A Death Refracted – P4 – At the gates to paradise
Continuation of Part 4. Derry is in India for two weeks. Her parents have arranged for her to see 5 suitable boys, and they’ve been travelling to the first family. Now they are…..
At the Gates to Paradise
They’re in the courtyard of a farmhouse set just off the road, dirt tracks leading into the fields surrounding it, and the driver – Derry has learned that his name is Parm – has parked the car in the shade of a squat Banyan, it’s top shaped into a football, matching the flaking cement water tank that rests on the roof of the house in front of them. Nestled in the roots of the tree is a band of dogs, who lazily lift their heads, look at the newcomers through sleep maddened eyes and satisfied there is no threat round themselves back into their slumber.
The sun is sharp, even at this hour, and the heat heavy.
“Don’t talk unless you’re spoken to,” her father says as he steps out of the car and brushes down his coat. His nose is speckled with sweat and taking out a handkerchief he wipes his face. “The first impression lasts. We want it to be a good one.”
Flies materialise, wheel and circle about them, and the heat begins to rise through the soles of their shoes.
The sound of a cow lowing reaches Derry and she looks to her left, a line of cow sheds, manure heaped in front of them, cowpats lined drying, stacked dried, and as she watches a cow slowly moves out into the courtyard. It’s followed by a peacock, and then a calf, legs still weak, stilting its way, nudging past the preening bird, under the cow.
The smell from the drains outside carries into the courtyard, adding to the stench of the animals. Derry’s mother coughs discreetly into her shawl.
To Derry’s left is a brick outbuilding; she senses movement behind the net curtains but is uncertain as the heat hazes and lifts around her. A Sikh flag hangs limp from a rusty pole set on its roof, but she can still read “Only the Pure of Heart can Enter Here” embroidered onto it in bold orange letters.
Her mother adjusts her shawl, taking it up to cover her head and turning to Derry says, “It will not be difficult to choose. You’ll know when your heart speaks.”
Derry’s heart is still, the image of Desh carried inside the trembling vessel. She knows it will not speak to anyone today. She wants to change her pad. She’s hot and there’s no wind in the courtyard. She clenches her buttocks willing the pad to shift, feels a dribble at the top of her thighs.
“Listen to your heart,” her mother whispers. “And stop twitching. What’s the matter with you?”
Derry doesn’t answer, looks past the Banyan.
The family are standing posed in the veranda between two yellow pillars, two men, two women and girl, a mosquito netted door flung open leading into the house, a fan busy whirring above them. On the walls behind them are the ubiquitous “WELL COME” posters, glossy visions, and she knows they are unattainable, of Edens, torn images from magazines and newspapers, their clean spotless lines ridiculing the bubbling paint on the damp diseased walls beneath, and the threaded calendars, showing the perfect white marbled gurdwaras haloed with the gurus hanging from nails driven into the crumbling plaster.
One of the women, the mother, Derry assumes, detaches herself from the group and comes forward holding a tray of sweets. Behind her the young girl, head covered with a red chunni, follows carrying a jug of water and a stack of glasses.
Derry’s told herself she’s not going to touch any food or drink while they’re out; she remembers the bout of diarrhoea the time she ate at her cousin’s house. But she’s feeling faint and when the woman holds out a laddu, offered with a whispered blessing, she reaches for it, finds herself savouring the gritty taste, the sugar grains satisfyingly crunchy and accepts a glass of water from the girl, who’s watching her from under lowered eye lashes.
How are you painting me? Derry wonders as she herself studies the girl; What are you seeing? Can you see the “me” underneath these clothes? Am I the “Perdeshi”, the exotic stepped straight out of your posters, carrying paradise with me? And Derry knows that that is what the girl desires, to be able to touch and taste that paradise, listen to the foreigner, for a fleeting moment be with her, live as her. But, and she cannot hide the hopelessness from herself, I am just like you. We are both prisoners. These clothes, this Punjabi suit? These are the fucking walls of my prison.
The girl follows the woman as she pads past to Derry’s mother and then her father. Derry tracks the girl; she’s thin, the lines of her face sharp, skin tight, the trouser suit loose around her frame, and as she walks its folds fold behind her, each step carrying her back, Derry feels, from that brief connecting moment, into the fold of her family.
“Welcome to our house,” the woman bows her head. “We are honoured to have you here. “She gestures towards the veranda. “Let’s move inside, away from the heat.” And looking at Derry; “You are used to the cold over there, are you not? Not this,” she waves at the haze shimmering around them.
“No, she can live wherever needs must,” Derry’s mother quickly answers for her. “Summer sometimes is just as it is here. It can get very hot.” She fans the circling flies away with her shawl.
Derry recognises one of the men; it’s her uncle, her mother’s younger brother. He’s smoking his peculiar brand of rollups, the sickly smell heavy in the veranda as they pass into the interior. He looks at Derry as she passes, his right hand clenched around the cheroot, eyes wild, reminding her of the dogs under the Banyan; her mother’s told her he takes marijuana to ease the pain in his damaged leg, was prescribed the drug by the army doctor when he was discharged and pensioned off.
“Please.” This is the man next to her uncle. “Please come inside, all of you. It must have been a tiring journey. It’s much cooler inside, and we will share some more refreshments before the children get to talk privately.”
Turning to her father he says; ”I’ve heard much about your charitable work. I am also a member of our gurdwara committee, and the head of the charity working group.” He reaches out and grasps her father’s right hand. “And, of course, you must tell me about your latest book. I have listened to all the readings on Punjab radio. You are a famous author. They call you Deshpuri on the program.”
Derry’s notices her father visibly straighten and hold his head higher as the man continues to talk about the many stories he has heard. He’s wearing a tight blue turban, a lapel hanging down past his shoulder on the right, which she now knows, from her early morning walks through her own family’s fields, is the sign of the landowner. The sharp boned face is browned and creased, the eyes bright and easy in their gaze, used to authority, an oiled beard meshed against his cheeks. He studies Derry as she walks past, follows her parents into the interior, but she keeps her eyes ahead, adjusting to the cool and the shade. The scent of sandalwood, mixed with lavender and patchouli, drifts from the incense burners, but it doesn’t hide the dusty smell of the farm, the drying cowpats and her uncle’s tobacco.
“I belong to this country,” she hears her father reply. “It’s dust still clings to my feet. I can feel it beneath me everywhere I go in the UK.” There’s a pause as he takes a deep breath. “But we can talk while the children are getting acquainted.”
“Of course,” the man responds bringing his clasped hands to his heart. “I have been looking forward to this union.” He leads the way into the house.
The room they enter is large, running the length of the veranda, high ceiling supported on wooden beams, bricks dull red naked between them. The light is dampened by the mosquito nets tacked across the barred windows. Derry used to think of the bars as an Indian peculiarity, but her visits to Spain and Portugal have shown her that this not the case; windows need to be opened, and houses need to protected, and she’s been told there are thieves everywhere, no property, no person is safe.
The woman leads Derry and her mother to a sofa and beckons them to sit. The man directs her father to a chair and lowers himself into the one next to it. Overhead a fan, its blades spotted by flies, turns slowly.
“Puri, my lovely,” he looks across to the girl, “go and check if Amah is ready to serve.” Then he asks Derry’s father, “Ji, do you have a date for the next publication?”
Her father shifts in his chair and leans forward. “I am just finishing the last few edits. The publisher has the printer on standby and I’ve told him the book will be ready by the end of the month.”
“That will be good timing,” the other says. “The wedding can be sorted in a week. Then you can focus on the book.”
Derry is focussing on the pain beginning to blossom behind her eyeballs, marching to the back of her head. The heat in the car had been intense, and her stomach is tight, becoming tighter, wanting to empty itself.