At the dhaba Shyam looks up from his scraped-clean plate and says, “I should bring you along to more of these.”
“Always happy to cut class for a good cause,” Satya assures him, scoops up the last bit of pickled carrot with the last scrap of chapati. “Especially on Fridays. Hate Fridays. These are quite good.”
“Doesn’t sell, I’ve asked. Wash up, I’ll check on the girls.”
“I’ll do it,” Satya says. “They’ll be easier talking to me.”
“I’ve been doing this for two years,” he points out, taking care not to laugh.
“I’ve been a woman for two decades,” she rejoins, stacking their plates and tumblers and pushing away from the table. “Let me do the talking, they’re uneasy around men right now.”
“Alright,” he says. “Bring them with you when you’re done.”
It’s summer at least, Shyam thinks, standing in front of his Jeep and contemplating his last cigarette, mercury climbing and the sun pitiless at midday. In winter they would be conspicuous: the girls in the back bundled into razais, their bare arms rife with goose bumps. There’s a difference still between their attire and his or Satya’s, but nothing so easily visible to the casual eye. JNU shabbiness carries the day again, he thinks, and laughs a little, tucks the cigarette back into its case.
He’d been at JNU himself, idly chatting up Satya and Manohar in Ganga Dhaba, waiting for Bua to get done with her meeting. Chauffeur duty on his day off, already missing the university even with his exam results pending, anticipating and dreading the slog of being a junior party member: minutes and notes and mind-numbing meetings where he’s discouraged from holding forth. Adulthood, and miles too young for his plans to be put in play.
It all seems very far away right now, dusted over by what feels like half the air pollution in U.P, three girls huddled into the back of his Jeep rescued from the flesh trade at gunpoint. Bua gives him the best presents.
“They’ll talk,” Satya informs him when they’re well underway. “Hope you’ve got a woman waiting.”
“All this misandry,” he complains. “Unfair.”
“I’ll do it if you’re that lacking,” she tells him airily, looking firmly out of the window like the empty roads and full fields are fascinating. “I don’t mind.”
“Sharma ma’am will handle it. They could always use volunteers if you’re willing to give up your weekends.”
“I don’t mind,” she says again, and turns around in her seat and hollers, “You girls okay? Sab theek?”
There’s a murmur of assent, and Preeti after a beat asks for water. Satya hunts in the bag at her feet and then in the bag at his and throws back a bottle of Pepsi they filled with water at the dhaba. Her ears have gone red, the lobe scarlet, the whorls pinking.
“It’s volunteer work,” he says gently, after she’s turned back and before she can start ignoring him. “Nobody will think less of you for not participating.”
“I will,” she tells him, unanswerable. “This is the first thing I’ve ever done that’s worthwhile.”
“We’ll be back by evening,” he says after a while. “I can drop you off at university before I take them around to Bua’s. They’re staying the night. Doctor in the morning and then we’ll figure out what they need and want.”
“You’ve done this before,” she says. “There’s a routine?”
“Changes. Sometimes they want to go back to their families. Sometimes it’s men or young boys or not sexual or children. Sharma ma’am will talk to them, see what they can do. Education if we can, employment maybe. Can you drive?”
“Yeah,” she says. “Yeah, yes. Give it to me,” and switches seats with him without getting out of the Jeep, clambering over gracelessly the moment he pulls over on the shoulder of the road. For a long beat she is pressed up against him cheek to cheek, her body poised over his, knees bracketing his thighs, before they disentangle and he is over the gearshift and in the passenger seat. The girls in the back titter and giggle and push each other.
Satya looks around, unruffled, and starts driving at a speed a hair slower than his. It’s hard not to drive full throttle: a straight shot down NH27 accompanied by giant trucks; wrong time of the year for buses full of squabbling vacationers. The radio comes on patchily, but serves at least to fill the air with static. He wants to light his last cigarette, but it’s a while yet to home. He can’t leave the girls unattended to buy more, not even with Satya and her unswerving aim.
“My parents don’t want me to get involved in politics,” Satya says two half-heard songs down the road. She’s looking straight ahead again, like a child’s trick of playing ostrich, invisble and unseeing. “They barely let me enrol at JNU at all.”
Useless to advise her to keep it quiet. “Your brother?” Shyam offers and winces when she laughs. “That bad, huh?”
“Who do you think was objecting the loudest about me coming to Delhi?” she asks drily. “Dilli ki laundiya kya harkat karti hai pata hai mujhe, he says. Ladki ko bhejoge toh haath’se nikal jayegi.”
“Magar tum toh kitni susheel ho,” he says, coaxing. “All properly cloistered in your hostel on a Sunday, not romping around U.P rescuing girls from being sold into servitude.”
“With a man!” she shrieks, mock-scandalised, and then sobers too-quick. “That part they would be pretty happy about, actually. Such a good boy, from such a good family, so prominent in our biradri. If only Satya would show some… never mind. Never mind. Are we stopping anytime soon?”
“Decent petrol pump in a few kilometres. Lavatory and grocery store and everything. We’ll get out and stretch our legs and resupply; use the loo if you want. I’m running low on cigarettes. Dekho, Satya, if you want to be a part of this I’ll pass it on to Sharma ma’am and she’ll set up an appointment with you. If you don’t want to, if you can’t participate right now, we’ll drop the thing and I’ll come fetch you next week.”
“If I say I can’t you’ll come fetch me next week?” Satya asks incredulously, laughs. “Pagla gaye ho ka?”
“You’re going home, bol toh khud rahi thi. Amma has been complaining about me never going home, so I thought I’d drive down for a few weeks, take you along for an excuse. More comfortable than the train, soch lo.”
“I booked my seat already,” Satya says, eyes on the road, hands at ten and two. Such tells this girl has, such a terrible liar.
“Suno, Satya,” he starts, and loses the rest of it when one of the girls--Monica? Maitri--says, “Didi, suniye, mera khoon…” and Satya makes it the rest of the way to the petrol pump in five minutes flat and bangs out to try and harass sanitary napkins out of the bewildered shopkeeper at the poky little store while Monica clings to her side of the Jeep to avoid being bled on and Preeti tries to get Maitri to take a drink of water.
Fuck it, Shyam thinks, and reaches for his lighter.
Within his first hour being home Amma has interrogated him about his exams, his career prospects, his plans for the immediate future, and the unkempt travesty of his hair and beard. He’s still trying to make sense of the regimentation that has been forced upon his room since--no, last summer; they were at Kesariya for Diwali--and not giving her anything like his undivided attention. It’s by rote, by now, first day first show of every vacation, every visit he’s dragged himself home for the last eight years.
Having disposed of his short-term plans to hang about the party offices reacquainting himself with everyday matters after months away with restrained approval and of his nebulous long-term goals with hopeful scepticism, Amma changes tack and says, “Kanu, I know how you hate me interfering in your friendships, even when you meddle far more than rational, but you need to stay away from Satrajit’s daughter unless you mean it seriously. Har koi nahiin hai Pancholi sa’ab ki tarah modern.”
“She wants to work for Bua’s NGO, but her parents disapprove. That’s all that’s going on. I’m not having an affair with her, Amma.”
“I never said you were,” she tells him, exaggeratedly patient. “Now come on, stop loafing around and freshen up. We’ve been holding lunch for you and it’s not good for Subha to eat at odd hours.”
Subha is five, voluble, and showing no signs of being ill or ill at ease when he ventures out to the dining room. Or perhaps she is, Amma’s with her every day. She was born when he was on the verge of heading to college, and all his knowledge of her is pieced together from a handful of days every few months: she is a new person every time he’s home; a stranger, unrecognisable. At five she’s chatty, talking to her nanny and Amma and Bauji and Dadaji and Bhabhi, but him she just watches, ducking her head when he catches her eye. A few days every visit to break the ice, and then grand lamentations marking his departure.
After lunch he invades his brother’s rooms and cajoles Bhabhi into combing out his hair while he lounges on her bed and Bhaiya fills him in on what needs immediate attention. Nanaji’s constituency is in good trim even if it could use a discerning eye in a few more months, and Ghosh Phupha is doing something they are decidedly disinterested in, but Dadaji is getting on and Bauji is too busy to micromanage, lets things slide and accumulate and hope they’ll manage themselves.
“Problem hai West Champaran,” Bhaiya finishes, sitting down heavily on the bed and drumming on Shyam’s thigh for emphasis. “This chutiya Prasen has his ass parked on a Parliament seat aur na kuchh karega na jayega, and Bauji just wants everything nice and polite.”
“Peace in our time,” Shyam says slowly. “Never works. Kar kya raha hai chutiya?”
“Pata nahiin,” Bhabhi says, drags the comb ungently through a knot of hair. “It’s all forests, worse than Kesariya, and I don’t even know why the two of you like it so much there.”
“I like it because ruins make me happy,” Bhaiya says, reaches out and pinches her cheek. “Kanu likes it because one of his informants lives nearby.”
“Be fair, I like it because Amma hates the place,” he protests, which is being more honest than he is of a rule.
“Dig around,” Bhaiya tells him. “But start here. Kesariya gaye toh there might be an alarm, you haven’t worked there for months and Prasen might have a faction there without Bauji knowing or caring. Let them hear about you from our men here before you descend upon them. And Kanu, tread carefully. We don’t want anyone riled up before we have something on hand.”
“Since when do we care if we rile up the likes of Prasen?”
“You’ve been gone too long, Kanu, growing this in JNU and talking talking talking,” Bhabhi says and tugs his beard. “Prasen MP hai saat saal ho gaye. Satrajit sa’ab has grown quite prominent in the biradri himself the last couple years, might stand in the next elections himself, been talking to Bauji about how your Bhaiya’s too young to be trusted.”
“That’s why you want me to take a look at him?”
“I don’t like Amma having to make nice to Satrajit’s womenfolk,” Bhaiya says. “It’s obscene. But stay at home a while, Kanu. They could use us both on hand.”
“I’m here,” he says. “Put me to work.”
Being home is strange at any time for Shyam, who is still, always, on the road with Akrur behind the wheel and Yashoda’s tears still soaking through the collar of his shirt. Being home as an adult, at loose ends, is stranger, worse. He spends a lot of time over the weekend befriending Subha and longer avoiding his parents and the appearance of avoiding them. On Monday he shows up to breakfast in the guise of a dutiful son and follows his father to the local party office where they welcome him with open arms and set him to work. There’s enough to be done—and Amma knows enough about it—to justify his long hours, but it is good work, familiar in form as well as content, blunter than the delicate maze of student politics that must be threaded with extreme caution about egos. State politics at the level Shyam’s pushing his way into wields power instead like a tool of blunt force trauma, and he is himself doing the rote, boring work of tabulating the flow of men and money through their area, keeping a weather eye out for Satrajit’s irritating little brother.
In a week the office is easy with him, bringing tea in chipped earthen cups and not bothering with clean paper cups for him. In ten days when Prasen swaggers in he’s ensconced at the back, carefully copying out plans for a rally in Manth from five different scraps of paper stuffed into a half-torn envelope, indistinguishable from the other young men crouching over their files or smoking out the window or gossiping idly over a hand of cards. Prasen homes in on him, claps him jovially on the shoulder and sends his pen skittering across the page.
“I was wondering who the hero in the yellow shirt was,” he says, drops into the chair Shyam has been keeping empty all afternoon with a careful application of hostility and teetering stacks of paper. “Then someone told me it was our Vasu’s little brother, and I said, ho hi nahiin sakta, he has other places to be, kyun bhai?”
“Even JNU tosses people out when they’re done with their degrees,” he says blandly.
“Soh toh hai. Aur phir, how’re you liking all this slogging? Vineet told me you’ve been here every day.”
“Yunhi. Party ka kaam hai, have to get used to it sooner or later.”
“Later is time enough, eh,” Prasen says, slaps the table between them loudly enough the card game pauses. “You’re young, you’re just out of college, masti karo, enjoy yourself.”
“Can’t have my sort of fun at home,” Shyam explains, leaning in close and ducking his head conspiratorially. The whorls of Prasen’s ears are the same as Satya’s, oddly delicate on him, vulnerable with their rudimentary lobes and entirely enticing. He leans away and raises his eyebrows, conveying secrets.
Prasen smirks. “We can arrange for that sort of fun too. Discreet enough it won’t reach your mother’s ears. We had a party yesterday, but your brother doesn’t like them, so we didn’t ask. Who likes being rejected again and again, bolo? If I’d known you were around I’d have come by, for sure.”
“Toh iye hai mera reputation?” More sincerity than wise bleeds into his voice, and Sudam looks around from his game, but Prasen just smiles again.
“Tum toh hero ho, tumhare liye toh laundanach mangawaenge. All of us considered ourselves lucky if we could get a girl to look at us twice in college, kyun? What you did with Pancholi sa’ab’s daughter, wah bhai.”
“Kya Prasen sa’ab,” he demurs. “Listening to rumours now?”
“Voh bhi hai. The stories people tell these days: maachis na jali, dekh liye conflagration. Next time someone says anything about it I’ll tell them it’s ridiculous. Aur phir if there was truth in any of that, wouldn’t you be in Kampil right now?”
“Met Pancholi sa’ab a few days ago, he turned right around after shaking hands and said, ‘this is my son Shekhar’. Bara embarrass hua, kya bolun kya bataun. Couldn’t stop staring bilkul, never met one of them before.”
“Outside a laundanach,” Shyam prompts, smiles encouragingly.
Prasen laughs right on cue. “Yeh bhi hai. But this launda is in politics. Kya din aaye.”
“Kalyug, Prasen sa’ab. Jeans pehni parkatiya Dilli se yahan bhi aa chuki.”
“Nahiin,” Prasen says, suddenly sombre. “Jaana chahiye humari ladkiyon ko. I pushed them to send Satya to JNU. Miley ho usse?”
“Junior thi meri, mila toh hoon. She’s doing good work.”
“So toh mark sheets bol rahein hai. I meant in the last few days, ghar aaney ke baad. Miley ho?”
“Nahiin. Met her a week before I came down. Haven’t had a chance to see her since. Aur phir hai meri reputation ki baat, can’t go up and ask to meet a girl, biradri mein, kyun?”
“Dost ho, milna toh chahiye. I’ll see what I can do. Aaj chalta hoon, if you’re here we’ll keep meeting, kyun?”
“I met Prasen,” he says after dinner two days later, Bhaiya just back from Delhi and gregarious, stuffed full of stories about Parth and the twins. “Smarmed up and tried to make friends.”
“That’s one route I wouldn’t think to try,” Bhaiya admits. “Too much shows on my face. See what happens.”
“He kept fishing for an in, eventually said he’d try to arrange a meeting with Satya,” he says, and then off the bewildered expression, explains, “Satyabhama, Satrajit’s daughter. One of my juniors.”
“Achchha,” Bhaiya says, and relaxes. “You got a cigarette on you? My pack’s back in the house.” Bhaiya lights up with a Zippo and leans back, the smoke rising to mingle with the darkness, the leaves of the pipal. “The thing is to not cause trouble for Bauji and Amma. I’d like to know what the man’s doing, and I’d like to get him in trouble over it if we can, but they need to be able to step away and plead ignorance. Samjhe?”
Shyam shrugs elaborately, gestures for the lighter and fiddles with it, buying time. “Said he’d set up a laundanach for me. Said he’d met Shekhar.”
“Shekhar kaun?” Bhaiya asks, engaged in blowing smoke rings. “Shekhar Chopra from Benaras? Mil hi le, wily old man that one is, would sell Prasen to us if he thought there was anything in it for him.”
“Shekhar Pancholi,” Shyam corrects. “Do you know when he got back?”
“April. Maybe March, but around then. You were in Delhi, your exams were about to start.”
“Prasen’se janna para mujhe,” he interjects. “You should have told me.”
“And after I told you? Bauji and Amma can’t take another scene like the one you created two years ago about this kid. Dekh, Kanu, I get it, this was your first rescue project and you have a hard time letting go...”
“He’s my friend.” Ridiculous, he’s already thinking. Emotional outbursts never get him anywhere with Bhaiya, who is a past master at emotional outbursts and just looks at him, always, still, now, through snake-slit eyes with infinite patience.
“Sudam’s your friend,” Bhaiya says. “We know this because you met at school, you protected him, got him a scholarship, got him a job, and he spends all his spare time with you, worships the ground you walk on, goes into disputed territory with you for no good reason, makes sure you remember to eat and sleep even when you have a new idea. That’s friendship. Whatever this thing is... it’s been over a month. If there was friendship there, why haven’t there been any calls from Kampil? Wake up and accept the rejection.”
“Are you giving me emotional advice? Me?”
“You,” Bhaiya says, heavily gentle, the cigarette in his hand burning down unnoticed. “You can’t say no to beautiful women, is your problem. You were fifteen, you thought she was married to our uncle, you thought you were in love, you didn’t look like a hero, it didn’t look like an Amir Khan flick what was happening with you and Rai. Aur phir ye jhamela Pancholi sa’ab ke saath, and now Amma tells me you’re sniffing around Prasen’s niece. Sudhar ja, Kanu.”
“To be taken under advisement,” he replies in his best obnoxious tone, smiles to assuage the hurt. “I want to go down in a few days, hang around Kesariya and see whether I can make inroads into West Champaran, find out what he’s doing. No traces here that I can see, but he wouldn’t leave accounts lying around, in any case.”
“Become friends with the man,” Bhaiya says. “Insinuate yourself in his circle, see what you find from him or one of his people. If you give me a week to square away the details I’ll come down with you; I need to be there to handle the rally in any case.”
“Theek hai. Miley Ajat’se?”
“Yeah. Just barely at dinner. His classes don’t start for a couple months and he’s already swotting. Pawan’s making up for it, of course. Class XII and not a book in sight. Ghumey phirey, kushti kii.”
“Most people would use ‘masti’ for that last bit,” he laughs. “Bua will be furious if you break him.”
“He’s more likely to break me,” Bhaiya protests. “It’s a waste, that boy not going competitive. Dhanraj’se bhi mila ek baar, he’s got a new friend I didn’t much like the look of. About your age, some Khateek. What’s a man that age doing hanging around a schoolboy?”
“I don’t think Dhanraj thinks of himself as a schoolboy. We never did. You’re getting soft, Bhaiya: think of what you were doing at his age and I was doing at fifteen.”
“Not with a man of no name or family. I don’t know what Thakur sa’ab’s thinking, letting this go on. I don’t like it, the way Dhanraj is going about things.”
“The ways of Thakur sa’ab are beyond the understanding of mortals.”
“He’s a good old man,” Bhaiya says, indulgent. “I know you don’t like him, Kanu.”
“He’s an old man,” Shyam retorts, brutal and beyond reining it in. “His time’s gone and he’s still around and he’s sitting at the head of that family and twisting the rest of them under the weight of his influence. The family, that party, take your pick.”
“You’d say the same about Dadaji, or Nanu? Old and dead and done? We need tradition and stability to keep going.”
“You know I don’t like him,” Shyam says. “I wouldn’t trust him to make decisions about us or Subha, and I dislike having to trust him to make decisions about Parth, or even Dhanraj.”
“Or Shikha, eh? You didn’t hate him three years ago.”
“Shekhar,” he says. “His name’s Shekhar, he’s earned a right to it.”
In the following silence he feels intensely scrutinised, ducks his head and raises it again to meet Bhaiya’s narrowed eyes. The blood is beating in his ears.
Bhaiya says, “Kanu, it’s no use telling you to stay away and keep out of trouble, is there? Not about this.”
“Not about most things,” he says, forces a laugh. “Have I ever struck you as the sort to keep out of trouble? Think of me at five robbing the dairy of fresh butter and driving the milkmaids mad.”
“Kanu,” Bhaiya says, gentle, gentle, unbearable. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“We’re friends,” he says. “I’m his friend, there’s nothing to tell. I saw who he was under the clothes he got stuffed into and the name he got called, and I made space for him to be himself, and I fought for him to get his dues when he was ready, and he let me. That’s how I know it’s a friendship.”
“Fine,” Bhaiya says eventually. “Alright. Chal, it’s late, Amma will be beginning to fret.”
“Shekhar hai,” he asks the next morning, too-aware of every part of the question and of every part of him: fingers curled around the receiver of the phone and into a fist in the pocket of his kurta, toes pushing against the mosaic-tiled floor, the shape of his mouth and of the words inside it. “This is Shyam.”
“How are you, beta?” Mrs. Pancholi offers perfunctorily, covers the phone in a rush of static and calls out.
“Hullo,” Shekhar says in a minute. His voice is rougher than it used to be, deeper, but the cadence of it is the same. “Yeah, hullo?”
“Ghar aaya mera pardesi,” he sings out, and bubbling over adds, “Chutiye, you couldn’t tell me? I have to hear of it from party gossip? This is what I get, this is what you give me, raand ki aankh, gandu, bakchod saale.” Angry, angry, too angry. Careless.
“You know how it is,” Shekhar says, fake like an Amreeki desi on TV. “Busy, busy, busy.”
“Busy!” he says, “busy? Aur hum toh baithe hai haath pe haath uthaye, kyun? You’re coming to Kesariya. Next week, I don’t even care, you just are. Ao bas tum.”
“I really am busy,” Shekhar prevaricates. “I dunno whether...”
“Week after next,” Shyam allows. “Don’t give me excuses about work.”
“I’ll try,” Shekhar says, and then in a harder voice, “I’ll come.”
The phone in Bauji’s study is on a teak desk massive in the old style, carved drawers and legs and well capable of taking his weight without a protesting murmur or creak. He scrubs his hands over his face, once, twice, counts to ten, thirty, fifty.
When he emerges from the study Bhabhi is lying in wait for him, her hair still wrapped in its towel, but the habitual salwar-kameez abandoned for a saree. “Aaj party office nahiin hoga tera, I need to go the temple and then shopping, and you need to come with me. Your Bhaiya woke up and left.”
“Manu’s around, nahiin? Or I can volunteer Sudam. He’s doing nothing today that he can’t put off.”
“Neither are you,” Bhabhi says. “Go take a bath, and do something about that beard. Shave it or grow it, just stop going around looking like a daku.”
“Growing it,” he says, and drags off to the bathroom and still-damp into a laundered kurta and pyjamas, hunts down chappals that haven’t been accumulated all the dust in JNU, which last takes long enough that Bhabhi has set her hair, painted her eyes, and is waiting by the car by the time he drags downstairs again.
“We’re not taking your Jeep,” she informs him. “I can’t show up looking like I walked through a dust-storm. Don’t crack a joke about God accepting you in all forms.”
“God might, the priests won’t, and the biradri aunties certainly won’t, got it. We’ll take your khatara ambassador, chalo.”
“I can’t remember the last time you were home so long,” Bhabhi remarks after he’s put her in the backseat with her bags and baskets.
“At least another month here, aur uske baad bhi shayad. College khatm, kaam shuru.”
“You’ll settle here, really?”
“Scepticism meter phat jayega ab. Kyun, you don’t want me around?”
“Watch the road while you drive, Kanu. I can’t see you sitting around here and being satisfied, you’re made for bigger things.”
“Shayad. You know how Bhaiya and I grew up. Little place outside Vrindavan, most of the houses without electricity, everyone working at the co-operative dairy. Not what you’d call an easy life: boring, same thing every day. I wasn’t a quiet kid, got into trouble a lot, must have been a handful. Khush tha. I thought that was going to be my life, and I was content. You can’t miss what you don’t know you have.”
Bhabhi makes a tutting sound and subsides into silence, looks through her bag and transfers coins from her purse to her puja basket. He keeps his eyes on the road. Done subtly, Satya’s isn’t a terrible trick. There’s something in the air this time that keep surprising him into honesty. There’s a reason he’s never at home so long.
“We’ll be happy if you live here all the time,” Bhabhi says when the temple spire hoves in view. “You can help your Bhaiya run for office, go around with Dadaji, all of it. You’ve got a good mind, and we need all the help we can get. It’s more rarefied than your dairy, but we see the same people every day, and do the same things, and I’m willing to bet there’s a greater amount of bullshit any given day.”
“Iye bet tum jitogi,” he says shortly, and parks the car under a tree. “How much time is this likely to take?”
“Adha ghanta, maximum,” she promises, and lets herself out, adjusts her palllu and pleats while he stands holding out her basket. “If you smoke do it in the car, last time your Bhaiya got in trouble with Menaka bua.”
“Cigarette khatm kar diye Bhaiyane kal merey,” he promises. “I’ll be good.”
There’s a perfunctory knock on the door not ten minutes later while he’s fiddling with the cassette player, and Satya lets herself in, perches on the edge of the passenger seat and worries at her dupatta.
“I attend all my classes,” she says finally, raises a hand to bid for time. “I submit assignments within deadline. I go to the library. I eat at a regular hour. I try and sleep by midnight. If you had asked me a month ago, I’d have said JNU hadn’t changed me at all, still the same Satya. But I can’t breathe here, everything I do is wrong, har baat pe jhamela, Ma says she can’t recognise me. How can I have grown unused to home in a year?”
“You can grow unused to anything,” Shyam says, thinks better of reaching for her hand. “Nobody’s watching you in Delhi.”
“It’s like George Orwell here,” she agrees. “What I wear, what I eat, when I sleep.”
“Who you speak to,” he interjects. “If they find you here with me...”
“I already got a forty-minute lecture because Parminder called and Ma was convinced it was a man’s name. I can’t live like this. I can’t. I don’t know why I’m telling you like you can change things.”
“Your mother’s at the temple?”
“Haan. I should go, I don’t want to get you into trouble. I don’t want to get me into trouble.”
“I spoke to your Chacha,” he says before she can reach for the door. “He said he’d facilitate us meeting. I won’t go ahead with it if it’ll worsen your situation.”
“I’d like to not sneak around,” she says, and worries at her dupatta some more. “I don’t... I’ll go now, I don’t want Ma to catch us together.”
“Suno Satya,” he says, again before she can leave, “just hold on for a few more weeks, I’ll try and rig up a nice, non-political internship for you in Delhi. Start job-hunting before you’re done with your degree, that way you can come back for a few days before you start working. They’ll let you work?”
“Pata nahiin. But a year is a long time. Thank you,” she says, and opens the door and is gone before he can think of something else to say to detain her.
The empty car smells of wet earth after the rains: petrichor, inebriating, elusive. He turns his face against the backrest of the passenger seat and breathes her in from the leather: his monsoon girl, green and growing.