Here’s a short passage from chapter 4 of my novel Signal Red (published by Penguin in 2005). Vidura is Mrs Gopal Chandran, born in Kenya and brought up in London, now living on the campus of CARD, the Centre for Advanced Research and Development, where Gopal is a faculty member. Anu is their friend from Cambridge, come to visit them, but unknown to either Gopal or Vidura she’s something more than a casual visitor. Vidura and Anu have come to visit a ‘campus wife’, at Anu’s insistence.
Malti’s bungalow was larger and more sprawling, but as they entered the marble-paved veranda a certain sameness in the wall paint and the door fittings diluted its grace a little. It might be a grand residence, but it was also produced from a template, and would be grand and imposing regardless of who lived in it. Anu found herself wondering how these people felt, spending their days on a stage once filled by past actors who had lived and died and fought and loved in these same rooms, knowing that they too would vanish and their children vanish and strangers take their place. Now she had some understanding of what Vidura meant by people having nervous breakdowns on leaving. These walls must hold so many tender memories, wedding nights, children’s birthdays, moments of comedy and tragedy, to be brutally abandoned at last as the inalienable property of the state.
Malti, a short plump woman in a shiny red sari and permed hair, received them and led the way to her sitting room, which was huge. There were low Gurjari wooden seats with cushions all along the sides, which gave it the impersonal look of a meeting room. A large mat was spread in the centre of the room, with a few cushions. There was no other furniture. Malti began to lead them to the central mat, then changed her mind and made them sit in a corner. Vidura made the introductions. Malti namasted gravely. ‘Anuji, will you take tea?’
‘Yes please. No sugar.’
‘Only if it’s no trouble.’
‘Oh don’t do such formality. After so many days you have come to my house. Phulmani!’ A maid appeared. ‘Bina chini do chae lao! So, Anuji, what do you think of our campus?’
‘It’s lovely,’ Anu said sincerely. ‘How happy you all must be to live here.’
‘Oh, it is good, it is good,’ Malti ran her eyes along the pure white walls. ‘Happy? Yes, only sometimes little boring. We have only each other, no? And God.’
Vidura coughed gently.
‘Viduraji, Rahilji has started taking prayer meetings, you know? He said it was disgraceful we had to go outside campus to worship God. So now by rotation some of us are hosting. Yesterday I had, that’s why …’ she waved a hand at the arrangement of the sitting room. ‘So lazy these maids are, this morning I said, sab thik karo, but they have done nothing.’
‘I wasn’t aware of this,’ Vidura said reluctantly.
‘Oh, but you must come. Next one is in Kiranji’s house. I am going to lead in singing bhajans. After so many years I am singing regularly. Rahilji is so good. What did we do before him?’
Vidura looked a little startled. ‘Yes, hm, indeed.’
Malti looked at her slyly. ‘He used to see you almost every day, no? Reva Mausi would see you talking on your porch. But now he comes less often. That is because he is so busy with the prayer meetings! You did not know, no?’
‘What else do you spent your time on?’ Anu interjected innocently.
‘Oh I used to give tuitions, but now few children are wanting. All want to study science. And why not? My own two, they are sons no? Best career for boy.’
‘What about the girls?’
‘Oh, yes,’ Malti looked grave. ‘Big problem, so far from home, how to arrange. So difficult to get boy’s parents to come and see. Thank God I am not having to worry.’ She perked up. ‘And yourself? How many childrens?’
‘None, Maltiji. I’m not married.’
Malti’s hands flew to her mouth. ‘Oh! So sorry! But you must be Viduraji’s age.’
‘Didn’t find anyone suitable, I guess.’ Anu contrived to keep her face straight. Come on, woman, bite the bait.
‘Oho!’ Malti looked pleased. ‘Where from you are?’
‘Shastri, no? Hm. Ah, here is the tea. Bewakuf larki! Bhujia le ao, aur do plate. Now,’ she turned back to Anu. ‘You are from which state?’
‘Well, my father was born in Lucknow.’
‘Good, good. Vegetarian, of course?’
Vidura looked at Anu in surprise.
‘Good, good,’ Malti closed her eyes and muttered to herself. ‘Which gotra?’
Vidura expected Anu to say pardon? But she said, ‘Bharadwaj.’
‘What sort of people live here, Maltiji?’ Anu’s tone dripped innocence.
‘Many many. All very learned, good families, bright prospects. But sometimes lonely. Community is small, relatives far away. We have only each other, no? Like Mr Acharya, poor man, lost his wife three years ago. Very sad.’
‘I remember that,’ Vidura said. ‘Ectopic pregnancy, wasn’t it? They couldn’t get her to the hospital on time. I’m afraid the medical facilities here are rather basic.’
‘No, no,’ said Malti in an affronted tone. She made a complex signal to Vidura with her eyes, which Vidura completely failed to interpret. Malti went on, ‘No children, very nice man. Hometown is Allahabad, vegetarian. Parents are living with him. Only forty two.’
‘Could I get to meet him?’
Malti looked a little disconcerted, then said, ‘Why not, why not, at your age …’ A suspicion assailed her. ‘You are not widow or divorce, yes?’
‘No, not at all. But tell me more about the campus. I’m dying to know all about it.’ She ignored Vidura’s gaze boring into the side of her head.
‘Well,’ said Malti, ‘it is best place to live in all of India. No worries, no problems. Only small difficulties, like for marketing, you can get nothing, and there is no good cinema, but who needs now with video CD? Also less of cultural activity. But children are having good schooling, husband is well paid, every so often we can go to Delhi to shop, and then we stay at Centre guesthouse. It is like that thing which butterfly makes — cocoon.’ She said the word again, emphatically, circling her hands to enclose a tiny space. ‘Coc-coon.’
‘It sounds wonderful,’ Anu said, smiling. ‘What about your husband? Is he happy here?’
‘Oh yes. Best place in all India, he says.’
‘He must have a lot of work on his hands.’
Malti hesitated. ‘Yes, he is very busy.’
‘When does he usually come home at night?’
‘Sometimes at ten. Sometimes when very big job he does not come. All night they are in lab, doing god knows what all work. Or he comes late and goes away again in early morning. It is because he is team head like Gopalji. But Gopalji I hear does not spend so much time in lab. Viduraji is lucky, no?’ She smiled archly.
‘It must be so hard to manage everything on your own,’ Anu said sympathetically. ‘What a sacrifice you all must make for your husband’s careers, and for the nation.’
‘Oh yes. No one knows how much sacrifice we pay for nation’s security. But when there is war, then we see the fruits. Without us where would India be?’
Vidura looked at her watch. It was already twelve, but Anu showed no sign of budging. She sat and listened raptly as Malti described in detail her typical day. Vidura knew from experience that Malti could keep this up indefinitely, and she couldn’t see why Anu suddenly had this all-consuming interest in it. And what was that hocus pocus about ‘gotra’ and all that? People only talked about that in relation to marriage, right? What did Anu think she was playing at?
They were all taken by surprise when Mr Prasad walked in. Malti sprang to introduce her new friend. Prasad greeted her gravely.
‘Malti was telling me about all the interesting work that you do,’ Anu said. ‘It must be so exciting to work with nano-powders. The possibilities are astounding.’
Prasad looked at her as if she were a clever child who had recited, quite by accident, the laws of Einsteinian mechanics. ‘Yes, indeed.’ He turned to his wife and asked unceremoniously, ‘Is lunch ready? I’m going to have my bath.’ He strode across to the door leading to the rest of the house, then paused on the threshold, struck by a thought.
‘Are you a scientist?’
‘Yes,’ said Anu.
‘What’s your field?’
‘Oh!’ he chuckled. ‘That is arts.’
‘It’s a social science, sir.’
‘Nonsense!’ He leaned negligently in the doorway, holding the top of the frame with both hands. ‘I will tell you why. There was this article by some sociologist in the papers yesterday on marriage. It said the mean age of marriage for middle class girls in India now is 25 years. But nearly every girl who has got married from this campus has done so even before graduation. How do you explain that? You can’t call it a science if there’s no predictability.’ He smiled as if challenging her to understand the question.
‘Social behaviour is underdetermined, sir. Humans have free will. That’s why social science is probabilistic, not deterministic. I would say there are other communities in India where the age of marriage is considerably higher. That would affect the average, and of course you have to see if the curve is skewed. We learn to think in terms of trends, not laws, sir. Like quantum mechanics,’ she finished coolly.
He burst out laughing. Malti looked uneasily from one to the other.
‘Well, all this is very interesting. You must tell me what you “scientists” really do, some time.’
‘We ask questions,’ she said quietly. But he had disappeared inside.