relief. ‘That’s what he told me, that he’s looking after you.’

‘Are you tired?’ Johnny asked her. Nina nearly choked on her words. What was wrong with Johnny? Of course she was tired. Tired of everything. Tired of her job. Tired of looking after Sebin on her own. Why couldn’t Johnny come down and help her with everything? ‘No, of course not. I am not tired. How are you?’

‘I’m fine. Nothing much to do today. Watched some TV. Slept a bit.’

‘I had a meeting today evening.’

‘I know. Mummy told me. Quite an executive aren’t you? Are you going to visit my folks tomorrow?’ Nina had almost forgotten. She was supposed to go to Peruvanthanam tomorrow with Sebin and spend the weekend with her in-laws.

‘Yes, I am. Sebin is looking forward to it.’

Well, I might as well hang up now. You go and have dinner. Okay?’

‘Okay. Bye.’

‘Good night.’ Johnny blew her a kiss into the phone. Nina could not reciprocate since her parents were watching. She put the phone down and went into the dinning room. Sebin followed her clutching her saree. Perk up, she told herself as she stared eating. Things were a lot better now. Sebin was no longer so moody. He was a big boy capable of speaking to his father over the phone. She could still remember the days when he would point to the framed wedding photograph which hung on the wall in the drawing room, whenever someone asked him where his father was. Soon he would be big enough to be left on his own.

Her mother came and sat opposite her. ‘What do you plan to do with Sebin while we are in Mysore?’

Nina had thought about it on the bus home. Mina was due to deliver in less than two months. Which meant that in three months time, her parents would leave for Mysore. Who would take care of Sebin when he got back from school if her parents were not around? Was Sebin expected to come home, feed himself and look after himself till she got home late in the night? And what was to be done if she had to stay back late in office?

‘You shouldn’t have accepted the promotion. You have a job and you ought to be happy with it. Shouldn’t your son get priority over your job?

Nina did not reply. Thankfully her father joined them. ‘What’s the matter?’ he asked Nina’s mother.

‘I was just asking Nina how she planned to take care of Sebin while I am away? If she hadn’t accepted her promotion, she could have left office at three o’clock every day and got here before Sebin comes home.’

‘But Ammé, what makes you think an RO can leave office at three? Not every day! No!’

‘Well, you do whatever you need to do to take care of your son. I need to help out Mina for two months.’

‘Don’t worry about it. We’ll manage.’

‘If only that Kumudam would agree to come in in the evenings….’ Nina spoke wistfully. Kumudam’s services were highly in demand at various households in Simhapara and there was very little chance of their maid servant agreeing to be around while Sebin got back from school.

‘Or, we could find a full-time maid,’ Nina continued to think aloud. Even if she managed to leave for home at five thirty on the dot every day, someone had to take care of Sebin for a couple of hours in the evening after he got home from school.

‘That’s two thousand five hundred rupees a month, at current rates. We are not millionaires. Do you want to find a full-time maid yourself and pay her yourself?’ Nina’s mother asked her with asperity.

‘I’ll think about it,’ Nina told her with a yawn. It was not a bad idea. Having a full-time maid would be worth it. She could work late and Sebin would be safe. Nina almost giggled to herself as she repeated the rhyming words. Nina works late but Sebin stays safe. What would Johnny say? Spend two thousand five hundred rupees for a maid on account of a promotion which gave her a pay hike of less than half that amount. Johnny wouldn’t mind. He better not mind. It was the least he could do as an absentee father.

‘Why can’t you take two months off and stay at home while we are away?

Nina saw that her mother was still angry with her. She burst out saying, ‘maybe I should quit my job and stay at Peruvanthanam!’

‘I didn’t say that. No, I did not ask you to quit your job. I only asked you to give priority to your son.’

‘If I quit my job, won’t Johnny’s parents insist that I spend most of my time with them and maybe visit you once in a while on week-ends?’

‘But, I did not ask you to quit your job. I only asked you to take two months off. And you should not have accepted your promotion.’ Peruvanthanam was almost two hours from Kottayam, while Simhapara was only forty minutes away. As long as Nina had a job, she was justified in staying with her parents at Simhapara.

‘If she takes two months off, won’t they insist that she stay with them at Peruvanthanam during those two months?’ Nina’s father wanted to know.

‘How can they say that? Sebin goes to school here. How can he change schools for just two months?’

The next day, Nina and Sebin left for Peruvanthanam after breakfast. They had a good time there, till they came back Sunday evening. Her mother-in-law might be nineteenth century, but she was a very good cook. From the time Nina and Sebin got there, till the time they left, Nina’s mother-in-law kept up a parade of dishes, most of which were Sebin’s favourites. Johnny’s younger brother and his wife lived with Johnny’s parents and they had a daughter. Sebin had a very good time playing with his cousin. The only irritant for Nina was the occasional snide comment from her mother-in-law expressing her displeasure over the fact that Nina preferred to work, rather than stay with her in-laws and devote all her time to Sebin. Thankfully Sebin did not say anything about Nina’s coming back late from work. Nina did consider telling Sebin to keep quiet and not tell his grandmother that Nina had come home late from work on Friday. But finally she had decided to keep quiet and not tell him anything. It might backfire. Sebin might not only tell his grandmother, but also add that his mother had asked him to keep quiet. For some reason, Sebin seemed to sense that his paternal grandparents would be very upset if they found that his mother had come home late from work.

The next week, Nina had to stay back late on Wednesday. One of the ROs had made a hash of an important test he was running and Kunjali and Nina had to work late to sort it out. ‘I wish I could fire him,’ the Director fumed. However, the Institute was practically a government department and could not fire people at will. The next week, Nina had another late evening. Soon it would be time for her parents to travel to Mysore.

It was Nina’s mother who came up with a solution to her problem. One day when Nina got back from work, she found her mother chatting with their neighbour who lived across the road. Inkachee lived alone with her son who worked in the post office. Her husband had died many years ago. Inkachee had been a nurse who used to work in the district hospital at Kottayam.

‘Nina mol, listen to this, Inkachee says she will take care of Sebin in the evenings while we are away.’ Nina was thrilled.

‘You know, when Sebin mon gets off the school bus, he should just come to my place. And he can stay with me till you come home.’

Nina was so grateful, she could not even thank Inkachee properly. She went to her room and found Sebin on the bed reading a comic book. ‘Moné, come here. Come and say Hello to Inkachee.’

Sebin was shy in front of Inkachee with whom he had a very slight acquaintance.

‘This is Sebin.’

‘Isn’t Sebin in his second standard?’

‘Yes he is.’

‘How come we don’t hear you crying anymore Sebin?

Sebin looked bashful. Nina was actually slightly irritated. Sebin was not a cry baby. It was only for a month after Johnny left that Sebin bawled a lot. Her mother came to their rescue. ‘Sebin is a big boy now. He has stopped crying.’

‘Mon works in the post office.’ Yet another woman who insisted on calling her son mon, even though he must be over thirty, Nina thought.

‘Hasn’t he been working in the post office for many years?’

‘Yes, he started working when he was eighteen.’ Nina vaguely remembered that Inkachee’s husband used to work for the post-office. Since he died ‘in harness’, his son had been given a job under a government policy which allowed children of government employees who died while in service to obtain a government job on a priority basis.’

‘Aren’t you going to marry Vimal off?’ Nina’s mother got down to practicalities. So, that was Inkachee’s son’s real name - Vimal.

‘Yes, I am looking out for a girl for him. So far nothing has worked out.’ Mon is a loner and does not have many friends.’

‘I’m sure it’s only a phase and Vimal will grow out of it,’ Nina’s mother said. Nina suppressed her giggles. She wanted to say - He’s already thirty. He ought to have grown out of it many years ago. Now he is going to be like that for the rest of his life. But she kept quiet.

‘I’m sure he will. Not that he has fallen into bad company or anything. Just that, he spends most of his time in his room. He goes to the post-office at around ten, comes home for lunch, goes back at two and then gets home by four fifteen.’

‘That’s even earlier than the time Sebin gets home.’

‘Well yes. I do wish he would make a few friends, go for a movie or play cards or .. you know, do the sort of things most young men do.’

‘I’m sure it’s only a phase and your mon will grow out of it,’ Nina’s mother repeated.

‘What time do you normally get home?’ Inkachee asked Nina.

‘Normally I’m home by six thirty.’

‘And what time does Sebin mon come home?’

‘Sebin gets back from school by four thirty.’

‘So, even if you are not working late, Sebin will have to be on his own for a couple of hours?’

‘Yes,’ Nina guiltily admitted.

‘Don’t worry about it. I ought to know how tough it is for a working mother to take care of a child. But when mon was young, his father used to be home early. So, even if I was on night duty, it didn’t really matter, since he would take care of mon.

‘But if you are going to be later than six thirty, do give me a call and let me know.’

‘I’ll do that,’ Nina promised.

‘Would you like some tea?’ Nina’s mother asked. Inkachee might be way below them in the social pecking order at Simhapara, but she would be treated as an equal if she was going to be looking after Sebin while she was away at Mysore.

‘No, no tea for me,’ Inkachee politely said.

‘I am going to make some tea for myself in any event. Giving you a cup will not be a problem.’ Nina made it easy for Inkachee to accept her mother’s offer.

‘In that case, I’ll have some tea,’ Inkachee agreed. Nina went off to the kitchen to make some tea. Please God, let this arrangement work out, she prayed.

Mina delivered a baby girl through c-section, two days after her due date. They were all thrilled. With a day, Mina’s husband emailed photographs of the baby to all family members. The e-mail’s subject field said ‘Nimi’.

‘Nami and now Nimi? She is nuts.’ Nina said aloud. Mina’s elder daughter was called Nami and now her sister was to be Nimi. Mina seemed to have inherited her parents’ predilection for rhyming names for children. Nina’s father and mother were over the moon over their second granddaughter’s arrival. Nina’s mother immediately starting making preparations to travel to Mysore, even though they would be going only after another month.

A week before her parents left for Mysore, Nina started to prep Sebin about staying with Inkachee on the days she was going to be late in reaching home. ‘Inkachee is very nice. She has promised to give you milk and biscuits if I cannot come home on time.’

‘Will she have Kwality Kream?’

‘Oh yes she will,’ Nina promised him, making a note to handover a few packets of Kwality Kream to Inkachee during the weekend.

Nina kept building up a case for Inkachee. Inkachee is a very nice lady. Unless Mummy works late occasionally, Mummy will get into trouble in her office. Velia-pappa and Velia-amma have to go to Mysore to help Mina aunty take care of Nimi vava and Nami mol. Sebin was actually quite excited about the whole thing. Nina had two late evenings the week before her mother was to leave. On Tuesday, she got home only by eight thirty and on Wednesday she had to work till eight and got home only at nine. But by Thursday afternoon, the mini-crisis had been resolved and the entire team planned to take it easy for the rest of the week. However, on Friday, the Director summoned Nina and Kunjali into his room. ‘I’ve got great news,’ he told them excitedly. Nina had learnt to fear any ‘good news’ or ‘great news’. Generally they involved a lot of additional work. It was ages since she even thought of her own project. For some unknown reason, ever since the Director had got back from Australia, he had been very quiet and did not have much to say to his colleagues.

‘We have been invited to take part in a project funded by the European-Union. Migration of tropical plant diseases on account of global warming! Western countries are worried that as they become warmer, many of the diseases we have here right now, will migrate there. The European-Union wants to assess the time-lines involved. How soon will the tropical diseases we have here invade their territory? They have invited six research institutes in Asia to participate in this project, which will also involve three European universities. And, we are one of them!’

‘Goodbye to my project,’ Nina told herself.

The next statement from the Director jolted Nina. ‘Your good friend Swaroop will also be involved. The research centre in Kuala Lumpur where he works has also been invited.’ Nina could not reply for a minute. The Director looked puzzled until Nina managed a smile.

‘Have you spoken to Swaroop?’ Nina asked the Director.

‘Oh No! I know that the KL research centre is one of the invitees. And so I assumed that Swaroop will also be involved.’

‘I’m sure Swaroop will be involved,’ Nina said and breathed a quiet sigh of relief. Swaroop’s research centre was a very large one and the chances of Swaroop getting involved were not very high.

‘So, this is a massive project, will run for five years or so, and the best thing is, it is properly funded. We’ll get paid in Euros!’ The Director rubbed his hands in glee.

‘There will be a lot of travelling. In fact, I may have to go to Belgium in a month’s time for the inaugural meeting at the Katholieke Universiteit in Leuven. And once the project gets underway, there will be trips to all the Asian research institutes. I’ll leave it to you both to handle that.’

Nina looked petrified at the mention of overseas travel. ‘Don’t worry Nina,’ the Director assured her. You won’t have to do any travelling till your mother gets back from Mysore. She leaves tomorrow, doesn’t she?’

Nina nodded.

‘I think I’ll hire a few more ROs. And maybe promote someone so that we have one more SRO. The funding we get for this project should justify that.’

So, Raju might get his promotion sooner than he thought, Nina mused to herself. It remained to be seen whether the Director managed to get the necessary approvals for getting extra hands on board.

‘All European travel by the Director and all the Asian travel by us! Not fair!’ Kunjali grumbled as they walked out of the Director’s office. ‘And he has just got back from Australia.’

‘Don’t you like to travel to other Asian countries?’ Nina asked her head still spinning. It was all a bit too much. The possibility of having to meet Swaroop and having to make long trips where she would be away from home for many days. Her mother wouldn’t be happy and her in-laws would be even less happy. And Sebin was very likely to throw a tantrum if she was away for too long.

‘I would rather have travelled to Europe than to some miserable Asian country. Malaysia and Thailand are not particularly different from us, you know.’ It was a rare exhibition of anger and defiance from Kunjali and Nina was distracted from her worries for an instant. But not for long. How would she react if she ran into Swaroop? What if they ended up having to work together in the same team? She had worked with Swaroop for six months after the incident. She would behave in exactly the same manner. But then, what if Swaroop made another pass at her? No, he was unlikely to do that. What if they were in a third country, like say Indonesia or Thailand and had to stay in the same hotel? She would lock her room at night and not open it to anyone. Not even for room service! Stop being paranoid, Nina told herself.

That evening when Johnny called up, Nina’s mother was having a bath and her father and Sebin were watching TV. Nina wondered for a second if she should confess the whole Swaroop incident to Johnny. She had never told him about it. And what could she tell him now? That a colleague with whom she had been very friendly, had made a pass at her many years ago and now there was a real possibility that she would run into him again. No, she could not tell Johnny all that. He would only get upset. Or, he might get angry. She did not know Johnny well enough to even hazard a guess about his reaction. In any event, he was likely to ask her why she had not told him about this before. And so she engaged in their usual chatter – I’m fine – Are you okay? - How’s the food? Is it a lot of work? I am a bit tired with all the travel – Sebin is fine – He got the third rank in his class. When she was through, she shouted for Sebin who abandoned the television and took the phone. Sebin’s conversation with his father also ran to a pre-determined script. Johnny would ask him a few questions – How was school? Was Sebin studying hard? Didn’t Sebin want to become an IAS officer when he grew up? Most of Sebin’s dialogue revolved around the list of things he wanted his father to bring him when he came home. The list was constantly amended and enlarged. ‘Can you please bring me a super-man tee-shirt when you come home next?’ Sebin asked his father.

‘I’ll try and find one here,’ Johnny promised him. ‘Did one of your friends wear a super-man tee-shirt?’

‘Yes, Gopakumar did. His father bought him a super-man tee-shirt when he went to Delhi.’

Nina’s parents left for Mysore on Saturday, carrying with them a whole load of Keralite sweets and savouries which apparently could not be obtained in Mysore. After they left, Nina had the feeling that she had been abandoned. She would now have to take care of Sebin on her own. Kumudam was not of much help. She came there in the mornings for an hour, cleaned all the utensils and plates, swept the house and left. It’s not such a big deal, Nina told herself as she chopped some vegetables for lunch. Her parents would be back in two months time. Mina had a baby to take care of. But Mina did not have a job. Why did her parents have to abandon her? Oh No! She was being too selfish. It was all in the mind. As long as she was cheerful and maintained a can-do attitude, she could survive.

Nina’s good cheer survived the weekend. On Monday, she gave a final briefing to Sebin. On getting off the bus, he had to go across to Inkachee’s house. He was not to make a nuisance of himself and was expected to conduct himself in a manner that would show his family, especially his mother in a good light. In return for all that, he could expect to be given a glass of milk and some biscuits. It felt strange to lock up the house as she left for work in the morning. Normally Nina caught a bus which passed by the Simhapara bus stop at eight fifteen in the morning. But since Sebin’s school bus arrived only at eight thirty, she could not take her usual bus. She saw Sebin off before catching a bus at eight forty. She would still be in time – office officially started at nine thirty, even though she would have preferred to reach office at her usual ten past nine.

At work, the Director called a meeting of all ROs and both the SROs. He explained to them that the Institute was to be involved in an EU-funded project, which was quite prestigious. It would involve a fair amount of work for everyone, in addition to what they were doing. He was hopeful of hiring a couple of ROs to handle the extra work, but till then, they would all have to chip in. Most of the ROs looked enthusiastic about the project, but a few looked as if they would rather not have more work heaped on their plates. That evening, as Nina was about to leave for the day, the Director forwarded to Kunjali and Nina an email he had received from Leuven setting out the scope of the project. Nina looked at the various recipients of the initial email. There was at least one from each university or research centre. There he was - - one of the last email IDS on the mailing list. So Swaroop was involved in the project. There was only one other person from his research centre. Which meant Swaroop was doing quite well, Nina told herself. Well, she did not have to meet him for the next two months. No overseas travel for her till her mother got back from Mysore, the Director had said. Nina switched off her computer and left the office, before the Director could call her into his room for any further discussion. She caught a fast passenger bound for Mundakayam. As she sat in the bus, her thoughts drifted to Swaroop. Had she done anything which invited that sort of behaviour? Men being men, were bound to latch on to the saree nearest to them. She ought to have maintained some distance from Swaroop. But she had done nothing wrong! She wished she had told Swaroop’s wife Trisha what had happened. But then, nothing had happened. Swaroop had not done anything wrong or illegal. A bored Swaroop had asked her if she wanted to go for a movie with him. While Trisha was away. Did Swaroop tell Trisha what had happened after she got back? Would be dare tell Trisha that he had tried to get Nina spend a Saturday with him? Nina had not met Trisha after that incident. Maybe she should have paid Trisha a visit and told her what happened. Maybe she could have made it sound like a joke. You know Trisha, your husband wanted me to go for a movie with him on a Saturday. He actually expected me to travel to Kottayam from Simhapara just for that purpose. That would have got Swaroop into trouble. But then, he was still a superior at work. He could have made life miserable for her. No, not Swaroop. He was too decent to do that. But then, he had done what he did.

Nina reached Simhapara just before six thirty. She rushed to Inkachee’s house, to find that Sebin was having a good time with Inkachee’s son. They were playing some sort of game, running around the house. Nina thanked Inkachee quite profusely. Vimal avoided Nina’s eyes as she said goodbye to him. He seemed to an exceptionally shy man who was at ease with children.

‘What did you do?’ Nina asked Sebin as they walked home.

‘Vimal-chettan and I played hide and seek. It was good fun.’

‘Are you hungry?’

‘No, I’m not hungry. I ate some vattayappam’

But you don’t like vattayappam.

‘Vimal-chettan ate vattayappam and so did I.’

Nina breathed a sigh of relief. The two months would go by fast.

The next day, the emails started coming in thick and fast. The Director got tired of forwarding emails to them and instead emailed the project coordinator in Belgium and recommended that Kunjali and Nina be added to the mailing list. That evening onwards, they started getting emails directly. The mailing list got bigger as many email IDs from across the world were added to it. There were so many reports and proposals to be submitted. At five in the evening, Nina admitted to herself that she was going to be late. She called up Inkachee and told her that she would get home only by eight or so.

‘Don’t worry. Sebin and mon are having a good time. Come home whenever you can.’

It was seven fifteen when Nina managed to leave. When she got to Inkachee’s house, she found Sebin, Inkachee and Inkachee’s son on the sofa watching TV. As they walked home, Nina asked Sebin, what did you do? Did you watch TV all evening?’

‘No, we played a game for sometime.’

‘Did you have a good time?’

Sebin giggled and said ‘Yes.’

‘What game was it?’

Sebin giggled and said, ‘I won’t tell you.’

Nina didn’t care less. As long as Sebin was happy, it was fine. Thank God for Inkachee and her son Vimal.

The next day, even before mid-day, Nina knew that she was headed for another late evening. She called up Inkachee, who did not seem to mind.

That afternoon, Kunjali came to her room as she ate her lunch.

‘I say, has Swaroop sent you any email?’

‘To me? No? I am sure Swaroop will copy us all in if he were to email us.’

‘No, I mean, I saw an email from Swaroop to the Director saying Hi and asking how things are. I wondered if he has sent you something similar.’

Nina did not bother to ask Kunjali where he saw Swaroop’s email to the Director. The Director’s secretary printed off all his emails. Kunjali must have seen a printout. ‘No, he has not sent me any personal email.’

‘Weren’t you both good friends?’

What’s wrong with you all? Nina wanted to scream. Didn’t you notice that I had practically stopped speaking to Swaroop during his last six months here? ‘Yes we were. I mean, we are.’ ‘I was going to send him an email saying Hi! I’ve just been so busy. Shall I copy you in when I do that?’

‘Perfect! Please do that. In fact, you ought to have done that earlier. It makes sense to maintain all friendships. You never know when they will come in handy.’

Nina didn’t have a response to that. She was pretty sure she did not want Swaroop’s help at any point. ‘Don’t we have to prepare our weekly report?’ she asked Kunjali.

‘Yes, I was thinking of that. Shall we do it Friday morning? Something quite brief. I don’t think anyone at the Ministry reads our report anyway!’

‘Won’t the Director want it first thing Friday morning?’

‘Oh, he is as busy as we are. I spoke to him some time ago. If we can give him the report by noon, that’s good enough.’ With that Kunjali left Nina to her devices.

Post lunch, Nina drafted an email to Swaroop. She kept it simple.

Hi! Swaroop. How are you? Killing yourself with work as usual? All of us here send you our regards. That would tell him there were no personal feelings. It was only a collective message. All the best for this project. Nina.

She would not even say best regards. Swaroop ought to realise that Nina did not want anything other than a professional relationship. However, before sending the email, she changed her mind. What if Swaroop thought Nina was all set to become friends once more. He had misunderstood her before. Why shouldn’t he make that mistake again? Why on earth did Swaroop have to think that just because her husband was not around, she was available? She discarded the email and tried to focus on her work. After an hour of staring at her computer screen, she decided to write another email to Swaroop, something even simpler than the one she had discarded.

Hi! Swaroop. Regards from all of us here. Nina

She was about to sent it off when she realised that Kunjali would guess things were not alright. She had wasted a lot of time on this already. Quickly, she retyped her previous email. Before sending it, she had a quick rethink. And then, instead of sending it, she saved it as a draft email. She would send it out only if Kunjali reminded her again. Maybe he would get exasperated and email Swaroop directly.

By the time it was six, Nina estimated that she had another five hours of work. Damn. She had wasted so much time on that email. No, she would just pack up and leave in an hour’s time. Quickly she made a list of things that she had to finish before leaving for the day. She was getting a pain in her neck, after being cooped up in front of the computer for so long. She got up and decided to walk around. Four of the ROs were still around, milling around a plastic basin with some samples in it. Kunjali was busy with a sample kept in a corner of his room. Nina went back to her desk.

Unlike the previous night, Sebin was not in the main drawing room when Inkachee opened the door and let Nina in.

‘Where’s Sebin?’ Nina asked Inkachee who was watching a movie.

‘He’s with mon. They spent most of the evening in mon’s room playing snakes and ladders.’

‘Moné, Sebin’s mother is here,’ Inkachee bellowed.

Sebin was strangely silent as Vimal led him out of the room. Sebin’s school bag was in the drawing room. Nina picked it up. When she straightened up, Vimal had disappeared back into his room.

‘Did you have a good time?’ Nina asked Sebin as they walked home,

Sebin was silent. It was as if he could not make up his mind whether he had a good time.

‘Do you like that Chettan?’

‘Yes, I do. He is quite nice,’ Sebin said. He thought hard and repeated, ‘he is a good Chettan. Nina was satisfied. She didn’t give a damn if Vimal was too shy to say a word to her.

They got home and Nina started preparing dinner, while Sebin did his homework. He continued to be silent while they ate dinner. Nina was tempted to ask him if he was upset on account of her working late, but decided not to. A leading question like that would give him the idea that Nina was bound to get home by six thirty.

‘Sebin is hiding his smile,’ Nina said. It was a game they used to play when Sebin was younger. ‘Sebin is hiding his smile,’ Nina repeated. Sebin continued to look glum. ‘Sebin eeees hiiii-ding his smiiiiile,’ Nina said for the third time, drawing out each syllable. At that Sebin started to smile. It was a wan smile as if he were still troubled by something.

‘Is everything okay at school?’ Nina asked him.

Sebin nodded.

It was nine by the time they finished dinner. They both went off to bed, with Sebin cuddling up to Nina as they said their daily prayers. Nina was quite exhausted and fell asleep promptly as soon as the prayers were over. The next day morning, she gave Sebin a bath before getting him dressed. Sebin unusually seemed to be unwilling to take his bath. He fidgeted under the shower and managed to get Nina thoroughly wet.

‘Can’t you stay still Sebin?’ Nina asked him in exasperation. ‘We don’t have much time. The anger in her voice made Sebin stay still. Yet another day, Nina thought as she showered quickly without getting her hair wet and got dressed. Thankfully, it was already Thursday. She would get a breather in a day’s time. At work, things seemed to be getting busier and busier. There was a lot of discussion regarding the exact scope of the project. Emails flew back and forth and there was an email from Swaroop as well. That email was not addressed to her, but it seemed to be an invasion into her personal space. Which reminded her that she had not sent off the email saved in her drafts folder. She wondered if she should send it to Swaroop. No, she could not do that. She would have to reply to his email. She could copy the text she had drafted and send it as a reply to Swaroop’s mail. Nina started to do that and then changed her mind. She would wait till evening and then send it to Swaroop. Hopefully, Swaroop would have left for the day by the time she sent it. Wasn’t Malaysia two and a half hours ahead of India?

At six in the evening, she got an email from Kunjali addressed to Swaroop, copying her. It was a longish email where Kunjali had briefly explained how things were and the various things that had happened ever since Swaroop had quit. ‘We all look forward to working with you,’ Kunjali had ended his email. Had he guessed that something was amiss between Swaroop and her? Nina wondered. Thank God Kunjali was not the gossiping type. Hopefully, he would keep his thoughts to himself. She decided to send Kunjali an email – something light such as – you beat me to it. No. Nina changed her mind. What was the point? Kunjali was bound to have guessed that something was wrong. There was nothing to be gained by sending him an email.

That evening, Sebin showed all signs of heading for a tantrum. It was eight thirty by the time Nina reached Simhapara. Inkachee was watching a TV show when Nina knocked on the door. Sebin and Vimal came out of Vimal’s room where they were playing snakes and ladders.

‘Can you hear the door bell inside your room?’ Nina asked Vimal.

‘Yes, they can,’ Inkachee replied before Vimal could. Please give your son a chance to speak, Nina wanted to tell Inkachee.

‘Shall we go Sebin? Have you finished your game?’ Nina asked Sebin.

‘Yes, we just finished,’ Sebin spoke in a wooden manner. He then picked up his school bag and prepared to walk out of the house. ‘Goodnight Inkachee, Goodnight Vimal,’ Nina told Inkachee and Vimal as she held the door open.

Vimal smiled her goodbye without opening his mouth. ‘Goodnight Nina. Goodnight Sebin,’ Inkachee intoned, her fingers itching to turn up the TV’s volume.

‘Sebin, say goodnight to Inkachee and Vimal-chettan,’ Nina reminded Sebin. Sebin turned around, mumbled goodnight and started to walk homewards. Nina had to walk fast to catch up with him.

Nina offered her hand to Sebin for him to hold on to, but Sebin brushed it aside. She then tried to place her arm on his shoulder but he brushed it aside. It was as if he did not want any contact with Nina.

‘Have you finished your homework?’

‘No, I have not.’

‘Do you have a lot of homework?’

‘No, not much.’

‘What do you have?’

Sebin was silent.





‘Social studies?’


‘So, its only Maths?’

‘No. Hindi as well.’

‘It’s already eight thirty. When will you finish your homework?’ Nina asked Sebin.

‘I’ll finish Maths tonight. Hindi I will do in the morning.’ Thank God Sebin always had his homework under control. Nina impulsively hugged him and Sebin pushed her back with equal force.

Things went further downhill on Friday. Sebin’s school bus was ten minutes late and consequently Nina managed to get to her office only by quarter to ten. Thankfully, the Director wasn’t around. When she opened her mailbox, she found Swaroop’s reply to Kunjali’s email, which was copied to Nina. It was almost a point by point response to everything Kunjali had asked him, with a brief paragraph about his wife and two daughters. It seemed as if Swaroop had decided to respond in kind to Nina’s frosty silence. His email did not ask Nina a single question. Not even a word about Sebin. Nina was quite hurt and then felt relieved. This was the beginning of a new equation. They would keep their distance, but be civil to each other. That was the word – civil. Nina decided to send a civil email to Swaroop.

Hi Swaroop. I’ve been extremely busy and hence could not email you before. I am glad to know that Trisha and the kids have adjusted to life in KL. I am doing fine. Johnny came home on vacation and went back a month ago. I look forward to working with you. Regards Nina.

Nina copied Kunjali and clicked on ‘send’ before she could change her mind. That was a big weight off her mind. There were so many things for her to do, many of them chores carried over from yesterday. Kunjali would want her help in preparing the report. Should she go over to his room and ask him when he wanted to get started on the report? No, let him come over to her room. No, No. If she started working on something and then Kunjali wanted to work on the report, she would have to abandon what she was doing. Nina walked across to Kunjali’s room and caught him reading her email. ‘When would you like to finish off the report?’ she asked him.

‘Right now? Shall we finish it off?’

‘Why not?’ Nina was glad that Kunjali did not comment on her email. Most probably he was dying to know why Nina and Swaroop were so distant from each other. Why couldn’t they all behave the way people were reputed to behave in western countries? Without being curious about the personal lives of their colleagues. Apparently, in the west, people sitting next to each other in an office did not know whether one was married or how many kids the other had. If she were working at a place like Leuven, no one would know that Johnny was away in Qatar and she lived on her own for eleven months every year.

They got cracking on the report. Kunjali knew what he was doing and soon the report was ready. They had taken less than an hour to do it.

When Nina went back to her room, she found an email from Swaroop. This one was not copied to Kunjali.

Nina, I am so glad you have emailed me. I have been quite worried. You see, I thought you are still angry with me. I am glad to know that we can be friends. I am sure we will see each other soon. I shall send you a more detailed email soon. This project is killing me. How are you coping with the additional work?

The email hit Nina like a punch to her head. She thought she had just established a civil equation with Swaroop. And now, he was trying to get friendly once more. She would not reply to his email. Resolutely she moved it to her ‘discard’ folder where she stored emails which she did not want to delete, but which were unlikely to be needed. She had so many things to do. She grit her teeth and started working through them. The most pressing item was a note on the root wilt disease which affected coconut palms. Two of the ROs had prepared a two page note, which Nina had to finalise. It was going to be yet another late evening. Johnny would call up at around eight in the night. She would have to get home before that. She would leave by six, come what may. Maybe she would carry home some work. She had never done that before. Swaroop’s email kept intruding into her thoughts and just before she went for lunch, she went to her ‘discard’ folder and deleted it. For good measure, she opened her ‘deleted’ folder and deleted all the emails in that folder. She felt better after that.

Swaroop’s detailed email arrived in the afternoon. Something on the lines of his previous email, but a lot longer. Nina deleted it without even reading it. Just to think that in a couple of month’s time, she would possibly be cooped up in the same hotel as Swaroop in a foreign country!

When she left for the day at six, she knew that she had finished only half of what she ought to have finished. What made things really bad was that so many people were still at work. Most of the ROs were still in office. Both the Director and Kunjali were pouring over reports and emails. The possibility of foreign travel and EU funds seemed to have transformed the Institute. Nina would not have believed it if she had been told government employees in Kerala could be persuaded to work so hard.

Johnny called up at eight thirty. His initial words were, ‘How are things over there?’ For some reason, Nina burst into tears.

‘Nina? Nina? Is everything okay?’ Johnny asked her.

‘I’m so tired,’ Nina managed to say through her tears. Thankfully Sebin was not close by. As soon as they entered the house, he had gone off to a corner to sulk. Nina wept bitter tears into the phone. It took her a couple of minutes to calm down. ‘Its nothing,’ she assured Johnny. ‘I’m just upset. I feel much better after a good cry.’

‘There’s not much I can do from here,’ Johnny told her helplessly.

‘Don’t worry. I’ll handle it. You take care of yourself.’ Nina managed to sound confident.

‘Are you sure?’ Johnny wanted to know.

Of course not, you bastard, Nina wanted to tell him. ‘I’m sure,’ she told him. They kissed over the phone before Johnny asked for Sebin.

‘Moné Sebin!’ Nina hollered for Sebin. There was no response.

‘He is upset about something. I can’t figure out what it is.’

‘Must be the fact that you’re away for so long.’

‘Maybe. Good night then.’

As she hung up, she felt she ought to quit her job. She wasn’t doing the right thing by Sebin. They had enough money and what was the point in working so hard? Oh second thoughts, Sebin would soon grow up and she would be left with nothing to occupy her. No, she could handle it all. She had survived so far. And she would survive another seven weeks.

The weekend went by quite fast. Nina cooked a lot of food and stored it in the fridge. It was one thing to say that food stored in the fridge was not as tasty as freshly cooked food. But it took too much effort to cook food every night after coming home from work. Sebin continued to sulk. He seemed to hate being touched and finally Nina had to let him shower on his own.

Before going to school on Monday, Sebin surprised her by asking if he could take the house keys with him.

‘Why do you need the house keys?’ Nina asked him with amusement.

‘I’ll come home from school and stay here.’

‘Don’t you like to go to Inkachee’s house?’

‘I’ll stay here.’

‘No, I want you to go to Inkachee’s house when you get back. It’s not safe here.

Sebin was silent.

‘Sebin is hiding his smile.’ Nina said, hoping to draw out Sebin.

‘Sebin is hiding his smile.’ Nina repeated.

‘Sebin eeees hiding his smiiiiile.’ Nina said once more to no avail. Sebin’s smile stayed hidden as Nina saw him off on his school bus.

She got another email from Swaroop in the afternoon. It was a one-liner. ‘Nina, please don’t be angry with me.’

Nina knew she had to reply to Swaroop. Tell him that she had trusted him and valued his friendship but he had been very wrong to ask her what he had asked her that Wednesday evening. And she did not trust him any more to behave himself. She also felt betrayed. And so she did not want to be friends with him. But could she say all this in an email? Emails were never fully erased. A record always stayed on some server somewhere in the world. But what the heck, what were the chances of someone reading her email to Swaroop? No, she would send him a letter by post. A long letter telling him why he was such a shit. She would do it over the weekend. In the meantime Mr. Swaroop Thomas, I have work to do.

At around five thirty, her phone rang. It was Inkachee.

‘Do you know what Sebin mon did? He did not come home after getting off the school bus!’

‘No! Where did he go? Where is he now?’

‘Don’t worry. Mon went looking for him. He was sitting on the doorstep in your house!’

‘Where is he now?’

‘In our house. With mon. In mon’s room. When mon found him, he came back quietly with mon, like a lamb.’

‘I’m so sorry to cause you so much trouble.’

‘That’s okay. I just wanted to let you know. Will you be very late today?’

‘I will be, I’m afraid.’ She had forgotten that she had promised to call up Inkachee if she was going to be late.

‘Don’t you worry. Take your time. We’ll look after Sebin.’

Thank God for Inkachee, Nina told herself as she hung up. And thank God for Vimal as well.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Book review: The Stone Woman by Tariq Ali

The Stone Woman is the third book in Tariq Ali’s Islam Quintet. Set at the turn of the twentieth century as the six hundred year old Ottoman Empire slowly flickers out, the Stone Woman revolves around the family of Iskander Pasha, who live in a remote palace ‘not too distant from Istanbul’. Iskander Pasha is a retired diplomat who had once graced the French court and the salons of Paris and is the descendent of Yusuf Pasha, a courtier at the Ottoman court.

The novel derives its name from an ancient rock in the palace garden, roughly shaped like a veiled woman, probably once worshipped by pagans as a goddess. Ali has each of his main characters make their way to the Stone Woman and pour out their feelings and emotions. In that sense, the Stone Woman is a collection of various personal tales of the various members of the cast. Unlike the first two books in the Islam Quintet, the Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree and the Book of Saladin, there is no single strand of storyline that runs from beginning to the end.

The Stone Woman gives its readers a feel of Ottoman society as it existed then. Iskander Pasha’s family cannot be classified as commoners, and just as in the case of the Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, aristocrats and their servants form the main cast. Ali tells us of a dying empire where the Sultan and the mullahs or the ‘beards’ are in control and where innovation is frowned upon. Not just the printing press, but even clocks have been banned. The muezzin’s call to prayer is the only means of knowing the time. The reader is forced to wonder, can this be the same Ottoman Empire which in 1453 captured Constantinople (or Istanbul) from the Byzantines using the most advanced cannon of those times? The Ottomans were definitely the masters of innovation then. Tolerant Sunnis, they managed to run an inclusive empire where Arabs, Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Bedouins, Greeks and Slavs were all invited to the party.

In the course of telling his tale, or rather collection of tales, Tariq Ali makes references to various historical events. The increasing animosity between the Kurds and the Armenians (which would later lead to the massacre of 2 million Armenians during the First World War) is brought out very well. To start with, it’s a simple case of the Armenians having some of the best land and the Kurds coveting the land. The inception of the Young Turks movement is also built into the storyline. A young officer named Kemal Pasha makes a few cameo appearances. The Young Turks have contempt for the decadent Ottomans. They want to create a pure Turkish state where there will be no place for Armenians or Greeks. Some of the minor stories are not really relevant to this story, but they are interesting as well, such as the rivalry and differences between the Ommayads and the Abbasids and the reasons for the defeat of the Ottomans at Vienna in 1683.

The main or rather only the problem I have with this story is the same problem I had with the Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree and the Book of Saladin. In this story, Ali’s cast lead a life that would be called ‘liberal’ by even modern-day standards. Iskander Pasha’s brother Mehmed and his gay partner, a German Baron, have an open relationship. Iskander’s third wife is Sara, a Jewish woman. Sara was in love with Suleman, another Jew, but could not marry Suleman. After she was betrothed to Iskander, she made sure she became pregnant with Suleman’s child before marrying Iskander. Iskander eventually gets to know of this, but does not really mind, because he is a man for whom ‘blood relations don’t matter in the least’. Iskander loves Sara’s daughter Nilofer as much as any of his biological children. For the same reason, when Iskander gets to know that woman he had an affair with in France (during his diplomat days) had his child, he does not particularly want to meet that child.

Nilofer is allowed to marry Dmitri, a Greek school teacher. Nilofer’s love for Dmitri cools after a few years and she abandons him for her father’s palace. When Nilofer is at the Palace, she has an affair with Selim, the family barber’s son. At that time, Dmitri who is alone in Konya, is killed by Turkish fanatics. Very soon, Nilofer marries Selim (who made an officer in the army by her brother, a senior army officer) and they seem to be all set to live happily ever after. One of Nilofer’s brothers marries a Coptic Christian in Cairo and another brother marries a Shia Muslim. Also, in the course of the story, when Iskander Pasha loses his voice (please read this book to find out how and why) and later regains it, he thanks August Comtẻ and not Allah.

I am not too sure if families as liberal as the one described in this story ever lived in the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the twentieth century. May be they did. If they did, Ali would have done well to have told his readers the source of his information.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Short Story: BAD HAIR DAY

Ramani was really exasperated with her daughter. Meera's hair behaved as if a comb had never been run through it in her entire lifetime. This was definitely not a good time for Meera to have a bad hair day. Despite Ramani using an extraordinary amount of force, she found it difficult to force the comb through Meera's hair.

'Aagh, Aagh,' Meera protested as the comb made its way downwards.

'Stay still. It won't hurt if you stay still.' But Meera continued to fidget with pain and impatience, her feet clad in back shoes and black socks, stomping a noisy staccato.

Meera's hair was quite curly and equally unruly. The many litres of coconut oil that had been rubbed into it ever since Meera was born, had made little difference. If Meera's hair wasn't curly, it would have reached her waist. Instead it curled up inwards forming a ball, which did not stretch beyond her nape. Ramani's hair was not much different from Meera's and hence she had no right to complain. Ramani made another valiant attempt to rope all the strands of Meera's hair into a ponytail which she could pin down with the elastic band she held in her hand. A few strands of hair escaped Ramani's clutches, but she decided to ignore them. Her fingers formed a point and dipped into the elastic band. Her fingers then formed a claw, stretching the elastic band by the fingertips. Ramani slid Meera's hair into the enlarged band and withdrew all her fingers except her index finger, which she used to twist the band and form another loop, which doubly secured the hair. Despite Ramani's efforts, Meera's head did not have a pressed look and the ponytail was not more than a few inches long. It couldn't be helped. Ramani glanced at the clock on the wall. It was seven thirty and the school bus would be there by eight fifteen. Forty-five minutes to get Meera to eat some breakfast, finish her homework and walk fifty yards from the gate to the collection point for her school bus. 'Oh my Guruvayoorappa!' Ramani prayed aloud. 'Please don't let Unni wake up.' Unni was only a year old and if he woke up, he would require immediate attention. Ramani did not dare to say it aloud, but it would be equally disastrous if her husband woke up. Nandan had come back from night duty at around five in the morning. On the days when he had night-duty, he usually slept till mid-day, but once in a blue moon, Nandan would wake up at his normal waking hour and demand a cup of coffee.

The moment Ramani was finished with Meera's hair, Meera stood up. She was dressed in her school uniform - a blue and white checked blouse and a dark blue skirt, with black shoes and socks.

'You sit right here,' Ramani pushed Meera back into the dining chair on which she had been sitting. The maid was making dosas and the smell of crisp dosas wafted into the room. For a second Ramani thought that maybe she should get Meera to finish her homework first and then eat breakfast. No, breakfast was more important. To hell with the homework. It was best to get Meera to down a couple of dosas before tackling those exercises and problems.

'Zubeida, can you please bring two dosas to the table here?' Ramani was exquisitely polite to Zubeida. She was quite lucky to have Zubeida who had been with them ever since they moved to Simhapara more than five years ago. It was so difficult to find a good maid and even more difficult to retain one for long.

'Mummy, I'm not hungry,' Meera protested.

'But you have to eat breakfast. And then finish your homework!'

'I don't want breakfast. Not hungry!'

Ramani reconsidered. Maybe Meera should finish her homework and then tackle breakfast. She would be a bit hungry by then. Hopefully.

Zubeida was walking towards them, a porcelain plate with a couple of dosas in her hand. 'Oh dear! Meera is going to finish her homework first and then eat breakfast. Why don't you put them back Zubeida? Or better still, how many have you made so far?'


'Why don't you stop making dosas for a while and eat a few of them yourself?'

Zubeida agreed. Ramani and Zubeida both knew that Meera would not eat a dosa which had gone cold. Meera was pampered. Even Nandan was not so fussy, though he was entitled to.

'Okay, we'll finish your homework and then have breakfast.' Meera looked happy, but was not in her usual talkative mood.

'Bring me your bag,' Ramani commanded Meera who looked around her absentmindedly. It irritated Ramani, but she knew that she did not have the time for quarrels or recriminations. Rather than wait for Meera to make a move, Ramani went to the corner in the drawing room where Meera kept her green school bag. It was all Meera's fault. Meera knew that they would be having guests staying with them over the week-end and ought to have finished her homework Friday evening. Ramani had reminded and prodded Meera so many times that Friday evening, yet Meera had refused to forgo the sitcoms. It was partly Ramani's fault for not switching off the television. But she hated to forgo the two sitcoms which she regularly watched. The first one was at six thirty and the second one at seven thirty. It was the only real entertainment she had. It was such a pity that Meera had got into the habit of watching each of the sitcoms which Ramani watched. Ramani had tried so hard to wean her daughter from the television, but to no avail. Now how was she to finish her homework in time for the school bus? Ramani wiped the sweat off her brow. The few tendrils of hair which fell across her face were also brushed back. Thankfully Meera had made a start with the homework during the thirty-minute break between the two sitcoms. She claimed that she had finished half the English language exercises. That still left half of those exercises. Plus all those Maths problems.

At times like this, Ramani wished that they had not sent Meera to the English medium school she went to. For one, it was ten miles away. But Nandan had been insistent. Even police constables who worked under him did not send their children to the government run school. How could he, a sub-inspector, not send his daughter to St. Mary's? Ramani opened the green school bag and took out the English reader, the Maths text book and the notebook in which Meera wrote out various Maths problems. The books were all carefully bound in brown paper and had labels on them. 'Meera Menon'; 'Grade Two'; St. Mary's'. Ramani then hunted for the light blue pencil box which had to be somewhere inside the bag. She gave up and decided to carry the bag to the dining table. Let Meera find her pencil box. Ramani dumped the school bag on the chair which was on Meera's left. After she carefully laid the books in her hand on the table, she took the chair on Meera's right.

'Where's your pencil box?'

Meera leaned over and picked out the blue pencil box from between two books. 'Miss says I should start using a pen soon.'

'Did she actually say that?' Surely students in grade two were not meant to be using pens! 'Let me speak to her when I meet her next. We'll think of buying you a pen after that.'

'Everyone else in my class has got a pen.'

'Does Rashmi have a pen?'

'Of course she does.'

'I don't think so. Her mother would have mentioned it if she did.'

'You ask her mother. If she says Rashmi has a pen, will I get one as well?'

'Let's see. We don't have the time to discuss all this right now. Do you want to finish your English homework first?' Ramani pushed the English reader towards Meera, who opened it reluctantly.

'Show me, what do you have to do?' Ramani felt guilty. She ought to have asked these questions on Friday instead of watching TV. But what the heck. She was not a student anymore. She had gone through all this ages ago. Actually not. Life was a lot easier for students when she was young.

Meera opened the English reader. 'All the exercises in Lesson Three,' Meera glumly informed her mother. Lesson Three was a short story about a group of friends who went on a holiday to Dehra Dun. There were six exercises, all of them based on the story. To Ramani's shock, she saw that Meera had completed only one of them. 'Didn't you say you had finished half the English homework?' .She shouted at Meera who did not respond. 'Didn't you? Now how will you finish them all this morning?' It was partly her fault, Ramani conceded to herself. She ought not have watched both the sitcoms. No, not really. She did not spend more than an hour watching the sitcoms. It was Meera's fault for playing with her friends till around six in the evening. When she got back home, she was all sweaty and needed a bath. By then it was six thirty. Ramani had used the break in between the sitcoms to help Zubeida prepare dinner. She had trusted Meera to tackle the homework on her own. By the time the second sitcom got over, Nandan had come home and that was it. Their guests, Nandan's sister and husband and their two children, had arrived early in the morning on Saturday. Ramani did not really care to have them, but Nandan was really fond of his sister and Meera got along very well with her cousins. Until the guests departed Sunday evening, the house had reverberated to the cries and shrieks of Unni and the three children. Sunday evening, Ramani had tried to get Meera to finish off the homework, but Meera was too tired and Nandan had persuaded Ramani that Meera could do her homework in the morning before leaving for school. What did Nandan know about doing homework? He had left for his police station at eight in the night, after dinner and come back just before dawn in the morning, only to crash out.

Meera did not respond to Ramani’s accusations. Instead she started to weep. 'Never mind,' Ramani was forced to console Meera. 'We have time to finish it. But let this be a lesson to you.' Privately she admitted to herself that this was more a lesson for herself, than for Meera.

Meera bravely wiped off her tears and started to tackle the homework. The second exercise was a series of jumbled sentences. Meera started to read them through her tear stained eyes. After a few minutes, she started to assign a number to each sentence, which signified the position that sentence would have occupied had they been in the right sequence.

'Wait a minute,' Ramani stopped Meera as she assigned number six to the penultimate sentence. 'Is that correct?' Ramani spoke to herself rather than to Meera. 'Yes, it's correct. Go on, go on.'

It was almost seven fifty. There was hardly any time left. "Zubeida, could you please bring me a dosa for Meera?' Ramani shouted in panic. It took Zubeida a full five minutes to bring a piping hot dosa and a small bowl of sambhar to the table. Ramani could not complain, since she had asked Zubeida to eat the dosas she had made earlier. 'I'll bring one more in just a minute, Zubeida said and disappeared into the kitchen. Meera continued to do her homework. Ramani tore off a piece of dosa, dunked it in the sambhar and shoved it into Meera's mouth.

'Jam,' Meera demanded with her mouth full of dosa.

'No, you eat the dosa with Sambhar,' Ramani insisted.

'Nooo!' Meera started to wail. 'In that case I don't want any dosa.'

Ramani wanted to slap Meera, but that would only make things worse. 'If you eat this one with Sambhar, you can have the next one with Jam,' Ramani promised. Mollified, Meera allowed Ramani to feed her the dosa.

'Zubeida, when you bring the next dosa, do bring the jam bottle as well,' Ramani hollered across.

'The mixed fruit jam and not the pineapple jam,' Meera added. It nearly drove Ramani up the wall. Meera was so much pampered.

'It's the red one, isn't it?' Zubeida shouted from the kitchen.

'Yes, the red one,' Ramani confirmed. 'Can you also fill her water bottle?'

'I've already done that.'

Soon Zubeida brought another dosa to the table. She also brought with her the red water bottle with its white cap tightly screwed shut. Meera had taken a full five minutes to eat the first dosa. And she still had two more exercises to finish. At this rate, there was no way she would finish the Maths homework.

'Zubeida, please come here. Don't make any more dosas now. We'll make them after Meera leaves.'

Zubeida appeared. 'Can you please feed Meera? I must ...'

Zubeida cheerfully took over the job of feeding Meera, standing behind her. Ramani quickly got up and walked over to the wash basin and washed her fingers. Wiping her fingers on a fluffy white towel which she took from the towel rack, she opened Meera's Maths text book and the notebook. 'Tell me quickly, what do you have to do?'

Meera took a minute off from the English exercise. Zubeida also suspended the process of conveying small chunks of the dosa to Meera's mouth. Meera turned the pages of the text book and pointed out a series of multiplication and division exercises to her mother. 'All these which I have marked.' Meera had placed small tick marks against the exercises she had to complete. There were fifteen problems in all. 'Are you allowed to write the answers in the textbook itself?' Ramani asked Meera.

'Yes,' Meera said, only to retract in a second. 'Oh no! In the notebook.' Meera went back to her English homework and Zubeida recommenced the process of feeding her.

Ramani grunted and got up. It meant having to write out all the problems in the notebook. It would have been far easier to write the answers next to the problems in the textbook itself. But Meera's school listed the improvement of handwriting as one of its objectives and students were given as many opportunities as possible to practice writing alphabets and numerals. Ramani took out Meera's Maths notebook and flipped the pages till she came to the last page where Meera had written the numerals in reverse order - from hundred to one. She scanned the problems. Six times seven is ______________. She took out a pencil from the pencil box and started to write out the problems and their answers in the notebook, making a conscious attempt to disguise her handwriting and make it resemble Meera's. She found herself having to pause many times to remember her multiplication tables. It irritated her. When she reached the division exercises, things became easier. Seventy seven divided by seven was a no-brainer. But then it got tougher again. Six hundred and thirty six had to be divided by twelve. Thankfully, there was no need to enter into decimals. She noticed with relief that Zubeida had finished feeding Meera.

'Can you please get her a glass of milk?' Zubeida went off with the empty plate and sambhar bowl and soon returned with a glass of milk with some Complan mixed in it, which she kept on the table.

When Ramani had three problems left, Meera announced with a flourish - 'I've finished.' She put the pencil in her hand into the pencil box. Ramani was tempted to get Meera to finish off the remaining problems, but it was already ten past eight. 'Drink your milk!' Ramani commanded Meera and went back to her task. Meera did not like to drink milk, even though it had Complan mixed in it, but her mother was not in the best of moods. Also, she had done her Maths homework. Never before had her mother done her homework for her. One good turn deserved another. Meera drank the milk in a few gulps and put back the glass on the table. She paused for a few minutes for Ramani to praise her, but none was forthcoming.

'Zubeida, please get her to gargle.' Ramani had been planning to implement the advice she got from one of her friends who had started the practice of brushing her teeth (and getting her children to brush theirs) after breakfast. Makes sense to brush your teeth after dinner and after breakfast, her friend had explained. Ramani did get Meera to brush her teeth before going to bed, but they were all used to brushing their teeth immediately on getting up, rather than after breakfast. Now she was glad that Meera had brushed her teeth in the morning rather than wait till she finished breakfast.

Zubeida gently led Meera to the wash basin and opened the tap. Meera collected some water in her small palm and gargled. Zubeida wiped Meera's face. Ramani finished off the last of the problems. She snapped the notebook shut and grabbed the English and Maths text books from the table. All the books and the pencil box were shoved back into the school bag.

'Come on, let's go.' Ramani grabbed Meera by her hand. Zubeida held the school bag in one hand and the red water bottle by its long strap in another and led the charge to the gate. The collection point for the school bus was fifty yards away. When they reached the gate, Zubeida shouted, 'the bus is already there.' The bus driver knew that Meera was the sub inspector’s daughter and usually waited for a couple of extra minutes. But Ramani hated Meera being late. Besides, what would the other children think? 'We are just in time, I think,' she told Zubeida. Nevertheless, Zubeida ran on ahead and told the bus driver, 'Meera mol is coming.' The driver gave them a cheerful grin. He was an ex-serviceman who had not yet figured out why children had to be put through such a gruelling drill each day of their childhood. As Meera clambered into the bus, Zubeida handed her her school bag and the water bottle. As the bus moved off, Ramani and Zubeida exchanged smiles of relief. It had been an exceptionally bad morning.

They were not natives of Simhapara. Nandan was from Thrissur and Ramani was from Palakkad. When she had got married, Nandan was posted at Allapuzha. Ramani had liked Allapuzha with its waterways and old world charm. They had had a very good time at Allapuzha. Never in her wildest dreams did she imagine that she would end up living in a place like Simhapara. Back in her native Palakkad and Nandan's Thrissur, people spoke of south-eastern Kerala with a mixture of scorn, awe and dread. The place was mountainous and the people were all drunkards and troublemakers. Even the women liked to have an occasional tipple. What else could one expect from people who lived in a place which used to be forest land till seventy years ago? It made sense to keep a safe distance from the Achchayans, as Syrian Christians are referred to, who formed a majority of the people there. But after living in Simhapara for over five years, Ramani had grown to love the place and its people. She still missed the paddy fields and palm trees of Palakkad, but had no hesitation in admitting that Simhapara was equally beautiful with its tall rubber trees which formed canopies over even the KK road, the gurgling streams which seemed to sprout everywhere and the weather, which was a lot more pleasant than that of Palakkad. It was her ambition to climb the Lion-Head one of these days, even though she knew that she would never do that. Whoever had heard of a woman climbing a rock on her own for fun? The people were quite friendly as well, beneath their gruff exteriors. True, they spoke Malayalam in an accent that could only be described as guttural. And they definitely did not have the sophistication or polish which people in Palakkad or Thrissur had.

When Ramani got back, Nandan was cradling a bawling Unni in his arms. 'Why did you both have to leave the house at the same time?, he demanded furiously.

'We had to get Meera to the school bus!'

Nandan was justified in feeling irritated, Ramani told herself as she walked into the kitchen with Unni in her arms, followed by Zubeida. God alone knew how he coped with the rigours of his job. The late nights, the demands of his superiors, the pressure from various politicians, the sheer thankless nature of his job; it was all a bit too much. Surely he was entitled to a few hours of uninterrupted sleep. Zubeida could have seen Meera off on her own. Trust Unni to wake up at the exact moment when she stepped out of the house. Zubeida started to prepare a porridge mix for Unni, without Ramani giving any specific instruction.

After feeding Unni, Zubeida made a few more dosas for Ramani. Ramani did not bother to eat in the dining room. Instead she sat on a stool in the kitchen and ate the dosas which Zubeida made. There was no need to make dosas for Nandan. He would only wake up after noon, just in time for lunch. Ramani and Zubeida lolled around after Ramani's breakfast was over. Sending Meera to school was the main event of the day. Everything else seemed to be anti-climax in comparison. If Nandan weren't sleeping, Ramani would have played some music, or watched some TV. Since she couldn't do anything of that sort, she made plans for lunch straightaway. She would make some avial today. And some rasam. Nandan liked avial and rasam.

The rest of the morning passed by uneventfully. Around eleven thirty, Zubeida left for Meera's school carrying Meera's lunch box. Getting a hot lunch across to Meera had been a problem ever since Meera started going to school. Initially Nandan had arranged for a police constable to deliver Meera's lunch. The constable was not too keen to act as Nandan's personal servant and had started grumbling. The circle inspector who was Nandan's boss had gently suggested that Nandan make alternate arrangements. Ramani tried to persuade Meera to carry the lunch box with her when she went to school in the morning. This meant that Meera would have to eat for lunch whatever she had for breakfast. Meera's rebellion was a lot more vociferous than that of the police constable's. Ever since then, Zubeida made the midday trip to Meera's school. Once in a while Ramani would catch an auto and carry Meera's lunch to Meera's school. Ramani actually enjoyed such trips, for it meant a chance to leave the house. But today, since Nandan was around, there was no question of Ramani leaving the house. Nandan woke up around midday, ate the food which Ramani served him and left for work on his motorcycle. There was nothing much for Ramani to do in the afternoon. Asianet did not have anything interesting, but the cable operator ran a movie which had been released very recently. It was quite clear that the cable operator had obtained a pirated version of the movie. Though the picture quality was very bad, Ramani and Zubeida watched the entire movie. Soon it was time to prepare the evening tiffin and welcome Meera home from school.

The school bus discharged Meera and a few other children at the usual time. There was a mini-riot as the children got out of the bus and ran to their respective homes. Meera's hair was a dishevelled mess, with the elastic band struck somewhere in it. Meera always had so much more energy in the evenings than she did in the mornings. She dumped her school bag and water bottle in the main drawing room and charged into the kitchen. Unlike in the morning, she was unbelievably hungry and effortlessly demolished four parippu vadas. The tall glass of milk with Bournvita mixed in it was not so welcome, but Meera drank it without too much fuss. Once her hunger pangs had been dealt with, Meera started to go off to play with her friends.

'Where are you going?' Ramani called after her.

'To Anju's house. Rita and Sunil will also be there'

'Make sure you are back soon. You cannot watch any TV unless you finish your homework first,' Ramani warned Meera in advance.

Meera frowned. 'Aren't you going to watch ____________________? It was an hour long TV serial which Ramani watched without fail every Monday evening. Last Monday, the step-mother in the serial had started making plans to persuade her husband to re-write his will.

'Oh, I'm going to watch it, but you need to finish your homework before you can watch any TV.'

Meera stood there nonplussed. 'And you need to have a bath before you start studying,' Ramani added for good measure.

'Can't I do my homework at night, after dinner?'

'After dinner you will fall asleep. Unless you finish your homework, you cannot watch any TV. Henceforth, this will be the rule everyday. No TV until you've finished your homework.'

Meera knew that she was cornered. 'So, what time should I come back from Anju's house?'

'I don't know. How much homework do you have?'

'Malayalam, I need to memorise a poem, Science, I have a small class test, and then ....' Meera furrowed her brows. 'That's it. Nothing else.'

'What about Maths?' Ramani demanded. It was rare for the Maths teacher to not to give any homework.

'Nothing. No Maths homework.'

'And English.'

'No English homework either.'

'Are you sure?' Ramani looked at Meera sideways in a manner designed to strike terror and panic in Meera's heart.

'I am sure,' Meera replied.

'Don't you have any Hindi homework?'

Meera drew a sharp breath. They had Hindi classes only thrice a week. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. And she did have to fill a page in her Hindi exercise book.

'Do you have any Hindi homework?' Ramani demanded again. She knew that she had Meera in a trap.

'A little bit,' Meera conceded and giggled. Her mother did not take the bait. Instead she continued to maintain a serious demeanour and said 'You'll need an hour and a half to finish all your homework. So when will you come back home from your play?'

It was all a bit too much for Meera to calculate. She knew that the serial would start at seven. Did that mean she had to start studying at five thirty? 'What time is it now?' she asked her mother.

'It's almost five now. Remember you need to have a bath when you get back from your play.'

Meera's face clouded. 'Can you send Zubeida to call me after a while? I will be at Anju's house.' It was best to leave the calculation of time to her mother.

'Alright,' Ramani conceded. I'll send Zubeida to call you.'

Meera ran off to play, but there was no spring in her step. Ramani went into the house with the satisfaction of having scored a victory over her daughter. Meera's school bag lay abandoned in the drawing room. Ramani made a mental note to buy Meera a larger school bag, one into which Meera's water bottle would also fit. Ramani decided to have a look at Meera's English reader. Meera was bound to have got some of her homework wrong. Ramani took out the English reader and turned the pages to Lesson Three. The teacher had marked the exercises. Meera hadn't done too badly. Only one of her answers was wrong. Not bad, Ramani told herself. She then picked up the Maths notebook. Did the teacher figure out that Meera's mother had done her Maths homework? Ramani turned the pages. What would the teacher do if she realised that Ramani had stepped into her daughter's shoes and imitated her handwriting. To her shock she saw that the teacher had marked three of the answers wrong. How could that be? They were such simple problems. Seven times nine is fifty three Ramani had written. It was a silly careless mistake. And the last two answers were apparently wrong as well. Hundred and ten divided by five is twenty three, Ramani had written. Another careless mistake. And two hundred divided by ten is twenty. Wasn't that right? The teacher had crossed it out and scribbled something next to the answer in a handwriting that was almost illegible. Read the question carefully. That was what the teacher had written. What did she mean? Ramani opened the Maths text book and looked at the question she had copied. Oh! It was three hundred divided by ten and not two hundred divided by ten. In a state of shock, Ramani put back the text books and note book into the school bag. She was no longer sure if she could be so firm with Meera that evening.