When the Director informed Nina that she had been promoted, she gave him a tired smile and said 'Thank you Sir,' without any real enthusiasm. Nina had not particularly wanted the promotion, but it had been in the offing for a long time and she could not bring herself to turn it down. Promotions were given on the basis of seniority and Nina had joined the Institute as a Research Officer or RO two days before Raju did. Which meant that she was senior to Raju and would be promoted ahead of Raju. She would cope somehow. There would be some travel to attend conferences and seminars, the occasional late evenings and a lot of reports to write. But it was a promotion nevertheless. The Director knew that Nina was not that very keen on getting promoted. Hence he was not surprised by Nina's tepid reaction.
'It comes into effect from next month,' the Director added, 'but you can start helping Kunjali prepare the weekly report from this week onwards.' For a minute Nina wondered if she ought to tell the Director to go to hell. If she was to be an SRO, as Senior Research Officers were referred to, from next month, why on earth should she get involved in preparing the weekly report even before that? But it was difficult to tell T. K. Namboodhiri to go to hell. He was not only the Director of the Institute, but also a father figure to most of the employees. He knew the names of all their spouses and children. Most of his discussions with his colleagues started off with a series of rapid-fire personal questions. Is your mother any better? Have your in-laws gone back? Is your son still keen on becoming a doctor? What do you plan to do this Sunday? When are you getting married? You've been married for three years and no children yet? At times Nina found it irritating, but most of her colleagues admired the Director for taking such a personal interest. Which made it difficult for them to tell him to go to hell when he made demands such as this. It was the Director's job to send a weekly report of the Institute's activities to the Agriculture Ministry every Friday. And the practice was for both the SROs to prepare the first draft of the weekly report. The Director would then edit it and send it out in his own name. Ever since Swaroop had quit, Kunjali was the only SRO and he had prepared the first draft of the report on his own. It was understandable that the Director was keen to get the new SRO to assist Kunjali. Two pairs of hands were always preferable to a single pair. The SRO's post had been vacant for over six months - from the time Swaroop quit - and the Director had lobbied hard to get it filled. With the state government of Kerala in a perpetual state of financial distress, it was hard to obtain sanction for any form for additional expenditure. Even for filling up an essential post at the Institute. It did not matter that the Institute, as the Institute for Pathological Studies in Plantation Crops was called, was the main research centre in Kerala for carrying out research into diseases that affected plantation crops. And plantation crops formed the mainstay of Kerala’s economy.
'How's Sebin these days?' The Director wanted to know. 'Is he still angry with you?'
'He's no longer so angry. He has started chattering once again. Even though he was sulking this morning before he left for school.'
'He'll be alright. If you ask me, Sebin is a lot less moody than most children of Gulfies.' Nina did not respond. They had had such discussions before.
'And your mother's thyroid? Is she still taking those Eltroxin tablets?
'Yes, she has to - for another month.'
Nina managed to walk out of the Director's room before he could ask any more questions. She walked up to Raju. 'Raju, I've got some news,' Nina told Raju.
'Have you finally been promoted?' Raju asked Nina.
'Congratulations!' Raju unsuccessfully tried to hide his disappointment.
Raju must have known that he would not get it. Rules were rules, but Nina knew that Raju had hoped she would turn down the promotion. Someone else heard her and shouted 'Nina has finally been promoted.' Her colleagues crowded around her, congratulating her. Raju looked crestfallen. Since there could only be two SROs, Raju would have to wait for another five years before the Director retired and Kunjali moved up to replace him, before he could become an SRO.
'Let's go to Best Bakery and celebrate this evening,' someone suggested. Best Bakery was one of their favourite joints. But Nina was not too keen. She had the longest commute of them all and hated any activity in the evenings. Sebin would be waiting for her to get back and he hated it if she was delayed.
'I'm so sorry. I just can't. Sebin has just recovered from Johnny's departure. I need to go home as soon as possible. I'm sorry.' They backed off, which was unusual. Was it because she was now an SRO? Even Raju appeared to be slightly defferential. Soon, at this rate, they would start treating her like Kunjali. She did not remember being defferential to Swaroop. But then she had got it all wrong with Swaroop. Maybe if she had been differential or diffident, it wouldn't have happened.
'Tell you what, we'll order a dozen puffs from Anne's.' Anne's was reputed to be as good as Best Bakery, but it was mainly a takeaway bakery, whereas one could eat in at Best Bakery.
'Sahadevaa,' they shouted for the office peon. Sahadevan took a while to appear. 'Sahadeva, this afternoon, can you please go to Anne's and buy two dozen puffs? Nina asked.
'Yes. But we need one vegetarian puff as well. Can you please buy twenty three chicken puffs and a vegetarian one?' The Director and two other colleagues were vegetarians at home, but ate meat from restaurants. However, there was one colleague who would not eat any meat.
'Don't we get something to drink as well?' someone asked slyly. Her colleagues had the idea that Nina was floating in money just because her husband was a Gulfie.
'And four bottles of Pepsi. No, make it two bottles of Pepsi and two bottles of Sprite.'
Her colleagues were mollified. Nina went to her seat and started to make a list of things to do. She found that making a to-do list always calmed her down. She would have to talk to Kunjali about the weekly report. She would do that after lunch. She had started some tests last week on the samples from Nilampur and some readings had to be taken. The books she had ordered a few weeks ago from the CUSAT library had not yet arrived. She would have to follow up on that. And the rest of the time till she left for the day at five thirty would be spent on her project, the project on which she had been working for the last three years. With a start she remembered that she had promised to get Sebin a toy when she got back from work. She had nearly forgotten. Sebin had been sulking and refusing to eat breakfast and the promise of a toy was the only way she could get him to dress up and catch the school bus before she herself caught a bus to Kottayam. She knew that she was making a mistake. Rewarding such behaviour with a toy was the worst thing a parent could do. But in her heart she knew that Sebin was justified in throwing tantrums after Johnny left for Qatar. Sebin did that each time Johnny went back after a month's vacation. Nina had been told by so many people that Sebin's behaviour was not that uncommon. As he grew older Sebin would learn to accept that his father could not come home everyday.
It was almost twelve. The lunch break started at twelve thirty. She saw that Raju was gossiping with the Director's secretary. She would have to remind him once more that she needed to discuss her project with him. She had hoped that she would be able to finish it and submit a report by the end of last year. Now it was July already and it looked as if she would need another year to finish it. It was a project that was close to her heart. As a child growing up in Simhapara, Nina had been fascinated by helicopters which sprayed fungicide on rubber trees in the Simhapara estate just before the onset of the monsoon. Farmers with smaller holdings would use long-handed sprays to manually spray the fungicide, which was a mix of copper sulphate and lime. After Nina finished her Ph.D. at CUSAT and started working at the Institute, she started wondering if the fungicide could possibly have any harmful effects of on the grass and small herbs that grew among the rubber trees. Everyone knew that the fungicide had negative side-effects. Her family used to own a couple of cows and they would never let the cows graze amidst the rubber trees for a few weeks after the fungicide had been sprayed. However, no one seemed to have researched into this issue in any detail. Did the fungicide cause more harm to the foliage on the ground if it was manually sprayed rather than from a helicopter? Nina had requested the Director that she be allowed to carry out a study. The Director had given her approval on condition that she do her research in addition to her normal duties. For the last three years, she had been collecting samples and carrying out various tests.
Nina wondered if she could move into the room reserved for the new SRO. It was empty, except for a few boxes of files. She would ask Sahadevan to clear the files and dust the room. If the Director expected her to help Kunjali prepare the weekly report right away, she might as well occupy the room right away. She saw that the Director's secretary had gone into the Director's room. She walked up to Raju and said, 'Raju, you did say you could spend some time with me this afternoon, didn't you? I need to discuss my project with you.'
'You've got your promotion. Why are you still trying to do that project?'
Nina laughed. 'I am going to finish this project so that I get another promotion. They may make me the Director.'
'Well, if you don't quit, you will definitely become the Director one day.' Nina started to laugh, but then stopped when she saw that Raju was not laughing. He had wanted that promotion quite badly. Most probably he prayed every night that she would quit her job. After all, she did not need the money. Her husband was a Gulfie. She had a son with whom she ought to be spending more time.
'So, can you give me ten or fifteen minutes this afternoon? I need to pick your brains.'
'You should go and speak to Kunjali,' Raju said. Nina grimaced. Kunjali was not the friendliest of all people. He did his job, kept to himself, spoke little to others and went home. It was unthinkable to ask him if she could discuss her personal project with him.
'Well, if you prefer me to Kunjali, then my brains are all yours.' It was at times like this that Nina realised how much she missed Swaroop. Swaroop was the smartest bio-chemist she had ever met. He knew his stuff. And he had been quite happy to help Nina whenever she wanted to discuss anything with him. Their families knew each other slightly and Nina had been quite friendly with his wife as well. And then that incident had occurred. For the nth time Nina wondered if she had just over-reacted. It had happened over a year ago. Swaroop, Nina and two other ROs were carrying out a series of tests on a few samples sent to them from a tea plantation in Vandiperiyar. No one could be forced to stay back after five thirty, but the entire team had been infected with Swaroop's enthusiasm and they had all happily worked many extra hours, often staying back quite late into the night. One Wednesday, they had all worked until seven in the evening. Swaroop offered to see Nina off at the bus stop where she would catch a bus to Simhapara.
'So, when's Trisha going to visit her parents?' Nina asked Swaroop. Swaroop's parents-in-law had settled in Hyderabad where their eldest son - Swaroop's brother-in-law - worked.
'She's off this Friday.'
'Is she taking both the girls with her?'
'You will be on your own for two weeks.'
'Indeed. I will be.'
'So, what will you do? Drown yourself in work?'
'I might as well do that.' There was a pause and then Swaroop had asked, 'What are your plans this weekend?'
'What else? Take care of Sebin. Help Amma with some cleaning.'
There was some more silence. And then Swaroop had said, 'why don't you come to Kottayam this Saturday? We could do some work, maybe for a couple of hours and then go for a movie or something.' It had taken Nina a few seconds to absorb the enormity of what Swaroop was suggesting. She had frozen, as if an icy gale had hit her. She stared at Swaroop for a full minute. Swaroop did not even try to laugh it away as if it was a joke. He just looked embarrassed. 'It was only a thought,' he had said and Nina realised that Swaroop’s question had been planned in advance. 'You don't have to come if you are uncomfortable with the idea,' Swaroop had added. Which made it worse. They had walked in silence to the bus stop. Thankfully a fast passenger bound for Kanjirapally had arrived immediately. After that incident, Nina had stopped talking to Swaroop unless it was strictly required for her job. And Swaroop had quit six months later, to take up a job at a research institute in Kuala Lumpur.
Maybe she had totally misunderstood Swaroop. Maybe all he wanted to do was watch a movie. It was boring for a man used to two noisy daughters to spend a weekend on his own. But then Swaroop's eyes had looked so very different when he asked her to come in on Saturday. So very different. And she knew Swaroop pretty well. Or so she had thought. It didn't matter now that Swaroop was no longer in Kottayam, or in Kerala for that matter. He was the only man she had got to know reasonably well. Better than even her husband who was a Gulfie even when she married him. Johnny had come home on a month's leave from the oil refinery where he worked, when he formally met her one wet Sunday afternoon. Nina's parents had been hunting for a groom for many years and there was nothing wrong with Johnny. He was an engineer and had a decent job in Qatar. And most importantly, he seemed to like the idea of a working wife. Nina did not particularly want to be married to a man whom she would see for a month every year. But then she was almost twenty eight and her parents were very keen to get her married off and start a similar process for her younger sister Mina. They had been engaged within a week and the wedding took place after another week. They had to obtain the priest's permission to dispense with the need for the three Banns of Marriage. But it was only a formality. The parish priest was quite used to expatriates from the Gulf who came home for a few weeks to get married. Nina and Johnny had a two day honeymoon before Johnny went back to Qatar. After that, she got to spend a month with Johnny every year. Except once when, after two years of marriage, Johnny managed to take Nina to Qatar for two months. And they had been married for almost nine years now. Which meant she had spent less than a year with Johnny altogether.
Soon it was lunch time and the ROs and other administrative staff gathered in groups to open their lunch packets and eat. Nina's lunch box did not hold any surprises. They had eaten cassava and fish pickles for breakfast that morning and cassava it was for lunch. Sebin's lunch box was also packed with cassava. Nina was thankful that Sebin was not fussy about food. He did not mind having for lunch whatever they had for breakfast. He was actually a good boy. The Director's secretary sat opposite Nina. 'So, you must be very excited - getting a room of your own!'
'Well yes. I will get a lot more space.'
'We'll order a name plate for you. Something you can hang on your door.'
'Hmmm. Why not? Unless I hang a name plate on the door, no one will be able to find me. It's such a large office.' The Director's secretary burst into laughter.
'Oh Sebin is fine. He is much better now. He has started chattering away to his grandfather once more.'
'It must be a relief. When's he coming back?'
I don't think Johnny can come back before next May. Now his refinery is trying to recruit as many local people as possible. So, if Johnny asks for leave, they may send him back on a very long leave.'
'But as of now, his job is not affected is it?' The Director's secretary was very concerned and almost placed her hand on Nina's. She was in her late forties and got along well with every one. The fact that she was the Director's secretary and everyone liked to be on good terms with her, helped a lot in that regard.
'No, his job is secure – for the moment.'
'But you wouldn't mind if Johnny lost his job and came back for good, would you? You would get your husband back full time.'
'Not really. Johnny is not the sort of person who can run a business or something. He is a perfect employee and he will always remain an employee.'
'I know. You've told me that before. But why can't Johnny come back and just live off his savings? He must have saved a lot of money by now.'
'It's his decision. I haven't tried to influence him.'
The Director's secretary then launched into a litany of woes regarding her daughter and her son-in-law who lived in some small town in Tamil Nadu and were forever quarrelling. Nina was relieved when lunch got over. The Director's secretary got up with her. As they both walked towards the washroom, The Director's secretary said 'did you know the Director is travelling to Australia for a conference?'
'Actually I did know. He told me yesterday. But I don't think it is public information yet.'
'No, it is not. I haven't told anyone.' Nina knew that it would become public in a matter of days. The Director's secretary had a way of passing on gossip in instalments. Her favourite people would be told first, before she moved on to lesser mortals. Nina had always been one of her favourites.
'One day you will also go abroad for a conference.'
'I don't think it is such a big deal,' Nina told the Director's secretary.
'How can you say that? May be it is not for you. Haven't you spent some time in Qatar?'
'Yes, two months. But that was almost seven years ago.' They reached the washroom only to find it occupied. They waited outside.
'Was that where Sebin was conceived?'
'Yes. Whenever he demands that he be taken on board a plane, I tell him that he has already travelled by air.'
'Oh! I'm sure that when he grows up he will do a lot of travelling on his own. Nowadays so many people travel by air. My daughter was telling me the other day when she called up, ...' The Director's secretary did not get to complete since the washroom's door opened.
'After you,' Nina told the Director's secretary. The Director's secretary smiled her thanks and went in.
That evening after work, Nina hurried to the small toy store which was on her way to the bus station. She decided yet again to buy a toy gun for Sebin. She had initially planned to get Sebin something other than a gun. Something like a building block or a jigsaw puzzle. But buying something else carried the risk of rejection. Sebin had just got out of his gloom after Johnny's departure and there was no point in making him angry by buying him a gift he did not like. She couldn't make a mistake if she bought him a toy gun. Sebin loved toy guns. He had toy guns of all shapes and sizes. Machine guns that made a rat-a-rat noise. Pistols which fired rubber projectiles. Sleek rifles which were almost half his height. Inside the store, which had a not-so-large counter staffed by a single shop boy, she waited behind a couple and their daughter. They were looking at various dolls. The shop owner sat in front of the till a few feet away. When Nina was young, she had a huge collection of dolls. What had happened to her collection? Some of it had gone to Mina. Surely some of them must have survived. She would ask her mother about it. There was a large mirror to her left. The face that looked back at Nina was - exhausted. That was it. She was exhausted. Exhausted from the commute which took her an hour and a half each day on a good day and two hours on a bad day. Exhausted from having to handle Sebin on her own. She was not bad looking. The acne which had troubled her so much when she was a teenager was no longer so prominent. Her hair had a few grey streaks in it, but no one would call her grey-haired or old. And she had a small stoop. Which made her look a lot shorter than her five feet four inches. The couple decided on a small doll, but their daughter had her eye on a much larger one. Her parents were quite firm with her. The small doll and nothing else. They left, the man carrying his daughter in his arms. She would soon have to learn to be equally firm with Sebin.
When her turn came, the shop owner asked her, 'a gun again?'
Nina smiled at him and turned to the shop boy standing in front of her. 'A gun,' she told him. The shop boy smiled and obligingly brought out a selection of guns. Nina had a quick look at the guns spread out in an arc in front of her. There was a large red pistol with a yellow barrel which Sebin already had. The small brown revolver was too similar to the grey one in Sebin's collection. Without waiting to examine all the pistols, Nina asked the shop boy, 'is this all you have?' She would soon have to find another toy store to find guns which Sebin did not have.
'No, no, we have a lot more chechy,' the shop boy said.
'Take out that box,' the owner instructed the shop-boy, pointing to a shelf that was out of the shop-boy's reach.
The boy bent down, lifted his mundu by its ends and tucked it around his waist so that it was folded by half. He then unfolded a small ladder and set it beside a large shelf. He climbed a few steps and took out a large box from the shelf and brought it down.
Nina was disappointed. The large rifle that stared at her was exactly the one she had bought less than two months ago - a couple of weeks before Johnny arrived. 'But I've seen all these,' she protested.
'Does your boy have a water pistol?' the shop-owner asked her.
'No, he doesn't. And I don't want to buy him one. There'll be water all over the house once he starts squirting water.'
'Ah come on. What's a little bit of water?'
Nina didn't have a choice. She did not have the energy to go to another shop. Maybe she should buy Sebin something other than a gun. No, she would buy him a water pistol.
'Okay, please show me a water pistol.'
The owner now abandoned his till and edged out the shop boy. He picked out a red pistol and showed it to Nina. 'Here, you open the nozzle here and pour water inside - up to this level. You know, just like pouring water into a steam press.'
'How much?' Nina asked.
'This one is two hundred and ninety. Now this one,' the owner took out another blue pistol which was slightly smaller and said, 'this one is two hundred and fifty only.'
'No, I'll go for the red one.' It was obscene, the cost of toys. They were just pieces of plastic, with basic operating mechanisms. There was no reason why they had to be so expensive. The pistol came in a colourful box which had the picture of a water pistol on the outside. Nina tucked the box under her arm and practically ran to the bus station. It was another five minutes away and with luck she could catch the Kumali express. Nina was gasping for breath by the time she got into the bus. The Kumali express would not stop at Simhapara and Nina would have to get off at Ponkunnam and catch an auto, but Nina knew from many years of experience that this was the quickest way to get home to Sebin. Soon the bus crossed Pampady and sped towards Ponkunnam. Nina desperately hoped that Sebin would not go back into a sulk. It was more than a month since Johnny left for Qatar and Sebin had just recovered from his bout of tantrums. Things were not so bad. They had enough food to eat. Enough money in the bank. God had been kind to her. And to Johnny. And to her parents. And to her sister. Speaking of her sister, Mina was expecting her second child. Unlike the first time when Mina had travelled to Simhapara to deliver the baby with all her family members around her, this time Mina was planning to have the child in Mysore itself, where she lived with her husband and daughter. The child was due in three months' time and Mina was sounding out various family members who would be willing to spend a few months with her and help her take care of her new baby. Mina's in-laws had promised to be around for the delivery and for a month after that. Nina's parents were planning to spend a couple of months with Mina. Nina could hardly complain although it meant that she would be left alone with Sebin. Who would take care of Sebin when he got back from school, till the time Nina got home? And what if she needed to work late? What if she had to travel to attend a conference? If her parents were around, she would have nothing to worry about, except for the possibility that Sebin might throw a tantrum when she finally got back. Well, she would deal with things as they came up. Cheer up, she told herself. She was now an SRO, something all ROs aspired to be at the Institute.
Nina got off the express bus at Ponkunnam and took an auto to Simhapara. Most of the auto drivers knew her since she was a regular customer. Make sure you don't spend more than your salary on auto-fares and toys, her husband periodically told her as a joke. If her mother-in-law had her way, she would not be working at all. Instead she and Sebin would be living with her in-laws in their antique house at Peruvanthanam. Peruvanthanam was not very far off from Simhapara. Just another thirty minutes away by bus on the KK Road. But it was as if it was a whole world away. There was only one way to describe her in-laws. Nineteenth century. That was the word. They lived in the nineteenth century. Her mother-in-law was especially antique in her values. She could not imagine that her daughter-in-law could have feelings of her own or that she might aspire to achieve something on her own. An ideal woman, according to her mother-in-law, was one who stayed with her in-laws and awaited her husband every evening when he got back from work. And if her husband took a year to get home as Johnny did, well, then the daughter-in-law had to wait for a year. According to her in-laws, Johnny was a superstar. Their darling son who managed to get admission to an engineering college and then went on to work for an oil refinery in Qatar. If her mother-in-law’s descriptions were to be believed, oil production in the entire middle-east would come to a standstill if Johnny were not around. Nina was so glad that she had insisted on continuing with her job even after she had got married. Her in-laws had taken for granted that she would follow their wishes regarding employment after she joined their household. So much so that they did not even bother to tell Nina or her parents before the wedding what they expected from their daughter. Thankfully, Johnny had put his foot down. If Nina wants to work, let her. It's her choice, he had told his mother. Nina's mother-in-law, the nice traditional lady that she was, was forced to respect her son's wishes.
As the auto turned off the KK Road into the narrow muddy lane with a few houses scattered on either side, Nina opened her wallet and took out twenty rupees. The auto deposited Nina in the courtyard of the compact two storied concrete house with a terraced roof, which her father had built when Nina was an infant. As she handed over the money and got out of the auto, Sebin opened the door and charged out. 'Did you get me my toy?' he demanded, just as he saw the box tucked under Nina’s arm, which he grabbed.
Nina went into the house. Her father was nowhere to be seen, while her mother was on the phone. Who is she talking to? Why can’t she hang up now that I’m home? Nina thought. Her mother must be talking to her sister. Nina was her father’s favourite while her mother dotted on Mina. Her mother would have hung up the phone if it was someone else. She was planning to tell her parents about her promotion. Not that it meant much, but her father would be thrilled. He had always wanted her to have a career of her own. He had stood by her when she wanted to do a Ph.D. after her masters, even though her job prospects were not very high. It was her father who insisted that she find a job before she got married.
Sebin followed her into her room with the box in his hand.
‘Tell me how this works,’ he demanded.
‘It’s a water pistol. You can squirt water with it. You must promise not to squirt water inside the house.’
‘I promise.’ Sebin ripped open the box and took out the pistol.
‘This is where you pour in the water,’ Nina showed him. Sebin ran out to the dining room, opened the wash basin’s tap and filled the pistol with water. He pointed the pistol into the basin and fired. A sharp jet of water hit the basin. He ran back into Nina’s room and pointed at Nina, who had changed into a housecoat.
‘Nooo! You promised not to squirt water inside the house!’
Sebin lowered the pistol to his side.
‘Moné, how was school today?
‘Jayesh got caned today.’ Jayesh was one of Sebin’s best friends.
‘Oh! Did he? What did he do?’
‘He kept talking in class to Lisa.’
‘Did Lisa get caned as well?’
‘No, she was only listening to Jayesh.’
‘And did my daaarling Sebin mon get caned as well?’ Nina took on a singsong tone which signalled a bout of cuddling.
‘No, I did not.’
‘Aaaare you sure?’ Nina hugged Sebin to her.
‘Of course not, I did not get caned.’
‘Aaaare you sure?’ Nina asked him again and tickled him.
That night Nina and Sebin said their usual prayers and went to sleep. They could hear the faint sound of Nina’s parents praying in their bedroom. They would recite the entire rosary and follow a prayer book, which would take them the best part of an hour. She ought to get Sebin to recite the rosary, every night, Nina told herself. He was six years old now. From tomorrow, they would join their parents when they said the rosary. God help me with my new role at work, Nina prayed as she drifted off to sleep.
Nina slipped into the SROs role effortlessly. To her surprise, she found that Kunjali was not too difficult to work with. He recognised that she had to leave the office at five thirty and did his best to make sure that she could do so. The only drawback was that her entire time in the office was taken up with her official duties and she could not spare much time for her own project. It looked as if it would be quite a while before she actually managed to finish it. Raju seemed to have got over his resentment, even though Nina had a feeling he was looking for an opening overseas. So many countries in the west and even other Asian countries like Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia were keen to hire trained researchers. They got paid a lot more and more importantly, they had better research facilities. If Nina wanted a book, she had to request half a dozen libraries to get hold of it. And only after she had exhausted so many libraries could she put in a request to buy the book. It was only recently that all ROs at the Institute got their own PCs!
Her first late evening came up a month after she had formally become an SRO. It was a Friday. A visiting team of bureaucrats from Thiruvananthapuram wanted to meet with the Director and his senior colleagues at five in the evening. The meeting was likely to last for a couple of hours. The Director was decent enough to give her the option of leaving at her usual time if she wanted to. She got to know of the meeting just before lunch time. She decided to stay back. She called up home and spoke to her mother who was not too happy that her daughter had to stay back. She then called up once again at a quarter to five and spoke to Sebin who had got home from school by then.
‘Aren’t you a big boy now? Can I count on you to look after yourself?’ Sebin promised to look after himself. ‘Will you eat dinner on your own, with Velia-pappa and Velia-amma? Sebin was quite chuffed at being trusted to look after himself. The meeting was boring, the only interesting bit was that the normally reclusive Kunjali was quite talkative and went out of his way to butter up to the bureaucrats. He laughed at their jokes, praised every policy statement made by them and swore undying loyalty to the agriculture minister. The Director frequently made eye contact with Nina, as though they were in cahoots over Kunjali’s performance. The meeting dragged on till seven thirty and it was eight forty by the time Nina got home.
Sebin ran out to greet her as she got off the auto. ‘I had two helpings of rice for dinner,’ he proudly told her.
Her mother served her dinner, but did not look too happy.
‘Did Johnny call?’ she asked her mother. Johnny usually called them every Friday evening. Friday was the only day off he had in a week. He usually chatted with Nina and Sebin for ten minutes or so, before he called his parents at Peruvanthanam and spoke with them for a few minutes.
‘Yes, Daddy called,’ Sebin told her.
‘You missed him by ten minutes,’ her father told her. At that moment, the phone rang. Sebin answered the phone. ‘Daddee? Yes, Mummy has just come.’
Nina ran to the phone. ‘Yes, it’s me.’
‘You don’t have to worry. Sebin is a big boy and he will look after you.’ Nina smiled with relief. ‘That’s what he told me, that he’s looking after you.’
‘Are you tired?’ Johnny asked her. Nina nearly choked on her words. What was wrong with Johnny? Of course she was tired. Tired of everything. Tired of her job. Tired of looking after Sebin on her own. Why couldn’t Johnny come down and help her with everything? ‘No, of course not. I am not tired. How are you?’
‘I’m fine. Nothing much to do today. Watched some TV. Slept a bit.’
‘I had a meeting today evening.’
‘I know. Mummy told me. Quite an executive aren’t you? Are you going to visit my folks tomorrow?’ Nina had almost forgotten. She was supposed to go to Peruvanthanam tomorrow with Sebin and spend the weekend with her in-laws.
‘Yes, I am. Sebin is looking forward to it.’
Well, I might as well hang up now. You go and have dinner. Okay?’
‘Good night.’ Johnny blew her a kiss into the phone. Nina could not reciprocate since her parents were watching. She put the phone down and went into the dinning room. Sebin followed her clutching her saree. Perk up, she told herself as she stared eating. Things were a lot better now. Sebin was no longer so moody. He was a big boy capable of speaking to his father over the phone. She could still remember the days when he would point to the framed wedding photograph which hung on the wall in the drawing room, whenever someone asked him where his father was. Soon he would be big enough to be left on his own.
Her mother came and sat opposite her. ‘What do you plan to do with Sebin while we are in Mysore?’
Nina had thought about it on the bus home. Mina was due to deliver in less than two months. Which meant that in three months time, her parents would leave for Mysore. Who would take care of Sebin when he got back from school if her parents were not around? Was Sebin expected to come home, feed himself and look after himself till she got home late in the night? And what was to be done if she had to stay back late in office?
‘You shouldn’t have accepted the promotion. You have a job and you ought to be happy with it. Shouldn’t your son get priority over your job?
Nina did not reply. Thankfully her father joined them. ‘What’s the matter?’ he asked Nina’s mother.
‘I was just asking Nina how she planned to take care of Sebin while I am away? If she hadn’t accepted her promotion, she could have left office at three o’clock every day and got here before Sebin comes home.’
‘But Ammé, what makes you think an RO can leave office at three? Not every day! No!’
‘Well, you do whatever you need to do to take care of your son. I need to help out Mina for two months.’
‘Don’t worry about it. We’ll manage.’
‘If only that Kumudam would agree to come in in the evenings….’ Nina spoke wistfully. Kumudam’s services were highly in demand at various households in Simhapara and there was very little chance of their maid servant agreeing to be around while Sebin got back from school.
‘Or, we could find a full-time maid,’ Nina continued to think aloud. Even if she managed to leave for home at five thirty on the dot every day, someone had to take care of Sebin for a couple of hours in the evening after he got home from school.
‘That’s two thousand five hundred rupees a month, at current rates. We are not millionaires. Do you want to find a full-time maid yourself and pay her yourself?’ Nina’s mother asked her with asperity.
‘I’ll think about it,’ Nina told her with a yawn. It was not a bad idea. Having a full-time maid would be worth it. She could work late and Sebin would be safe. Nina almost giggled to herself as she repeated the rhyming words. Nina works late but Sebin stays safe. What would Johnny say? Spend two thousand five hundred rupees for a maid on account of a promotion which gave her a pay hike of less than half that amount. Johnny wouldn’t mind. He better not mind. It was the least he could do as an absentee father.
‘Why can’t you take two months off and stay at home while we are away?
Nina saw that her mother was still angry with her. She burst out saying, ‘maybe I should quit my job and stay at Peruvanthanam!’
‘I didn’t say that. No, I did not ask you to quit your job. I only asked you to give priority to your son.’
‘If I quit my job, won’t Johnny’s parents insist that I spend most of my time with them and maybe visit you once in a while on week-ends?’
‘But, I did not ask you to quit your job. I only asked you to take two months off. And you should not have accepted your promotion.’ Peruvanthanam was almost two hours from Kottayam, while Simhapara was only forty minutes away. As long as Nina had a job, she was justified in staying with her parents at Simhapara.
‘If she takes two months off, won’t they insist that she stay with them at Peruvanthanam during those two months?’ Nina’s father wanted to know.
‘How can they say that? Sebin goes to school here. How can he change schools for just two months?’
The next day, Nina and Sebin left for Peruvanthanam after breakfast. They had a good time there, till they came back Sunday evening. Her mother-in-law might be nineteenth century, but she was a very good cook. From the time Nina and Sebin got there, till the time they left, Nina’s mother-in-law kept up a parade of dishes, most of which were Sebin’s favourites. Johnny’s younger brother and his wife lived with Johnny’s parents and they had a daughter. Sebin had a very good time playing with his cousin. The only irritant for Nina was the occasional snide comment from her mother-in-law expressing her displeasure over the fact that Nina preferred to work, rather than stay with her in-laws and devote all her time to Sebin. Thankfully Sebin did not say anything about Nina’s coming back late from work. Nina did consider telling Sebin to keep quiet and not tell his grandmother that Nina had come home late from work on Friday. But finally she had decided to keep quiet and not tell him anything. It might backfire. Sebin might not only tell his grandmother, but also add that his mother had asked him to keep quiet. For some reason, Sebin seemed to sense that his paternal grandparents would be very upset if they found that his mother had come home late from work.
The next week, Nina had to stay back late on Wednesday. One of the ROs had made a hash of an important test he was running and Kunjali and Nina had to work late to sort it out. ‘I wish I could fire him,’ the Director fumed. However, the Institute was practically a government department and could not fire people at will. The next week, Nina had another late evening. Soon it would be time for her parents to travel to Mysore.
It was Nina’s mother who came up with a solution to her problem. One day when Nina got back from work, she found her mother chatting with their neighbour who lived across the road. Inkachee lived alone with her son who worked in the post office. Her husband had died many years ago. Inkachee had been a nurse who used to work in the district hospital at Kottayam.
‘Nina mol, listen to this, Inkachee says she will take care of Sebin in the evenings while we are away.’ Nina was thrilled.
‘You know, when Sebin mon gets off the school bus, he should just come to my place. And he can stay with me till you come home.’
Nina was so grateful, she could not even thank Inkachee properly. She went to her room and found Sebin on the bed reading a comic book. ‘Moné, come here. Come and say Hello to Inkachee.’
Sebin was shy in front of Inkachee with whom he had a very slight acquaintance.
‘This is Sebin.’
‘Isn’t Sebin in his second standard?’
‘Yes he is.’
‘How come we don’t hear you crying anymore Sebin?
Sebin looked bashful. Nina was actually slightly irritated. Sebin was not a cry baby. It was only for a month after Johnny left that Sebin bawled a lot. Her mother came to their rescue. ‘Sebin is a big boy now. He has stopped crying.’
‘Mon works in the post office.’ Yet another woman who insisted on calling her son mon, even though he must be over thirty, Nina thought.
‘Hasn’t he been working in the post office for many years?’
‘Yes, he started working when he was eighteen.’ Nina vaguely remembered that Inkachee’s husband used to work for the post-office. Since he died ‘in harness’, his son had been given a job under a government policy which allowed children of government employees who died while in service to obtain a government job on a priority basis.’
‘Aren’t you going to marry Vimal off?’ Nina’s mother got down to practicalities. So, that was Inkachee’s son’s real name - Vimal.
‘Yes, I am looking out for a girl for him. So far nothing has worked out.’ Mon is a loner and does not have many friends.’
‘I’m sure it’s only a phase and Vimal will grow out of it,’ Nina’s mother said. Nina suppressed her giggles. She wanted to say - He’s already thirty. He ought to have grown out of it many years ago. Now he is going to be like that for the rest of his life. But she kept quiet.
‘I’m sure he will. Not that he has fallen into bad company or anything. Just that, he spends most of his time in his room. He goes to the post-office at around ten, comes home for lunch, goes back at two and then gets home by four fifteen.’
‘That’s even earlier than the time Sebin gets home.’
‘Well yes. I do wish he would make a few friends, go for a movie or play cards or .. you know, do the sort of things most young men do.’
‘I’m sure it’s only a phase and your mon will grow out of it,’ Nina’s mother repeated.
‘What time do you normally get home?’ Inkachee asked Nina.
‘Normally I’m home by six thirty.’
‘And what time does Sebin mon come home?’
‘Sebin gets back from school by four thirty.’
‘So, even if you are not working late, Sebin will have to be on his own for a couple of hours?’
‘Yes,’ Nina guiltily admitted.
‘Don’t worry about it. I ought to know how tough it is for a working mother to take care of a child. But when mon was young, his father used to be home early. So, even if I was on night duty, it didn’t really matter, since he would take care of mon.
‘But if you are going to be later than six thirty, do give me a call and let me know.’
‘I’ll do that,’ Nina promised.
‘Would you like some tea?’ Nina’s mother asked. Inkachee might be way below them in the social pecking order at Simhapara, but she would be treated as an equal if she was going to be looking after Sebin while she was away at Mysore.
‘No, no tea for me,’ Inkachee politely said.
‘I am going to make some tea for myself in any event. Giving you a cup will not be a problem.’ Nina made it easy for Inkachee to accept her mother’s offer.
‘In that case, I’ll have some tea,’ Inkachee agreed. Nina went off to the kitchen to make some tea. Please God, let this arrangement work out, she prayed.
Mina delivered a baby girl through c-section, two days after her due date. They were all thrilled. With a day, Mina’s husband emailed photographs of the baby to all family members. The e-mail’s subject field said ‘Nimi’.
‘Nami and now Nimi? She is nuts.’ Nina said aloud. Mina’s elder daughter was called Nami and now her sister was to be Nimi. Mina seemed to have inherited her parents’ predilection for rhyming names for children. Nina’s father and mother were over the moon over their second granddaughter’s arrival. Nina’s mother immediately starting making preparations to travel to Mysore, even though they would be going only after another month.
A week before her parents left for Mysore, Nina started to prep Sebin about staying with Inkachee on the days she was going to be late in reaching home. ‘Inkachee is very nice. She has promised to give you milk and biscuits if I cannot come home on time.’
‘Will she have Kwality Kream?’
‘Oh yes she will,’ Nina promised him, making a note to handover a few packets of Kwality Kream to Inkachee during the weekend.
Nina kept building up a case for Inkachee. Inkachee is a very nice lady. Unless Mummy works late occasionally, Mummy will get into trouble in her office. Velia-pappa and Velia-amma have to go to Mysore to help Mina aunty take care of Nimi vava and Nami mol. Sebin was actually quite excited about the whole thing. Nina had two late evenings the week before her mother was to leave. On Tuesday, she got home only by eight thirty and on Wednesday she had to work till eight and got home only at nine. But by Thursday afternoon, the mini-crisis had been resolved and the entire team planned to take it easy for the rest of the week. However, on Friday, the Director summoned Nina and Kunjali into his room. ‘I’ve got great news,’ he told them excitedly. Nina had learnt to fear any ‘good news’ or ‘great news’. Generally they involved a lot of additional work. It was ages since she even thought of her own project. For some unknown reason, ever since the Director had got back from Australia, he had been very quiet and did not have much to say to his colleagues.
‘We have been invited to take part in a project funded by the European-Union. Migration of tropical plant diseases on account of global warming! Western countries are worried that as they become warmer, many of the diseases we have here right now, will migrate there. The European-Union wants to assess the time-lines involved. How soon will the tropical diseases we have here invade their territory? They have invited six research institutes in Asia to participate in this project, which will also involve three European universities. And, we are one of them!’
‘Goodbye to my project,’ Nina told herself.
The next statement from the Director jolted Nina. ‘Your good friend Swaroop will also be involved. The research centre in Kuala Lumpur where he works has also been invited.’ Nina could not reply for a minute. The Director looked puzzled until Nina managed a smile.
‘Have you spoken to Swaroop?’ Nina asked the Director.
‘Oh No! I know that the KL research centre is one of the invitees. And so I assumed that Swaroop will also be involved.’
‘I’m sure Swaroop will be involved,’ Nina said and breathed a quiet sigh of relief. Swaroop’s research centre was a very large one and the chances of Swaroop getting involved were not very high.
‘So, this is a massive project, will run for five years or so, and the best thing is, it is properly funded. We’ll get paid in Euros!’ The Director rubbed his hands in glee.
‘There will be a lot of travelling. In fact, I may have to go to Belgium in a month’s time for the inaugural meeting at the Katholieke Universiteit in Leuven. And once the project gets underway, there will be trips to all the Asian research institutes. I’ll leave it to you both to handle that.’
Nina looked petrified at the mention of overseas travel. ‘Don’t worry Nina,’ the Director assured her. You won’t have to do any travelling till your mother gets back from Mysore. She leaves tomorrow, doesn’t she?’
‘I think I’ll hire a few more ROs. And maybe promote someone so that we have one more SRO. The funding we get for this project should justify that.’
So, Raju might get his promotion sooner than he thought, Nina mused to herself. It remained to be seen whether the Director managed to get the necessary approvals for getting extra hands on board.
‘All European travel by the Director and all the Asian travel by us! Not fair!’ Kunjali grumbled as they walked out of the Director’s office. ‘And he has just got back from Australia.’
‘Don’t you like to travel to other Asian countries?’ Nina asked her head still spinning. It was all a bit too much. The possibility of having to meet Swaroop and having to make long trips where she would be away from home for many days. Her mother wouldn’t be happy and her in-laws would be even less happy. And Sebin was very likely to throw a tantrum if she was away for too long.
‘I would rather have travelled to Europe than to some miserable Asian country. Malaysia and Thailand are not particularly different from us, you know.’ It was a rare exhibition of anger and defiance from Kunjali and Nina was distracted from her worries for an instant. But not for long. How would she react if she ran into Swaroop? What if they ended up having to work together in the same team? She had worked with Swaroop for six months after the incident. She would behave in exactly the same manner. But then, what if Swaroop made another pass at her? No, he was unlikely to do that. What if they were in a third country, like say Indonesia or Thailand and had to stay in the same hotel? She would lock her room at night and not open it to anyone. Not even for room service! Stop being paranoid, Nina told herself.
That evening when Johnny called up, Nina’s mother was having a bath and her father and Sebin were watching TV. Nina wondered for a second if she should confess the whole Swaroop incident to Johnny. She had never told him about it. And what could she tell him now? That a colleague with whom she had been very friendly, had made a pass at her many years ago and now there was a real possibility that she would run into him again. No, she could not tell Johnny all that. He would only get upset. Or, he might get angry. She did not know Johnny well enough to even hazard a guess about his reaction. In any event, he was likely to ask her why she had not told him about this before. And so she engaged in their usual chatter – I’m fine – Are you okay? - How’s the food? Is it a lot of work? I am a bit tired with all the travel – Sebin is fine – He got the third rank in his class. When she was through, she shouted for Sebin who abandoned the television and took the phone. Sebin’s conversation with his father also ran to a pre-determined script. Johnny would ask him a few questions – How was school? Was Sebin studying hard? Didn’t Sebin want to become an IAS officer when he grew up? Most of Sebin’s dialogue revolved around the list of things he wanted his father to bring him when he came home. The list was constantly amended and enlarged. ‘Can you please bring me a super-man tee-shirt when you come home next?’ Sebin asked his father.
‘I’ll try and find one here,’ Johnny promised him. ‘Did one of your friends wear a super-man tee-shirt?’
‘Yes, Gopakumar did. His father bought him a super-man tee-shirt when he went to Delhi.’
Nina’s parents left for Mysore on Saturday, carrying with them a whole load of Keralite sweets and savouries which apparently could not be obtained in Mysore. After they left, Nina had the feeling that she had been abandoned. She would now have to take care of Sebin on her own. Kumudam was not of much help. She came there in the mornings for an hour, cleaned all the utensils and plates, swept the house and left. It’s not such a big deal, Nina told herself as she chopped some vegetables for lunch. Her parents would be back in two months time. Mina had a baby to take care of. But Mina did not have a job. Why did her parents have to abandon her? Oh No! She was being too selfish. It was all in the mind. As long as she was cheerful and maintained a can-do attitude, she could survive.
Nina’s good cheer survived the weekend. On Monday, she gave a final briefing to Sebin. On getting off the bus, he had to go across to Inkachee’s house. He was not to make a nuisance of himself and was expected to conduct himself in a manner that would show his family, especially his mother in a good light. In return for all that, he could expect to be given a glass of milk and some biscuits. It felt strange to lock up the house as she left for work in the morning. Normally Nina caught a bus which passed by the Simhapara bus stop at eight fifteen in the morning. But since Sebin’s school bus arrived only at eight thirty, she could not take her usual bus. She saw Sebin off before catching a bus at eight forty. She would still be in time – office officially started at nine thirty, even though she would have preferred to reach office at her usual ten past nine.
At work, the Director called a meeting of all ROs and both the SROs. He explained to them that the Institute was to be involved in an EU-funded project, which was quite prestigious. It would involve a fair amount of work for everyone, in addition to what they were doing. He was hopeful of hiring a couple of ROs to handle the extra work, but till then, they would all have to chip in. Most of the ROs looked enthusiastic about the project, but a few looked as if they would rather not have more work heaped on their plates. That evening, as Nina was about to leave for the day, the Director forwarded to Kunjali and Nina an email he had received from Leuven setting out the scope of the project. Nina looked at the various recipients of the initial email. There was at least one from each university or research centre. There he was - Swaroop.Thomas@klrc.my - one of the last email IDS on the mailing list. So Swaroop was involved in the project. There was only one other person from his research centre. Which meant Swaroop was doing quite well, Nina told herself. Well, she did not have to meet him for the next two months. No overseas travel for her till her mother got back from Mysore, the Director had said. Nina switched off her computer and left the office, before the Director could call her into his room for any further discussion. She caught a fast passenger bound for Mundakayam. As she sat in the bus, her thoughts drifted to Swaroop. Had she done anything which invited that sort of behaviour? Men being men, were bound to latch on to the saree nearest to them. She ought to have maintained some distance from Swaroop. But she had done nothing wrong! She wished she had told Swaroop’s wife Trisha what had happened. But then, nothing had happened. Swaroop had not done anything wrong or illegal. A bored Swaroop had asked her if she wanted to go for a movie with him. While Trisha was away. Did Swaroop tell Trisha what had happened after she got back? Would be dare tell Trisha that he had tried to get Nina spend a Saturday with him? Nina had not met Trisha after that incident. Maybe she should have paid Trisha a visit and told her what happened. Maybe she could have made it sound like a joke. You know Trisha, your husband wanted me to go for a movie with him on a Saturday. He actually expected me to travel to Kottayam from Simhapara just for that purpose. That would have got Swaroop into trouble. But then, he was still a superior at work. He could have made life miserable for her. No, not Swaroop. He was too decent to do that. But then, he had done what he did.
Nina reached Simhapara just before six thirty. She rushed to Inkachee’s house, to find that Sebin was having a good time with Inkachee’s son. They were playing some sort of game, running around the house. Nina thanked Inkachee quite profusely. Vimal avoided Nina’s eyes as she said goodbye to him. He seemed to an exceptionally shy man who was at ease with children.
‘What did you do?’ Nina asked Sebin as they walked home.
‘Vimal-chettan and I played hide and seek. It was good fun.’
‘Are you hungry?’
‘No, I’m not hungry. I ate some vattayappam’
But you don’t like vattayappam.
‘Vimal-chettan ate vattayappam and so did I.’
Nina breathed a sigh of relief. The two months would go by fast.
The next day, the emails started coming in thick and fast. The Director got tired of forwarding emails to them and instead emailed the project coordinator in Belgium and recommended that Kunjali and Nina be added to the mailing list. That evening onwards, they started getting emails directly. The mailing list got bigger as many email IDs from across the world were added to it. There were so many reports and proposals to be submitted. At five in the evening, Nina admitted to herself that she was going to be late. She called up Inkachee and told her that she would get home only by eight or so.
‘Don’t worry. Sebin and mon are having a good time. Come home whenever you can.’
It was seven fifteen when Nina managed to leave. When she got to Inkachee’s house, she found Sebin, Inkachee and Inkachee’s son on the sofa watching TV. As they walked home, Nina asked Sebin, what did you do? Did you watch TV all evening?’
‘No, we played a game for sometime.’
‘Did you have a good time?’
Sebin giggled and said ‘Yes.’
‘What game was it?’
Sebin giggled and said, ‘I won’t tell you.’
Nina didn’t care less. As long as Sebin was happy, it was fine. Thank God for Inkachee and her son Vimal.
The next day, even before mid-day, Nina knew that she was headed for another late evening. She called up Inkachee, who did not seem to mind.
That afternoon, Kunjali came to her room as she ate her lunch.
‘I say, has Swaroop sent you any email?’
‘To me? No? I am sure Swaroop will copy us all in if he were to email us.’
‘No, I mean, I saw an email from Swaroop to the Director saying Hi and asking how things are. I wondered if he has sent you something similar.’
Nina did not bother to ask Kunjali where he saw Swaroop’s email to the Director. The Director’s secretary printed off all his emails. Kunjali must have seen a printout. ‘No, he has not sent me any personal email.’
‘Weren’t you both good friends?’
What’s wrong with you all? Nina wanted to scream. Didn’t you notice that I had practically stopped speaking to Swaroop during his last six months here? ‘Yes we were. I mean, we are.’ ‘I was going to send him an email saying Hi! I’ve just been so busy. Shall I copy you in when I do that?’
‘Perfect! Please do that. In fact, you ought to have done that earlier. It makes sense to maintain all friendships. You never know when they will come in handy.’
Nina didn’t have a response to that. She was pretty sure she did not want Swaroop’s help at any point. ‘Don’t we have to prepare our weekly report?’ she asked Kunjali.
‘Yes, I was thinking of that. Shall we do it Friday morning? Something quite brief. I don’t think anyone at the Ministry reads our report anyway!’
‘Won’t the Director want it first thing Friday morning?’
‘Oh, he is as busy as we are. I spoke to him some time ago. If we can give him the report by noon, that’s good enough.’ With that Kunjali left Nina to her devices.
Post lunch, Nina drafted an email to Swaroop. She kept it simple.
Hi! Swaroop. How are you? Killing yourself with work as usual? All of us here send you our regards. That would tell him there were no personal feelings. It was only a collective message. All the best for this project. Nina.
She would not even say best regards. Swaroop ought to realise that Nina did not want anything other than a professional relationship. However, before sending the email, she changed her mind. What if Swaroop thought Nina was all set to become friends once more. He had misunderstood her before. Why shouldn’t he make that mistake again? Why on earth did Swaroop have to think that just because her husband was not around, she was available? She discarded the email and tried to focus on her work. After an hour of staring at her computer screen, she decided to write another email to Swaroop, something even simpler than the one she had discarded.
Hi! Swaroop. Regards from all of us here. Nina
She was about to sent it off when she realised that Kunjali would guess things were not alright. She had wasted a lot of time on this already. Quickly, she retyped her previous email. Before sending it, she had a quick rethink. And then, instead of sending it, she saved it as a draft email. She would send it out only if Kunjali reminded her again. Maybe he would get exasperated and email Swaroop directly.
By the time it was six, Nina estimated that she had another five hours of work. Damn. She had wasted so much time on that email. No, she would just pack up and leave in an hour’s time. Quickly she made a list of things that she had to finish before leaving for the day. She was getting a pain in her neck, after being cooped up in front of the computer for so long. She got up and decided to walk around. Four of the ROs were still around, milling around a plastic basin with some samples in it. Kunjali was busy with a sample kept in a corner of his room. Nina went back to her desk.
Unlike the previous night, Sebin was not in the main drawing room when Inkachee opened the door and let Nina in.
‘Where’s Sebin?’ Nina asked Inkachee who was watching a movie.
‘He’s with mon. They spent most of the evening in mon’s room playing snakes and ladders.’
‘Moné, Sebin’s mother is here,’ Inkachee bellowed.
Sebin was strangely silent as Vimal led him out of the room. Sebin’s school bag was in the drawing room. Nina picked it up. When she straightened up, Vimal had disappeared back into his room.
‘Did you have a good time?’ Nina asked Sebin as they walked home,
Sebin was silent. It was as if he could not make up his mind whether he had a good time.
‘Do you like that Chettan?’
‘Yes, I do. He is quite nice,’ Sebin said. He thought hard and repeated, ‘he is a good Chettan. Nina was satisfied. She didn’t give a damn if Vimal was too shy to say a word to her.
They got home and Nina started preparing dinner, while Sebin did his homework. He continued to be silent while they ate dinner. Nina was tempted to ask him if he was upset on account of her working late, but decided not to. A leading question like that would give him the idea that Nina was bound to get home by six thirty.
‘Sebin is hiding his smile,’ Nina said. It was a game they used to play when Sebin was younger. ‘Sebin is hiding his smile,’ Nina repeated. Sebin continued to look glum. ‘Sebin eeees hiiii-ding his smiiiiile,’ Nina said for the third time, drawing out each syllable. At that Sebin started to smile. It was a wan smile as if he were still troubled by something.
‘Is everything okay at school?’ Nina asked him.
It was nine by the time they finished dinner. They both went off to bed, with Sebin cuddling up to Nina as they said their daily prayers. Nina was quite exhausted and fell asleep promptly as soon as the prayers were over. The next day morning, she gave Sebin a bath before getting him dressed. Sebin unusually seemed to be unwilling to take his bath. He fidgeted under the shower and managed to get Nina thoroughly wet.
‘Can’t you stay still Sebin?’ Nina asked him in exasperation. ‘We don’t have much time. The anger in her voice made Sebin stay still. Yet another day, Nina thought as she showered quickly without getting her hair wet and got dressed. Thankfully, it was already Thursday. She would get a breather in a day’s time. At work, things seemed to be getting busier and busier. There was a lot of discussion regarding the exact scope of the project. Emails flew back and forth and there was an email from Swaroop as well. That email was not addressed to her, but it seemed to be an invasion into her personal space. Which reminded her that she had not sent off the email saved in her drafts folder. She wondered if she should send it to Swaroop. No, she could not do that. She would have to reply to his email. She could copy the text she had drafted and send it as a reply to Swaroop’s mail. Nina started to do that and then changed her mind. She would wait till evening and then send it to Swaroop. Hopefully, Swaroop would have left for the day by the time she sent it. Wasn’t Malaysia two and a half hours ahead of India?
At six in the evening, she got an email from Kunjali addressed to Swaroop, copying her. It was a longish email where Kunjali had briefly explained how things were and the various things that had happened ever since Swaroop had quit. ‘We all look forward to working with you,’ Kunjali had ended his email. Had he guessed that something was amiss between Swaroop and her? Nina wondered. Thank God Kunjali was not the gossiping type. Hopefully, he would keep his thoughts to himself. She decided to send Kunjali an email – something light such as – you beat me to it. No. Nina changed her mind. What was the point? Kunjali was bound to have guessed that something was wrong. There was nothing to be gained by sending him an email.
That evening, Sebin showed all signs of heading for a tantrum. It was eight thirty by the time Nina reached Simhapara. Inkachee was watching a TV show when Nina knocked on the door. Sebin and Vimal came out of Vimal’s room where they were playing snakes and ladders.
‘Can you hear the door bell inside your room?’ Nina asked Vimal.
‘Yes, they can,’ Inkachee replied before Vimal could. Please give your son a chance to speak, Nina wanted to tell Inkachee.
‘Shall we go Sebin? Have you finished your game?’ Nina asked Sebin.
‘Yes, we just finished,’ Sebin spoke in a wooden manner. He then picked up his school bag and prepared to walk out of the house. ‘Goodnight Inkachee, Goodnight Vimal,’ Nina told Inkachee and Vimal as she held the door open.
Vimal smiled her goodbye without opening his mouth. ‘Goodnight Nina. Goodnight Sebin,’ Inkachee intoned, her fingers itching to turn up the TV’s volume.
‘Sebin, say goodnight to Inkachee and Vimal-chettan,’ Nina reminded Sebin. Sebin turned around, mumbled goodnight and started to walk homewards. Nina had to walk fast to catch up with him.
Nina offered her hand to Sebin for him to hold on to, but Sebin brushed it aside. She then tried to place her arm on his shoulder but he brushed it aside. It was as if he did not want any contact with Nina.
‘Have you finished your homework?’
‘No, I have not.’
‘Do you have a lot of homework?’
‘No, not much.’
‘What do you have?’
Sebin was silent.
‘So, its only Maths?’
‘No. Hindi as well.’
‘It’s already eight thirty. When will you finish your homework?’ Nina asked Sebin.
‘I’ll finish Maths tonight. Hindi I will do in the morning.’ Thank God Sebin always had his homework under control. Nina impulsively hugged him and Sebin pushed her back with equal force.
Things went further downhill on Friday. Sebin’s school bus was ten minutes late and consequently Nina managed to get to her office only by quarter to ten. Thankfully, the Director wasn’t around. When she opened her mailbox, she found Swaroop’s reply to Kunjali’s email, which was copied to Nina. It was almost a point by point response to everything Kunjali had asked him, with a brief paragraph about his wife and two daughters. It seemed as if Swaroop had decided to respond in kind to Nina’s frosty silence. His email did not ask Nina a single question. Not even a word about Sebin. Nina was quite hurt and then felt relieved. This was the beginning of a new equation. They would keep their distance, but be civil to each other. That was the word – civil. Nina decided to send a civil email to Swaroop.
Hi Swaroop. I’ve been extremely busy and hence could not email you before. I am glad to know that Trisha and the kids have adjusted to life in KL. I am doing fine. Johnny came home on vacation and went back a month ago. I look forward to working with you. Regards Nina.
Nina copied Kunjali and clicked on ‘send’ before she could change her mind. That was a big weight off her mind. There were so many things for her to do, many of them chores carried over from yesterday. Kunjali would want her help in preparing the report. Should she go over to his room and ask him when he wanted to get started on the report? No, let him come over to her room. No, No. If she started working on something and then Kunjali wanted to work on the report, she would have to abandon what she was doing. Nina walked across to Kunjali’s room and caught him reading her email. ‘When would you like to finish off the report?’ she asked him.
‘Right now? Shall we finish it off?’
‘Why not?’ Nina was glad that Kunjali did not comment on her email. Most probably he was dying to know why Nina and Swaroop were so distant from each other. Why couldn’t they all behave the way people were reputed to behave in western countries? Without being curious about the personal lives of their colleagues. Apparently, in the west, people sitting next to each other in an office did not know whether one was married or how many kids the other had. If she were working at a place like Leuven, no one would know that Johnny was away in Qatar and she lived on her own for eleven months every year.
They got cracking on the report. Kunjali knew what he was doing and soon the report was ready. They had taken less than an hour to do it.
When Nina went back to her room, she found an email from Swaroop. This one was not copied to Kunjali.
Nina, I am so glad you have emailed me. I have been quite worried. You see, I thought you are still angry with me. I am glad to know that we can be friends. I am sure we will see each other soon. I shall send you a more detailed email soon. This project is killing me. How are you coping with the additional work?
The email hit Nina like a punch to her head. She thought she had just established a civil equation with Swaroop. And now, he was trying to get friendly once more. She would not reply to his email. Resolutely she moved it to her ‘discard’ folder where she stored emails which she did not want to delete, but which were unlikely to be needed. She had so many things to do. She grit her teeth and started working through them. The most pressing item was a note on the root wilt disease which affected coconut palms. Two of the ROs had prepared a two page note, which Nina had to finalise. It was going to be yet another late evening. Johnny would call up at around eight in the night. She would have to get home before that. She would leave by six, come what may. Maybe she would carry home some work. She had never done that before. Swaroop’s email kept intruding into her thoughts and just before she went for lunch, she went to her ‘discard’ folder and deleted it. For good measure, she opened her ‘deleted’ folder and deleted all the emails in that folder. She felt better after that.
Swaroop’s detailed email arrived in the afternoon. Something on the lines of his previous email, but a lot longer. Nina deleted it without even reading it. Just to think that in a couple of month’s time, she would possibly be cooped up in the same hotel as Swaroop in a foreign country!
When she left for the day at six, she knew that she had finished only half of what she ought to have finished. What made things really bad was that so many people were still at work. Most of the ROs were still in office. Both the Director and Kunjali were pouring over reports and emails. The possibility of foreign travel and EU funds seemed to have transformed the Institute. Nina would not have believed it if she had been told government employees in Kerala could be persuaded to work so hard.
Johnny called up at eight thirty. His initial words were, ‘How are things over there?’ For some reason, Nina burst into tears.
‘Nina? Nina? Is everything okay?’ Johnny asked her.
‘I’m so tired,’ Nina managed to say through her tears. Thankfully Sebin was not close by. As soon as they entered the house, he had gone off to a corner to sulk. Nina wept bitter tears into the phone. It took her a couple of minutes to calm down. ‘Its nothing,’ she assured Johnny. ‘I’m just upset. I feel much better after a good cry.’
‘There’s not much I can do from here,’ Johnny told her helplessly.
‘Don’t worry. I’ll handle it. You take care of yourself.’ Nina managed to sound confident.
‘Are you sure?’ Johnny wanted to know.
Of course not, you bastard, Nina wanted to tell him. ‘I’m sure,’ she told him. They kissed over the phone before Johnny asked for Sebin.
‘Moné Sebin!’ Nina hollered for Sebin. There was no response.
‘He is upset about something. I can’t figure out what it is.’
‘Must be the fact that you’re away for so long.’
‘Maybe. Good night then.’
As she hung up, she felt she ought to quit her job. She wasn’t doing the right thing by Sebin. They had enough money and what was the point in working so hard? Oh second thoughts, Sebin would soon grow up and she would be left with nothing to occupy her. No, she could handle it all. She had survived so far. And she would survive another seven weeks.
The weekend went by quite fast. Nina cooked a lot of food and stored it in the fridge. It was one thing to say that food stored in the fridge was not as tasty as freshly cooked food. But it took too much effort to cook food every night after coming home from work. Sebin continued to sulk. He seemed to hate being touched and finally Nina had to let him shower on his own.
Before going to school on Monday, Sebin surprised her by asking if he could take the house keys with him.
‘Why do you need the house keys?’ Nina asked him with amusement.
‘I’ll come home from school and stay here.’
‘Don’t you like to go to Inkachee’s house?’
‘I’ll stay here.’
‘No, I want you to go to Inkachee’s house when you get back. It’s not safe here.
Sebin was silent.
‘Sebin is hiding his smile.’ Nina said, hoping to draw out Sebin.
‘Sebin is hiding his smile.’ Nina repeated.
‘Sebin eeees hiding his smiiiiile.’ Nina said once more to no avail. Sebin’s smile stayed hidden as Nina saw him off on his school bus.
She got another email from Swaroop in the afternoon. It was a one-liner. ‘Nina, please don’t be angry with me.’
Nina knew she had to reply to Swaroop. Tell him that she had trusted him and valued his friendship but he had been very wrong to ask her what he had asked her that Wednesday evening. And she did not trust him any more to behave himself. She also felt betrayed. And so she did not want to be friends with him. But could she say all this in an email? Emails were never fully erased. A record always stayed on some server somewhere in the world. But what the heck, what were the chances of someone reading her email to Swaroop? No, she would send him a letter by post. A long letter telling him why he was such a shit. She would do it over the weekend. In the meantime Mr. Swaroop Thomas, I have work to do.
At around five thirty, her phone rang. It was Inkachee.
‘Do you know what Sebin mon did? He did not come home after getting off the school bus!’
‘No! Where did he go? Where is he now?’
‘Don’t worry. Mon went looking for him. He was sitting on the doorstep in your house!’
‘Where is he now?’
‘In our house. With mon. In mon’s room. When mon found him, he came back quietly with mon, like a lamb.’
‘I’m so sorry to cause you so much trouble.’
‘That’s okay. I just wanted to let you know. Will you be very late today?’
‘I will be, I’m afraid.’ She had forgotten that she had promised to call up Inkachee if she was going to be late.
‘Don’t you worry. Take your time. We’ll look after Sebin.’
Thank God for Inkachee, Nina told herself as she hung up. And thank God for Vimal as well.