Neyyarinkara was a small village with none of the trappings of the big cities. The arrival of Lata and her husband Suvarnan changed all that. Suvarnan came to the village after his appointment as the Manager of the State Bank’s local branch. He was an important man in the village hierarchy. He came in a taxi along with this wife Lata. Behind them came a truck with their belongings. Traditionally the Manager of the bank lived in a rented two-storied house which belonged to Kurup one of the richest men in the village. Suvarnan continued that tradition. It was a big house and it took two days for the Manager and his wife to settle down.
Suvarnan or Suvi as his wife called him was ambitious and hard working. He was the third-generation ‘banker’ in his family. His father had retired as a bank clerk. Suvi’ s grandfather also worked in a bank at the turn of the century. Suvi was the first in his family to became a manager. He had a few other firsts to his name. He was the first graduate and Post graduate in his family. He was also the first in his family to travel outside the state. He set that record when he travelled to Madras to receive the best employee award for the southern region. He got the award twice. Suvarnan was ambitious. With his track record he saw himself reaching the level of a General Manager in the fifteen years.
Suvi married into a rich family. Lata’s father was a rich business man. His business interests ranged from the export of sea-foods to owning timber mills in remote hill ranges.
Suvarnan first met his father law as part of the processing of a business loan application. Lata Exporters had applied for a loan for a couple of lakh rupees. The government had rules in place to ensure that no business loan could be sanctioned without multiple levels of approval. Multiple level of approval in business meant multiple people to be taken care of. Suvarnan knew that if he was honest and diligent he would retire as a clerk – like his father. He bent the rules a bit and the loans got sanctioned. A grateful owner of Lata Exporters was indebted to this young bank official. They became friends. That friendship developed into a relationship. Suvarnan married the only daughter of the owner of Lata Exporter’s, who was also named Lata.
Lata was a graduate, a student of the Trivandrum St. Xavier college for women. The daughter of a multi-millionaire she never had to jump on buses or walk. She had a car and a driver at her disposal throughout her school and later college years. She and the brat pack friends from the college haunted the shopping malls and theatres of Trivandrum. All that stopped or at least came to a pause with marriage. Her father arranged for three full time servants to accompany her wherever Suvarnan went. Lata would have preferred to stay with her parents but for once Suvarnan stood firm. Reluctantly she agreed to come to Neyyarinkara.
“Suvi, it is a village,” said Lata.
She has shortened Suvarnan to Suvi on the first day of their married life.
“Not exactly. More like a town. After some years it could even become a revenue district.”
“But it is still not Trivandrum!”
“Trivandrum is just twenty kilometers away. You can visit it all days of the week.”
“I do not want to visit Trivandrum. I want to live there. All my college friends are there. There are movie theatres, parks there. Places you can visit with your friends. Shops where you can buy things worth buying. This place is a village.”
“There is a cinema theatre here,” said Suvi.
“And what do they show there? Silent movies from the previous century!”
“Come on Lata! It is not that bad.”
“Not bad? This is horrible. This is my worst nightmare. The only difference is it does not end when I open my eyes!”
“We could stay in Trivandrum and I could commute daily but I do not want to spend half my day on the bus. I will remain here. If you have made up your mind then you can stay with your parents.”
Lata thought about that option for a moment. She saw that the plan had some inherent demerits. First of all, there were the neighbors.
‘Why is she staying away from her husband?’
‘Has she separated from her husband? But she was married for less than a year’
‘That girl was always aggressive, even as a child. No wonder she does not get along with her husband.’
No, that idea would not work.
“Our neighbors would make my life miserable.”
“There is another option. Stay here in Neyyarinkara. I will apply for a transfer on medical grounds. I should be able to move out in about six months.”
Lata liked this idea better.
“Six months? I want you to promise me it will be six months and not a day more.”
Suvi agreed with Lata on Neyyarinkara not being a very hospitable place. Especially for someone who was born and brought up in a big city. He had promised to get her out in six months but he knew that was not a good idea. He could make up a story about not finding the climate suitable. But if he said that there was a difference of just twenty kilometers between Neyyarinkara and Trivandrum. A person who had a medical problem in Neyyarinkara would have the same problem in Trivandrum as well!
Then there was another even bigger issue. If he mentioned medical problems as a reason that would impact his career as well. Someone who was medically unfit at an age of thirty- two could have serious problems later. That could seriously impact his promotion prospects. Requesting for a transfer after just six months in an office would definitely show up as a red flag on his resume.
Suvi decided to drop the idea of applying for a transfer. That decision was easy. The difficult part was to let Lata know about it. He decided he would make her stay in Neyyarinkara as enjoyable as it would have been had she stayed in Trivandrum.
One week into their stay Suvi has an idea.
“Remember the time we had lunch at that hotel in Trivandrum. Let’s go out and have lunch in a hotel here,” said Suvarnan. He knew of a hotel which was close by. It was a place where some of the staff members in his bank usually had lunch.
Hotel Krishna was not more than a hundred meters from their house. Lata was excited about the visit. It was the first time she would be leaving her home after coming to the village. She wore her finest silk saree for the occasion. The walk up to the hotel should have given them a hint of what to expect. People on both sides of the street stopped to watch them. Lata felt like she was a movie star and lapped up the attention.
The hotel sign had a few words missing and said ‘Hote K ishn ’.
Inside the hotel the seating arrangement consisted of cracked benches and wobbly stools. The floor was plastered mud. The roof was cracked in places and sunlight streaked through those holes. Husband and wife tried to find a clean table. There were none. A radio was playing old movie songs in a corner. There were some patrons, all of them men a few of them shirtless, were having lunch in the hotel. They all stopped eating and looked at this couple dressed in fine clothes standing awkwardly in the middle of the room.
“Saar! What happened? Are you lost?” a man came running from behind the counter.
“We came to have lunch here,” said Suvarnan.
“You want to have lunch here?” said the man unable to decide if what he had heard the bank manager correctly.
“Yes.” Said Suvarnan still hoping to salvage something out of this disaster.
The man stood there looking at them, he looked at their fine clothes and then at the benches in his hotel.
“Sit here Saar,” the man said.
He wiped a bench and chair in the corner of the room with a piece of cloth.
Lata collapsed on one of the wooden stools. She had not recovered from the shock of seeing the hotel. She forgot all about the expensive silk saree she was wearing and just sat there too shaken to say a word.
Suvi saw her expression and he tried to act normal.
“What is on the menu?”
“Menu?” said the man.
No one had ever asked for a menu in his hotel since the time his grandfather had started the business.
“What can we eat here?” said Suvi changing the question to suit the environment.
“Saar. You can have rice and fish. We only have that.”
“Can you get us a cup of tea?” said Suvi.
The man placed two small glass cups of tea before the couple.
As if in a dream Lata reached for her glass. It had a crack on the side. Something was floating in it.
“There is something in the tea,” said Lata her voice cracking.
The hotel owner peered into her tea cup and saw an ant floating in it.
“It is only an ant. Must have been in the sugar. Here let me take it out,” he said and put his finger in the cup and after a few attempts was able to successfully take the now dead ant out.
“Let us go home,” said Lata whispering.
Suvi has seen some of these people who were eating in the hotel in his bank. He knew he could not just leave the place without at least drinking the tea. They would feel offended. He took a few sips of the tea.
“Do not drink the tea,” said Lata whispering again.
The tone was slightly different now. Suvi realized it was time he paid for the tea. The couple got up and made their way out. Lata did not speak on the way back home. Suvi did not insist. They did not speak for a week.
“Do you think I am putting on weight?” said Lata. The episode at the ‘Hotel’ was forgotten and the warring factions were back on talking terms.
Suvi knew this was a trick question. Whatever the answer she would get angry. He chose to be diplomatic. He asked her a question back.
“What makes you think you are putting on weight?” said Suvi.
“I am filling out my clothes. Look at this blouse. It is now tight around the sleeves. It was loose at the time of my marriage,” said Lata.
“I think you look just the same.”
“No! I know I am putting on weight. I think I should start doing exercise.”
“Exercise? What exercise?”
“I will go jogging. During my school days I used to be good at sports. Wake me up at six in the morning. I am going for a jog. I have my old track suit. I will wear that. The road outside out house is just perfect. There is never any traffic on the road. Good thing I bought my jogging shoes along.”
“You bought your jogging shoes with you. I did not know you were an athlete while in school,”
“You do not know a lot about me, mister. Wake me up at six tomorrow.”
The next morning at six sharp Bank Manager Suvarnan’ s house was a scene of hectic activity. Lata squeezed into a track suit and put on her jogging shoes and as the clock struck six fifteen she was on her way. The road before her house was usually empty.
She had run about ten meters when she started panting. She slowed. The panting did not stop but increased. She started walking. A group of women were coming from the other side of the road. They had baskets full of vegetables balanced on their heads. The women were on their way to the village market. The sight of a woman in figure-hugging clothes stopped the women in their tracks. The women had seen such dresses in movies. They stood there with their mouth wide open. One of the women was so shocked she lost control of her basket. All the contents of the basket spilled on the street.
Dineshan, a young man who milked cows was coming from the opposite site. Dineshan forgot he was riding a bicycle as Lata went past him and crashed into a lamp post. He fell flat on one side of the street while his bicycle rolled over and fell on the other side.
Lata continued, un-concerned with the events unfolding behind her. She jogged for about ten more meters and then stopped. Her knees and ankles were hurting. Her breathing could be heard at a distance of a hundred meters. She turned and started back. She passed Dineshan again. This time he stopped his cycle and looked at her. Lata walked on. By now the women had gathered all the vegetables scattered on the road and had placed them in the basket. They were smarter than Dineshan and did not place the baskets on their heads. They stood there and watched Lata as she slowly hobbled past them and disappeared around the bend.
“So how was your morning run?” said Suvi as he saw Lata stagger back ten minutes later.
“Not bad,” said Lata. She did not elaborate further.
“You said you were good at sports when in school. Which sport were you good at?”
“Carroms!” said Lata, “I am tired now. Tomorrow I will run for an hour at least.”
That tomorrow never came. The next day Lata woke up with an intense pain in her legs muscles. The pain was such she was unable to walk properly for a week. By the time the pain subsided the track pants and jogging shoes were back in the box.
“Why don’t we go for a movie?” said Suvi one day.
“Have you seen the theatre in this village?” said Lata.
“From the outside? Yes. It would not be all that bad. Let us go there once. There is a new movie showing there this week.”
That Sunday Lata was more careful with her dress. After the experience with the ‘hotel’ she had packed all her silk sarees away. Instead she selected a plain churidar. That decision proved to be unwise. In sleepy Neyyarinkara where wearing a silk saree was a novelty donning a churidar was a revolution.
Lata was the cynosure of all eyes.
“Is she a Muslim?” she heard some say.
“Must be. She wearing a Muslim dress. Maybe she is a Punjabi!”
Lata thought she would correct them, but Suvi restrained her.
“Let them say what they want. They are villagers. They have not seen this dress before.”
The theatre was a large rectangular hall with chairs. The roof was corrugated iron sheets. Ceiling fans provided the cooling effect inside the theatre, but once the doors were shut it was like being slow-roasted inside an oven. The crowd was boisterous. Cat calls, whistles and witty comments flowed in all direction throughout the movie. By the time the movie ended Lata and Suvi were drenched in sweat. They rushed out of the theatre both sure that they would not be returning any time soon. This time there was silence in the house for two weeks.
“Why don’t we call-on our neighbor’s?” said Suvi.
“We do not know them,” said Lata.
“Exactly. That is why we should go and meet them. That way we can, you can make some friends here and may be then life would not be so boring in this village.”
This time Lata wore a simple cotton saree. Not exactly the type that women wore at home but also not the kind that dazzled and stunned. A few hundred meters from their house there was a beautiful cottage. A family had moved in that house and Suvi thought this was a good opportunity to get to know them.
“This man bought this house with a loan from our bank. I think his name is Chandran,” said Suvi as they neared the house.
As Lata and Suvi walked up to the door the door opened and a man stepped out.
“You must be the new family which has moved in,” said Lata.
“Yes. My name is Chandran and this is my wife Savitri.”
“We are your neighbors. My name is Lata. This is my husband Suvarnan. He works in a bank. I call him Suvi. He said you took a loan from his bank.”
“Yes, we needed a loan to buy this house,” said Chandran.
Lata clasped Savitri’s hand and said, “I am happy that you came in here. Now I will not be bored. I came to invite both of you for dinner at our place.”
Lata now had a friend in the village.