|A day's guest 4|
"Papa?" the girl said softly, without lifting her head, "did you buy a day-return ticket?"
"Oh, nothing; here, you can get a return ticket very cheap."
Had she called him here to ask him this? Slowly, he removed his hand from the girlís head.
"Where will you stay the night?" The girlís voice was utterly dispassionate.
"What if I stay right here?"
The girl put the rabbit back into the hutch gently and shut the door with a click.
"I was joking," he said with a laugh. "Iíll go back on the last train."
The girl turned and looked at him. "There are a couple of good hotels here, too... Iíll phone them right now and ask." The childís tone became very tender. Once she knew that he would not spend the night in the house, she moved away from the mother and came over to the manís side; slowly she took his hand and began to caress it in exactly the same way as she had caressed the rabbit a short while ago. But the manís hand was soaked with sweat.
"Listen, for my next holidays Iíll go to India ó this time itís definite." She was a little surprised that the man didnít say anything; only the clatter of the rabbits in the hutch could be heard.
"Papa... why donít you say something?"
"You say that every year."
"I do... but this time Iíll come. Donít you believe me?"
"Should we go inside? Mummy will wonder where we went."
The darkness of August had gathered silently. The willow leaves rustled in the breeze. The curtains in the rooms had been drawn, but the door to the kitchen stood open. The girl ran inside and turned on the tap at the kitchen sink and began to wash her hands. He came and stood behind her; he saw his own face in the mirror above the sink ó dry and dusty, unshaven stubble, and the red eyes staring at him in consternation ó no, no hope for you.
"Papa, do you still talk to yourself?" The girl lifted her wet face ó she watched him in the mirror.
"Yes, but now no one listens to me." Gently he laid a hand on the girlís shoulder. "Is there any soda in the fridge?"
"You go in, Iíll bring it right away."
There was no one in the room. His things had been gathered together. The suitcase stood in the corner; while they were in the garden, his wife must have looked at all those things; must have touched them. No matter how displeased she was with him ó it was different with things. She had not taken them up stairs, but had not had the courage to put them back in the suitcase... she had left them to their fate.
A little while later, when the girl came with the soda and a glass, she didnít see him right away. The room was dark ó not completely dark ó only dark enough so that a man sitting among objects in a room looks like an object. "Papa... you didnít turn the light on?"
"Iíll turn it on now..." He rose and searched for the switch. The child put the soda and glass on the table and turned on the table lamp.
"Sheís taking a shower, sheíll be here soon."
From his bag he took out the whiskey that he had bought at Frankfurt airport... while pouring it into the glass, his hand stopped. "Whereís your ginger ale?"
"I drink real beer now." The girl laughed and looked at him. "You want some ice?"
"No... but where are you going?"
"To feed the rabbits, or theyíll kill one another."
When she went out the open door revealed the darkness of the garden ó shimmering in the yellow sediment of the stars. There was no wind. The silence outside came in, filtered through the invisible sounds of the house. It seemed to him that he was sitting in his home, and what used to happen many years ago was happening now. She used to hum under the shower, and when she came out with a towel tied like a turban around her hair, the drops of water made a line leading from the bathroom to her room ó who knew where that line had dried up in between? In which place, at which particular corner, did that thing slip from the hand which he could not catch ever again?
He poured some more whiskey, although his glass was not yet empty. It seemed a little strange to him that it had been at the same time the previous night that he had been drinking, but he was in mid-air then. When he heard the air hostessí voice saying that they were crossing the Channel, he looked down through the airplane window. Nothing could be seen: not the sea, not a lighthouse, only darkness, darkness floating in darkness, then nothing at all. And then, as he looked down into the darkness below, it occurred to him that the Channel that could not be seen anywhere below was in fact somewhere inside ó spreading from one life of his to the other; a channel he would always keep on crossing, sometimes here, sometimes there, belonging to nowhere, neither coming from anywhere, nor arriving anywhere...
"Whereís Bindu?" He started and looked up; he didnít know how long she had been standing there. "Outside, in the garden," he said, "feeding the rabbits".
She stood apart, under the banister. After her shower she had put on a long skirt. Her hair was open. Her face looked very washed, shining. She was looking at his glass on the table. Her face was calm; as though the shower had not only washed her face but also washed away her anguish.
"Thereís some ice," she said.
"No, Iíve taken some soda; can I make you one?"
She shook her head in a way that could mean anything; he knew that after a hot shower she liked to drink something cold. Even after so long, he had not forgotten her habits; in fact, the old familiarity between the two came back with the help of those habits. He went into the kitchen and brought a glass for her. Put a little ice in it. He began to pour in the whiskey, then heard her voice ó "Thatís plenty."
It was a voice washed clean, in which there was no colour, neither of affection nor of displeasure ó a calm and indifferent voice. She had moved away from the stairs and come near the chair.
"Wonít you sit?" he asked, a little concerned.
She picked up her glass and sat down on the stool, in the same place where she had sat in the afternoon. Near the TV but far from the table lamp ó where only a thin gleam of the light reached her.
For some time neither of the two said anything, then the voice of the woman was heard. "How is everyone at home?"
"Fine... it was they who sent all these things."
"I know," the woman said in a tired voice. "Why do you trouble those poor people? You have to carry these things all the way here, and they lie useless here."
"This is all they can do," he said. "You havenít gone there for years; they think of you a lot."
"Whatís the use of going now?" She took a long swig from the glass. "I have no connection with them."
"You could come with the child, she hasnít seen India yet."
She was quiet for a while, then said slowly, "Next year sheíll be fourteen... according to the law she can go anywhere then."
"Iím not talking of the law; she wonít go anywhere without you."
The woman looked at the man over the wet rim of the glass. "If I had my way Iíd never send her there."
"Why?" The man looked at her.
She laughed softly. "Arenít we two Indians enough for her?"
He sat there. After some time the kitchen door opened, the girl came in, looked at both of them silently, and then went to the staircase where the telephone was kept.
"Who are you calling?" the woman asked.
The girl was silent, began to turn the dial.
The man rose, looked at her. "Will you have a little more?"
"No..." She shook her head. The man began to pour whiskey slowly into his glass.
"Have you started drinking a lot?" the woman said.
"No." The man shook his head. "When I travel I drink a little more than usual."
"I thought you must have settled down by now."
"How?" He looked at the woman. "What gave you that idea?"
The woman watched him with silent eyes for some time. "Why, what happened with that girl? Doesnít she live with you?" There was no excitement in the womanís voice, nor any shadow of strife... it was as though two people were discussing, a long time afterwards, some incident that with one stroke had cast them on opposite shores.
"I live alone... with Ma," he said.
The woman looked at him, surprised. "What happened?"
"Nothing... maybe Iím not capable of living with anyone." His voice became unnaturally soft, as though he were talking about some secret disease of his. "Youíre surprised? But there are people like that..."
He wanted to say something more, about love, about loyalty, about faith and deceit; some large truth, which is made up of many lies put together, which leaps like lightning through the fog of whiskey and the next instant is lost forever in the dark.
Perhaps the girl was waiting for this moment; she rose from the telephone, came near the man, looked at her mother once; she was hidden in the half-corner of darkness behind the table lamp. And the man? He had become just a brimming smudge behind the glass.
"Papa." The girl had a scrap of paper in her hand. "This is the name of the hotel, the taxi will get you there in just ten minutes."
He pulled the girl to himself and put the paper in his pocket. For some time the three sat in silence, as years ago everyone in the house would gather and sit quietly before starting out on a journey. Outside, a great many stars had come out, in whose still, pale glow the old willow, the bushes, and the rabbit hutch had slipped close together.
He put his glass down on the table, then gently kissed the girl and picked up his suitcase; and when the girl opened the door, he stopped for a moment on the threshold. "Iíll go now," he said. Hard to tell whom he said this to, but no sound came from where she sat. The silence was as dense as that in the darkness outside, where he was going.
Nirmal Verma is a pioneer of the New Story movement in Hindi.
A winner of the Jnanpith, India's highest literary honour, he lives in Delhi