An excerpt from Usha Priyamvada’s novel, translated by Charvi Koul
Kaushalya ji’s phone call left Sushma surprised but she still invited her to visit. When she returned home from college she gave Bhauri instructions to get some things for evening tea and then started cleaning her room. She wanted Kaushalya ji to see how well she lived and that she didn’t need anything. She had a high position and respect here. Sushma got the carpet dusted, shifted the furniture and arranged it in a different position, and brought out the rarely used tablecloth and cushion covers for decoration. She cleaned the bedroom herself and got ready before the arrival of the guest. She wore a sap green sari made of chanderi silk and a sleeveless blouse of the same colour. She had a string of pearls on a blue thread around her neck, a small blue tassel hanging off her back. Upon seeing Neel along with Kaushalya ji she was taken aback. But then she told herself that of course, Neel would have come with her.
“You must know him, right Sushma?” Kaushalya ji asked as she sat down. Sushma stood near her, placing her hand on the sofa’s backrest. She smiled a little, looking at Neel. “Yes, you had come to give the saris yesterday.”
Kaushalya ji wasn’t satisfied. “He’s the grandson of my great-grandfather, works at a Philips firm here. It’s a very good job. He lives here with grandfather on Helly Road.”
Sushma listened to the introduction quietly.
“Did you like the saris?”
“Yes, they are very beautiful.”
“The first thing that I did when I came yesterday was to send him here. He refused to come, said what will I do in a girls college? It was very difficult to persuade him. And today morning he said, ‘Aunty, won’t you go visit her?’” She laughed to herself.
Sushma tried to navigate the situation and said, “It’s great that you came, in this foreign city it feels good to meet someone I know.”
“You have decorated this room very well. Did you embroider this tablecloth?”
“No aunty, I don’t have the time! Nirupma, my younger sister, embroidered this.”
“Krishna said she is a beautiful girl. Has her marriage not been decided yet?”
“No, not yet”, Sushma said.
Neel sat quietly, looking at Sushma’s room with an appreciating gaze. Light yellow walls and similar yellow curtains, sandalwood flowers on the glass desk that were so fragrant that their aroma had enveloped him as soon as he entered the room. Neel found his gaze straying towards Sushma again and again. Sushma had long eyelashes and eyes that gave a pearl-like aura and well-formed lips which had a natural gentleness. Her voice was even and tender. while talking about ordinary formalities her sweetness did not lessen.
While talking to Kaushalya ji, Sushma’s eyes slipped towards Neel sometimes. Neel’s behaviour and his easy, open nature touched her heart. He was sitting quietly, looking at the picture of gulmohar flowers on the wall. Sushma’s was filled with heightened curiosity to find out what he was thinking. From his expression, she could see that he was lost in himself which made her restless. She had seen something familiar in Neel’s eyes a few moments ago. Sushma knew she was attractive and she was also not new to men looking at her admiringly. But Neel’s eyes didn’t just hold admiration. Whatever it was, Sushma wasn’t able to bear it.
She asked Kaushalya ji, “Should I get tea for you?”
She got up and went to the door of the porch and heard Neel speaking. “I will have coca-cola…”
Holding the curtain in one hand, Sushma turned to see a mix of curiosity and laughter in Neel’s eyes. Her own eyes sparked with a friendly rebuke. She let go of the curtain and walked back in.
Bhauri brought the food in a tray and set it on the table. After she left, Kaushalya ji asked, “This is your maid? Does she do the work properly or not?”
“She is very shabby but also straightforward and trustworthy, that’s why I’ve kept her.”
Sushma made the tea in the cups. As she gave the cup to Neel she said, “Today you’ll have to drink tea.”
Taking the cup in his hands, Neel turned towards Kaushalya ji to say, “Aunty, she had thought I was a small coca-cola drinking kid. She was very confused when she saw me.”
“And didn’t you think I was an old, dry warden?”
“I don’t know how you are able to maintain discipline. I would never be afraid of you.” Neel’s serious eyes were sparkling with mischief at that moment.
“Why would I even keep you in the hostel?” Sushma immediately said.
Kaushalya ji smiled. “Today Neel has met his match. At home, nobody has the guts to confront him. He’s an only child, all the love and pampering has turned him into a spoiled brat.”
“If everyone showers their love and affection on me then what am I to do?” Neel looked towards Sushma.
“What can I say, I myself have spoiled my brother rotten with love.” Upon thinking about Sanjay, Sushma’s face lit up. She looked at Kaushalya ji and said, “He is very naughty. He believes that he can do anything and his elder sister will save him from the beating and scolding. He’s not scared of mother at all and runs to me whenever something happens.”
“Krishna keeps saying that because of her brothers and sisters Sushma has sacrificed herself.”
Neel saw that this sudden comment shocked Sushma and she went quiet. He didn’t like what his aunt had just said. He tried to lend a helping hand to Sushma and asked, “Did you paint this picture?”
“No, I have a friend — Meenakshi, she bought it for me.”
“Will you take more tea?” she asked Kaushalya ji.
“No Sushma, I had some tea when I left home.”
“No thank you, Neel replied.
He felt that Sushma was not the same as she had been a while ago, she seemed to be trying to maintain her composure with every movement. Unknowingly, someone had struck at Sushma’s weakness. He thought of many topics to bring up into conversation but he wasn’t able to impede Sushma’s silence.
Kaushalya ji stood up. She caressed Sushma’s back lovingly and said, “It felt really good to see you. I’ll send Neel to get you home sometime. Think of it as your own home. If you need anything don’t hesitate, just call Neel.”
Neel listened to his aunt’s words and stood up, a smile on his face.
Note: The translated passage is for academic purposes only and has no commercial application.