Ships that Pass – Sheila Kumar

I’m sick of this cow’s company, Nina mused morosely, and I’m sure she’s sick of being with me too. The subject of her musing was stretched out beside her on a large marble ledge which had all the appearance of a meat counter. Two tough women, both sporting the shadow of a one-day stubble on the first and second of their multiple chins,  were kneading, pummeling and generally contorting Nina and Leila’s  limbs in ways God certainly  had not intended.

Nina and Leila were halfway through their Turkish vacation. They’d done Istanbul, Pamukkale and Ephesus; there was Cappadocia, Anatolia and a gullet boat ride left.

It hadn’t taken long for Nina to realise she had undertaken a longish vacation with the wrong sort of co-traveller.  The two of them had gone to school together and even though Nina couldn’t recall the finer details of the times that Leila spoke of so enthusiastically (sharing lunchboxes and algebra equations, being on the same cricket team) she was only too happy to go down that slightly treacly but unabashedly nostalgic path.

Of course, Leila had been plain Leela Ahlawat back then. She had come into money the old-fashioned way’ she had married moolah.  She now kept an elegant house, was always dressed to the proverbial nines even when the occasion called for casual, went traipsing off to all parts of the world every few months.  And so, when Leila had suggested a trip to Turkey, Nina was at a loose end since her sons were away learning scuba- diving in the Andamans and her husband was busy doing his own thing (which mainly comprised business and golf), and quickly had said yes.

Now the two of them were being hosed down by the Turkish toughies. Nina cast a quick discreet glance at the many rolls and mounds on the shorter woman’s torso and stifled a grin. Leela or Leila. Was fat, is fat, she decided, with some amount of satisfaction.

*

They weren’t doing this trip alone. All the initial planning had led Nina to believe it was just the two of them. Then one day, Leila had called up to say, with only the slightest note of sheepishness tingeing her voice, that her husband Amit was uneasy about the two of them trawling Turkey alone, so he’d asked Rohit to take a short leave of absence from his investment bank in Geneva to join the women at Istanbul.

Nina had heard a lot about Rohit, Leila’s brilliant son. Now that she had met him, she couldn’t quite put her finger on what was off about him, but something certainly was. He was a personable enough young man, well-dressed, good -looking if you liked the earnest nerdy types, and quiet to a fault. The boy (well man, actually, given that he was nearing thirty) spoke little but was unfailingly polite.

The only time Rohit acted positively weird was when he was asked to pose for the mandatory `we-were-here` snaps. He`d jerk his head back as if slapped and bite out a terse “No. No snaps.“ Leila would laugh in amusement and say, “Rohit has this thing about photographs. Hates to appear in any.“ Nina was intrigued but not enough to probe further.

And then, Nina and Leila. They definitely didn’t make the perfect twosome. Before they left for the trip, Nina had warned Leila, “I have this habit of going to the loo about a zillion times every night. I do hope you are not a light sleeper.“

“No worries,“ Leila had reassured her. The few times Nina had had gingerly slid open squeaky bathroom doors of the hotel rooms they shared, she’d heard Leila click her tongue in irritation, making her feel terrible.

On Nina’s part, Leila’s brushing rituals were a source of secret amusement. Leila would head to the loo after every meal, even after a coffee at a café, to vigorously brush her teeth. Nina discreetly scrutinised Leila’s teeth in the sunshine; they looked the same off-white shade as Nina’s, and Nina did not brush her teeth more than twice a day. Ah well, she thought, eccentricities, eccentricities.

There was more, of course. It really set Nina’s teeth on edge, the way mother and son tried to monopolise the tour guide or driver’s attention, in the attempt of indulging in some far- from- subtle bragging about  the places they had been to. Nina could have easily topped the tales but chose to hunker down in silence instead, and she really didn’t care if the silence was misconstrued as clueless silence. Every time she saw the guide or driver pull on a most respectful, most impressed, most fake expression, she winced inwardly.

Mother and son were also on the same page when it came to cribbing and they cribbed about everything. The sugar was too large- grained, the tour guide didn’t know as much as Rohit did, the weather was too hot, too cold, too wet. Turkey just wasn’t as good as South Africa or Morocco or Myanmar. But, and this was a major but, every place was better than India. India was the pits. Of course.

Another moment happened when they were exploring Konya and suddenly came upon a large group of Indian tourists, all chattering excitedly in Tamil. Now, Leila was a north Indian married to Amit, who belonged to Tamil Nadu. Nina expected that Rohit would know a smattering of both Haryanvi and Tamil. So it came as a surprise when he turned to her, smiled widely if unnervingly, and said in what was intended to be a note of raillery, “Your people, Nina aunty.“

Nina’s first impulse was to decry all pretensions to being a sage or prophet who had a following. Instead, she told Rohit, adopting a puzzled manner, “Don’t you understand Tamil? They are your people. I am from Kerala.”

“Oh really?“ he responded in a careless manner. “I thought they were speaking your language.“

Nina soon figured out that Amit and Leila had brought up their son to think of himself of a global citizen. A laudable sentiment in theory, but rather sad if it meant eschewing both his father and his mother’s cultural background.  This fact was underlined when Leila told Nina one morning, as they waited for Rohit to join them in the hotel lobby. “He doesn’t like India, has no friends there. Never did, even when he was in school. Now he wants to move to Berlin and Amit and I plan to move there too. In a few years.“

An astounded Nina opened her mouth, then shut it again. Amit had a lucrative job in Bangalore, lucrative enough for him to buy property in at least three cities. Leila ran a finishing school of sorts, where she taught an exclusive batch of well-heeled, aspirational children of even more aspirational parents, all the finer points of becoming a finished person.  And they were going to chuck it all up, to move to Berlin and live as one happy family, forever and ever?

“Why Berlin?“ she asked, intrigued in spite of herself.

Leila seemed about to say something, then she shut her mouth and gave a somewhat pained smile.  “Rohit loves Germany,“ she said in an unrevealing manner.

*

The evening in Kusadasi was a balmy one; they’d partaken of a very good dinner consisting of much kebap, kofte and dolma, all washed down with wine for the women and Airan, the buttermilk drink, for Rohit.   He didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke, he didn’t do drugs and to all appearances, he didn’t have girlfriends either. Nina idly pondered if he was gay but decided that he was probably uninterested in sex. No wonder Leila was having a tough time looking for a bride for her wunderkind. All through the past year, Nina had heard a lot about the search for a suitable girl for Rohit.

“Let`s go for a walk,“ Leila suggested. Nina and  Rohit fell into place beside Leila and they started strolling along the boardwalk. The Aegean sea was calm, seagulls screamed raucously and a man shouted `Shrok, Shrok,“ at them as they passed his shop which  stocked agates and kilims, both piled in intriguing heaps.

“Is he calling one of us or all of us Shrek?“ asked Nina, with a grin.

She got the regulation blank look, then Rohit said, “I think he is calling us Shah Rukh Khan. “

It turned out that the shopkeeper was indeed exhibiting his knowledge of something Indian to the Indian visitors. As they drew abreast of the pot-bellied man, he started singing, `Tujhe dekha to…` in such an atrocious accent that Nina started to laugh. `Shrok Khan, ` the man proclaimed, the second syllable sibilant in his mouth.

“Yes, Shah Rukh Khan,“ agreed Nina amiably, as they walked on.

And that started it.

“What do you think of the minorities policy followed by our government?“ Rohit asked her.

This was tough to answer because Nina had not given much thought to either the government or any of its policies. She was not that sort of woman. Beside Rohit, Leila stiffened and murmured something.

“No, “ the boy-man, exploded. “Don’t try to shut me up, Ma, I have thought long and hard about this. “ Nina and Leila turned to stare at him. His face had turned puce, a fact Nina noted with some interest. Leila put out a placating hand to Rohit but he was having none of it.

This, Nina realised with an inward spurt of glee, was going to turn into An Incident. She could dine on it for months afterwards. She turned an impassive face to Rohit. His preternatural air of self-containment was giving way; whatever lurked just below was appearing on the surface.

“You feel strongly about this, don’t you, Rohit?“ she murmured. Leila winced beside her, almost as if she realised what Nina was up to.

“Yes, I do,“  he fairly hissed. “So would you, if you gave it some thought. The thing is, the way of the hawk is the way to go. The need of the hour is unflinching action. Negotiations are for the spineless. I have written a paper on it. In fact, I want to make it the central idea of my thesis.  This is why I love Germany, “ he ended his rambling statement, thoroughly confusing Nina. “The Germany of the Wars, I mean, “ he ended, throwing a speaking look at her.

Leila was now in damage control mode, trying to take the situation in hand. They went and perched on picturesque wrought iron benches facing the sea. Not too far off, the many lights from a luxury cruise liner sparkled bright as moon rocks.

“Oh, look at the size of that liner,“ Leila exclaimed on a false note of excitement. Nina smiled obediently but sneaked a quick look at Rohit who was sitting on the edge of his bench with a curled lip.

“Stop talking rubbish like you always do, Ma,“ he instructed peremptorily. “ I am talking to her.“

After which, there followed an impassioned but convoluted monologue on war strategy, the craven behaviour of lily-livered governments and how he, Rohit, had written up a paper for the government. He didn`t specify which government, though, and Nina didn`t ask.

Actually, it was all she could do to stop herself from patting the bony shoulder close to her and murmuring “There, there.“

Rohit was not finished despite his mother`s open disapprobation. “The thing is, I am being followed. “ Nina was careful not to look startled. Her impassive expression must have worked, because he continued in an excited tone, “I attend various talks on defense strategies both in Switzerland and when I am holidaying in India. Sometimes intelligence agents come up and ask me probing questions. They try to take my photographs too but I don`t let them. “

That explained the photo phobia. Something else that was odd struck Nina suddenly.  “Rohit, you are a banker. Why on earth are you attending defense strategy talks?“

It was Leila who answered. “Nina, he wants to quit his job and become a defense strategist – in Germany. “ Both women’s eyes met, opaque and expressionless. Leila it was who first looked away.

Rohit sat up and seemed to be on the verge of saying something sharp. Just then, a pair of pretty young girls came up requesting them to light and send candlelit lanterns up into the midnight blue sky. Both Nina and Leila thought this was as good an idea as any to distract a distinctly distraught Rohit. Leila bought a brace of the papier-mâché lanterns and made to light them.

Then Rohit burst out, “ Dad is right. You are so incredibly dumb, Ma.  Is this a time for lanterns?“

The lanterns, of course, remained unlit. Nina got up as unobtrusively as she could and walked on. There was the strong smell of raw fish from somewhere close by and she could see boys looking for mussels on the rocks just off the pier; they held small but fiercely flaming torches in their hands. Some façade of normalcy had just been rent. How was she going to keep an even keel for the rest of the holiday, she wondered, a small crease appearing between her brows. Suddenly, her antipathy to Leila evaporated. She felt sorry for Rohit; she hadn`t met a more confused young man in her life.

The trio walked back to the hotel in leaden silence. Rohit refused to bid them goodnight and practically flounced off to his room. The women, veterans that they were, pretended nothing untoward had happened. As they lay silently in their beds with the lights switched off, Leila said in a low almost pleading tone, “He’s just a kid.“ Nina did not reply, she didn`t know what to say.

*

They cut the holiday short, of course. At the airport, Nina was able to bid a near normal goodbye to Rohit who was catching the flight to Geneva before them. He was as wiry as a bird and she could feel the tensile frame of his torso as she gave him a farewell hug. “It was such fun doing Turkey with you, “ he told her. “We must do another trip soon.“ And looking into his eyes, Nina saw that he meant every word of it. A sudden spurt of sadness lent extra warmth to her reply. “ Sure thing, Rohit,“ she said. “We must.“

Back home, she gently dropped Leila from her circle. News still got back to her though, and some months on, she heard that Leila’s son had wound up his job in Switzerland and come home. Once in a while, she idly wondered if Rohit still hummed German marching songs. In Turkey, he had sung a couple of them out to her.

Sheila Kumar is an independent writer and editor, as well as author of a collection of short stories titled Kith and Kin.