Madras: Chapter Ten
The frosty air nipped on his bare neck as Chandru drew in gulps of fresh air gratefully. There was a touch of storminess about the sky, it was about to rain. The moody skies were swarming together across the lazy, black sky. The result was that the wind whipped about the scent of baked mud, grass and rain and that scent drove him homesick. He thought of his windy hometown, the lonely house atop the hills and the magnificent views he had had. He remembered stretching himself down upon the fringes of the hill or the rocks and of dreaming as he looked at the wind whipped skies. His cheeks flushed at the remembrance of home and his lips shook slightly. He thought of the leave he’d denied himself and it wrung his heart again. He could be back home this very hour, the light patter of his sister Janani sounding as she bounced about with childish steps in their house. He missed the rustle of the leaves and the wind breezing through the trees. He missed the solitude amidst the knowledge of all of his loved ones being near. He missed the kind, low whispers of his mother or her radiant face flushing with joy at their reunions. He could see her eyes sparkle with wonder, with the pride that comes to a mother naturally at seeing her son become a man.
He thought of hot meals back home and the restfulness of every hour. If he only closed his eyes a moment, he could imagine himself back home. And then he thought of the changes in his life. The one change he’d ever come to care for. Meera. He repeated her name to himself, lost in thought. He did not notice someone drawing up to him from afar, he was in his own world now. Her memories began to ensconce him. Though he had been the only boy child back home, had no male presence in his life and understood women and their interests, their quirks and their flaws better than most, he could never make out Meera. Meera was like a breath of fresh air. She was nothing like his sister or his mother. She had a sort of grace about her. He remembered the looks she’d given him. He remember the way she’d bend her coal dark, spirited eyes and part her lips slightly on seeing him. No one had looked at him like that. From the first moment they’d seen each other, they’d known they’d belonged with each other. And all the days they’d spent together, not too many words or thoughts or ideas had passed between them, their silent glances were full of meaning that they treasured far beyond anything each could have given. He remembered her rich, silken hair so unlike her sister’s which was curly and short. Meera was the woman in his life and now he wished she was there by him. To hold his hand, to give him her look of sweet assurance and tender trust. Wherever he’d taken her, she’d followed, he knew they belonged to each other.
“A love affair, my lad?” said a deep, hearty voice with a tint of laughter in it. “They take you for all you’re worth, don’t they?” The deep, thick English accent and the offhand way of speaking threw him a bit and he quickly bustled to his feet, alarmed from his thoughts.
“Oh, sit down, sit down. You needn’t stare at me like that. I don’t come to you as whatever you see me as at camp. I… ah.. come here as a man to seek some rest and solitude. It’s loud there and if you talk to people, people misinterpret. They complain, they flatter. Silence would be a welcome change” he said with a slight smile. The light blue eyes seemed lighter than usual, he looked weary. His shoulders were drawn as if he were feeling cold and the perpetual half smile at his lips might well have been a result of pain or some sort of discomfort the weather brought. Chandru smiled at his Major, well used to his temperament and mood changes by now. He remained lounging uncertainly against the feeble bark of a lone neem tree.
“It’s lonely here, my boy” continued the major, slanting his eyes to look at Chandru with meaning. “I hope you’re not angry because I’ve denied you a time with the belles of your place who are no doubt vying to be with you” he said with a light humour but the humorous element was lost on Chandru, who was filled with mixed feelings and indescribable longings for his home and more importantly, for the person who made it home.
“Am I… am I intruding here, cadet Chandru?” said the Major with a slight tone of disappointment and bitterness in his voice.
“I am a lonely man without kin or kith here in this blasted place. I needed to talk to someone before I went insane” he muttered, explanatorily.
“Oh! Not at all sir” said Chandru, not attempting any further, his face and bearing showing his distaste for conversation at the moment.
“All right, then” said the Major as if to accept even that slight opportunity that meant so much to him.
Chandru drew his hands from his pocket and looked about him, inspecting with a wary eye how to continue this chance encounter with a moody and unpredictable man. But something about him, perhaps the stiff moustache or the stern face etched with unspoken longing and loneliness made him sympathise with him. After all, as he said, he was a stranger in a strange land and that often made people deal harshly with others as they themselves did not consider themselves happy.
“Getting cold, isn’t it? I reckon it’s about to rain soon sir” ventured Chandru.
“Of course” muttered the Major abstractedly.
“You got the new books, sir?”
“The ones I sent with Nathan. They were delivered this morning, some for the library and some, addressed particularly to you. I couldn’t help glancing at the covers. Great selection of fiction. Hardy, Bronte, Dickens. I told him to deliver it personally to you. I trust you got it?”
“Yes, I did, thank you” muttered the Major. Something about his half-hearted replies and limp, lifeless eyes made Chandru understand that something had happened.
“Are you alright sir?” he asked. The Major guffawed loudly.
“What a sweet little lad you are”. The insult or compliment threw Chandru off and the awkwardness resumed between them.
“I am sorry, my boy. Men in the army do not usually ask questions like that. How is everyone back home? I trust all is well”.
“Yes, they are all doing well sir” replied Chandru with a genial smile. The stiffness about the Major seemed to melt away a bit. His eyes seemed warm, his voice amiable as he inquired.
“What about Janani? She must be fifteen now, am I right? Already bundled off from home, did you marry her off or have you left her alone in peace for awhile?”
For a moment, Chandru’s shocked silence was the only reply. His face lightened in a moment at the mention of his sister’s name.
“No, she isn’t married yet. I did not know you knew my family sir?” he said awkwardly, waiting for the Major to tell him more.
“I expect you didn’t” returned the Major smartly.
“My father told you about them, I suppose” said Chandru.
The Major smiled at that, a weak, kind yet sad smile which seemed to tell him not to ask anymore about it and merely from being touched by that look, Chandru refrained.
“I had a daughter myself. A pretty young girl. She was the same age as Janani, that was why I asked? Could play the piano, a lively little thing forever traipsing out of doors. She was very young, too young” he muttered and relapsed into silence.
“That’s why I would like to see Janani someday” said the Major heartily again and in the little that was left unsaid, Chandru understood the present mood and the painful mystery behind the man’s life.