Ring Road: Exclusive Extract by Janice Pariat
Anita first saw him on the side of the Ring Road. The biggest…no that can’t be right…the longest road in Delhi, someone had told her.
But it’s a ring road, she pointed out, it never ends.
Precisely, was the reply.
The city scared her still; she’d hardly been there two months and she felt as though she’d never get used to its size. The wide roads, a gigantic network of veins, the city’s circulatory system perpetually pulsating with traffic. Loud and aggressive, where the lowly rickshaws made way for the irate Hondas who in turn humbled themselves before the speeding, lurching DTC buses. The sheer number of people who looked as though they’d lived there all their lives; so comfortable with, such a jubilant part of the chaos. She hesitated even to cross the road not knowing whether to avoid the ambling cow or the scooter hooting mightily at her.
That was why he caught her eye. The first time she saw him, he was holding a rolled-up newspaper, waving it in the air. Else a bunch of flowers or a bright vermillion scarf. Sometimes he brandished nothing at all. He also caught her eye because he was standing on a platform that blossomed in the pavement as though it were created for him. A small Speakers Corner in the middle of nowhere. Striped all along its sides, black and white, black and white. Unlike the city, which revelled in colour — rows of open sacks that lined the market she passed on her way to work, little mountain ranges of saffron, vermillion and burnt red. Or the wooded park along the Ridge, in the evening, as the sun set, a filigree of green and gold.
All this so different from where she’d spent all her life — Rainham, a village thirty-two miles southeast of London. A quiet, nondescript town she never could quite think of as home. Her father worked at Medway Hospital for thirty six years, leaving the house at seven-thirty every morning until the day he died. Her mother was a housewife, extremely fond of The Archers. Every evening four o’clock, the radio turned on so loud that despite locking her room, it could still be heard. That annoyingly cheerful tune preceding the programme.
Anita didn’t know exactly why her parents had come to England. Perhaps it was the lure of the Sterling, she couldn’t imagine them being tempted by anything else. She was barely two when they packed their bags in their hole-in-the-wall flat in Delhi. “So tiny you had to make place for mosquitoes and believe me, there were many.” Her Dad’s favourite line, after which he would chuckle and look satisfied. How far he had come.
The move was uncomplicated, a simple precise surgery, as they hadn’t left any immediate family behind, both being the only children of parents who had died a long time ago. Grandparents Anita never missed. Probably why she could not bring herself to grudge her father’s obvious pride in his self-made wealth. Not too much anyway.
Her mother was a quiet, dutiful woman who Anita had seen flare up only once (when she turned off the radio as she passed it one afternoon at four). Her often repeated complaint was that the turmeric from the local Indian shop was never as strong as the real stuff which could only be found in her village in Himachal.
“Chi, so pale and no fragrance. See!” she would say, thrusting a handful of powder into her daughter’s face.
“Mum! I don’t like the smell,” Anita would complain, “let’s go back to India and buy some then.”
At which her mother would fall silent, emptying the groceries, militantly assigning the vegetables, milk and bread their place in the fridge or on the shelves. Once she thought she heard her mother mutter, “That’ll never happen. Not while your father is still alive.”
Anita spent most of her childhood in a big, brick-coloured building called Rainham Grammar School. Each year a blur of new yellow pencils and grey uniforms, every report card, all eleven of them now stacked in the loft, claimed she was average. ‘Good’ once in Geography that made her quite happy. What she remembered most vividly was that every twelfth of October, it rained. This wouldn’t have been special in any way except that it was her birthday.
Her friend Martha left for New Zealand with her family after they finished their A Levels.
“It’s very beautiful there,” she told her, “Daddy has bought a big house by the sea.”
Anita often thought about her as she made her way to Sainsbury’s where she worked for two years at the till. She received one letter, a hurried scrawl which said, ‘it’s quite nice here in Drury’. Anita looked it up in her Time’s Pocket Atlas before writing back and didn’t mention its distance from the coast.
While life went on as usual for her even after her father collapsed in the bus on Route 130 (the only thing missing was the doorbell ringing at nine every evening), her mother went quite berserk. Every penny Mr Kumar had stringently watched was as quickly spent as her tears. It started with an unusually large number of ready-meals that made their savoury appearance at the dining table. Top of the range ‘Taste the Difference’, Bengal prawns with rice, Bombay potato and even the occasional chicken tikka masala Kashmiri pulav. Anita watched in amazement as her mother drove (she usually left hold of the wheel if there was more than one car on the road) weekly to Bluewater, the county’s largest shopping mall, coming home with what her late father would have called the most frivolous of things. Lavender and juniper bath salts, ultra-soft luxury toilet tissue, vanilla and rose candles. But most of all, cheese.
Once her father made his wife put back a packet of Camembert. Her face flushed, she quietly made her way through the queue of watching people to the cheese section at the back of the store. Now there was enough Danish blue, feta, Edam and Brie in their kitchen to last until Judgement Day.
Four months and ninety-seven shopping trips later Anita decided to leave. She was sitting in her room watching the rain; it was two weeks to her birthday. She watched a drop making its way down the window pane, it joined a stream of others, scurrying along in an imaginary race and fell to the sill with a splash. She could hear the radio being turned on before strains of a familiar tune drifted through the door. She reached up to the shelf for her pocket atlas.
Perhaps the best of three.
Pakistan. In it, squiggly names she had never heard of. The Thar Desert and then India.
“Mum, I’m going to Delhi,” she announced a few minutes later. Her mother looked up from a plate of cheese and crackers and The Archers.
After a long silence, “What are you saying Nita? You have thought about this?”
“Yes. For sometime now.”
“Going for holiday you mean?”
“Why? You cannot just leave Nita…this is our home.”
“I have to, Mum,” she said and continued gently, “Don’t you want to go too?”
At that point all Anita could see was the fear in her mother’s eyes. Not for her leaving but that she would make her go along.
Now, she worked as secretary to Sandeep Nair, owner of a small publishing house in Old Delhi, publisher of New Age Self-Help books. She sat at a desk outside his office in a larger room that was mostly empty except for one corner which the marketing people used. In front of her was a large glass window overlooking a narrow, noisy road. It had three shelves lined with their latest titles facing outside. She never saw anybody stop to look. Most of the day, when she wasn’t taking Mr Nair’s calls, she stared at the back cover of Lazy Ways to Enlightenment. It was a busy little office and Anita was usually left alone. She preferred it that way. Although the editors, Sangeeta and Aditi, whispered about her amongst themselves, “an eccentric heiress from the UK come to India to find herself? Why wasn’t she in Rishikesh or Haridwar then?” They never asked.
At the end of the day Anita made her way back to the room she rented in a four-storied house near the university area, near the old part of the city. She never looked for him then, he was on the platform only in the mornings. The Red Fort replaced him in the evenings. The large, turreted monument, sandstone smouldering in the setting sun, the world’s most beautiful evensong. She had read that in it was the Diwan-i-Am, its heart of pure white marble. Inscribed on its once jewelled walls was a Persian couplet, ‘If on Earth be an Eden of bliss, it is this, it is this, none but this.’
She stayed in a large residential colony through which she anonymously wound her way on her walks after dinner. She wondered whether she would find him anywhere else, perhaps stumble upon him like she had almost a month ago. A tall, thin bearded man wearing cotton pyjamas and an oversized shirt, both threadbare yet impeccably clean. He had on his head a turban the colour of deep red wine and near his feet there always lay a bulky cloth bag and a book. She could never hear what he was saying, though his lips moved non-stop, as she whizzed by in an auto. But she had a feeling that he spoke very softly, to himself and to the world. What had struck her most was that nobody seemed to find this strange; the rickshaw driver lazing under the shade of a tree, the man selling a stack of cheap helmets on the roadside, the young college couple walking hand in hand, or everyone else nearby. While he didn’t seem to mind that nobody stopped to listen.
The only reason Anita had settled down, or rather found a job and a place to stay this quickly was because of Dr Roy.
“He was your father’s friend,” her mother had told her nervously, thrusting a scrap of paper into her hand before she left. “They knew each other in medical college.”
Anita had resolved not to contact him but within half an hour of landing at the Indira Gandhi International Airport, standing in the midst of a surging crowd, all looking like they knew exactly where they wanted to go, she dug the number out. He sounded confused over the phone as she slowly repeated several times who she was, “Amit Kumar’s daughter…you studied with him.” But he and his wife welcomed her warmly enough as she walked through his door later that evening, awkward and hesitant.
“Yes, yes we were quite good friends. Your father was a hard-working student. Very fond of jalebis, you know. Funny how I remember that now.”
Dr Roy was a greying, soft-spoken man with an oddly boyish smile, like it had forgotten to grow old with the rest of him. He sipped his tea and gestured to a plate on the table filled with an assortment of Indian sweets, various geometric shapes wrapped in delicate silver foil. She refused, waves of panic making her feel alternately nauseous and hysterical. If he could sense her unease he didn’t show it, instead he placed his cup back carefully on its saucer and asked if she needed anything, something to do, someone to show her around, a place to stay.
After dinner that night, a simple meal of roti and vegetables, they sat on the veranda where he rocked on his chair and smoked his pipe. Anita sat beside him watching the fireflies at the far end of the garden. She had never seen anything like it. Much prettier than the stars.
“So what do you know about this city?” Dr Roy suddenly asked, as though continuing a conversation he had already begun in his head.
Her moment’s hesitation was enough for him to continue. “You see, Delhi is not one city. It has been built and destroyed seven times; some would say eight or even nine, repeatedly rising from the ashes like a phoenix. Beginning in 900 BC, it is one of the oldest cities in the world,” he explained, “so strategic its position that emperors through the ages fought to sustain a lasting hold of its ground.” He chuckled, blew out a long stream of smoke and concluded, “It is said that whoever tries to build a new city here will lose his kingdom. Comes true every time.”
The morning fog started sometime end-October. It wasn’t the type that lifted as the sun rose higher. The light remained muted and through the day everything in the distance seemed to recede into a dream. Anita would watch carefully as the sputtering auto took the wide turn at the traffic lights. Sometimes they were red and the traffic would have to wait a few endless minutes. Caught uncomfortably in impatient silence, like an elevator full of strangers. Then the relieved rush of movement as the glow changed to green.
He would be there, shifting his balance from one foot to the other, impatient to move on but going nowhere. Today it was bougainvillea. A fine spray of blossoms waved about in the air, a cherished colour, deep tropical pink. Anita couldn’t help but smile. It made her happy to see him every morning even though it had started out only as dull curiosity. What on earth was he doing? which progressed to, ‘I wonder if he will be there tomorrow?’ And sure enough he was. With that firmly established, Anita was free to imagine everything else; where he was from, why he was there and what he was saying. Slowly even those questions, except the last, faded. They seemed unimportant as he stood there, not staking a claim in the world. Like her, he didn’t look in the slightest as though he belonged, but he was there.
“Good work, Anita,” her boss told her one late November morning. She had tracked down an important, potential client (on her own initiative). Giving her a distracted smile, Sandeep vanished into his office, the phone on his desk shrilly demanding immediate attention. Anita slipped the file back into the drawer; it was neatly arranged alphabetically unlike the mess she had found it in. She looked up from the sandwich she’d pulled out, a little misshapen from being wrapped in cling-film, the mayonnaise messy on the sides, to see Aditi walk out of the editorial room. After a moment’s hesitation, she smiled. A few lunches later she was invited to join them.
The only contact Anita had had with her one-floor-down neighbour was the passage light she diligently switched off every morning on her way to work. It was a sorry looking contraption in the corner and during the day it seemed even more feeble. So she put it out of its misery, more because she was used to being told to do so by her father (“Burning up money,” he would say). She hurried down the stairs one morning, knowing she was running late, the cold making it harder to throw off the covers. Passing the row of switches she stopped abruptly, they were all off. The door opened hesitantly and a young man peered out from behind a pair of thick glasses.
“Hello,” he offered hopefully.
“Do you put off my passage light every morning?”
He smiled. He was shorter than her and had a serious yet pleasant face. “Thank you, that’s really very thoughtful. I’m Ashok,” he said, letting go of the door and extending his hand.
“Hi,” replied Anita, “I’m really late.”
She met him again a few evenings later, walking back from the market that ran parallel to the road she lived on. She passed a temple along the way and she usually stopped outside to watch people pray. She was hardly religious, but she could feel the reverence of those coming and going, the sanctity with which they held the idols they bowed to, even the flowers, bright glittery marigolds, seemed proud to be part of such a timeless ritual. It intrigued her, this faith she had never had. While standing under a generously shady tree, Ashok came up to her, and asked why she didn’t go in. In her confusion Anita answered that she wasn’t a Hindu.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said simply, “nobody inside would ask you if you were.”
Anita often encountered him on her walks around the colony or when shopping for groceries. She started looking forward to strolling back to their flats together, him doing most of the talking. He was a young lawyer, fond of recalling the people and cases that he had come across in his brief career. He made her laugh, but not too much. She could tell he was curious about rather than interested in her but when he attempted any questions she would steer the conversation away, mostly to their common neighbour; the fat, ground-floor lady who watched with bulging eyes as they made their way up the stairs together.
Most of all she looked forward to seeing the turbaned speaker on the platform. There was a camaraderie there, a brave bid for kinship. His book a worthy companion, the flowers his litany and his faith the open road.
Anita climbed into the auto having made up her mind. Today she was going to stop. Close enough to hear. The crisp, winter air nipped at her face, begrudging the warm shawl that covered the rest of her. They cleared the first red light but were halted at the second. A little boy with an empty bowl peered in, tapping gently on her knee, imploring sympathy. She pressed an apple, one she had taken for lunch, into his hand and he scampered away happily, giving her a wide smile. Finally they were on their way: past the tiny row of shops with their curtain of red and green crisp packets, the sudden sweep of grand Vidhan Sabha buildings and then the Ring Road; wider, more accommodating. They finally took the turn and the platform came into sight. He wasn’t there. The auto spluttered on, past the vast view of the Jamuna, under the yawning arches of the Red Fort.
The next day it was occupied by a man lying on his back, his head propped on a bundle of clothes, playing the flute. The day after it was empty. A few dry leaves danced on the cement surface. It remained vacant through the winter. Anita hoped that with the return of spring, he would reappear. Perhaps the cold had driven him away. But apart from a man who supported himself on the edge of the platform while lighting a bidi, even summer did not herald his return. She was left with the Red Fort and an emptiness even larger. An evensong without a morning prayer.
She packed her bags and left one afternoon, before the gnashing monsoons set in. Before that Anita asked an auto-driver to circle the Ring Road.
“Madam, do you know it is the longest road in Delhi,” he asked conversationally.
“It’s a ring road,” she pointed out.
“Yes,” he said, “that’s why.”