BY AMALE NARAYAN & MAVIS RODRIGUES
“Thodi se pet puja karoge?” asked Elisabeth as Ramesh drove past her father’s office in Colaba. The Hindi words sounded heavy and uncomfortable on her British tongue. The words were covered with a fine layer of dust and the air was vibrating with discontent. Elisabeth pressed her handfan against her left wrist as she waited for Ramesh to reply. The face of the central tower read ten minutes past 12. Ramesh’s fingers tightened around the steering wheel. His stomach was growling with pangs of hunger, but he couldn’t accept his kind mistress’s curteous gesture. The thought of people shouting hoarse on the streets crossed his mind and he glanced at the rear view mirror to take note of his mistress’s expression.
Ramesh looked back at the road to avoid replying because he knew that the anger within him would seep into her words. Ramesh remembered the gold band on his mistress’s ring finger and thought about the two contrary natured people. Elisabeth was the very opposite of what her husband was. While Mr. Whiteway represented the British with his icy nature and clipped voice, Mrs. Whiteway was warm and soft. Mrs. Elisabeth Whiteway was a lady who seemed generally interested in the affairs of India. She had started using Hindustani words and phrases when in conversation with the servants. The servants’ quarters in the Whiteway Mansion stored secrets and rumours. There were rumours that Mrs. Whiteway was secretly on the Indian’s side but there was no proof of this.
Elisabeth lightly tapped Ramesh on the shoulder and asked, “Why won’t you reply?” There was an emotion in her voice that Ramesh could very well understand but was afraid to name it. For this was the hundreth time that Elisabeth had shown concern towards him, without giving a thought to the consequences she might face if her husband got a whiff of it. Elisabeth. In an anxious voice repeated her question again and again while Ramesh kept silent and drove faster. Not only was this action a silent answer, it was a reflection of his state of mind.
Elisabeth’s patience wore thin after twenty minutes and she tapped Ramesh on the shoulder again and ordered him to stop the car. Her sharp blue-green eyes flashed with determination. The sharpness of her voice conveyed how furious she was and Ramesh immediately stopped the car at the side of the street. He walked out to open the door for her, making sure to keep his eyes on the ground as Elisabeth slipped out of the car. Elisabeth once again offered the food to him and insisted that he eats something. His determination to not take anything from her was adamant in the face of her persistence. His behaviour towards her left Elisabeth perplexed and hurt. She had prepared the sweet milk-based liquid thing “kheer” that she knew he liked. On the other hand, Ramesh froze expressionless and started to walk ahead of her, arms tied together behind his back. Elisabeth sighed in frustration and quickly began to walk after Ramesh. Her heels clicked against the road. Elisabeth caught up to Ramesh quickly and pulled out her handkerchief to wipe away the thin layer of sweat. She noticed Ramesh look at her from the corner of his eye. Elisabeth frowned, “Will you please eat the kheer I made for you?”
She was once gain met with a wall of silence. Elisabeth’s mother had often told her that she had been an obstinate child, persistently making demands, wanting things to work out in her favour. It was those traits that were coming to the fore now. Elisabeth grabbed Ramesh by the shoulder, the paleness of her skin was set off against the black button-up shirt he was wearing. She asked him again and again- will you not eat the kheer? Won’t you eat something? Aren’t you hungry? Elisabeth felt the tears prick her eyes at Ramesh’s lack of response and said in frustration, “Didn’t you once say the Indian dish kheer tastes like life and love? Please say it again. The way you say it when you have your mother’s kheer. I simply love how you say it and would like to hear it again for all the effort I’ve taken.” She mumbles to herself, her face contorted in confusion as she tried to recollect his words repeated in an English accent, “Swad zindagi ka?”
Ramesh understanding Elisabeth’s emotions has a slight smirk on his face and looked at Elisabeth with an air of both anger and love. The cold anger in his heart is thawed by the smile of hope on her face. Ramesh itched to hold onto Elisabeth, to assure himself of the reality of the situation, but the thought of Mr. Whiteway with his walls lined with stuffed heads of hunted animals ripped the desire in the bud. Elisabeth’s fingers brushed against his and she smiled shyly at him.
This incident strengthened the so-called friendship bond. Elisabeth fiddled with her wedding ring which she had been wearing for four years. If the four years of their marriage they had spent two and a half years in England and one and a half year in India. Elisabeth bit her lip nervously, “Ramesh, do you think Mr. Whiteway is a good master.” Ramesh looks at her sharply, and wonders why she’s bringing her husband into the conversation. Ramesh wondered if he could truly be honest with Elisabeth and tell her about her husband. He shook his head and replied wearily, “Mr. Whiteway is a good man.” Elisabeth laughed, it was a bitter sound piercing the summer atmosphere. When she spoke up again, her voice was sarcastic as she said, “If he’s such a good man, why does he mistreat everyone around him?” She paused and looked up at the sky, her eyes were mist, “Why does he mistreat me?”
Ramesh felt something hot in his stomach at the pained emotion in Elisabeth’s voice, but before he could reply, she cried out, “I miss England.” Everything seemed to acquire clarity as Elisabeth’s words sang in his ears, Elisabeth missed England. Elisabeth raised her hands to touch her face to brush away the tears and said,
“I miss England all the time. I miss home. I love India, I honestly do. I love Indians and all their idiosyncrasies, but home is England. Mr. Whiteway – Peter Lewis Whiteway, was not the man he now is. India changed him in ways I didn’t think it would.”
“What do you mean?” Ramesh’s voice cracked as he posed the question but Elisabeth didn’t notice.
“Peter was a good man, a kind man. He treated our servants with respect he treated me well. England was home for us both and I want to go back. There is a part of me that wanrs the peter I knew back.”
Ramesh’s fingers curled into fists. He didn’t bother concealing his hurt, dismay and fury, “Oh. So you just want to leave, India? You want to leave me?”
Elisabeth turned to stare at him in horror and shook her head, “No, that is not what I meant, but- “
“But? Madam Elisabeth, is this your love for me? Is this how selfish you are? Mu country and I do not matter to you. Everything I am, everything I do, my country, pales in comparison to your needs. All you care about is your own comfort. I know my words will never change you, you will continue to be the person you are. But I know some of my Hindi idioms linger with you and continue to play in your mind. So before I walk away from you. “karo zyada ka irada.”