Short story selected for the 2010 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology
It was a cool, pleasant evening.
Birds were chirping happily and tiny squirrels were playing around. Lolita enjoyed listening to those delightful sounds of nature as she watered the plants in her lovely garden. A fresh breeze, filled with the scent of fragrant flowers, lifted her spirits. She began humming her favorite tunes softly.
As she approached the gate, she noticed a tall, blonde girl in salwar-kurta. There were a few pieces of heavy luggage too. She looked tired after all that travel, but wore a beautiful smile.
She introduced herself as Caroline, a German research scholar majoring in tribal arts and handed over a letter addressed to Professor Majumdar, Lolita’s husband. Lolita welcomed her in. The girl took the garden hose and refreshed her aching hands and feet in the cool water. They relaxed themselves in the garden chairs and started a warm conversation.
Dr. Majumdar was an expert in arts and had a wide circle of friends. He invited them often and Lolita enjoyed their delightful company. She took part in their discussions with great enthusiasm and joined them whenever they went on research trips. She did everything to make them feel at home.
Lolita and Majumdar were not blessed with children. As days passed by, a deep bond blossomed between the three of them…Caroline even called them Mama and Papa. Lolita cooked her favorite dishes and Caroline talked a lot about her research. They spent a lot of time together in Lolita’s favorite garden. The local people soon got acquainted with Caroline. Among them was the postman, Baba.
He was a born artist. His skills at storytelling and singing had won many a heart. No festival in the locality was complete without his brilliant performance. He had a handicapped son, Nandu. Caroline found a great inspiration in Baba and his rich experience in performing arts was a treasure-trove for her research.
One evening, she visited Baba’s home and found Nandu alone, reading a book in his bed. She sat beside him and stroked his head gently.
“Nandu, I have got something for you…something I think you’ll love…”
She went back and fetched it – a wheelchair. She helped him sit on it and guided him around the house. The little boy was absolutely delighted.
“Thank you, didi!”
She hugged him.
They had just finished one round, when Baba returned from the post-office. He was so excited and just couldn’t believe it. The house suddenly seemed so lively. The expression on Nandu’s face overwhelmed him. His eyes were filled with tears of emotion. Caroline had opened up a whole new world for his dear child. He had no appropriate words to truly thank her.
“Madamji, how am I going to repay you for this?”
Caroline stopped him. “Babaji, please don’t worry. I know what solitude feels like when one is bed-ridden. My brother is also handicapped. In Nandu, I see him. I am just very happy that you and Nandu are both happy.”
After that, she visited Nandu often. She would read stories, play with him or take him for short walks.
Baba would sit and watch in silence.
Soon, Caroline and Baba together organized performances in Lolita’s garden. These evoked a splendid response and wide media coverage gave them great exposure. Their activities received invitations from far and wide. Caroline became quite busy with her regular trips.
Months rolled on by.
One day, Caroline came running with excitement and showed Lolita a letter. It was from Delhi. Her photograph – featuring Bheem, a tribal youth – had won the first prize in a caption contest running with the title “Wild beauty.” Bheem – true to his name, was tall, sturdy and muscular.
“Congratulations! You’ve made it, my dear. Let’s celebrate with your favorite kheer!”
While they sipped the delicious kheer, Lolita asked Caroline about the details of the photograph. As Caroline explained, Lolita noticed her unusual delight and enthusiasm. Her eyes shone and her lovely face brightened up in shades of expression.
Was she in love?
Lolita was confused at first. When Caroline was not around, she shared with Majumdar all that had happened and the specific body language and emotional reaction she had observed. They decided to have an open talk with Caroline.
She listened patiently to all that they fondly advised and Caroline explained how she had happened to meet him as a guide during her research trips. It was definitely not his rustic, yet handsome, looks that attracted her, but something else. The feeling within her was so genuine and so deep that she was prepared to take any amount of effort to make a long-term relationship work.
Lolita and Majumdar were convinced that it was a special moment in their life. There were obviously legal formalities to be cleared and so many arrangements to be made.
Caroline’s parents in Germany were informed of the glad tidings. They were only too happy that their daughter had found her life-long partner.
A date was fixed for the engagement.
Caroline had her own ideas. She wanted everything to be done in Indian style – the food, her dress, the music, everything. She was busy, although a little upset. Her brother was in hospital – which meant that neither he, nor her parents, could not take part in the special occasion of her wedding ceremony.
That evening, as usual, Caroline was collecting flowers for prayer. She loved it and had even learnt a few chants by heart!
Lolita was waiting. Caroline placed the flowers on the pedestal and sat on the floor mat. Her eyes were closed and hands, folded in prayer.
Caroline’s lips began chanting softly. Lolita did not disturb or interrupt her.
When she opened her eyes, Caroline felt much better. A lovely smile adorned her face.
Lolita handed over a red silk saree, some bangles, vermilion, turmeric and beautiful fresh flowers.
“It’s for you, my dear. A small token of love from your Indian parents.”
Caroline’s eyes moistened. She clasped Lolita’s hands in deep emotion.
The engagement was a simple affair. Both Baba and Nandu were present. A small party in the garden – complete with dances, folk-songs and music. Caroline’s face blushed. She looked lovely in her red silk saree. It was a happy moment for everyone.
She sent the album to her parents and they sent her loads of gifts. Genuine tokens of love from dear ones far, far away.
Months rapidly flew past.
Caroline had succeeded in ‘civilizing’ Bheem a bit. He now wore a pyjama-kurta and had cut his hair short. He had even learnt a few words in German!
Soon Caroline was busy preparing for her trip back home. Her research schedule there was close to finishing and she had to return. Now she had all those formalities to complete before taking Bheem to Germany – which would mean a gap of at least one year for them to live apart.
“Mama, it seems far too long for me.”
Lolita gently stroked her hair. “Don’t worry my dear. We are all here to take care of your sweetheart!”
Caroline shook her head: “Oh no, it is not that. How could I be so selfish? I will really miss you all – Babaji, Nandu, everyone. I shall keep writing but you must help Bheem read my letters. Will you, Mama?”
“So, you really want me to read out all those ‘sweet nothings’ from your heart to him, hmm?” Lolita teased her, with a twinkle in her eyes.
Two months later…
Caroline was in Germany, but her heart still lived in India. Her letters revealed her nostalgic feelings as she kept enquiring about everyone with all affection.
Bheem visited Lolita regularly. She would read out those ‘special’ personal letters to him. He would listen attentively. When he took leave, his hands would be loaded with those loving gifts from Caroline.
Dr. Majumdar was on a trip to Delhi for a conference on folk-arts. Lolita was alone at home. She finished her breakfast early and stepped out into the garden. When Caroline was there, Sundays would be buzzing with activity but now it was very silent.
She relaxed on the garden chair and closed her eyes.
The phone rang – disturbing her thoughts. It was from Dr. Majumdar who explained that would be arriving the next day, with Dev Gupta.
Dev was a close friend of Dr. Majumdar. His wife Roma and Lolita shared a lot of interests – gardening, cooking and house-keeping. Dev was a wonderful person and full of knowledge. There was not a thing in this world that did not interest him. He was an expert in cooking and would often surprise Lolita with his recipes. He had a hearty laugh and cheerful eyes that even a child would get attached to him in no time.
He had his own unique style of describing things. He would delve into the minutest detail and add a splash of color to it with his splendid photographs and sketches. There was no wonder why his work had won worldwide acclaim.
Lolita proceeded to the market to buy vegetables and provisions. She had not seen him for quite some time so she planned to make a very special lunch with all his favorite dishes.
At last her house was going to come alive again.
The next day…
Lunch was over and Dev settled on the sofa with a newspaper. Lolita fetched some betel leaves from the garden and rolled pan for him. He always loved that tangy taste.
Baba rang the bell. Lolita welcomed him in and introduced him to Dev. Soon they were busy chatting on their favorite subject and Dev looked really impressed. He invited Baba and Nandu over to Delhi – as a special program on performing arts was being organized for the next month. Baba was absolutely thrilled at the opportunity.
Nandu was delighted to see the city before his very own eyes. Dev showed them around and introduced Baba to all his friends. His family loved to hear Baba narrate stories and even their baby seemed to enjoy his songs!
The program was a great success. Magazines gave special reports and there was even an interview on TV. Baba was moved to tears. All this attention was due to the efforts of one person – Dev. He thanked him with all his heart.
While packing his luggage, Roma requested him to carry some sweets and pickles for Lolita. He gladly agreed and offered to help her with the packing. As he spread out some sheets of newspaper, he suddenly noticed the same photograph of Bheem, which had won Caroline the first prize. He was very excited and requested Dev to read the news item.
But Dev had the shock of his life. He exclaimed that it was Bhairav – Kamli’s lover…
Baba was confused so Dev went on to explain in more detail.
He had been working a few months ago in Hyderabad. It was a three-year research project and Kamli was a tribal girl from the nearby hamlet. She helped him out with the household work. She was a very friendly girl and a hard worker too.
One night, it was raining heavily and was Dev sat working at his desk. There was sudden a knock at the door, as usually he did not have any visitors at that late hour. Wondering whom it could be, he opened the door.
It was Kamli.
She was drenched to the core. He called her in and offered her some warm clothes.
She changed and seated herself on the floor. She looked worried.
Dev enquired about her problem. She explained that she was pregnant.
He was taken aback. Slowly, she confessed to him about her affair with Bhairav. Her own family was not aware of it. However, now it was too late. She requested Dev to save her and help to get her out of this situation by somehow convincing Bhairav to marry her.
Dev felt sorry for the poor, innocent girl and made up his mind to do his best.
The next day, he talked to Bhairav. He was quite familiar to Dev as having been a tour guide. After a lot of persuasion he finally agreed, but reluctantly.
Meanwhile Kamli’s brothers somehow came to know of the affair and were enraged. Within their community such things were considered totally taboo. They went rushing in search of Bhairav to seek revenge.
Dev had to intervene before things took a very serious turn. The whole of Kamli’s family had assembled under the peepal tree. This was their custom whenever there was an issue to be settled. After a spate of heated arguments and a good deal of convincing, they finally agreed to the proposal.
Just then Kamli’s brothers came running. They declared that Bhairav was nowhere to be seen!
Dev stood speechless. Poor Kamli, her future was bleak.
The crowd gradually dispersed, moving slowly.
That evening, there was a huge commotion. Kamli had attempted suicide – but, luckily, some fishermen had rescued her. She was lying unconscious and her stepmother cursed her to her heart’s content. No one there seemed to have any pity on the poor girl. It looked almost as if she was ex-communicated.
Dev had to do something for Kamli. He offered to take her along to Delhi. The crowd did not expect this turn of events, but did not object either. In fact, Kamli’s stepmother seemed to be a bit relieved that she had finally got rid of the wretched girl.
Finally Kamli landed at Delhi and soon became part of Dev’s family. By and by she was back to her cheerful self.
Months passed by and everyone was expecting the inevitable arrival of the baby. Kamli was overwhelmed by all their pampering and love.
There was hardly a week for her delivery, when she suddenly developed serious problems. Dev and his family did their best but, unfortunately, only the child could be saved. It was a bonny boy, named Karna.
Baba stood speechless on hearing the whole story. Bheem had hidden the whole malicious episode from Caroline and had even changed his name. She had, naturally, trusted him to the core and loved him with all her heart, through dedication and commitment. How would she ever be able to digest all this news?
Lolita sat on her garden chair, waiting for Caroline’s letter. Bheem had arrived earlier than usual and was chatting with Dr. Majumdar. The postman came, but there was no letter. Bheem seemed a little upset. He got up, saying he was going out of town for two weeks and would collect the letter on his return.
That night, when dinner was just over, there was a call from Dev. Baba was arriving the next evening – so Lolita was already dreaming about those spicy pickles and delicious rossogollas.
Baba opened his luggage and handed over the packets to Lolita. His silence was very unusual and, therefore, became very noticeable. Unable to contain herself, she asked Baba what was troubling him. He poured out the whole story in dramatic detail.
Lolita was shocked and aghast. Caroline’s love, trust, selfless efforts and utter sacrifice – was that all in vain?
Baba felt much relieved now. He insisted that the marriage should never happen in the first place, and he urged Lolita to do something before it was too late.
That night, Majumdar came home after a lecture. Dinner time was an unusually silent and a strange atmosphere. As he washed his hands, he noticed the troubled look on Lolita’s face. He crossed the room and softly touched her shoulder. As if waiting for his close attention, she rushed into his strong arms and broke down. He held her tight and his warmth and support gave Lolita a lot of comfort.
A few moments passed. He just said, “Come on darling… we shall think about it tomorrow… but now be a good girl and let’s please go to sleep…”
But they couldn’t. Neither of them.
The next day there was a call from Caroline – she was arriving in about ten days’ time with members of her family. Lolita tried her best to hint at something, but Caroline’s childish excitement stopped her altogether.
Each day passed filled with anxiety and restlessness.
Caroline finally arrived.
Her family was delighted to be in India. Her father and Dr. Majumdar were busy chatting while Caroline’s mother was in all admiration for Lolita’s collection of plants. Caroline showed her brother around the house.
Lolita stood watching. How long was all this façade of happiness going to last?
She tried her best to keep smiling. In the evening, Caroline organized a special show. Her family enjoyed it immensely. After a long gap, Lolita’s house echoed with fun and laughter.
That night Caroline received a telephone call but she did not share it with anyone.
Bheem was back too and Dr. Majumdar invited him to the house. Baba had brought Nandu along. Caroline’s brother wheeled away with him into the garden.
When Bheem came, the whole family was eagerly waiting in the hall while Caroline took him by the hand into the next room.
Half an hour passed in anxious silence. All of a sudden, Bheem rushed out of the room and his face wore a very strange expression. Was it anger? Humiliation? Or guilt?
Baba tried to stop him, but Caroline intervened and prevented him.
Bheem left the house in a huff.
Caroline’s parents looked confused and worried. Lolita softly asked her what had happened.
The call last night was from Dev. He had told her the whole story and asked her to take a wise decision – as it was to last a lifetime. She was full of pity for Kamli. Had she known of the whole situation earlier, she would herself have married her off to Bheem. Now that Kamli was not alive, that question did not arise.
But of the child, Karna. What wrong had he done? Why should he live separated from his own father? So she had decided to keep the child with them after marriage which is what she had told Bheem in the room.
He did agree that the child was his, but did not want it to come between them. All the time, he was only trying to convince Caroline that the child was quite safe in Delhi and if she was so particular about the child, they could even meet all its expenses. In any case, he sounded most unwilling to accept the child into his family house.
This denial was simply too much for her.
She finally decided to give him an ultimate choice.
Either getting married and having the child with them… or just saying good-bye forever.
Bheem could not accept the first option, so he chose to leave her.
Caroline’s lovely eyes glistened as she spoke.
Lolita admired her firm decision but at the same time, she felt sorry for her.
Caroline, however, was convinced that Bheem was not a man of sentiments. He could certainly marry any girl of his choice and live happily ever after, but she believed in genuine values.
Of course, she did not deny her love for Bheem, but, from her perspective, if she had chosen to live with him, it would have cost the child the most precious thing in this world – parental love.
It may not be her own child, but she could still be a loving mother.
Lolita’s heart felt very light now. She cheered up everyone saying it was a great moment to celebrate and walked towards the kitchen to prepare kheer – Caroline’s favourite.
The house echoed with happiness once again.
Caroline left for Germany with Karna.
The child had, at last, found its home.
Her dream was over… but it had a purpose.
Babaji: “Ji” is a suffix added to names of people as a sign of respect
didi: elder sister
kheer: a traditional South Asian sweet dish
Madamji: Madam with “Ji” added
peepal: a tree in the banyan family
rossogollas: a Bengali sweet dessert, but is popular throughout South Asia.
salwar-kurta: a knee length shirt or tunic worn over the salwar.
saree: traditional clothing for women in South Asia.
Illustration by Katherine Jones
About the Author:
Uma Balu is a 44 year old writer and translator from Kerala in South India. She has a natural flair for languages and culture and she has been working as trainer, translator and program designer for the past 10 years. Her favorite hobbies are pencil sketching, painting, bird-watching, chalk-carving, working on school/college projects relating to history, culture and environment, meeting people from different parts of the world and different walks of life, writing stories/poetry, singing (various languages), etc. Currently she is working on launching her concept bookstore – Cafe Lingua. She has taken part in the South-Asian Translation Competition organised by KATHA, New Delhi and she has won the Best Translation Award for her entry Home-coming – which is a short story translated from Sri Lankan Tamil into English. She has also participated in the Shizuoka International Translation Competition in Japan. Two of her entries won awards in The Children’s Book Trust Competition in New Delhi.
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