A Pretty girl and her pals

A room in a busy office where about two hundred people of all sorts – married and unmarried, men and women – worked. The time was 11 o’clock in the morning.

A twenty-six-year-old I.A.S. officer had assumed charge. That was the event.

Seven people shared the space beneath the white concrete ceiling, suspended from which a fan whirred all the time.

Panicker, the father of six children and forever hard-up. Muraleedharan the good soul. Thomas who forever carped at everything and everybody. Raveendran given to poetry and melancholy. Pretty, flirtatious Lalitha Devi. Nalini, asthmatic and stoical. And Malati, the pregnant one. These are the seven people. And now, a little more about them:

As mentioned earlier, Panicker had six children. The eldest was doing the pre-university course. The youngest hadn’t left the mother’s lap yet. Half of Panicker’s hair had gone grey. He had entered service very young, and while in service he continued his studies and took his

B.A. degree.

There never was a time when Panicker would not be chewing paan. If you asked him why, he would tell you it afforded him a perfect excuse to get out of the room.

Nothing much to be said about Muraleedharan, the nicest of the lot. The only thing special about him was that he was in love with, no, madly in love with, the pretty and coquettish Lalitha.

Thomas had been transferred there from somewhere up north for having ticked off his boss in rather discourteous terms. His school mistress wife and two children stayed home. He blamed his former boss if he bit a tiny stone in the rice served in the hotel or if he got a letter from home saying his son had a cold or if his wife complained that, since her father was no more, there was no one to harvest the paddy or if he missed the morning bus after much waiting.

The melancholic Raveendran was in love with his cousin, his maternal uncle’s daughter. What taught him melancholy was the awareness that it was his duty to marry off his sisters orphaned by his father’s death. These days he was mostly engaged in only two things— writing poetry and waiting. And the only occupation of his beloved, the uncle’s daughter, was the latter.

Lalitha was beautiful in every sense of the term. Nice complexion, curly hair, smooth cheeks and two darling dimples. She was everyone’s favourite. She was an only child. When her working mother insisted on her doing her M.Sc., she took up a job to get round her. She would dally with the grey-haired Panicker, the pensive Raveendran and the carping Thomas.

Next, Nalini the stoic – right? Her stoicism was a direct consequence of her sense of duty towards her parents who let her loose into this world without her permission, brought her up any how, and educated her since she was good in her studies (also since there was, very conveniently, a college in the neighbourhood). Her salary was not sufficient to feed and clothe her three brothers and four sisters (all of them brought into this word without their consent), leave alone other matters.

She too had entertained hopes when she finished her studies with out ever having to seek anyone’s help or cringe before anyone, and landed a job soon after. Buy a few nice sarees, read books, see movies, have fun and fall in love—everything figured on her list.

The fan which whirred non-stop overhead blew her dreams away. It left a lot of space empty. She gave herself up to the task of trying to save the rest of the space in her head from being overgrown. When she felt like seeing an English movie, she read, in three anna weeklies, critiques by people who’d seen the movie. She slaked her thirst for romance with the dog-eared novels — by the way only novels get dog-eared since only novels have readers —that her brother borrowed from the college library.

Now she had advanced into Katha Upanishad. The asthma which troubled her every new moon day was very efficacious in bringing her closer to Vedanta.

Malati who came to the office, leaving her one-year-and-a-half-old first son at home in the care of a maid and carrying the second in her belly, was a fairly innocuous person. Since she felt tired and run down most of the time, her work was handled mostly by the others.

Seven individuals of seven different temperaments – they carried on in the same room, sometimes on good terms and at other times on bad, from ten in the morning to four in the evening.

While Panicker talked of his son who flunked his examinations, Nalini waxed eloquent over her rascally brother’s exploits. Thomas reported his daughter’s cold in detail while Malati described her child’s teething troubles. The pensive Raveendran never spoke much. But no one could say for sure whether he talked ‘love’ with Muraleedharan on the sly.

Everyone was thus getting on fine when the Government of India saw it fit to launch a twenty-six-year-old I.A.S. officer into their midst like a tweed-suited Sputnik.

All hell broke loose.

Not there alone, mind you.

It was as though a minor earthquake had shaken every single room and verandah of that sprawling building.

Officers come and go. But someone so young! Eleven thirty.

Everything quiet in the room.

After the initial bout of small talk everyone was engrossed in their work. Reading files and scribbling on them in full swing.

Time rolled on.

At last someone came to summon Panicker.

As the senior most person, it was Panicker who carried out transactions with the office on the first floor. He was about to become a superintendent.

Gathering up the files, Panicker moved toward the door, flashed a smile and left.

Just as they say in the stories, the minutes crawled by.

‘Ah! He’s coming now,’ declared Lalitha, whose eyes had been riveted on her wrist watch. ‘It’s been half an hour since he left.’

Panicker sat down and took out his paan box.

‘Tell me what he’s like, sir. Good-looking? What they said is true?’ Lalitha had run out of patience.

Stepping out onto the verandah Panicker spat out the betel juice. ‘No family.’ He winked. ‘Stays in Palm Lands. I’ve gathered this much news. Isn’t that enough for you?’

‘Don’t you have to pay eight or ten rupees per day in that place?’ Muraleedharan the virtuous was concerned about that.

‘Let him pay, sonny. He’s young, let him pay,’ said Thomas. ‘How do I get to meet him, Panickar-chetta?’ Lalitha had not been

paying attention to any of these exchanges.

‘He isn’t shy. Wait for a day or two. He’s sure to come this way.’ ‘Wait for two days? If I don’t see him today, I won’t be able to get a

wink of sleep.’

‘In that case, you can go with out your beauty sleep tonight, baby.’ ‘There’s something you can do if you are happy with a peep through the curtain, ‘ Thomas put in. ‘Just stroll down the verandah. It

just might work.’

‘Is the window open, Panicker – chetta?’ Lalitha grabbed the suggestion.

‘Yes.’

‘Let me try. Are you coming, Nalini?’ ‘No.’

‘What about you, Malati?’

‘I don’t want to loaf around on the verandah.’

‘It won’t be that. We’ll go to the out-audit and see what Thankamma is doing.’

‘No, you can count me out.’ ‘You are plain lazy, that’s it.’ Lalitha set out on her own.

‘This is a grave dereliction of duty, saare,’ Thomas called after her.

When she came back in fifteen minutes it was Malati who spoke to her first.

‘You saw him?’

‘Yes. When I was coming back, he had got up and was standing at the door. I saw him clearly.’

‘How’s he?’

‘Tall, dark and handsome.’ It was Nalini who replied in English. ‘Did you see him Nalini?’ Lalitha took offence at that.

‘No.’

‘Then?’

‘Okay, leave it. Am I right or not? Isn’t he like I said?’

‘Yes. He’s a bit dark but very good-looking. And so tall too!’ ‘So I am right!’

‘Oh, great! Very smart of you!’

That day and five or six very like it went by. The craze about the new officer didn’t abate. Even if Lord Krishna, beloved of Gopis and handsomer than Manmadha, the god of love had come down, he could not have created a greater stir. The officer was the topic of conversation wherever people met.

One morning he went along the verandah on some business with the peon in attendance.

‘Saare, here he goes. You haven’t seen him, have you, saare?’ Thomas called to Nalini.

Malati was on leave. And Lalitha was not in the room. Nalini waited for her to turn up.

‘I too have seen him,’ She said when Lalitha turned up. ‘Mohammed came to the mountain.’

‘How’s he?’ Lalitha took it up eagerly.

‘Unheard melodies are sweeter,’ Nalini said in English. When Lalitha looked bewildered, unable to make anything of it, she felt like laughing. When Muraleedharan saw her laughing to herself, he said, ‘What’s the matter?’

‘Nothing. I’ m laughing at my own nonsense.’

By and by, Panicker unexpectedly went on leave one day. And Muraleedharan started out with a few files to the top floor.

He came back, looking none too pleased. ‘Lalitha is wanted up

there.’

‘Me?’ Usually no one sent for the clerk.

‘Yes. He seems to have come across a few mistakes in the files that

you put up.’

Lalitha left without a word.

When she came back, she didn’t look as if she’d been taken to task. ‘Now, Lali, did he tick you off?’ Nalini wanted to know. She smiled

and winked.

The whole day Muraleedharan was down in the dumps. When Nalini asked him why, he refused to elaborate.

It was Panicker who enlightened her the next day. It was when both Lalitha and Muraleedharan were out that he did so.

This was what transpired when Muraleedharan presented the

files.

Being new to the job, the officer took more than usual care about

the files. And picked out a few minor mistakes.

Lalitha’s file came last. Do beauties ever work?

Panicker used to go through Lalitha’s papers carefully before he put them up. How was Muraleedharan to know that? The officer looked at this and that and said frowning:

‘Send the person who put this up here.’ Something, either a quixotic sense of chivalry or the ardour of love, made Muraleedharan say:

‘It’s a lady, sir,’

The brute’s immediate response was: ‘Is that so? In that case, ask her to present herself in a purdah.’

That day when Panicker presented the files, he was told to keep them on the table and leave.

In about half an hour, the peon came to fetch Lalitha.

No one could make anything of it. Lalitha did not seem to be unduly

upset.

She took about ten or fifteen minutes to return. Her face was

glowing.

‘Why did he send for you?’ Nalini asked her quietly.

‘After all, it was my file. There were a few mistakes.’ She started to turn the pages busily.

Nalini did not say another word.

After a while Lalitha said in a low voice: ‘Asked me whether he could get me a cup of coffee.’

‘Oh-Oh! So he called you over to give you a treat? The conquest is

over?’

‘Come off it, Nalini.’

‘Hey! Look at him twice like that, and he’ll definitely fall for you, hook, line and sinker.’

‘Look here, if you don’t stop, I’ll-well, it was his coffee break, that’s why he asked.’ Nalini laughed.

The next day at twelve the peon came to summon Lalitha. As soon as she was back, Nalini said:

‘Had coffee?’ ‘As if I would!’

‘So he had it ready for you.’

She did not say anything. Only her dimples made a brief appearance.

Nalini said,‘From the look of it, this is going to get you.’ ‘What?’

‘Well, carry on.’

‘I’ m fed up with you, Nalini. You’re talking non-‘ ‘I’ m not talking nonsense, I’ m talking sense.’

Lalitha came to be summoned to the first floor everyday. When he saw the peon coming in the morning, Muraleedharan’s face would darken. And he’d be touchy the whole day. If someone spoke to him, he’d answer them in monosyllables.

These days the dimples never faded from Lalitha’s face. The gloom on Muraleedharan’s visage increased in proportion to the glow on Lalitha’s.

One day Lalitha was sent for as usual. Muraleedharan sat looking down, his chin supported on his hand.

Thomas began to hum a song. Raveendran signaled him to stop.

Thomas paid no heed. The singing grew louder. ‘Because of a girl of no moment…’

‘Shut up, you fool.’ Muraleedharan shouted in English and sprang up. Thomas too rose to his feet. For half a minute they stood glowering at each other.

‘Thomas!’ Panicker rose to his feet and placed his hand on his shoulder.

Thomas didn’t utter a word. Muraleedharan turned and walked out.

‘He’s a harmless sort, Thomas,’ Panicker said a short while later. ‘My goodness! How was I to know that he was so badly bitten?’

while.

‘This has got to stop somehow,’ Panicker said after musing on it a

‘The girl can do as she pleases. What’s the use of his pulling a

long face over it?’ Thomas belonged to the opposite camp.

‘I think someone should speak to Lalitha Saar about this.’ The usually reticent Raveendran spoke without raising his head.

‘Bravo! Please take note of that, coming as it does from someone in the same boat.’ Thomas was not prepared to leave well alone.

‘Thomas, will you be quiet! Either Nalini or Malati might drop her a hint.” Panicker had taken it seriously.

‘I can’t,’ Malati had no doubts about it.

‘Why not? It’s with your tongue that you speak. It won’t tire you

out.’

‘Lalitha will not listen to me.’

‘In that case, let Nalini Saar speak to her.’

‘Shh…!’ Nalini hissed in warning, since she saw Lalitha walking

up to them.

When both the parties were absent, the others held an emergency meeting in the room. Nalini was entrusted with the task of getting Lalitha to realize to general drift of things.

During the noon interval, as soon as lunch was over, everyone ‘vanished’ this way and that.

As had been agreed upon earlier, Raveendran lured Muraleedharan away on the pretext of reading his poem to him. Panicker set out in search of paan; Thomas to see whether he could cajole a cigarette off someone. Malati said she wanted to rest and remained in the waiting room. She didn’t even return to the room after lunch. The stage was set.

Nalini tried to clear her throat. No sound. Lalitha sat as though she were unaware of these developments around her.

Nalini felt like hitting her.

‘Lali,’ She brought herself to begin. ‘I want to tell you something important.’

‘Oh!’

‘To begin with, let me ask you something.’ ‘Yes?’

‘Is our officer in love with you?’ ‘How do I know?’

‘Do you love him?’ She laughed.

‘Do you realize that these visits in the morning and the coffee breaks are not right ?’

‘I’ve never had coffee with him.’ ‘Still, these visits…’

‘Well, do you want me to refuse when he sends for me?’ ‘No, you can get him not to call you.’

‘What am I supposed to do? Tell him not to send for me?’ ‘You can stop flaunting your dimples like this.’

She smiled still more dazzlingly.

‘Are you trying to drive that Muraleedharan crazy?’

‘I’m not driving anyone crazy. Let someone go up and tell him not to send for me.’

‘Lalitha Devi, this game is not good for you.’ She smiled again.

‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.’ Still she smiled.

‘I am not joking’. ‘No, ‘ Lalitha agreed.

‘Lali, have you made up your mind about marrying our boss?’ Beating about the bush would get her precisely nowhere. Still the same smile.

‘Do you mean to marry Muraleedharan?’ Lalitha kept smiling.

‘Whom do you propose to wed, madam?’ ‘A lecturer in my mother’s college.’ ‘Praise the Lord! Really?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then it isn’t our officer?’ ‘No.’

‘And not Muraleedharan either?’ ‘No!’

‘You wretch!

The interval was nearly over. One by one the others drifted in. Everybody except Muraleedharan. These days he never arrived before time.

‘Dear friends,’ Nalini said, rising to her feet. ‘I have something of the utmost importance to convey to you. Our very own Lalitha Devi is about to get married.’

‘The lad’s been caught, or what?’

‘Mr. Thomas, let me have my say. Lalitha is getting married. To a lecturer in her mother’s college.’ She took her seat.

‘Hurray! Three cheers for Lalitha Devi!’

Thomas sprang to his feet. Muraleedharan appeared at the door, walking in with his eyes downcast.

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Rajalakshmi

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