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Viraha

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1.
It is Divali, and everyone expects Kabutri to sit quietly and forlorn, exiled from even eating mithai because her mother is dead (and a shame to the family, but more importantly, dead). Kabutri wakes up in the morning and does the jhadu and bartan and kapde, and in the evening, she sits humble and pensive in a corner as the diyas are being lit. Then, when the rest of the family has stepped outside to mingle with the neighbours, Kabutri conceals her puja samagri under her pallu—so carefully accumulated over a week of meticulous, surreptitious planning—and wends her way down to the river.

She is not her mother, and so the earnest outlines she draws on a rock with soot and kumkum look nothing like the Lakshmi she can imagine Deeti improvising. But it will suffice, and she places a genda and mogra in front of the image, and prays that wealth and safety and happiness will find its way to wherever her mother has gone.

Then she sets her lit diya on top of a tiny raft constructed from rescued firewood, and floats it on the river, so that Lakshmi has something to follow, to take her along the water to the place where Kabutri cannot ever get to.

2.
Jacqua looks at the beautiful eggshell-tinted paper for a long time. His brushes lie speechless beside him; he strokes the soft hair of one of them, but does not bother to dip it in ink. There is no letter that he can write to a man illiterate, in his tongue. There is a scrap of paper lying near his hand, one on which Robin had written his name, in three different scripts—that of his father, that of his mother, and that of the old ruling language of the Achhas. All three foreign languages are strange, alien in their profiligate wastage. Scribbles that contain no pictures, no art giving weight to the word on the page.

Jacqua could draw a crane, in the classical fashion, wings arched to convey its desire to leave behind the oncoming winter and head for the warmth of the south. But migrations are not so easily achieved when they require paper and ink—documents, money, languages read and understood.

The silence of an empty page aches before him, and Jacqua takes a brief moment to remember a very different kind of silence; replete with anticipation, when a silken brush was stroked against his skin, writing in gestures impossible to misread.

3.
Malati is, for the most part, enjoying herself. Stepping out of purdah and taking charge of her son’s education has given her an authority that all the jewels and wealth of the old, cosseted Boudi could not achieve. She notices the city changing around her now, sensitive to how circumstance and character moulds a place into new shapes, as much as it might a person. She is alive now, to the way the British have permeated the air around her. Malati listens to the sharp, arrogant voices and remembers her husband’s fascination with their language.

Rattan talks of following his father; his imagination, like an impatient kite on a string, tugs towards the currents of travel. He sees no reason to limit his desire; he is too young to realise that you cannot change without losing some part of yourself.

Malati knows that Neel will come back, because she knows that it is too late for her to learn how to leave. So she stands in place, like the peepal trees that refuse to be uprooted—clinging to corners and crevices even as new cities are built around them. And she waits.