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  • Akhila Sriram

VANITY




Tulasi hunched her shoulders and banged her head on the front seat of the car. Her uncle, Eshwar’s voice, was booming inside the BMW. Eshwar, their village chieftain was proud and arrogant about his position. Squeezing her eyes and covering her ears, she wished she could shut out his voice, or better, zip his lips to stop his monologue about his various achievements, his popularity and prestige.

Tulasi was travelling from Tirunelveli to Madurai to attend her UPSC prelims, and cursing her luck to be cosseted in the car with her uncle. Eshwar, who was seated beside her, had taken it upon himself to escort his niece. By now, if he had not interfered with her plans, she would have cruised away to Madurai in a bus with the morning breeze; playing with her hair and caressing her skin. She couldn’t help sighing.

Eshwar stroked his bushy moustache and continued to speak in a gruff voice, “Are you not well? Nauseous? If you are ill in this car itself, imagine what would have happened if you had gone alone on the bus? Baskar and his ideas…”

Tulasi jerked upright and narrowed her large black eyes at Eshwar. “Peripa, he is my father and your brother too. Don’t speak ill about him.”

“That’s what keeps me wondering, how he can be my younger brother and be so timid.”

“Exactly!”

Eshwar stretched himself on the plush leather upholstery, “Now don’t get smart with me. I know what your ‘exactly’ means.”

Tulasi remained mute and Eshwar continued, “This is not good ma! You are turning out to be like your father. Already, there’s a black sheep in the family and he turned another one like him. Baskar’s and my son’s ideas on simple living have caused me enough embarrassment. Have style, paapa! See the difference when I walk in a crowd and when Baskar walks.”

“Is it the way you walk?” she winked at him.

“You will never understand! When you become an officer, you will know the power of power!”

“Stop it, Peripa! I want to get into public service to do service and not exert power…”

“Tch.Tch.”

Trying to reason with her uncle was next to impossible. She couldn’t stop thinking about her father as silence reigned in the car.

Baskar was an agriculturist and also a temple priest, a humble man who had acres of land to his name. His unpretentious and open-minded attitude towards life impressed everyone except his brother. He led a simple life, had no desires, no expectations, and hence no disappointments and only contentedness. His way of life and principles did not make room for confusion, indecisiveness, and unhappiness.

The silence in the car was broken as a fist-sized stone came hurling towards them and smashed the windscreen, shattering the glass into a million tiny pieces. The car screeched to a halt and Eshwar leapt outside, roaring and demanding the cause of the accident. Tulasi followed Eshwar, who was marching towards a mob of agitated men.

Peripa!”

“Stay away. I will take care. Do not come near.”

She hesitated for a second but decided that the wise course would be to listen to him. Eshwar reached the crowd and total mayhem followed; some men yelled at him, and a few surrounded him with huge sticks. Many women were also present and they lashed out at Eshwar. Tulasi caught a few words thrown at her uncle; he was being accused of diverting the common river water to his own fields.

The neighbouring village had not received water for the last week. Eshwar had no clue about any of this since Dhruv, his son, was taking care of their agricultural lands. He seized the sticks out of the young boys’ hands and tossed them away before throwing himself into the abusive rage of the crowd to make them understand that he was not responsible for their water crisis.

Tulasi cringed at the sight and messaged her father about the situation and her location. With nothing left to do, she wandered into the fields off the highway, away from the maddening scene, losing herself to the greenery. Acres of paddy fields with their lush green velvet spread stretched in front of her. A colourful butterfly fluttering its wings landed near a rock, and a group of sparrows flew near a stone bench, chirping in excitement. The sounds on the highway faded as she watched nature in its best form and marvelled at its existence. Falling in love with nature had always been her weakness, and she fell repeatedly because it was a world with no judgements, politics, gossip, or rankings. It was a place where one received in abundance for so little they gave. In the wilderness, she fell into the usual task of unearthing her true self.

She bent to touch the colourful butterfly, wondering about the uniqueness and diversity of various species and their exquisite designs. Perhaps it existed by itself, but if not, then whoever created nature never boasted about it.

After listening to her uncle’s bragging, she pondered, ‘Is he the best and infallible before this vastness? Someone tried to frame him by diverting the water from the river and yet he’s blowing his own trumpet rather than explaining his situation.’

The cheerful voice of her cousin Dhruv brought her away from her thoughts. She smiled her welcome and her eyes fell on his prosthetic leg as he limped towards her. Not wanting him to walk on uneven terrain, she rushed forward, halting his progress. Dhruv held on to her arm and they shambled out onto the road. Only a few people were privileged enough to give him support and have a glimpse of his suffering. He still held on to his pride, but his haughtiness had turned to humility when he realised he was just a speck of dust before the universe and its destiny. He was tall, once so handsome, even now according to her, but an accident several years back had disfigured him.

Dhruv was once an IT engineer and hated farming and village life. He was arrogant about his wealth, social stature, and good looks. He used to look down upon Tulasi’s father and never respected them. Words used to spill out of his lips to cut everyone’s heart, mostly hers. Being an only child, she had always looked up to him as her brother. He and his father thought they could write their own destinies. His family fixed his marriage to a pretty woman from an affluent family until the accident changed everything for him. A truck driver’s over speeding had altered everything. The truck wheels smashed Dhruv’s legs, and along with it, shattered his dreams. The days that followed the accident were hell for all. Dhruv never left his room and refused to see anybody. He was broken and couldn’t accept the turn of fate. His fiancé had jilted him, saying she couldn’t see his horrible face. A once stunning countenance now had a long scar running across the forehead and another covering the left cheek.

Baskar had nursed his physical and emotional health. Eshwar had remained inconsolable for some time, but when Dhruv started recovering and following in Baskar’s footsteps, it had been a colossal blow to Eshwar.

Tulasi glanced at the chaos that was clearing up, as Baskar was pacifying Eshwar, who was ranting and raving at the departing crowd, who folded their hands and thanked Baskar with deep respect. Unable to bear it any longer, Baskar exploded, knowing the best way to shut Eshwar.

“Please be calm! Anyway, these are petite fights. Aren’t they below your dignity? You are the great Eshwar Prasad. Maintain your prestige!”

That silenced him and he let himself be escorted to Baskar’s car. Tulasi and Dhruv slid into the car and suppressed a giggle as Eshwar grumbled about how uncomfortable and small the car was.

Dhruv ignited the engine and spoke in a soft voice, addressing Baskar, “Let Tulasi take the bus. We can drop her at the bus stand. Please ask your friend, Chandran uncle, if he can pick her up.”

Baskar nodded his agreement and spoke on the phone with his friend, while Eshwar muttered his protest.

Tulasi, seated in the back next to him, fluttered her eyelids at Eshwar. “Peripa, chill! You wanted to escort me, but God has different plans. Anyway, now you would be more of a threat than an escort.”

Dhruv laughed while Eshwar grunted his disapproval and sulked in silence. Baskar disconnected his call and turned back, addressing Tulasi. “Chandru is not in town. But don’t worry, his son, Gautham, will pick you up.”

Her large black eyes rounded further and an involuntary, “NO,” escaped her soft, cupid-shaped lips. The car jerked to a halt and three pairs of narrowed eyes stared at her.

Eshwar cursed under his breath. “Is something wrong, Tulasi? Did he trouble you when he visited along with his father? If so, tell him you are the great Eshwar Prasad’s niece!”

Tulasi shook her head, and Dhruv accelerated the car, chuckling. Hearing it, Eshwar went back to grumbling.

Gautham was her father’s best friend’s son who had visited them along with his father a month back and had gazed at her with adoration. She hated him and his attitude, just like she hated her uncle’s.

Tulasi glanced at her father, who raised an eyebrow in query. She mumbled a ‘nothing,’ but couldn’t help thinking. ‘Gautham! He stared at me as if he had never seen a woman in his life! His face was covered with more hair than skin! First, my uncle, now, him. I wish I’d never had to write this exam.’

And Gautham, not knowing an angel was belittling him and his looks was whistling a peppy song en route to his office. He would have made himself invisible had he known the same person he admired and feared was coming his way as a devil in an angel’s disguise!

Glossary

Paapa- an endearment in Tamil, meaning small child

Peripa- how one calls father’s elder brother.


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