A Death Refracted – Part 4.7 – The Fourth Knot
Derry has rejected the third suitor, a doctor, and the family has travelled to the fourth house on their list.
They’re in a courtyard, and the driver has parked the car in the shade of a galgal tree, its top shaped into a football player, matching the water tank that rests on the roof of the house in front of them. Nestled on a bench at the foot of the tree is a group of old men wrapped in shawls, 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.
We’re running out of choices, Derry’s father reminds her. The last one was promising. That was an impressive setup they had. No need to worry where the next meal will come from. Let’s keep him on the shortlist.
Derry wonders whether her father is serious; is this the man who stands up on stage and preaches equality, talks and writes about the sanctity of all life? had he seen the destruction they peddled in their clinic? She shivers; the stench of the place is still in her clothes. And where is Mandyra? She should be here, she needs her.
The one we we’ll see now is a policeman, her mother says. He’s studying to be a lawyer as well, I’m told. Wants to practice in Canada one day.
Canada? Then are we here to see him? Derry asks herself; in fact – and anger wells inside of her – why are we here in this god forsaken and murderous place at all! Doesn’t the UK produce the right calibre of men?
His father is a judge, her father adds, and I have known him from my college days. We were in the same graduating class.
But you studied English? Her uncle sounds confused.
We both did. He went on to study law. And he’s risen through the ranks since. I would have done the same with the civil service if I’d stayed here, says her father wistfully.
You were a talented student. Everyone said so, her uncle states looking round the courtyard. Where are the people?
Derry’s father sighs heavily, his shoulders slump. For a moment she feels sorry for him. His first job was as a labourer, he’d told them, pouring cement into the foundations of the Dartford tunnel. For over a year, before his relatives found him a position in one of the many paper mills that lined the Thames. What a fall it must have been? The first in his family to graduate, a career in the civil service beckoning, and he’d drawn the short straw to be sent overseas.
We do what we have to do, he says looking pointedly at Derry. Parents are always looking to do the best they can for their children.
Let’s hope that this one takes her fancy.
Her father looks with unadulterated disgust at his wife. It’s not about fancy, woman. This is our family name. Do you know the whispers doing the rounds? Have you heard what they’re saying?
Look out, her uncle whispers, here they come, the village panchayat.
One of the old men unfolds himself from the bench, stretches to ease the stiffness in his limbs, and walks slowly towards them. Behind him the tangled shawls unwrap and from the woollen cocoon bent angled men emerge, follow the other, shuffling forward supported by crooked snapped saplings.
Sit, sit, the first man closing bids waving vaguely at them.
Derry looks round to see where they can sit; there is no place. The yard is cobbled, slabs broken and warped, tufts of grass peaking between the cracks.
Hey, Mannu! the man shouts. Child, where is the judge?
A small girl, grubby face, wearing a red rag of a dress streaked with dust, no more than five years old, barefoot comes running from the hennaed house.
Nanna, he’s on a special mission, she smiles sweetly at the old man. He went early this morning, don’t you know. Took Pappu with him, and they both took their rifles too. Pappu said they might be shooting….
That’s enough, child! The old man shouts and continues grumpily? Where’s your mother? Doesn’t she know we have visitors.
Mamma! the girl yells towards the house. There’s people here. I don’t know who they are! Nanna says you know them!
A taller much older version of the girl, salwar flapping loose around her legs, emerges from the doorway wiping her hands on a filthy dripping rag.
I am so, so sorry, she starts to apologise as soon she sets eyes on Derry’s party. We were not expecting you so soon. My husband and son are not here. They were called this morning to investigate an incident outside town, she explains. Then turning to the young girl; Mannu, go and let Fatima know our guests are here and to lay out the table. Back again to the party: We will be sitting in the main house, back there, pointing over her shoulder at a triple storeyed building whose tower is visible above the low wall behind them. That is where we live. This, she says apologetically indicating the dusty courtyard, is where my father-in-law prefers to stay. He doesn’t like the feel of the new house. Too many buttons and light switches, she laughs.
It’s a dishonest house, the man says softly. The lights are there to hide its dark heart. This, he taps the paving stones, I built this with my hands, my sweat is mixed in with the mud and the cement that holds this together. And, he adds, I do not need lights to find my way around my house.
Derry takes in the courtyard and its environs. It’s just like her grandmother’s house; the ornate ironmongery to the shuttered veranda in front, water pump to the left next to the kitchen, and opposite a sitting room beside which rise steps of cracked concrete leading to the roof, where she can see a set of rooms, and above them the athletic water tank arms raised, feet set to kick a solid football into an imagined goalmouth . And, just like her grandmother’s the bottoms of the walls, despite the heat, are showing signs of damp, paint bubbling, mould blacked and rising.
She feels a tug on her sleeve, looks down. It’s the girl staring up at her.
Where are you from? And before Derry can answer, Those are very nice shoes. They look foreign. Are they foreign? Pappu likes foreign things. Have you come to show him your shoes? I think he’ll like them. He has lots of them, you know. Nearly as many as my dollies. He likes to look at them, especially the red ones when he’s back from his secret services….
Manu! Her mother’s sharp tone stops her from carrying on. What did I ask you to do? Go, tell Fatima.
Yes, mamma! She skips off glancing back at Derry promises of revelations shining in her eyes.
Please come this way, the woman beckons. Everything is ready for you.
When will the judge be back? asks Derry’s uncle. We have one more visit…
They will be back soon, very soon, the woman says.
Derry’s father checks his watch, bites his lip. The judge knew we were coming…
Do not fret, my son, the old man says shuffling along beside them. He will be here at the designated time. He is the judge.
This is the time we agreed….
There is no such time. He will be here in his own good time.
We don’t want to be on the road after dark, Derry’s uncle explains. It’s too dangerous to be out and about. Especially with foreigners.
Foreigners? What foreigners? My eyes may not be what they were but I see Punjabi blood before me. These people are our people. Why would they be harmed?
They slow their pace to match that of the old man, and behind them his shawl wrapped disciples tapping their way follow. He peers at Derry’s father through cloudy eyes.
What is your name, my son? He asks. Are you Nath? The one the judge studied with?
The one and the same, Derry’s uncle replies. They were tight as thieves back then.
Did I ask you? the man says sharply. I’m talking to the time pressed intellectual. Let him answer.
Derry studies the lined face; could be carved from stone, deep grooves around the eyes, the cheeks, fed by thin lines which criss-cross the dry skin. There’s a nobility she senses, a natural spring age has only magnified, one that she has not seen in many.
Uncle, I am Nath Kunderath, Derry’s father confirms, mouth curling into a smile – Derry knows that his pride has been kindled by the old man’s description of him. Your son and I went through high school and college together.
Derry has seen the pictures of his graduation, an elegant young man with laughter in his eyes framed hanging in her parent’s house. Everyone says that Bonny looks like him, even sounds like him. Where has that man gone? And the bitterness, the one he contains within his house, when did that take shape?
Nath….Nath, the old man searches his memory. Yes, yes, Bhavan’s boy. You’re the one he sent abroad, the blessed one.
The judge’s house is ahead. The woman enters. They stop. They wait for the old man.
He was a good man, your father, an upstanding man, an honest man. He stops to cough, spits and then continues; It’s a pity about your brothers. Bastards all of them!
We all have our burdens to bear, uncle, Derry’s father says.
We do, the old man agrees, and some are heavier than others. Especially when blood is involved.
They’re interrupted by the girl; Nanna! Chai is ready. She stands bright in the doorway with a savoury in her hand and waves at them to enter.
Let us do as my little precious, the old man smiles, and take time to enjoy some refreshments, some juice perhaps from my own galgal and maybe light some memories.
Derry’s mother holds her back, allows the men to enter first. This will be a good match, she reminds her daughter. They are very well connected.
All the way to the top, her uncle whispers as they pass inside. Links with the Chief Minister himself.
The house is air conditioned – to Derry’s surprise – cool after the sapping heat outside. The room they are led into has a high wood clad ceiling, walls hung with richly shaded carpets, floor marbled in matt grey warm under their feet, and the furniture, she knows, is hand crafted maple – she’s seen the same at Bonny’s house. A large marble table sits in the centre, and the group arrange themselves around it, the men at one end, the women at the other, the small girl wriggling in between Derry and her mother, wedging herself on Derry’s lap. The scent of wild grass and honey lifts up from the girl and Derry finds herself nuzzling into the other’s hair, breathing in the intoxicating aroma, forgetting momentarily why she is here, the pain inside her head.
The maid moves round the table, dispenses tea for all.
Above them the soothing hum of air being cooled. Behind it a voice on a radio somewhere in the house announcing a ‘special report on fake encounters – an expose of the malpractices within the Punjab Constabulary……’
The maid begins to serve small pastries to the guests.
The radio voice continues……Let’s begin with some numbers……over 600 cases were registered last year…..’
My son, why are you here with your travelling troupe? The old man takes his cup and pours the tea into the saucer, rolls it to cool the hot liquid, and slurps noisily.
Pappa ji, they’re here to see Pappu, the woman explains. You know we’re trying to find him a girl.
The old man studies his drink – Derry can see dark shapes floating in his milky tea and she wonders whether he’s reading the tea leaves – then carefully replaces the saucer onto the table and studies Derry.
Trying to find him a girl, he repeats the words slowly. Are all the girls lost? Should we send out a search party?
Pappa ji, this is the girl from abroad. The UK.
Of course she is, the old man laughs. We’re now importing girls to make up for the shortage here. Our production lines, apparently and officially, are sabotaged because of the demand for little pricks. He takes a deep breath. Young lady, is this what you want?
It’s time for her to get married, Derry’s father says. She’s twenty six now…
A good age to know her own mind, the old man states picking up his saucer again. He takes a sip, smacks his lips. Young woman, you remind me very much of my wife. She had the same look in her eyes, the light of a woman who knows herself, the same dangerous curls. No, no, no, he waves the saucer, tea spilling over the edges, don’t blush, my dear, you are a true peach! You will make a good partner for someone. He lifts his gaze to the ceiling, seems to be gathering his thoughts, then continues; It was different back then. We were not fractured. We lived side by side. Worked side by side. Prayed side by side. We had respect for everyone. None of this motherfucking business of them and us, us and everyone else, my house is blessed and a plague upon the rest….
Pappa ji! The woman sounds shocked. We have guests!
Guests, my dear, should they not know of these things? I’m talking about ties between the many Gods’ people, of being a family.
But they might become family….
Pah! I do not want them as family! he says vehemently spittle shooting from his mouth. I know them too well. He sets down the saucer, clasps his hands, and massaging his thumbs addresses Derry’s father. This, my son has nothing to do with you or your daughter. It’s those fuckers who are your brothers. They see themselves as lords, allied with the rich, playing with power. But every one of them is a shit. Every son of theirs is a shit! If Pappu were to marry your daughter we would be marrying into them as well, not just you and yours, into all of those bastards! He appeals to them all; How the hell can I face men who are thieves and liars, sleep with their brothers’ wives, besmirch the honour of their neighbours’ daughters?
I have nothing to do with them, Derry fathers begins…..
You have cut all ties with them because you have woken up to their scheming. And about time too! They should be lost to you.
I know what they have done to you. You know the lies they have spread about you and yours. You are lucky you are away from this shit hole, from those bastards and the shameless little dicks your brothers call sons.
The rest of the old men are now in the room, lined up behind the other, dark angles of meagre fleshed bone leaning on their thin sticks, listening.
We all knew your father, they say in unison. He was one of us.
Yes, we all knew your father, how he built up his holdings, how he treated his labourers. He was respected. His wife, may she have a long and peaceful life, is still respected. We know how you have served his memory, expanded his farms, given all your brothers a solid foundation.
That was my duty. I did what I had to do, what I was asked to do by my father. That I have done, Derry’s father murmurs.
You have, my son. And what have you received in return? Money and property stolen, deeds and registers transferred into their names….
Yes, that is what has been done, the men behind him mutter. It is well known.
…Shit smeared on the walls of your house, their hired thugs knocking on your door at night. Yes, I am aware of all that, in response to the surprise on Derry’s father’s face. Your name, not theirs, is questioned for the ills they have done, because you are the name everyone knows, the name that traces back to your father. You are your father.
I am my father’s son.
Your father would have cut off your nephew’s dick, the old men say. Broken his legs. But he’s still walking proud waving it around.
There is only so much I can do from abroad.
I know what a dick is, the little girl whispers to Derry, who shooshes her. She’s heard rumours about her cousin.
We sat in judgement, together with your village panchayat, the old men say.
It’s what you use to bum people, the girl continues under her breath in Derry’s ear. My dad says that to my mum, I’ve heard him at night. And Pappu too. He say’s he gets tired doing it at work.
Your neighbour’s daughter? We all knew he raped the girl.
She was one of ours.
Her mother is from this village.
The bastard took photos on his phone.
He denied all wrongdoing, swore it was the girl who led him on.
This from a man who has lain with his brother’s wife, has a child by her. And all this public knowledge.
To then live next door to him, see his shameless face every day as he rides up and down that alley on his bloody Honda!
Poor, poor girl!
She did what she thought she had to do
Burn away her shame
What else could she do
The police would not listen
He a business man
And his father with deep pockets
Who do they want to believe
Bottles of whiskey, washed cash
To be buried
Better to die
And, my son, I would not want your daughter to marry into mine. This house too is built on lies and deceit. My son and his son, they do not uphold the law. They bend it to their will.
Nanna doesn’t know, the little girl whispers again in Derry’s ear, but they’re on a special mission to catch dangerous people. Wonder in her eyes. Pappu said they sometimes have to shoot them in the bum if they try to run away.
They have no respect for the law, the old man says. They are party to the thieves and brigands who run this ruptured land, at their beck and call to hunt down and put away all that is an inconvenience, stands in the way of their looting. They’re all motherfucking criminals. Should be locked up, the lot of them. He stops, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, sighs; Forgive me. I have grown old hoping that the world would feed and grow on the hopes of people like me. But a dark lust stalks these new generations, and that is why I prefer to have my own roof above me. I know how it is supported, where it is rooted.
Uncle, I grew up with your son, Derry’s father says. He is a good man.
The voice on the radio fills the empty moment – the old man is in thought – announcing, ‘A vehicle transporting the accused got punctured and it is alleged one of the accused snatched the pistol of one of the policemen and he was also killed in crossfire. The officer in charge stated that his men had no option but to shoot as their lives and those of the general public were in danger. Warnings were issued and disregarded by the accused……’
Good? The old man asks in a voice charged with sadness. The question now is, good for whom? Not for me, not for you, not for this girl or that, he inclines his head at Derry and the child on her lap. My son has as many faces as his clients need and my grandson is a legalised assassin! He has killed, and will kill, and every time his father will have the right papers prepared, all the boxes ticked.
He pauses to finish the last of his tea. Derry, from across the table leans, looks at his saucer and at the bottom settled, imagines, she can see the leaves curled into the shape of a foetus, and is chilled.
I cannot have that visited upon your house. My conscience will not allow it.
The voice on the radio says: ‘Due process was followed according to the Police Legal Department; “The actions of the policemen fall within Section 46(2) of the Code of Criminal Procedure.” They also cited Sections 96 and 100 of the Indian Penal Code with specific highlighting of Clause 3 of Section 300 of the IPC …’
I live with what I have in my own house, and I am diminished. The old man sits with his head bowed.
The men come closer to him whispering, dark angels gathered for the last reckoning.
He listens, nods, looks up eyes saddened by the words he has heard.
There is no honour to be regained for our houses. That which has been cannot be recalled and wiped clean. Time spins onwards and the memories, no matter how deep we think they have been buried, will resurface, their graves ravaged by its relentless march, and our houses will sink into the cess pools above which they are built.
They whisper, the susurration of their words a breeze rustling through dried leaves.
He listens, nods.
This would not be a good match, he concludes and stands bones creaking. Let us go back to my house, drink some chuck and rid ourselves of this confounded stench. And I have questions for you, Nath.
Shall we go? the little girl asks Derry. I will show you my dollies.