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August 05, 2013

The Two Faces Of Radha

Illustration by Salil Sojwal.

A young designer, ferociously fit, the cynosure of all eyes with her body-con clothes. A beggar girl with her children at a street signal. Encountering each other ever so often, prodded by fate. Kiran Manral pens a tale of two girls who share the same name, hail from the same state, but are living out distinctly different destinies

  • The Two Faces Of Radha, Kiran Manral
  • The Two Faces Of Radha, Kiran Manral

It was a hot day, so excruciatingly hot in fact that Radha had the air conditioning turned up to max in her car as she drove down to the lunch meet she had with her lawyer at the J W Marriott. She tapped her fingers at the wheel impatiently as she idled at a red light, waiting for it to turn green when there was a rap at the window. Looking through the corner of her eye, she saw a girl, in her late teens, her hair bleached by the sun and nutritional deficiencies into the kind of highlights that Radha had spent good money and time at B:Blunt to acquire. The girl rapped again, insistently, noting that she had got Radha’s attention. She was carrying a snot-nosed baby tied to her with a cotton sling, a baby that seemed to be in too deep a slumber for it to be natural. Radha had heard stories of how these begging rackets operated, with children being kidnapped and made into cripples. Her bullshit meter rose skywards and she pushed the button to let the window slide down. “Tumhara bachcha hai?” she asked, the scathing edge in her tone at lacerate levels. “Haan,” the girl nodded, gesturing back to a toddler playing with some stones seated on the divider, adding “Aur woh bhi,” in the most matter-of-fact manner, like it was expected of her to produce offspring even before she was legally an adult.

Radha shook her head to clear the red wall of rage bubbling up behind her eyeballs. “What do you want?” she asked, rather unnecessarily, given that the girl obviously was begging at the signal and grabbed her handbag from the adjacent seat where she had flung it, in order to retrieve her wallet. “Thodi si thandi hawa,” the girl replied and put her face down level to Radha’s, closing her eyes, taking in the coolness of the blasts of air coming from the air conditioning, holding up the baby’s face to it. The car behind honked impatiently; the light had changed to green. “Thank you, Madamji,” the girl replied, and moved back into the straggly shade provided by an errant tree on the pavement, dragging her toddler behind her with an ungraciousness tempered with maternal instinct.

Hanut Singh was already at a table when Radha stood at the top of the flight of stairs looking down at the expanse of the Lotus Café that looked out onto a pretty Zen garden, complete with lotus pools to go with the name of the café and the huge picture windows meant to admire them. He waved at her as she scoured the premises for him, and rose to his feet as she descended. She was well aware of the fact that every eye in the café was on her; she had that effect wherever she went and did her best to maximise it by wearing body-con clothes that accentuated every curve of her ferociously fit body. “So good to see you!”

“You too, HS, you’re looking much fitter, have you been working out?”

“The same old routine, but I’ve cut out carbs and switched to a raw food diet for the past three weeks,” he replied. Hanut was a true blue metrosexual male, who coordinated his tie with his socks and discussed facials, Brazilian blowouts, fish pedicures and intense diets with no tinge of embarrassment whatsoever. He was also her family lawyer, to be more accurate, his father had been her father’s lawyer and now Hanut had taken over the baton, given that the old gentleman had retreated into a slow decline into Alzheimers.

“So what is this about me needing to go back to the native village and living there in order to inherit the haveli?”

“Sorry, that’s a clause in your grandfather’s will, there’s nothing we can do about it. You need to live there, alone, for three months in order to inherit the property, or we have to sell it off and give the proceeds to a charity trust that will work towards modernising the village.”

Radha rolled her eyes. Her grandfather, for all his Oxford education, was a son of the soil till the last, and an eccentric one at that. “I can’t imagine living there for three months – does it have to be three continuous months, or can I make trips in the course of the year, equalling three months?”

“Unfortunately, three months at a stretch – and no, you can’t take anyone with you; you have to go there alone.”

She drummed her fingers on the table, barely registering the immaculate white table linen and the buffed-to-reflective-levels cutlery. “There is no way I can get out of this?”

“None.”

“Dammit HS, I thought you would find a way to get me out of this one.” She pulled out her pack of Marlboros and fidgeted uneasily with them, wondering whether the risk of smoking in a restaurant was worth taking or whether she should excuse herself and smoke one furtively outside the lobby. The thought of standing in that raw, blistering May heat made her put the pack back into her bag. Maybe, she thought to herself, I should get myself those nicotine patches for such moments when I need a smoke and can’t get one.

“Sorry. No can do.”

The meal ended, despite the forced gossip about who was sleeping with whom and who was going bankrupt and who had made a complete ass of themselves in a public situation and who was getting blackmailed by their lovers. While driving back home, which was barely 10 minutes away, Radha got the red light again at the signal where she had met the girl earlier.

She looked around for the girl and her two children, and didn’t spot them at first. It was only as the light segued into green that she spotted them on the opposite side of the road, eating something that a passing car had probably handed over to them. Leftovers perhaps.

Radha thought of her plateful of pasta, which had passed almost untouched back into the kitchen after two moody forkfuls and felt the waves of guilt knock her down.

She drove past quickly, and for the next few days whenever she passed that spot, she kept her windows up and refused to look around for the girl and her two children. As she slept at night, snug under her duvet, with the air conditioning blasting jets of hot air out into the neighborhood, she would get, for a small moment, a vision of a young face, the hair untidy, the dirt marks scouring up what would have been a golden complexion had it not seen so much relentless sun exposure, the eyes squeezed shut, taking in the cool air emanating from the slats of the air conditioner on the dashboard. The next morning as she drove past on her way to the store, there was a rap again at her window. The girl smiled, the baby suckling at her breast, she seemed too thin, too malnourished to be producing anything the baby could survive on. “Hawa,” she mouthed. Radha pressed the button to let the window slide down. The girl closed her eyes and took the blast of cool air with a reverent expression. The cars ahead had got themselves into a mangled jam and were taking their time to extricate themselves. Drivers were emerging from the vehicles and engaging in long drawn verbal duels. “Kahaan ki ho?” she asked the girl. “Rajasthan,” she replied, naming a village that was in the vicinity of her own. “How did you land here, where are your parents?”

“Back in the village,” she replied, her face expressionless, her Hindi infused with an all too familiar dialect harkening back to the arid sands of the desert. “I ran away with a boy from a neighbouring village. He sold me to another man, who pimped me. I serviced almost 20 men in a day. When I got pregnant, they threw me out on the streets. I’ve lived on the streets since.”

Radha closed her eyes. When she had gotten pregnant for the first time, at 16, her boyfriend’s parents had taken care of it all. She knew, in her heart, how old her baby would have been if she had had it then. If someone had asked her, she would have said without missing a beat, 12 years, four months. She had no idea where the boy who impregnated her was today, the last she had heard from the common grapevine of old school mates was that he had settled down in Australia. She had been through many other boyfriends since. Their faces merged into a continuous whole, as did their bodies. She pressed a 500-rupee note into the girl’s hand. “Buy the kids some food. And eat some yourself. What’s your name?”

“Radha,” came the reply.

Ten days later, Radha was to leave for the three months she was to spend in the village. This is what happened when one was the only fruit from the current generation alive and kicking on this family tree, the only contender for the ownership of the haveli, her first cousin Raunak having died in a horrific car crash on the Mumbai-Pune expressway, after what was rumoured to be a drug-fuelled rave party on the outskirts of Lonavala.

The short flight to Jaipur was followed by a long drive through the blistering desert to where the horizon shimmered in a haze and the dark Tag Heuer Zenith Sun bought for her last skiing trip to Chamonix was little protection from the intensity of the sun coming directly onto her retina. She reached the haveli a little before dusk, the haveli that would pass into her hands now that her grandfather, the patriarch of the family, had passed away, in a departure of the tradition that it should go to a male. Her father and her paternal uncle had passed away in quick succession a few years ago. Her mother had immersed herself into Krishna Consciousness and now practically lived at the ISKCON Centre down the road. The family tree had dried up.

The old caretaker of the haveli greeted her with a curiously restrained joy as the car drove into the wide gates. He had been with the family all his life and had seen her grow up from a little girl who visited during school vacations into the grown woman she was now. She hadn’t visited for a while, for years in fact. Despite her grandfather’s constant exhortations to visit, there was always something to be done – a collection to be completed and showcased, the store to be run, demanding clients to be catered to. Three months away was a huge risk, despite the Internet and very capable assistants to handle things away, in her absence, but losing the haveli to a trust was not something she could risk. Within her, a fierce love for her ancestry bubbled and simmered beneath the urbane surface of the city slicker.

All through the first week, she worked ferociously via her laptop, doing FaceTime with clients, Skypeing through meetings with suppliers and her karigars at the workshop, blasting her underlings via e-mails and phone calls. By the second week, she found herself tapering down her work, delegating stuff to her underlings, spending more time downloading books on her kindle, watching movies on the old box set that paradoxically received all the channels possible thanks to a satellite dish installed on the upper reaches of the haveli, angled appropriately to catch signals, and needing to be turned back into position post a dust storm of vicious levels. She spent her days lounging in a recliner in the courtyard, flipping through pages of books she had long wanted to read but had never found the time to do so. By week three, she had told her assistants not to take any further orders for customised designs until further notice and by week four, she had stopped calling into the store or the workshop and communicated via an end of day email to check sales and orders. She walked through the village, met the people who had known her since she was a baby, who took her into their homes and their hearts; she dropped by the village school and sat there for a couple of hours every day, teaching rudimentary English and Math to the bright-eyed children who skipped in without fail every single day.

She did away with her quinoa and iceberg and crouton salads with pine nuts, dribbled with honey mustard, surrendering to the pleasure of a cuisine that took her back to her childhood, when life was simpler and food was not measured out in calories, and found herself armed with an appetite she had long given up on. She stopped her daily workouts too, following her long treks through the sandy lanes of the small town to the outskirts of the village, where she would meet with folk singers, record their music and play the music back to herself at night, to soothe herself to sleep in the echoing loneliness of the big, crumbling haveli, its plaster peeling off in morose bits and pieces, the carved doors sighing as they opened and shut, its rooms haunted with unseen anklet-clad feet wandering in the deep of the night and its walls bearing secrets that beckoned her, compelling her to wander through the rooms in moonlight, thinking back to the voices that echoed in its courtyards from her childhood when the extended family lived there, or visited during the school vacations and the cousins played hide-and-seek in its many rooms, where pranks with bed sheets over children became ghosts and those memories were now the ghosts that haunted the haveli.

She returned to Mumbai after three months, her skin tanned to a crisp leatheriness, the sudden premature onset of crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes from squinting into the distance without sunglasses, and her hair brittle with the hard well water that was drawn up every day for her to bathe. She had segued into comfortable kurtis and jeans from the body-con designer wear she had lived in, and she no longer felt the need to tower over everyone in the immediate vicinity in her six-and-one-fourth-inch Loubs.

The day after she returned, she drove herself to the Marriott again, to meet HS, to read through the documents transferring the ownership of the haveli to her from her deceased grandfather. The car stopped at the signal, like it had over three months ago. The same young girl stood by the window again, the baby no longer in a sling in the front but strapped to her back. Her belly was slightly swollen with child again. She rapped at the window of the car and Radha pressed the button to let the glass slide down smoothly. The air conditioning wasn’t on full blast; it was an overcast monsoon day. “Kaisey ho, madamji? Bahut dino baad dikhey…” she asked, with the familiarity of one who has been expecting Radha to pass by every single day. “Yeh kya?” Radha replied, indicating the swollen belly. The girl sighed. The baby on her back began bawling uncontrollably, her eyes were a mix of anguish and maternal concern. Radha paused, registering vaguely that the signal had turned green and the cars ahead of hers had begun inching forward. She noted that the girl’s arms were little more than skin stretched on bone, that her stomach was protruding precariously. “Gaaon wapas jaaogi, Radha? I could send you back home, back to your parents.” The other Radha shook her head in the negative. “No one will take me back in the house. My father will hack me and my children to pieces. I’m better here on the road. At least I’m alive.”

The cars behind had begun honking in a disconcerting cacophony. Radha fished out two notes from her handbag and gave them to the girl, put the window up, shut the other Radha out, and drove on. The next day onwards, she took an alternate route.

Q & A with KIRAN MANRAL

HOW’S THE TRANSITION FROM JOURNALIST TO AUTHOR?
As an author, one does require a fair amount of journalistic skills – in that one is passionately curious about things, is always observing things, and there is this need to unearth the back stories about people and events. Journalism does give one the discipline to stick to one’s narrative, to keep the facts, the skeleton of the story in place and to build from there. I don’t think I ever felt like a journalist at heart though, I think I was always an author who dipped briefly into journalism.

YOU WRITE ABOUT PARENTING, SERIOUS SOCIAL ISSUES, HUMOUR THROUGH BLOGS AND MEDIA. DO YOU BELIEVE JOURNALISM HAS A CRITICAL ROLE TO PLAY IN MAKING A DIFFERENCE TO AN APATHETIC WORLD?
Absolutely. We’ve gone from an era of state controlled electronic media to a time now where we have more news channels than we could care to watch. The world is not apathetic, the world needs to know and needs facts presented without bias or prejudice.

YOU’VE BEEN INVOLVED WITH CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE (CSA) AWARENESS MONTH AND ARE A FOUNDER OF INDIA HELPS. IS IT EASIER TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE HANDS-ON THAN MERELY THROUGH WRITING?
India Helps is a hands-on network of volunteers while CSA Awareness Month is a social media driven awareness initiative, where one does, in effect, merely write. But having said that, I believe both play their part; you need hands-on work to get things done, and you also need to talk about issues to get people to notice and acknowledge them and in some way change attitudes.

DO YOU FIND THE NEW-AGE WRITER WEARING DIFFERENT WRITING HATS (AND NOT ALWAYS EASILY)?
But that’s the entire fun of it now, I would think. I’m on Twitter a lot, I write short blogs, essays for more serious issues, and, of course, fiction and I enjoy the diversity that the new forms offer one. Not just form, but also function – writers today have morphed into marketing folk as well, given the amount one has to do, to actually sell one’s book, via social media, event appearances and such. Writers 30 years ago had the luxury of writing their books and staying cocooned, we have no such luck. But, this is what makes it fun for me!

– Sitanshi Talati-Parikh

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