That was how Tara received the news. On a slip of paper in a spidery scrawl: “Father died. Call Surjo.” The message reached her in this manner because she had not responded to the many messages left at the language centre the day before.
The woman remained silent and gave her two other slips of paper. They were as redundant as romance novels were these days. “Urgent from New Jersey. Call.” “We are trying to reach you. Baba no more.”
She handed her the notes with the same equanimity with which she conveyed messages when Tara missed her mother’s calls. Tara was never particular about calling back. When she did, her mother had the same questions about money, sweaters, covering her ears while running, eating enough rice.
She rarely made any calls to her family from Dharamsala unless it was to tell them to transfer money or courier her books. The woman held Tara’s hands, closed her eyes and said a long prayer. Before Tara could say anything, she had turned around and left.
Tara’s first instinct was to look out from her balcony. There was the sky, the pagodas of the Dalai Lama temple rising in the distance, the big deodar spreading its limbs like men on public buses, the tea stall opposite the road, and even the Pahari cow with colourful beads around her neck who parked herself there daily.
The cycles chained in a row to a metal railing were not there. It was past nine now, and they had made their way into other streets and lanes, their destiny yoked to their owners. The world, with its order and rhythm, was in order. Only her father, older than her world, was gone.
As children, Tara and Surjo would laugh when they heard servants use the word “expire” for deceased relatives. Medicines and packaged foods expire. Can a human being finish his purpose, literally cease to be useful? As a child she had found the misplaced usage funny. It seemed cruel now.
But the democracy of death in the English language seemed unfair. A terrorist could be dead in an encounter. A rogue elephant could be shot dead. And now, her father too, was just dead. In Indian tongues, a common criminal and her father would sway the verbs to conjugate differently.
She saw Noor’s braided head bobbing down the road. Should she shout from across the road and tell her what had happened? If Noor hadn’t come around that morning, she would still have been sleeping and missed this altogether. None of this would have happened.
No, calling Noor would confirm the matter. She would look into her eyes and put her arms around her and that would make her cry. Maybe there had been a mistake. Whose father did the notes refer to?
It must be Laura’s father. Poor Laura. She would call and console her. But why would Surjo call him Baba? They had only one Baba. There had to have been a mistake, but she couldn’t work out what.
She put on her jacket, on a hook near the door from last night, and started walking towards the language centre. The grocery store in her lane, where she bought her bottled water, had a phone. But it was too loud in there.
She would have to walk to the language centre and use the phone there. It was ten minutes away. It would be quiet and she would be able to hear Surjo and then they would laugh about the confusion. Then her father would snatch the phone from Surjo and say something clever.
The sun hadn’t gained in strength yet and Tara’s jacket flapped about her knees as she walked. She stopped to start buttoning it but her fingers were stiff. Then she realised it was her feet that were cold. She was wearing flip-flops. She would have to walk fast and get this over with – what if she ran into Tashi in this outfit of mango-printed pyjamas, flip-flops with pom-poms, and an elegant silk jacket?
Still, she made an effort to acknowledge everybody she usually smiled at on the market road. She crossed the man at the momos counter at Lung Ta who gestured to his momo pot and seemed to be asking why she didn’t get dinner from him last night. She nodded at the woman who tried to sell her a silver jewellery set with turquoise stones every day. She smiled at the boy selling cut fruit and a group of students she always saw at the centre but had never spoken to.
When the language centre loomed just ahead, she slowed down. Suddenly she regretted having walked so fast. She felt hungry. She hadn’t had breakfast. Why didn’t Noor bring something more useful than oranges?
She turned around and walked back to the fruit seller and asked for a bowl of cut fruit. He gave her pineapple, banana, watermelon and a few strawberries on top. She asked for more slices of pineapple. It would take time, she’d have to wait while he cut a new one. She would wait, she said. She buttoned up her jacket properly as she waited. After she was done eating, she walked towards the centre again.
The language centre looked minimal from the outside. Inside, it was gaudy. White tubelights lit every flaw. A new round of global grants had enabled, apart from a library wing, a coffee counter in the lobby. Students usually crowded around that.
But the lobby was deserted today. The coffee machine was silent, not making its usual noises. It was Christmas break and a large number of foreign students had left for home. It was just the monks and her.
A young monk in crimson robes was making a call, so she waited in line. He always seemed to be around the phone. Weren’t they supposed to give up the world? Who did he call?
When he finally finished, she wiped the receiver with her sleeve and called Surjo. Laura picked up. She said she was sorry for her loss.
Tara felt like she had when she had been on a rollercoaster ride for the first time. There had been a thrill when the ride had started, going straight at first then curving upwards in a large semicircle loop. Baba had been beside her in the coupe.
It had always been like that: Baba and her, Ma and Surjo. These were the family teams even when they played carrom. She had held on to his arm through his shirtsleeves, her little-girl nails digging into him. They had reached the top and she had got a glimpse of the entire amusement park – how small the people looked!
“And you, Tara rani, are on top of the world,” Baba had said. “You and I on top of the world.” She and Baba had looked at each other, if only for a moment, and screamed. But when the ride went past the loop and started a downward spiral, she had been caught by surprise at the hollow sensation in her stomach. All her insides had been scooped out. She was skin and heartbeat. She didn’t know if it was thrill or fear.
“Ekhuni shesh hobe, Tara rani,” she had heard her father’s voice say over the collective screams of children and adults. This would be over soon, all she had to do was hold on tight to the railing in front.
Excerpted with permission from The Illuminated, Anindita Ghose, HarperCollins India.
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