Lentils in Beijing

It was too much. Every two years, Raj packed her bags, unhung every picture in the living room, unplugged every electrical appliance and instructed the packers to pack with care, “That crystal fish can break. So be careful.” Then she would sit with her children in an empty hall and take stock of her life in a city she entered with curiosity and hesitation. She had learned to absorb the city air into her lungs, bloodstream and regular habits. She would recall the pathways that she once found unfamiliar and repulsive and how now she adored those very same places as she knew where the roads would take her. She also knew the way the clock worked in the city—when and where the school bus would drop her children, she knew where to go when they were not at home. She had figured out the best uses of her time. Raj knew Kishor was in an office engrossed in his computer or talking—like he never spoke to her—over the phone with a client he had never met.
Every time the transfer order came, Raj sulked. She would play it safe with the children though, reveal their new home like a gift being unwrapped. She educated them about the new city—the geography, the population, the number of languages and dialects that were spoken here, the pulses that grew there, and the religions that filled the air like smoke. Chikoo and Bunty liked their field trips around India. They could have felt ostracised and hated changing schools but Raj filled them with an insatiable desire for change, so much so that they asked Kishore where they would go next every six months.

Beijing, however, was too much. Raj was 50 now, her sons in university. She had been in Chennai for four years, rooted long enough for her to build dreams of a house. The sort she had read about in books from her childhood—the house with the red tiled roof, a pond with ducks and lilies and a backyard where she could sprout an organic farm patch and forever do away with squabbling with vendors over the price of tomatoes.

Every day the dream grew bigger—her husband would be absorbed in a meeting with red-faced clients, her sons immersed in astrophysics and yes, the taste of women, she could tell. The house began to grow in her mind, a small abode at first. But now enormous—four bedrooms and four balconies, her own looking out on to an empty patch of clean blue sky and mango trees and a river. There were woodpeckers, cuckoos and nasty crows. The house had an old vibe with black-red oxide flooring and elegant bathrooms. As she looked deeper and deeper into this picture she had created from a seed in her heart, she was flooded with a fountain blue calmness—something she knew her husband and sons would never ever be able to find as they would hardly dare go so deep into their thoughts.

The house in her head reverberated when Kishore told her it was time to pack up. The dreaded words flew out of his mouth nonchalantly like a bird from a branch. He seemed cheerful—his eyes on the reams of newspaper as he declared, “We are going to Beijing.” Raj froze. She searched her geography for Beijing and was momentarily lost. “Beijing, dear. The Beijing of the world. Didn’t I tell you I was far-sighted getting you the passport last year? The boys will take us abroad indeed! We will do our first foreign trip before they do!” Kishore stood up and laughed happily.

Raj had never seen him this happy for years. He followed an unbreakable routine, as though the possibility of continuous transfers had hardwired a strict regiment in his body that no move could alter. He would read the papers at 7.00 am and had his bath at 7.45 am. He left for office at 8.45 am, always after having watched the headlines. He returned in the evening at a quarter to eight and then watched TV while having dinner. Every night, he slept at 10 pm. Raj had pondered on this routine and often detested it. There were days when she did not want to get him his tea by 6 am, and there were other days when she wanted to hang out with him on the beach front. He would dismiss her as silly.

“This is silly,” she sulked.
“What do you mean silly, Raj? This is the best day of my life. Finally, they are cutting me some slack for all the work that I’ve been doing. Day after day, city after city, and now a break. Do you know the kind of offer letter I’ve got on me?” he waved a letter before her eyes.
“I don’t care. I’m not coming.” Raj felt like a silent, unforgiving cloud.
“I don’t understand. We’ve been all around India.” Kishore sounded exasperated. He eyed the clock. It was past 10 pm.
“We were young then.”
“Don’t give me that. I look really young.”
He winked at her and showed off his false hair and pointed at his tee, “And you…,” he held her hand.
The last time Kishore had held Raj’s hand this tenderly was on their younger son’s 18th birthday. Raj was dressed in a blue salwar kameez and Kishore had had an extra peg. It was 10.30 pm—the boys had left on a tour and there was a cool, mosquito-free breeze. Time had slipped away for 20 minutes, at least.
Raj took her hand away. She looked out of the window. Her sons stared at her from a photograph that was unfastened and now stood on the floor. She missed them terribly at that moment. Probably, they wouldn’t understand now how she felt; they did understand then when they were young. As though they still remembered their mother’s womb and understood her rhythms.

“What do people eat in Beijing?”
“Food, what else? Raj, you’re crazy.”
“You don’t get Indian food there. I’m a vegetarian and all they eat there are octopuses and sharks.”
“That’s no reason to not come with me. I know this is sudden but you adjust quickly. And anyway, I’ll try to find out about Indians and their culinary habits. There must be some sort of Indian community or Indian store.”
“How could you just go ahead and say okay, when you are not sure if you get lentils in Beijing?”
“I never thought of asking. It’s company orders, Raj.”
“What language do they speak there?”
“Mandarin—where we are headed.”
“And you want me to haggle for vegetables in a language
I don’t know?”
Kishore shrugged. It was 11 pm, way past his bedtime.
“It’s different in India. This is where I’m from. But how do you expect me to start over now when I’m 50?”
She thought of her shrinking uterus, she thought of her boys coming to an empty home for long holidays, she wondered what Gauri, her friend of 30 years, would say to this. She was being uprooted and a death-like feeling entered her.
“I never really thought about how hard this might be for you. I just jumped at the chance of something different. I wanted a change, Raj. I never told you how much I wanted to travel.”
“Going to Beijing is something you wanted?”
That night, they slept late. Raj twisted and turned on her bed laced blue with the night. She sat up and Kishore pulled her close beside him. Time disappeared again for a while, and when sleep came, Raj found herself in a fairly large spacious home, with three bedrooms and a delightful terrace garden. It wasn’t the house she had built in her imagination but it was pleasant enough. And when she awoke, she lingered for more as though she was waiting for a farewell kiss. The dreams were there, she thought as she made the six o’clock tea, and they were real as well.

  • Neelima Vinod

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