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Fiction | India
Titli
Dipika Mukherjee

NOTHING WAS NORMAL any more. The TV monitors showed the same footage; the cupola of the Taj hotel in flames, a dead terrorist in a Versace T-shirt, the wheels of a taxi blown up outside Vile Parle. Only the bewildered faces changed; first it was the public and now they were showing the politicians. The young NDTV reporters seemed dazed as they stuttered through the commentary.

     Titli was sitting on a luggage cart. About a metre away were two dozen Haj pilgrims, whose luggage seemed to consist of large white sacks of flour piled into carts that zigzagged across the floor. The men spoke in hushed tones; the women drew soft veils over their mouths. Like them, she was stranded, hostage to the terror outside.

     Titli looked at her watch again – four hours and still no sign of Jas, five hours since the bombings. Her flight from Kolkata had circled for fifty-five minutes before starting its descent, the pilot’s apologetic patter hinting at nothing about events on the ground. As the plane taxied, cell phones went off with an eerie synchronicity. The cabin grew noisy with talk – two bomb blasts, no, five, at the airport? – and a child started to wail. Her phone had beeped and displayed an SMS from Jas: NWA early. Thinkng abt seeing city, mebbe say hi to cuz at Taj? Waiting for my Mumtaz, come soon. She speed-dialled but he didn’t pick up, nor had he for the umpteenth time since. The battery indicator showed a faint trace of blue; it wouldn’t last the night.

     The crashing echo of heavy-booted commandos at double-quick time jarred her from her stupor. Their black assault rifles were held menacingly as they swarmed past the baggage carousels towards the carnage outside the air-conditioned halls of the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport.

     Titli was beautiful in that artless way a nineteen-year-old Bengali woman can be, a beauty that naturally attracts stares, but she had never attracted the rapt attention the soldiers commanded now. Yet she remained quite remarkable in the sheen of her beautician-polished skin and the parrot-green benarasi sari which bloomed with gold mangoes. Her hands had intricate henna work, tinged deep maroon, beautiful even without the gold she had worn for her sister’s wedding, the tolas of yellow metal her parents, her grandparents, had collected over the years. She buried her face into her sari and smelled the familiar shop in Gariahat; the elderly shopkeepers had tossed bright silks happily onto the white cotton sheets while her sister had sat with bride-like stoicism and let her mother and cousin-aunt choose. Titli had grown impatient, longing for solitude so she could talk to Jas again. Now she missed the normality of that day; the flaming silks cascading through the warm air, the gentle repartee of give-and-take bargaining, the hot milky tea she had sipped.

 

  * * *

 

She was thirsty now. The TV showed shuttered shops and empty streets. She should buy a bottle of water from the lone coffee stand still open at Departures before it ran dry. The boy manning the stall was passing a damp rag over the countertop, his attention on the flickering screen. She stood, looked at the long snaking line to the Air France counter, weighed whether to leave her luggage unattended just for a moment, searching faces for signs of petty thievery, but all eyes were turned to the TV. She looked twice at a boy who, in silhouette, could have been Jas.

     She called him Jas, for Jaswinder. His was one of the many Sikh families that migrated to West Bengal, indistinguishable by their appearance or speech from everyone else unless they wore a turban. Jas didn’t. He didn’t grow his hair or beard, but he did wear a kara on his right wrist. When he went to Minnesota to study, he became Jason.

     Titli had been in love with Jas ever since she could remember. Her father had told her when she was ten years old that he would skin her alive if she married a Sardarji. It was okay that they studied together, but they worshipped a different god. Jas didn’t really worship anything, except for her. He had come to her father the evening before he left for Minnesota and had reached down to touch the old man’s feet. Her father had stepped back and wordlessly walked away.

     She had grown up with the sneers: that the only culture Jas’s family had was agriculture; that his learning would be wasted on the grocery business he was destined to join, even though his sister ran a successful boutique in Ludhiana and fashioned iridescent cotton tangails and silk balucharis into chic salwar kameez. Titli’s mother was dismissive of women who stood behind shop counters all day, buying and selling.

     Her family – so proud of their Bengali heritage, with its poetry, music, literature – clearly had different ideas. For her sister, they had stayed up for two nights decorating little trays of bridal gifts and labelling them with Tagore’s poetic songs. The house had swelled with relatives who had come to attend the wedding, flying in from Milan and Bangalore or detraining from Darjeeling and Jamshedpur. Titli helped carve pumpkins into tortoises, and made little aubergine men. She had stroked the delicate palanquin into accordion pleats that opened up into a list of the trays – eighty-six in all – starting with the turquoise sari which fanned out as a peacock in full plume. Finding a lyrical title for a tray of cosmetics had become an earnest game as someone threw out a line and someone else mocked it with another. Then the hum of the song grew into a full-throated choir as the room took up a familiar tune; finally, the calligraphist inked in a label and the tray was sealed up with gold tape. Titli enjoyed that night – was it only three nights ago? Her flair for Bengali poetry had flowered in that room and her parents forgot about Jas and beamed at her with uncharacteristic pride. Her sister had taken Titli’s hands into her own and pleaded, ‘See? Listen to Ma and Baba. Marry into a big Bengali family, please, who else will understand you like we do?’

     Titli had always known she did not want to marry a nice Bengali boy like her sister, but, at that moment, her heart had fluttered with fear. The last time she had spoken to Jas, from the phone booth at the railway station, he asked her to change her name.

     ‘You can’t be Titli in the US. You know what they will say.’

     ‘What?’

     ‘I don’t want anyone even thinking about your boobs.’

     She had blushed. She had wondered whether Tina would do, or perhaps Lily, or Tilly? She was fond of her name; Titli, ‘butterfly’ – she felt as if Jas had offered to clip her wings.

     The notion of flight, of elopement, had come to her with the announcement of her sister’s wedding – she knew the pressure would soon be on her. Titli calculated she had six months to plan her escape when, amid the chaos of caterers and workmen and visiting relatives, her parents would be distracted. Six months. With Jas in Minnesota, bound by examination schedules and his duties as an assistant, her boredom had only been relieved by his phone calls. But now, with escape to occupy her, her waking hours were filled with the thrum of time growing short. Hurry, hurry, hurry.

     Jas found her a veil behind which she might slip; a conference of young writers from a rising India – poets and authors in Hindi, Bengali, Tamil and Malayalam – showcasing their talents, all expenses paid. Titli had published some well-received Bengali poetry and Jas secured a letter of invitation, which smoothed the way for a visa. She had a passport already, from a family vacation to Singapore, when Titli was fifteen.

 

* * *

 

     ‘You have to be with me when I get to America, Jas. I can’t do this alone.’

     ‘It’s only another flight, silly. Just a little bit longer.’

     ‘I can’t. They are really brutal after 9/11; I’ve heard about it. I don’t want to be locked away because I don’t understand what they are saying.’

     ‘You have your visa. Remember to take the invitation letter. You’ll be fine, jaan.’

     ‘They still interrogate my uncle in a separate room even though he has a green card.’

     ‘It doesn’t last long, jaan, I went through it. You’ll be okay.’

     ‘No. If you don’t come to get me, I’m not going.’

     ‘If I show up in Kolkata, your parents will lock you up immediately. You know that.’

     ‘Come to Mumbai then. I’ll take the flight alone from Dum Dum to Santa Cruz … I can do that. But I won’t go to JFK alone.’

 

     * * *

 

On the television, the Taj hotel spewed thick black smoke. Titli squinted at each crowd shot on the screen, not expecting to see Jas, who must have left the hotel hours ago, but still afraid. She was being irrational. Annoyed, she turned away from the grainy screen and scanned the airport again. She would feel foolish if he materialised behind her. Loud keening, distorted by the tiny TV speakers and more chilling for it, drew her back to the broadcast scene, cameras flashing at Victoria Terminus, the floors slick with blood.

 

* * *

 

When Bengali women ululate, it sounds like keening. A conch shell blown in the pre-dawn woke her on the morning of her sister’s wedding and, amid joyful ululation of the assembled women, she fed her sister a meal of curd and pressed rice, mixed with sweets, the only sustenance the bride was allowed until after the long and intricate ceremony. As the women disappeared in procession into the darkness of the road that led to some steps and the Ganges, Titli lingered to send an SMS to Jas, although he would surely be flying already. In the soft light ahead she could see the women splashing each other at the river’s edge, playful, as if they were children. It was a rare thing for members of her extended family to gather in one place, flung as each had been to the far corners of the sub-continent, and they each reverted quickly to the behaviour of a shared childhood. Only their bodies had aged.

     Titli’s father had been born in the year before India’s independence in 1947, before the country had been perforated by Partition, which made his family refugees overnight; father killed and mother beggared into prostitution … but no one talked of such things, especially to daughters. At family gatherings, his siblings would talk of emerald green fields, rivers thick with the succulent rui and katla that leapt into fishermen’s nets, palm trees yielding the sweetest jaggery, ambrosial pineapples, of balmy nights heavy with the perfume of flowers. Then an uncle would mutter, ‘We should never have given in to those savage Mussulmans.’ This uncle once tried to visit the ancestral property, but had felt physically threatened. An aunt asked, ‘What is there to go back for, hah? These mullahs were the people who had branded Pakistan Zindabad on women’s faces and breasts before …’ She was hushed by sharp glances to the daughters among them.

     Titli pretended not to listen as she served tea in delicate little steaming cups. This emotional venting, not new, always mystified her. In her own nineteen years, Calcutta had become Kolkata, Bombay became Mumbai, Madras Chennai, and the state of Jharkhand was carved out of Bihar. There were the bitter editorials but nothing fundamentally changed as the land was reshaped and renamed. She couldn’t understand the depths of fury in her father’s voice as he talked about the two Indias he was born into, three when Pakistan fractured into Bangladesh in 1972. A sense of siege in a universe of encroachment pervaded her whole family. Marriages had to be pure; matchmakers searching for a Bengali groom for her sister were told that only kulin Brahmins would do, no less. Titli, who had gone to school with Hindus and Christians and Jains and Muslims – really all kinds of people, there were so many Marwaris and Rajputs and Sikhs and even Parsis in her elite school – she, who thought that making love to Jas in stolen moments was as close as she could come ever to heaven, would be slapped into submission whenever she told her family, ‘I will only marry Jas.’

 

* * *

 

A child, a two-year-old boy, orphaned by the terrorists, appeared on the screen. The reporter said his parents, a very young rabbi and his wife, were dead. The camera panned to men rappelling from helicopters to Nariman House. It was now seven hours since the terror began. Six hours since Titli began her vigil for Jas. Now she looked for the familiar jut of his baseball cap, the pattern of the sweatshirt she was sure he would wear for travel. Stop it! Jas has left the Taj and is on his way in a taxi … Her cellphone beeped the low battery warning as she disconnected another failed call. They were showing the blown-up taxi at Vile Parle again. A detached tyre, still stuck on the broken axle, spun aimlessly in the smoke. She forced her eyes away.

     The bald, old man at the Air France desk began to fray as the night wore on, growing increasingly irritable as he repeated that, yes, the flight would take off as soon as the crew is released from Oberoi. Then he simply snapped and was yelling, at everyone, indiscriminately, staff and the passengers alike, if anyone dared approached.

     Jas had said, ‘I am sending you the tickets, in case my flight is delayed or something, you know? You don’t have to wait in some slimy café in Mumbai for me – just go from domestic to international and wait at Air France. I’ll be there.’ Titli could see the huge Boeings parked in a row outside the terminal. It was too dangerous for him to take the roads; there might be a bomb at any junction. She could hear the constant beep of the security gates, the scanners now alert even for shoe buckles. There was the danger of harm, of death wherever one looked. Yet, Titli, in her heavy brocade sari, felt unable to move. She wanted very much to sit on the floor and cry.

 

* * *

 

She did not think her mother would cry on her, especially after all the slaps and the curses that had come before, but at the blessing ceremony, just before the auspicious hour for the exchange of garlands, her mother had sprinkled the three-spiked grass buds into her sister’s hair along with unshelled rice grains. Then she had bent towards Titli’s face and cupping it in her palms, she had cried. Titli felt the first teardrop on the back of her hand. Her mother’s face had melted into a sadness Titli could not comprehend. Was this the same mother who had said that she would rather see her daughter dead than marry Jas? Titli thought of the car waiting outside, Jas’s best friend, Robin, at the wheel, the engine idling, ready to make the escape. She thought of the Air France tickets and the money Robin would have slipped into the small green bag (already packed with some clothes and her passport that she had given him) now safely stowed under the passenger seat.

     Faced with her mother’s misery, Titli wanted to confess everything, to tell her mother about the planned flight from Dum Dum Airport to Mumbai and then on to Minnesota with Jas. Instead, she held her breath until she felt slightly dizzy, and, wrapping her mother’s juddering shoulders tightly in her arms, felt her own tears fall. Her sister joined them in a trinity of unspoken misery. Enough, her mother said, and beckoned to the beautician to repair the bridal patterns on Titli’s sister’s face. Titli would never wear such patterns. Jas made her feel that she could take on the world, not as a wifely Sita or Savitri of Indian womanhood, but as Chitrangada, the warrior princess. She had felt like a princess when they made love, quickly, in the ramshackle room on the roof of a friend’s house, a raucous game of cards played out below them to camouflage any sound. Their love-making, like their relationship, had to be furtive, and was immensely exciting.

     Jas had taken her out of the ordinariness of her life and its proscriptions on behaviour and speech, its divisions in caste and creed and social class; she thrilled to the freshness he blew into her soul.

 

* * *

 

The bald Air France man was waving a sheaf of papers in the air and calling her name. There was a flight to Frankfurt, connecting with another flight to Houston, and from there another to Minneapolis.

     ‘Do you agree?’

     ‘I don’t understand.’

     ‘You have to agree, there is no choice. We are processing passengers in order and I have others waiting. But I must warn you, if you choose not to go, who knows, the airport might be sealed …’ He gave a backhanded wave towards the TV screens and the Taj, which now blazed orange-red-gold, bright as a bridal sari. How would Jas find her if she took another flight? How would she find him?

     A memory, of gripping Jas’s hand tightly in her own and closing her eyes and jumping from an impossible height. She and Jas had scaled the high wall to play hookey from school. Her skirt puffed up like a parachute and her hair flew. She had landed badly, spraining her knee, but she would gladly jump again if Jas was with her. Please God, send Jas back to me, pleaseGodpleaseGodplease.

     ‘I am asking you again, do you agree, madam?’

     ‘What about my … friend?’

     ‘No one can come into the airport from Mumbai. That is why Air India is flying empty. Now, do-you-agree?’ He was about to lose it again.

     Titli held her hand out for the papers.

     ‘Good. Oye, Ravindran! Escort this lady to counter thirty-three, quick, quick.’

     As she was led away, other passengers surrounded the bald man, all clamouring for his attention, all demanding seats. She couldn’t think. She tried Jas again, heard the jaunty tune, the female voice telling her in Hindi, ‘The phone you are calling is switched off. Please try again later.’

 

* * *

 

Titli could not call home. She thought of the wedding ceremony – over already? – and how happy her sister had looked. The hall would be filled with teasing relatives, sleepy children and young lovers dreaming of their own weddings. Her parents would not disrupt the ceremony even if they discovered she’d gone. Her mother would sigh, thinking she had sneaked off for another long phone conversation with Jas, then, after an hour or two, would find the letter. Her mother would tell her father. They would face the guests together, explain that Titli had a headache, or a stomach ache from too much of the fine feast – the guests would murmur agreement to that – and was resting at a friend’s house. She knew her parents would be unable to act. Her father would not risk dishonour, nor would he risk any disruption to the wedding underway – the groom’s family might withdraw rather than become embroiled in such a scandal. After she and Jas had lived together in America, her parents would not think of trying to marry Titli to anyone else. She and Jas would face recrimination, but reconciliation would come. That was the plan, and they would live happily ever after.

     She could try calling the conference organisers for help – their numbers were on the invitation letter – but she’d feel foolish to have caused such a fuss when Jas was just minutes away from joining her. Everything would be all right. She was not going to tell her parents that, after everything she had done, she was alone, in Mumbai, to their ears abandoned by Jas. She had sent a text to Robin, Reached Mumbai, all ok. There was nothing more he could do. She could call some friends and cry, but why? Nothing bad was going to happen. Her phone was nearly dead. She should stop using it in case Jas was trying to call.

     Titli was distracted by the echoing clomp of more commandos; the exhausted Haj pilgrims were still nested on the floor and the bald man from Air France was still besieged. Names began flashing on the TV screens – names of the dead. Talking heads were now droning on about the rifts; between India and Pakistan, Hindus and Muslims, the elite and the slum-dwellers. She looked at her phone and thought that perhaps Jas couldn’t get through because the networks always jammed on New Year’s Eve and during Diwali, the Poila Boishaks and the Bijoyas – she briefly smiled at the memory of the festivals she and Jas had celebrated together. This was a national crisis. Of course, the networks were jammed. That was the problem, but soon he would get through. Very soon he would call. No. He would just be there, next to her. He had to be.

     ‘You can’t get out of here, Madam,’ the Air France man – what was his name? – Ravindran, said to her softly. ‘You might as well go on.’

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