Blushing fiercely, Saraswati mumbled that she would make some juice for everybody and fled into the kitchen.
While Zuby followed Saraswati into the kitchen, Kusuma took the liberty of inviting everybody into the living room. She informed them that Saraswati was making juice and told them to make themselves comfortable. The little gathering was delighted. They loved Saraswati because they received not only free entertainment, but also free refreshments at her house.
One by one, they trooped into the living room and settled down on sofas, chairs, and the floor. The two elderly men slowly lowered themselves on the comfortable sofa chairs with groans and moans. Anthony grabbed the TV remote and turned on the TV. Sadananda aired his views about the country’s socio-political conditions. The women ignored them and began exchanging the latest local news.
Meanwhile, Saraswati emptied a packet of Tang into a large vessel and added water and ice cubes to it. Zuby broke open a few packets of biscuits and artistically arranged them on a white plate decorated with red flowers.
When they walked into the living room with the cool drinks and biscuits, Anthony cheered.
“Ah, here comes the beer!” he shouted. Red with embarrassment, his wife tried to shush him.
“Uncle, its Tang,” mumbled Saraswati, handing out a glass.
“Tang!” exclaimed Anthony, visibly disappointed. “My dear, I have diabetes, arthritis, blood pressure, and a few other ailments unknown to the medical profession. These modern drinks do not agree with me. When I was young, I used to go to the local bar with my friends and …”
Some of the women began giggling, and Lucy said firmly, “Anthony!”
Delighted to grab another opportunity to flee into the kitchen, Saraswati said: “Uncle, I’ll bring some sugarless tea for you.”
When Saraswati returned to the living room a few minutes later, carrying a steaming cup of sugarless tea for Anthony, Rajesh turned his second-hand Maruti Omni in at the gate, honking fiercely. Saraswati turned a beet red, gathered the empty plates and glasses, and fled into the kitchen for the third time. Rajesh was the last person she wanted to see right now.
As she fiercely washed the glasses and plates in the kitchen, Saraswati heard a confusion of voices and noises in the living room, porch, and garden. Rajesh demanded to know how the scooter fell. Half a dozen voices delivered half a dozen versions of how the scooter fell. After a few roars of laughter, a few stray giggles, and a few shrieks from Imtiaz, there was deep silence for two seconds. Saraswati rightly guessed that everybody was watching Rajesh pull up the scooter and replace it on its main stand. And when the scooter was finally on its main stand, a cheer went up into the air, terrifying the birds out of the branches and startling the ever-hungry stray dogs and the overfed cats of the locality.
Rajesh talked to the neighbors for some time, and then the neighbors left one by one. The last to leave were Imtiaz and Zuby. Judging by the sounds, Saraswati gathered that Imtiaz had climbed the jackfruit tree and was refusing to climb down.
“Imtiaz, come down!!!” squealed Zuby. Whenever poor Zuby tried to shout, a pathetic squeal emerged from her frustrated lips.
“Come down!” she squealed.
“Yoooohoooo,” shouted Imtiaz from the branches. “This is my rocket! Whooooosh! We are on our way to Mars.”
“Just you wait!” bellowed Rajesh. “I’ll fetch the axe, chop down the tree, and send you to Mars.”
Imtiaz hastily climbed down the tree, put his tongue out at Rajesh, and ran out of the gate, followed by his harassed mother.
Peace reigned supreme.
In the kitchen, Saraswati wiped the glasses with a clean cloth and sulked.
She heard her husband coming up behind her. He stood close behind her, so close that she could feel his hot breath on her bare neck. He whispered in her ear, “Daada de? Gobbondh itta na? (What? Were you playing?)”
Saraswati suddenly swung around, flung her arms round his neck, and burst into tears.
“There! There! There!” said Rajesh, who was quite used to Saraswati and her tears. “There! There! There! The scooter is fine and all the bad people are gone. Don’t cry!”
“Yenchi saav mare (What the hell!),” he thought. “This is what you get if you marry college kids.”
“There! There! There!” he said, patting her head and back.
However, he was unprepared for the sudden change in her mood. He was shocked when she stepped away from him, banged her fist on his chest, and shouted, “It’s your fault!”
Rajesh could only stare at her, his mouth hanging open in amazement.
“If you had taught me how to ride it, I wouldn’t have tried on my own and it wouldn’t have fallen,” she said in an accusing voice.
“Listen!” he said, finding his voice at last and shaking a finger under her nose. “Don’t you dare!”
“All those neighbors coming here and making a fuss!” she sobbed, grabbing his finger and pushing it away. “Anyone would have thought I dropped a bomb.”
“Did you really try to ride that scooter wearing this nightie?” Rajesh grinned.
“What’s wrong with my nightie?” said Saraswati fiercely.
“Oh nothing!” said Rajesh. “You ought to have worn that red sari you wore on our wedding day. By the way, where is the key?”
“The key?” Saraswati was puzzled.
“Yes, the key,” he said patiently.
“What key?” She gaped at him.
“What do you mean what key?” he grinned wider than ever. “Are you an expert in starting a scooter without its key?”
“Oh,” said Saraswati, her face falling. “The … scooter … key …”
Fresh tears began rolling down her cheeks. She wished she hadn’t touched that beastly scooter.
“There! There!” clucked Rajesh, like a hen with one chick.
“Don’t you dare “there” me!” she screamed, raining blows on his chest. “If only you had taught me to ride or at least encouraged me to go to a driving school, all this wouldn’t have happened.”
“Saraswati, I will not allow you to ride!” he bellowed, grabbing her hands in his. He was the only person in the world who called her “Saraswati.”
“Don’t shout at me!” she shouted, pulling her hands away. “Do you want the neighbors to call the police?”
“Then what the hell are you blaming me for?” he whispered loudly. “Did I tell you to go and play kabbadi on the scooter? You knocked it off its main stand and attracted the neighbors’ attention. You invited the neighbors in and supplied them refreshments. You did it! You … you … you …”
“Why don’t you teach me how to ride? Is it because I am a girl?”
“It’s not because you are a girl,” he grinned. “It’s because you are a silly girl. Setting you and a scooter on the roads of Mangalore would be an offence, punishable by law.”
“I hate you!” she screamed.
“Now when did I beg for your love?” he wanted to know.
She turned her back to him and slammed a dirty vessel into the sink.
“Do you remember the day I taught you cycle riding?” he asked her back. “You were a silly little girl of seven and I was a big oaf of sixteen. There I was, balancing the thing for you with my hands and running after you. All you had to do was sit still, look ahead, and hold the handlebars. Now could you do that? No, you couldn’t! You were eager to avoid a lump of cow dung on the road. You twisted the handlebars, hit the rock by the side of the road, grazed your knees, and damaged the cycle.”
Saraswati began peeling shallots for sambar.
“Teach you to ride indeed!” he continued. “You then ran off crying and told tales about me to your father and my father. The story of how that big monster Rajesh bullied that sweet little Saraswati spread like wildfire and I was treated like a criminal for nearly a month.”
Saraswati refused to respond.
“Teach you to ride indeed!” he went on. “You couldn’t even steer a cycle properly! Stay away from that scooter, do you hear me?”
He stormed out of the kitchen, stopping briefly at the door to say, “And if you are making sambar, fry some papads too.”
He sauntered into the living room, whistling loudly and turned on the television.
Back in the kitchen, Saraswati thought bitter thoughts of childhood buddies who later turned into husbands.
… to be continued.