That evening, without my blue Daimler, I sat on the porch till late, watching the fireflies, and the frogs. As the sky darkened, the faint outlines of cranes appeared, hovering in the distance. I should have got up, knowing this was when the nightmares returned. The endless peregrinations around the ship deck and the man in the cloak, my quarry, rising suddenly from a bench.
But tonight I knew, this, and the other nightmares would stay away. I’d not see myself again in the monastery looking down at the road far below, feeling for certain, that the advancing lights of a car meant only doom. Or at sea, just as the ship left port, that at any moment, their boats might come up and I’d be captured again by those devious SS men.
For that night, in my hand, I still had the note Das had sent me through his peon.
Scandal reported. Raja caught in complicit position. Your sec implicated.
Will explain when we meet.
I had to laugh at first. Evidently, Das had a fondness for cryptic communication, and felt he had to take precautions. He had drawn in the raja sahib’s distracted look – a man with hair standing up, a table and a woman in a skirt. But for all the obliqueness of his message, I had a better idea of things now.
The way raja sahib had looked that afternoon. A certain wildness in his eyes that he, a man of the world, had masked as he brushed his hair away. And then Samineh’s long absence. She hadn’t returned, instead there had been the appearance of her obnoxious fiancé, and now I knew, of course, that Samineh would never come back to work.
But then were things really that clear? Even if the raja sahib and Samineh had been seen, did it really make things difficult? The women in Berlin, who were believed to be with Nazi officers, were humiliated after the war, as collaborators. But they had had no choice. Just as I, in a different sense, hadn’t.
I understood them and felt a twinge of pity. There were times one was left with no options. I had come to Berlin hoping to please my star-struck, hero-worshipping mother; and to find the man she had so looked up to: Adolf Eichmann. It was already too late for that, but I reached early enough to witness the fall of the Reich.
The Russian army marching into Berlin, the Americans then, the partition of the city, and my own partitioned self as I became a prisoner.
First, of the Allied forces, and then those dreaded months, when the SS had me in their grip, a pawn to save one of their kingpins. Eichmann, the man I’d known since childhood. In Berlin, life for me had come to shape a concentrated circle; and I knew how difficult it was to get away from the choices that were thrust on one.
So if Samineh or anyone made their own choices, there was nothing I nor anyone had need to understand. There was nothing wrong with Mama too. She lived in a different time, with a different kind of ambition and hope. She had believed all that she had read and heard. And far away from Berlin, in a city beyond the equator, she had wanted to do something too. Who knew it’d all be so monstrous, so very wrong and evil? I looked at Das’s letter and felt strange, recognising the stealthy warmth in my heart, that I had thought of Mama in ways I never had before.
I heard a cough behind me and jerked around. My hands instinctively reached for the rifle that hung on the wall. Then I saw someone hunched up before me. A hunch not of physical deformity but of habit, of years of deferring, of listening, and being ordered around. I knew then it was the pankahwallah. The man exhausted beyond measure that afternoon. The one whom Das had jolted into wakefulness with an arrogant prod of his toe.
A breeze came up, touched my forehead, and I heard a soft murmur, a movement of his hands. And I said quietly, “You have to stand up for me to hear you.”
The man rose, and reluctantly rummaged in his pocket. The rest of him looked weighed down by whatever it was he had in his pockets. I heard the jangle of keys and saw him clearly as he emerged in the light. A wire-thin moustache, beady eyes glinting in the dark, and the way he walked, hunched forward. The bones of his feet crackled as he neared, reminding me of those fakirs who leapt nonchalant over burning stones.
“The car keys.”
It was a day of one too many convoluted conversations.
“Yes,” the man panted as he laughed, “in the garage.”
I looked out, “Can’t see any car there.”
The man nodded, his face seemed to have shrunk, and there was nothing more, I thought, he wished then to sink into the ground.
“Stand up straight, my man.” I had no idea then that I sounded like the Russian commander at Tempelhof, with the stern voice he adopted when he spoke to us.
“There is car,” he said, and then holding up the key ring so it moved like a bell, he went on, “and here are keys. Choti sahiba said I must give it to you.”
“That was...who is?”
I had never heard anyone referred to that way, and I leaned closer to listen. He took a step away and gestured with his hand, lifting it to indicate someone of his height. I held my breath then. Lisa? Lipsa?
He flashed a toothy smile. His hands danced around his face, indicating her hair. He twirled around, the keys ringing in his hand, and laughed, a high thin laugh, before I raised a tired hand.
“I know who you mean.”
But the man was now looking around with curiosity, staring at the walls, at the shelves, taking in his fill of the objects and artefacts Keith had collected. The rifle, the different masks, and the horns.
“Sahib is interested in all this?”
I leaned against the chair, and asked instead, “The car, you were saying... and this?” I pointed to what he still held in his hands.
“Yes, keys to the...”
He handed them to me. A flash of silver, a clammy cold touch against my fingers.
“Yes, the raja’s car. The madam said....”
“The madam, I thought, is gone.”
“The choti madam not gone,” he said stubbornly, and again he raised his hand to show someone of Lisa’s height. “She said I was to give you the keys, so you can drive around. Any time,” he added.
What I had in my hands then were the keys to a car in the raja sahib’s garage. I played with the keys moving them from one hand to the other. Then I heard him wheedle close again.
“Sahib, you have an interest?” – he fingered the shells, and then stopped at the painting.
‘Is that all?”
“Sahib?’ He said. I watched him, idly jangling the keys. I was curious now. The keys to the raja’s shiny green Austin, the one I had seen in his garage only the other day. I knew I could not ask him the question that had formed in my mind. Why had Lisa, she of the certain height, the twirling gait, that way of curtseying, sent it to me?
“Thank you,” I said with some finality, and the man now jumped and moved away. Walking backwards, facing me all the time, till he walked into the door. He jumped like a stricken moth, and he sidled out, making the narrowest of openings for himself.
Excerpted with permission from an excert, Yoda Press.
Respond to this article with a post
Share your perspective on this article with a post on ScrollStack, and send it to your followers.