Message In a Romance Novel

The day Mother was not waiting for us when we returned from school at our usual time, I knew she had gone to meet the man. He had written to her only two days ago, and I knew from the expression on her face. She looked dreamy and distracted, the face of someone making plans of her own.

So, taking my younger sister by the hand, the two of us went to the house of a family friend. The auntie there knew my parents. I told her about our parents being away, that no one had come to pick us up from school. That got us sympathy and we stayed for lunch—a bit of rice with ghee, and a potato and pea curry. After that, I got my sister home safely.

I admit I did that to impress my sister. To show her I could manage things when Mother let us down. She trusted me, even when we had to cross the dangerous main road that lay between our school and home. Many a time, I’d drag her across the moment a gap appeared in the traffic. Sometimes, there came a sudden squeal of brakes, an impatient horn somewhere, and then my sister’s frightened sob as I pulled her up onto the sidewalk. This was rare, though my sister thinks differently now. We never argue about it much; we know we must never reach a point where we get too judgmental about our mother.

Once we were safely over, my sister always looked up at me scared, even angry. That afternoon when Mother wasn’t around, I felt a deep satisfaction as I bent down to hiss: “Today, she isn’t there to listen to you. Complain all you want.”

In those days long ago, when we never felt the heat of summer nor the sharp sting of winter, crossing a road never seemed a big danger, not to me, as a fifteen-year-old. Also, stories were easy to find, make up, and tell; and, in the pre-television days, stories seemed to be everywhere, especially where my mother was concerned.

My mother’s lover was a pilot. He flew old planes at a secret air base where my mother first met him. At that time, we did not live in Delhi, but somewhere in the east of the country. The air base had come up during the time of India’s war with China in the early 1960s.

Set up with American help, the air base was two hours from the sea and located in a dry part of the country. Tall eucalyptus trees girded one side, looking over the curved steel hangars that glinted like daggers in the afternoon. The soil’s red underlayer was clearly visible amidst clumps of dry grass. On quiet days, we could hear the airplanes from a long way off, watch them land like beetles before vanishing into the clump of trees.

Our house was on the edge with the eucalyptus trees, the last in a row of houses that faced an empty expanse of drying grass and tall yellow weeds. The weeds and the tall grass against the yellow and blue sky gave a strange shimmer to things. Sometimes I had a sense of things subtly moving, perhaps swaying—the trees, the tall grass, even the pebbles on the narrow muddy lane seemed to skitter, jump, and move away.

The airstrip, as I discovered when I took my sister out on my new bicycle, was a straight gray aisle of concrete that ran from the hangars at one end to the four-storied, white-walled administrative edifices on the other. The planes, after landing, would zoom to that end, turn around, and then decelerating  ever so slowly, would glide toward the hangar, rocking and shaking as if shrugging off the long journey it had just made.

I don’t know when I first noticed that look of longing on my mother’s face. Did she look a little too long at the landing planes, or was it that one plane that did a series of stunts in the air as it filled up the sky one late afternoon? Its loops, its zigzags through the billowing white clouds? My mother lifted a hand to her mouth as the plane rose and fell, and then she looked at us, the quickest of glances to see if we had noticed. But I was the only one who knew about the pilot and what he meant to her.

When he first came to the airbase, the pilot made the customary formal call to my parents. He came with his wife and son. I heard them that first evening as I peered through the loose pink curtain that fell like a waterfall, wavy in its thick folds, separating the drawing room from the rest of the house. As children we could wrap ourselves in it and twirl in its folds, and the grown-ups never noticed.

Still, I saw things I never should have. The pilot was a short, trim man, a high forehead with twin just-developing bald spots, and eyes that twinkled and had a unique shine to them. The glow on his face was clearly visible, for he never once looked away from my mother. His smile never faltered either.

I was surprised no one noticed. This, and the way our mother began mysteriously vanishing some afternoons. For my sister, it wasn’t really a mystery, but I was then a teenager, more observant, more judgmental, and critical of my mother. When she said she had to go to the bigger town, an hour away, to get supplies for the women’s club or for some charity work, I knew she was planning to meet the pilot somewhere. At the small airbase, we didn’t have to worry about crossing a big road—that would happen a year or so later after our father’s transfer to Delhi—or that someone had to be there when we came home from school. A big school bus, built on American lines—for after all, everything in the airbase was made with American help—took us to school in the big town, an hour away, and back. My grandmother or one of the servants was always around to see if the food was warm enough for us and that we were fed properly.

My mother returned two hours later, and she would always explain away the flush on her face by telling us of the ways she had been held up. She blamed the shops she had been to, the restaurant where the servers were tardy, the slow driver, the traffic. One afternoon she came home and told us a story about how a whole herd of cattle had strayed onto the bridge that connected the big town to our small airbase, holding up traffic for well over an hour. People got out of buses to bow and pray before the cows, she said, breathing fast as she laughed, before she hugged my sister. It was always my sister she reached for, especially the times she came late. As if, I remember thinking then, my young sister’s innocence would erase any guilt she felt.

I don’t know how they arranged their assignations. They dared not phone each other. The telephone exchange was a two-story white building with a crumbling asbestos roof, and its employees knew everything that went on in the small airbase. Once, because I wanted to see for myself how the operators looked, I lingered outside that rundown building. A thin man emerged after an hour or so. He squinted as he looked at the ground, his face creased in a frown. He looked far too incurious to be a telephone operator. Had I been a telephone operator, and that was one of my ambitions that time long ago, I’d have unashamedly eavesdropped on people’s conversations. But now I think differently. It was precisely because the operator had overheard one too many things that he looked spent and worn-out. There is only so much you can bear of other people’s lives.

Probably, the messages between my mother and the pilot were passed during the times they met at one of the club functions. A message passed on despite the strict segregation of seating arrangements. Men to one side, women on the other, and between them, a vast expanse of carpeted space. Often this space was covered with white-clothed tables and vases of flowers, usually marigolds with their wet musky smell. That middle expanse was also the place where children and turbaned waiters moved around, the former looking for attention and the latter with their trays of aperitifs held high, wary of children, deferential toward the adults watching from both sides.

If ever I found myself at these club events, I’d be in a no-man’s land or corner of my own. I wasn’t a child, nor yet a grown-up. I had no other friends, and so I sat at the very edge of the ladies’ section, making up an untidy, ungainly heap on a metallic, portable chair. No one noticed me, leaving me to do my own noticing.

The pilot and my mother must have whispered to each other at the buffet table. When he rose for a second helping, she was already there. He must have praised the food, pointing to the butter chicken, or they must have sniggered at the plain dishes wearing fancy names, the eggs Florentine, for instance, that I remember well too, and then the quick whispers as their hands reached for the ladle or the serving spoon at the same time. Or maybe my mother dropped her napkin and he bent to pick it up. I can still see that scene. Him bending at her feet, then looking up at her, the way time stood still, and how she said, tomorrow then? And he nodded quickly, very subtly.

Sometimes he came by with novels for my mother. The romance novels were particular favorites, and she was always exchanging them with other women. These exchanges had gone on for so long that my mother owned books that were not really hers, books that remained with her after their original owners had moved away, sometimes with novels my mother had owned once. I would see their names on the front pages: a Dipti, a Gauri, a Charmaine, an Uma, my mother’s name, but not in her sweet, loopy handwriting, the ‘a’ stretching far, and ending in two dots.

The pilot would come by occasionally with romance novels his wife had sent across. I saw him one afternoon, in his white pilot’s uniform getting off his motorcycle, the epaulettes on his shoulders shining in the afternoon sun. My mother waited. It wasn’t the done thing to rush to the door, though like me, she had looked out of the window, both of us on different floors.

The pilot waited on the porch, shaded by bamboo screens. He always took off his pilot’s cap and ran his hands through his thinning hair, trying to catch a glimpse of himself in the small Rajasthani mirror in its curved wooden frame affixed to the wall on the right. The orderly who showed him in walked ponderously back, cleared his throat, and announced the pilot’s arrival to my mother.

Wing Commander Seth, the orderly announced in a clear ringing tone. That was his job, and he had learned to sound sufficiently impressive. As wing commander, the pilot was quite a senior officer. But unlike the other wing commanders in the airbase, who strutted around, weighed down by the decorations they sported and their own importance, this pilot preferred his motorcycle. He zoomed down the small roads of the airbase, his pilot’s cap never falling off, and the sunlight fell on the red mudguard and glinted off the visors. Everyone heard him—the women and children at home in the hot afternoons, the men in their offices or at the airstrip— and so there was no gossip. The sound of the motorcycle rose like a low drone over the whispers, the soft breathing, the secret murmurs of longing and wistfulness.

It was some years later I came across the love note. Slipped in between pages 150 and 151 of my mother’s favorite romance novel, it read, DP, 1 30. Followed by those words that had once set my young teenage heart madly racing. Love, h.

That innocuous letter, his initial, gave me hours and more of pleasant conjecturing. Harish, Henry, Hari, Hiten. I picked up names, mulled over them, discarded many, and tried to match others. Harish, for instance, sounded a very unlikely name for a dashing pilot, a wing commander who could have had his pick of all the bored ladies in that airbase. A Hari, possibly, more like a near-balding pilot who was married, with a stone-faced, whiplash-thin wife and a son who at sixteen was taller than both of them. Or Henry, a man who looked at ease always, whether on his motorcycle or in his Learjet.

But he had fallen in love, and my mother was a beautiful woman. The evidence was there in the old photos of that time, the fading colors making the afternoons gentler than they were. In the way she looked every time she returned from the big town, traveling in the official domed white Ambassador that my father was entitled to. How she looked years later when she thought of him, gazing at the planes flying past from our Delhi apartment.

Many years later, I visited a friend whose parents still live in the big town an hour away from the airbase. The town was just as crowded then, only now it looked shabbier, more forgotten. Stepping into it from the small airbase to its one side, I felt caught in a time warp. The same narrow streets, overlooked by old stumpy buildings with their damp-streaked walls, the noisy rickshaws, the blaring cars, and the cyclists weaving in and out of everything.

The car I was in slowly made its way through this chaos toward the house my friend’s parents owned. It was a three-story house, the upper portions of which they rented out to university students. Now the family was adding two more stories. The bamboo scaffolds rose high, and the blue tarpaulin sheets blazed in the heat. Later my friend took me up the half-made staircase to the upper floors. His mother had complained of some dampness on the walls and suspected a water pipe had burst. The laborers, she muttered, were always careless.

My friend cajoled me to come up in turn. The steps, bare cement floors, untiled and unfinished, with no railings on either side, rose like a spiral and opened onto the sky. It was like climbing up from a deep well, the darkness and gloom giving way to a mild pleasing warmth.

Somewhere on the landing between the third and fourth floors I saw the hotel. The ‘I’ in its letters, a notch higher than the other words that made up Diamond Plaza, but there it was, all in blue, with orderly curtained windows in a row, and the ubiquitous shops, including a café on the first floor.

We could hear boisterous laughter as we looked down, both of us locked in our respective memories. He said, with a shrug and a smirk, that the hotel, known as DP for short, still had quite a reputation. The way he said it, lingering over that last word, I knew just what he meant.

Rickshaws were lined up on the road outside, a few cars screamed past, the café on the first floor swirled with people, and I wondered about the pilot and my mother. Where had he parked his motorcycle? Or had he been cautious and availed himself of a rickshaw? One of these same rickshaws still outside the hotel?

He must have waited for my mother, sitting at the very café I now looked out at, his dark pilot’s glasses on. He must have reserved the room already. I always associated the pilot with a sense of chivalry. He would never have let my mother go near the reservation desk. They must have walked up to each other, looked away and walked up the stairs together, letting themselves draw closer as they moved away from the curious eyes, the sleazy nods, the knowing dips of the head. They must have held each other only when the door closed behind them. It must have been a room dark and soft, filled with the sounds of clothes fluttering to the floor, their gentle kissing, the desperate way they reached for each other, the hastily repressed giggles, the long sighs at the end, the quiet breathing for a few more hours.

Of course I imagined all this, but I knew it had to be true. My mother, at that time, looked quite like a popular film star, and the pilot, despite his advancing baldness, was a dashing, gallant man with that shine in his eyes. He was the love of her life. He would remain so, even years after he died in that air crash.

Delhi scared my mother. A move from a small airbase to a capital city was a big thing. My mother worried constantly. About us, about my father, whose commute to his office now took longer, and of course, about the pilot. She wrote to him. Quickly and secretly, leaving her unfinished letters on notepaper she hid away in the pages of her romance novels. She zealously guarded them, and for all my conniving and cunning, I could never locate those giveaway bits of paper.

Maybe she moved them often, from inside a book to under the mattress, or in her sari folds, or in the purse she carried. Her subterfuge worked better than mine, those quick searches when she was in the kitchen, or in the bathroom, but maybe she had caught on to me, and left nothing to chance.

Those days I argued bitterly with my mother about things I don’t remember now and for which I condemned her too easily. The matter of her affair, though, never came up. Maybe I was always looking for the real evidence, wanting this to hold like a trump card against her. But I liked her to think I knew her secret. The secret that kept her away some afternoons, that made me resent the times I had to be responsible for my sister. The younger sibling whom she’d always loved more.

Delhi was a city that made secret love difficult. It was a government city, an entire section of it peopled by bureaucrats. It was the time soon after the prime minister had been assassinated, and everywhere were the armed guards in their tents, the government bungalows guarded like fortresses, the sandbags, the jeeps stationed at every corner, especially in the government colonies like the one we stayed in.

One felt watched all the time, and yet all this armed presence didn’t necessarily make one feel safe. The police protected a special few, and for everyone else, their presence was like an intrusion, awkward and oppressive. My mother must have felt every eye on her, if ever she took an autorickshaw to meet the pilot.

She went as far as she could go, beyond prying eyes, away from curious neighbors, the ever-gossipy wives of other bureaucrats. She met the pilot in the old rundown hotels of Paharganj, or in Karol Bagh. Dingy clustered buildings, decades old, standing cheek by jowl against each other, rooms like poky warrens, with the light filtering dimly in through old, threadbare curtains, and this made it virtually impossible to see the old sheets, faded furniture, and the damp streaks on the walls.

I don’t know how long they continued to meet this way. Once my mother returned home on a Wednesday afternoon—for some reason they preferred midweek afternoons—and found my sister weeping or waiting forlornly for her on the balcony. After that her outings fell appreciably. There was one time she managed to miraculously dry my sister’s tears by getting us bargain clothes from Sarojini Nagar market. One Wednesday she got us burgers from Nirula’s. They had all gotten soggy and lay limp in their napkins, but for days the smell of those burgers on the red and white napkins lingered on my fingers and lasted longer in my memory.

My mother was weepy long before the affair actually ended. Maybe her tears welded into all the other sorrows that came along then, so I never knew really when it all ended. But she wept when the plane carrying three hundred and more passengers from Canada exploded over the Atlantic Ocean, killing everyone on board. A year later, we learnt of the leak at the nuclear plant at Chernobyl and the numbers who perished would always be disputed. My mother kept the tap running in the bathroom, and when she emerged, her eyes were swollen and red. She buried her head in her hands when she read of older relatives passing away. She wept when the militants launched their attacks in Punjab, just to the north of Delhi.

My mother wept for the world and her lost love. I thought that by the time the news of the pilot’s plane crashing made it to the papers, a tiny two-paragraph item in the inside pages of the Times of India, she had no more tears to spare. When I called her from Bombay where I lived then, my mother sounded her usual self, her voice faraway, absent, and yet concerned.

“Have you eaten?” she asked. And having lived away from home for a long time by then, I recognized her words as a euphemism for love.

Plane missing, Pilot presumed dead.

It was on page four. The plane, I read, had been caught in a storm and blown out seaward. A mention of the pilot appeared toward the very end. Since the plane belonging to the Expressway courier service hadn’t been found yet, the pilot was presumed dead. I read this last bit many times over. I held the paper in my hands, looking away, out of the window, where dusk slowly settled down on the city. The skies over Bombay never darkened, and from my netted window, I could always see a plane or two flying by, its lights winking at me, filling up, for a moment, an entire square of my life.

I imagined the pilot caught in the immense vast wind swirls, his eyes wide, the shine in them holding fear, his hands helpless at the controls. He must have screamed, in the way I imagine people screaming when a plane hurtles downward or breaks up midair. He must have, as he felt himself caught in the maelstrom, even wept. He might have thought of his life, like the swift flash of a camera reel, his stony-faced wife, his tall son. He must have thought of my mother. I hoped he had not felt much pain. That his shiny eyes had closed willingly and that he had smiled. I thought, quite lamely then, that for a pilot that was perhaps the bravest way to die.

My mother watches planes going past all the time now. After my father retired, my parents went to live in one of the new apartment buildings that came up in east Delhi across the Yamuna River. The planes fly slowly past, and every night, you can hear their low musical drone. Her old eyes get all crunched up as she chops her vegetables seated by the window, but she always looks up at the sound of a plane. Her eyes follow till it moves past the window, across the river and is swallowed by the trees lining the Delhi sky in the west.

I was looking through her romance novels again, the one time I came home after the pilot died. The novels that kept circulating, some that were hers, and others that just happened to be part of her collection. And I found that note again. DP 1.30. There was a small h in one corner. It could have been the hotel in that big town. Diamond Plaza. It could have been his writing. Love, h. He wrote that way, I thought, maybe because he wanted to be unobtrusive, to draw no attention.

I still have that note with me, still not sure what to do with it. I look at that “h” and think over many possibilities. A part of me admits that I may have imagined the whole thing, because I wanted to know my mother better. Whenever I hold the note now, browned with age, folded four times over, I feel my mother’s sorrow seep into me. A sorrow that, with time, only finds deeper places to hide away in.