Saturday, March 26, 2005

A crisp winter's day. Place: Ambala, Punjab. Time: 1944. Betty's a teacher in a British Mission school. She's in class on this particular morning, teaching English to kids who don't know a word of the language. She's doing her B Ed, which is basically something everyone who aspires to be a school teacher needs to go through, so she can't afford to screw up. Adding to the challenge is the strategy she needs to employ for this particular course - she can't use a word of Urdu in class, and that's the only language the kids know. This is her first class, and she's chosen to begin with colours. Red.. how do you communicate that in a foreign language - which is essentially what English is to Betty's students - without saying "laal"?

Betty's strategy is to line up several red objects on her desk, each of which she pulls out of her handbag with a flourish, with an exaggerated sense of suspense that leaves her ten-year-olds giggling with irrepressible excitement. Out comes a well-used crayon, followed by an apple (so rosy Snow White's wicked stepmother would've swapped it for hers at once), followed by a red plastic pencil-case. Betty's thrilled when Nishreen, a hostelite from Lahore, takes a red ribbon from off the end of one neat pigtail, walks up to the front of the class, and lays the straggly little bit of satin solemnly on the teacher's desk, beside the pencil-case. The class, and Betty, applaud vigorously. The ice is broken, and Betty's nervousness vanishes instantly. However, before she can commend the youngster (who's back in her chair now, grinning face-splittingly, flushed with pride and pleasure), the drone of an engine suddenly erupts into the fresh morning air, and every face turns to the open window.

Every face, that is, except Betty's. She knows what she's going to see - the noisy RIAF (Royal Indian Air Force) Harvard is so familiar by now that she can see its markings in her sleep. As for the guy who's flying it... she wishes she'd never met him. Every morning at the same time for the past week, he's been flying his machine over the school building, swooping down so low that people shriek and gasp with terrified excitement. By now, all her colleagues know that she's being wooed by a madman, who's apparently decided that showing off his aviatory skills may make her change her mind about not marrying him. Arthur is his name. Two years her junior, magnificently arrogant in the uniform he wears like a second skin, his liver already ravaged by alcohol at twenty-one, he's six foot two with a dimpled smile that can charm the bloomers off most women. The only woman young Arthur wants is the fiercely independent schoolteacher with the Nargis hairstyle and the curiously Judy Garlandish vulnerability. As far as he's concerned, not even Amelia Earhart managed to capture his imagination this way. Fuck her missionary zeal. She's going to be his. So what if she doesn't know it yet?

*******************

As the Harvard's engines drone steadily louder overhead, Betty thinks back to the East and West seven nights ago. East and Wests are essentially entertainment shows that the Mission holds for officers at the RIAF's Airmen's Training School, although the delightfully prissy Headmistress, Miss Curry, would be highly offended at hearing them described as such. With her air of lugubrious servitude, the veteran missionary can only be described as committedly spinsterly in her approach to man-woman relationships. At the all-girls' school, where every teacher is required to be single and most definitely NOT dating as a prerequisite to her being appointed, every teacher's duty ensconces regular meetings and gatherings with the gallant fliers of the RIAF. The school itself is part of a larger Mission compound, which houses a military hospital as well.The Mission compound is home to Betty as well - her mother Ellen, with whom she lives, is Head Matron at the Mission hospital.

At this particular East and West, Freddy, a good-natured Flying Officer from one of the South Indian states (Betty can never remember which one), has talked her into coming to a dance at the Officers' Club. She's accepted, partly because Freddy is a good friend, and partly because she knows he's got a girlfriend, so he's someone she can rely on to drop her off at home later without expecting any 'favours' in return. Plus, it's been a while now since she did anything that was just mindless fun. At the dance, however, Betty gets quickly bored. She loves dancing, but after the first few dances the men, predictably, become more interested in vying with each other for the Scotch rather than the dancing partner. Freddy, ever gallant, comes to her rescue. "C'mon, there's someone I want you to meet." Taking her by the elbow, he steers her to a table in the corner, where two officers around his own age sit talking. Introducing them as Rick and Arthur, he sits her down at the table and orders her a lemonade. Almost before she realizes it, Betty is having a good time. Rick and Arthur are two of Freddy's closest buddies, Betty learns, and as easy to get along with as Freddy himself. The three have been close pals since their training days at the Staff College, Quetta, and all three are now instructors at the flying school. "JP and I go even further back," Freddy says, nodding towards Arthur. It turns out that both were among the many who were commissioned into the RIAF at the start of the war, but they hold the distinction of being the first two applicants from the south. "We learnt to fly together," smiles Arthur (or JP). Betty notices with a mild start that the glass he's been nursing contains orange juice. For some reason, she finds this oddly reassuring, and accepts his offer to walk her back home when their little group calls it a night.

Betty's reverie is interrupted by Miss Curry's trademark screech. "It's that madman again!" She bursts into Betty's classroom. "Did you manage to get his number this time?" she demands. Betty shakes her head no, and quickly turns away to hide her smile. Arthur's persistence is something of an amusement as well as an annoyance, as well as, if she's truthful, very flattering...

*************

"So." The woman with the starched white matron's uniform has a petite frame, but her air of austerity has stricken Arthur cold with nerves. "How may I be of service to you?"

"Er.. nice place you have here." The line sounds painfully limp even to him. He's trying to buy time, a fact that's painfully obvious. He fidgets uneasily with his cap, which he's been clutching with both hands ever since she asked him to sit down. Three minutes he's been with Ellen, and already he feels like a fool. Since they're in the matron's office, the remark probably hasn't gone down well with her either. "Nice going, JP," our hero thinks miserably to himself.

It's hard to believe that just a half hour ago, he'd been fuming, determined not to let Betty get away with what she'd done this afternoon. He'd walked up to her as she was leaving the school gates, holding out a closed fist. "Guess what i've got in here?" She'd looked at him, face wearing her trademark disdainful sneer, and merely raised her eyebrows. He'd opened his fist to reveal several long blades of grass. "Plucked those off your lawn during my dive this morning." In case the information wasn't impressive enough in itself, he'd thrown in his most winning dashing-aviator grin. Lopsided, disarming and completely guaranteed to floor anything in a skirt. Or so he'd believed until then. By the time she strode determinedly away from him, she'd shredded both the grass and his ego.

Ellen gazes thoughtfully at the handsome boy in his spotless uniform, careful to keep her expression impassive. She knows why he's here, and she isn't going to make things easy for him. But she's impressed. For a man to come to her and ask for her daughter's hand is so delightfully archaic that, despite herself, she's warmed up to the kid. She leans forward expectantly. "So..."

*************

"Mum," Betty sighs. "Please tell me you aren't serious about this. The man's insane." She flings her handbag onto the divan, sits down and starts unstrapping her high-heeled sandals. She's five foot one, and been wearing four-inch pencil heels since she was sixteen. Right now, she's trying to hide her amusement from her mother. This is the first time ever that her mother's seriously considered a proposal that's come her way. Slipping off her sandals, she leans back and shuts her eyes. What is it about him that's got Ellen floored? Must be the uniform, she thinks to herself, a slight smile playing about her lips.

"Beta, look at me." Betty opens her eyes, startled at the seriousness of the tone. "Mum... what is it? Is something wrong?" Ellen hands her a cup of tea and sits down in an armchair. She takes a sip from her own steaming cup before she replies, taking her time, blowing gently on the liquid to cool it down before she touches her lips to it. "He looks a little like Aziz," she says finally, and this time it's her lips that are on the verge of curving into a grin.

Betty lets out her breath in relief. Grinning, she lands a playful punch on Ellen's arm. "You had me worried, Mum." Ellen grins back. "I know." She sets her cup down on the little table beside her and leans forward towards her daughter, the grin softening to a smile. "Beta, he's a nice boy. He's going away soon. Pata nahin shayad lautey ki nahin. If he's killed fighting, how would you feel knowing you could have made him happy?"

Betty snorts. "The only thing that makes JP happy is his bottle. He lied to me, Mum. The first time I met him at that dance I went to with Freddy and Gwen. He said he didn't drink, conveniently forgetting to tell me it was because his doctor's told him to swear off the stuff for six months if he wants to ensure his liver doesn't finish the Jerries' work for them." Ellen laughs. Betty feigns indignance. "Mum! I'm serious. It's not the drinking I mind so much as the lies."

"He was trying to impress you, buddhu. He just didn't want to make a bad impression."

Betty starts laughing helplessly. Ellen's always been able to talk her into just about anything. Their eyes meet as their laughter subsides, and Ellen reaches out and rests a palm against her daughter's face. The brief moment is to remain with Betty forever. Ellen stands up, takes the empty cup from Betty's hands, and strides briskly away towards the kitchen. Betty leans back again and shuts her eyes. After all these years, she's still surprised at times that Ellen can joke about him. Aziz. My father.

***********************

A poem about war... just something i'm rather fond of, as a temporary digression from the storyline.

Don’t Ask Me for That Love Again
Faiz Ahmad Faiz
Translation By Agha Shahid Ali

That which then was ours, my love,
don't ask me for that love again.
The world then was gold, burnished with light --
and only because of you. That's what I had believed.
How could one weep for sorrows other than yours?
How could one have any sorrow but the one you gave?
So what were these protests, these rumours of injustice?
A glimpse of your face was evidence of springtime.
The sky, wherever I looked, was nothing but your eyes.
If You'd fall into my arms, Fate would be helpless.
All this I'd thought, all this I'd believed.
But there were other sorrows, comforts other than love.
The rich had cast their spell on history:
dark centuries had been embroidered on brocades and silks.
Bitter threads began to unravel before me
as I went into alleys and in open markets
saw bodies plastered with ash, bathed in blood.
I saw them sold and bought, again and again.
This too deserves attention. I can't help but look back
when I return from those alleys --what should one do?
And you still are so ravishing --what should I do?
There are other sorrows in this world,
comforts other than love.
Don't ask me, my love, for that love again.

********************

"Miss Lacey?" Betty looks up from A Farewell To Arms. "You have a visitor." The pretty, giggly fifteen-year-old housemaid is grinning a rather silly grin, telling Betty her visitor is probably male. She puts her book down on the couch beside her snug seat in front of the fireplace in the staff common room. Despite herself, she makes a quick detour into her room to give her hair a quick brushing and check that her nose isn't shiny.

Arthur jumps to his feet as soon as she enters the parlour downstairs. "There you are. I've been waiting ages." Betty laughs. "Impatient as ever. How was your trip to Quetta?" It's been three months since they've been seeing each other. "Quetta ko chhodo. I'll tell you about it later. Right now, we've got to go get married."

Betty laughs. "Abhi? Okay. Let me just get out my trousseau and I'll be right with you."

Arthur glances at his watch. "Good. You have five minutes," he says, and reaches absently for a cigarette. "Pagal ho gaye ho kya? Put that away," Betty hisses, snatching the silver case from him and slipping it back into his pocket.

"Oops, sorry. I forgot about the dragon. Where is she, by the way? It's been a while since I feasted my ears on that charming hoot of hers." Arthur grins impishly. "Y'know, every time I catch sight of the Staff College emblem I think of our dear Miss Curry."

"She's visiting a cousin." Betty sits down on the ancient leather-covered sofa, catching a whiff of its familiar, faintly musty smell as she does so. Almost before she's seated, Arthur's grabbed her hands and pulled her to her feet again. "What're you sitting down for? Told you. Five minutes."

Betty stares at him. "You're not serious? Five minutes? Now? But why?"Arthur shrugs. "Why not? I'm off to Quetta again next week. Into combat thereafter. Besides, the chaplain's wife's going to go into labour any day now, and I hate to think he'd be unavailable if we needed him." Betty can only stare, exasperated and a little amused. He shoots her a quick glance, as if it's only just struck him that she might not share the same sentiments. "Bets?" He says softly, his voice faltering a little. "You do want to marry me... don't you?"

***********************

Madras, India. Sixty years since that morning in the little parlour at the mission school in Ambala. Betty smiles at me over the rim of her cup of tea. My own sits cradled in my hands, untouched. "Have you had enough for the day?" she asks teasingly, knowing I'm completely lost in the tale. I shake my head mutely. Eyes twinkling, she goes on. "That was the moment, right there in that parlour cold as only February in Punjab can get, that I knew he was the man I was going to marry."

Betty and Arthur drive to the little chapel within the grounds of the Airmen's Training School, where Rick, their best man, is already waiting, standing by the door talking softly with the young chaplain. Betty turns to Arthur as he brings his jeep to a stop, twisting round in the passenger seat to fix him with her indignant gaze. "The chaplain's already here? You rogue! You knew I wasn't going to say 'no', didn't you?" Arthur laughs his hearty infectious laugh, takes her hand and leads her into the chapel.

"What were you wearing?" I ask, absorbed. "Oh, just some old rags. My everyday clothes," Betty laughs. "He didn't give me time to dress up, did he? He was always like that." Her face softens, and for a while she seems lost in a memory too far away for me to enter. She comes back to the present as quickly as she'd left it, and gives me an impish grin. "I made up for it at the reception, though. The last time I'd gone shopping to Lahore, I'd bought myself a saree. Periwinkle blue, gossamer, with silver sequins on it. And suede shoes to match." She laughs. "That was before I met him... little had I known I'd be wearing it to my wedding reception."

They hold the reception that evening in the Officers' Mess, Betty radiant in ethereal blue, Arthur dashing in spotless white. Freddy, who's arrived back from Quetta in time to attend the reception, is there with Gwen, now his wife and one month pregnant, although she doesn't know it yet. Rick is there with his girlfriend Marie, whom he's destined never to marry. The chaplain is missing from the celebrations, sitting anxiously outside the labour room at the mission hospital. Ellen, supervising the procedure, slips out from time to time to reassure him that all is well.

When at last the last drop of Scotch has been drunk and the last balloon popped with the glowing tip of Rick's cigarette, Arthur's colleagues and their guests say parting words of congratulations and are gone. Arthur offers his wife his arm, and the two of them walk out into the yard. She looks up briefly at the silver moon in the sky before she gets into the jeep. It's shining bright, almost full. Sister Moon, she muses, remembering a line from an old play. Sister Moon, wilt thou protect him for me?

When they pull up in front of the school, it's Arthur who's indignant. "You're going back? But you're my wife. Surely that should count for something? Can't you explain it to Miss Curry?" Betty gets out before answering, walking around to the driver's side before she speaks. "Miss Curry is not to know, at any cost, that we are married," she says grimly. "I've broken a school rule. I'll give in my resignation tomorrow. Besides, it's just four days to go before the end of term. I'll see you next week."

She gives him a quick, nervous smile, and before he can reply, turns on her heel and strides off resolutely. Watching her go, Arthur can't help but laugh softly to himself. In the moonlight, she looks to him like a dream, a spangled magical creature, elf-like in her shimmering saree. It is the image that is to enter his waking dreams the oftenmost when he's away from her, in the months of separation that will have to be borne before the war is over.

2 Comments:

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Sun Aug 21, 10:42:00 am GMT+5:30  
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Tue Sep 27, 02:58:00 pm GMT+5:30  

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