As the car turned out of the gate, the veranda and pillars of the Supreme Court disappeared from the rearview mirror. They were crowded out by the lengthening street, and the branches of trees that entangled themselves in the wind. The street was deserted except for a couple of scooters, barely visible through the thin film of the rising dust.
Allowing a motorbike to race past him on the right, Vimal drove on silently. Chaand leaned forwards and propped her forehead against the headrest of the seat in front of her. Her face was enveloped by her waving hair.
Rajnath was sitting in the passenger seat, next to Vimal. He heard, or he imagined that he heard, a sob. It lingered in the air. Without turning, he reached out and patted Chaand on her head. “Chaand...come on...”
In the heavy silence of the car, his words appeared and vanished like droplets of water. He pulled back his hand. Neela, sitting next to Chaand in the backseat, shifted her position slightly.
Rajnath realised that all the windows except for Vimal’s were shut. He rolled down his own, and the dust-coloured spring winds banished the deadweight pressure in the car. Leaning her head on the next seat, Chaand buried her face in her arms as if to fortify it against the wind.
Rajnath asked, “Why are we going to Connaught Place, Chacha? Let’s drop Chaand home first.” He added, hesitantly, “Maybe I’ll get off there as well.”
Vimal’s eyes were fixed on the road. “What’ll you do at home?” he asked. “I’ll take you to the shop instead. Work will keep your mind occupied. Right, Neela?” he added, turning around.
Neela smiled with an effort, mixed with some gratitude. Vimal’s gaze lingered over Chaand’s loose hair – and then he resumed driving as before.
They had reached Connaught Circus. Parking the car in front of a restaurant, he said, “Come on, let’s get you all some espressos.” No one replied. Vimal stepped out of the car.
Rajnath got out, too, and opened the door for Neela. Vimal was about to do the same for Chaand, but she had already stepped out on to the footpath. Her feet rested on solid ground, but she might as well have been standing in a quivering boat; she squinted at the sun. She looked like someone right out of jail, set free like a butterfly from the cold.
Seating themselves in a corner of the restaurant, everyone heaved sighs of relief. Vimal called for four espressos. Chaand said to the waiter, “I’ll have a plain coffee.”
A couple at the opposite table had started laughing uproariously between themselves. Vimal glanced at them and said to Neela, “Recognise that girl? No? That’s Monica Dastur. Don’t know her? You don’t read women’s magazines, then – she’s quite a famous model. You must have seen her in the newspapers.”
Neela indicated that she had heard him with a nod, and then stared at Chaand in silence. Rajnath commented on the dryness of the weather – but his words were not comment-like; they were a painstaking recitation of a forgotten lesson from some long-gone schoolroom.
The coffee arrived. Vimal, with his first sip, sought out Rajnath’s eyes; a wordless communication passed between them. “No cause to worry,” they might have said. “Nothing has changed. Chaand is drinking black coffee, like she always does. Everything is exactly the same.”
They sat there: scared children who had been given the liberty to speak. Conversation inched forwards like a traveller in a forest of thieves. Neela enquired, “When will we get the formal verdict?”
“Within two months,” Vimal replied.
“Suppose the judge feels, while writing it out, that Papa is innocent...”
Chaand threw Neela a sharp glance. She put down her cup on the saucer with an unnecessary khut – the noise seemed to subdue Neela. She asked Vimal, falteringly, “Why...is that not possible?”
Vimal placed his elbows on the table. He explained that it was best to wait now, after today’s decision, and try to understand the situation completely.
“Does anything remain to be understood?” asked Rajnath.
Vimal was silent. His eyes rested on the model opposite them, or perhaps the window behind her. “You were saying something,” Neela said.
“I was saying, your father’s case has been closed. The Supreme Court has given its final verdict. A life sentence lasts at least eight to ten years, he’s been in jail for more than two years already. It’s time for us...this is what I’ve been trying to say – the time for fighting the circumstance has passed. It’s time for us to accept it now, and move on.”
The girl on the opposite table – red lips, shapely eyebrows, mischievous eyes – looked at Vimal. His gaze was still fixed in her direction, but he was definitely not looking at her. Everyone except Chaand, as if under a spell, glanced that way for a moment. But perhaps they were alien now to the world of red lips and playful eyes, maddening music and reckless happiness, which dissolved in its winds the sweetness of opium. This atmosphere, if anything, was leaden. Slowly, the laughter in the girl’s eyes died. She began to flip through the pages of the menu.
Vimal continued: “Raj, Durgadas is your father, but he means something to me, too. I’ve been like an older brother to you for fifteen years. Don’t think I don’t understand your pain. But...”
Rajnath lit a cigarette. “Let’s talk about something else, Chacha.”
At the opposite table, for some reason, the girl’s companion had started telling the waiter off in his Indian-accented English. The manager started out in their direction from behind the counter, with a mixture of tact and apology in his smile. Vimal broke off his gaze and said to Rajnath, “No, we can’t ignore reality anymore. How long will you sit around moping like this?”
He looked at Neela and Chaand. Chaand was looking into her empty cup of coffee, but Neela shook her head. A burned-down house, she suggested, might still have something to be salvaged from the ashes. They should search, she said, once more.
Vimal replied, “For six months, until the High Court hadn’t accepted our appeal, what didn’t we endure! And finally, they made a decision, they reduced the death sentence to life imprisonment – remember how happy we were that day? We shouldn’t forget that joy. In the hopes of getting him off at the Supreme Court, we had forgotten about it for a few days. But now we should recall that time – we should remember the reduced sentence. And accept that the matter ends there.”
No one uttered a word.
“A couple of things are clear to us now. Durgadas will have to stay in jail for a few years. We can try to get him released before that. He has high blood pressure – maybe the government will release him on grounds of his health. Whatever it is, let’s think about it later...The second issue is that of business. You’re handling that,” he addressed Rajnath. “You can trust in me for help, as much as you would have trusted Durgadas had he not been in jail.
“The third thing, Chaand, is for you, and you, Neela. You have to believe – with no reservation – that though your father might’ve been sentenced, he is innocent.”
Chaand looked away, saying quietly, “So what if we believe it? The whole world – the Supreme Court, even – believes that he’s a criminal.”
“No,” she said, ruthlessly. “You were saying yourself that it isn’t right to ignore reality. And now the reality is that Papa has committed murder. We should accept this now, get used to it.”
Excerpted with permission from Fragments of Happiness, Shrilal Shukla, translated from the Hindi by Niyati Bafna, Speaking Tiger Books.
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