by Sharon Rundle
When the hired car pulled up outside Jhansi station, Priya’s brother Anil bagged the front seat beside the driver. Andy opened the rear door, Ivy slipped in first and slid over to the far window seat. Priya looked at Andy who signalled for her to get in. From then on Priya was stuck between the two, in a car that bounced over an unsealed road with gaping potholes and crumbling edges. Priya had studied in Sydney with Ivy, and they had kept in touch. She was excited at seeing her again as she hadn’t seen her since last summer. They had all had a great time in Sydney. Priya had met Ivy’s boyfriend Andy. Priya insisted they visit her during their trip to India and had organised a short side trip from Delhi to Khajuraho..
Conversation was minimal, mostly when Priya or Anil pointed out something of interest. Clusters of oncoming vehicles passed by, Tata or Ashok Leyland lorries brightly painted and decorated, buses packed with passengers, small cars, bicycles, motorbikes and Vestas, auto-rickshaws, and goat carts. Their car occasionally picked up speed on a relatively good stretch of road, but mostly they moved sedately past fields of mustard, wheat, and forage crops, which lined the road between straggling villages. The car slowed to a crawl when they approached a village, as the road became increasingly clogged with vehicles and pedestrians clustered around the produce, stalls, street-food vendors, and chai wallahs. As they left the village behind, the driver once again accelerated. Ivy gazed silently and determinedly at the passing scenery. After a while, she turned and whispered to Priya, ‘The man who joined our train carriage wearing the long white robes—did you see what he was carrying?’
‘Do you know who he was?’
She shook her head.
‘He was carrying an automatic rifle! Then he dozed off with the rifle leaning against his knee!’
Priya nodded again. ‘I know’.
‘I kept hoping the safety catch was secure. Everyone averted their eyes. With all the security we go through, how can he just casually walk onto a train carrying an assault weapon?’
‘Obviously has government clearance.’ Priya’s tone dismissed further questions.
Ivy realised that this was not the time to press for more answers.
As dusk fell, they reached their destination. With relief they uncurled their bodies and stretched their legs, after sitting for nine hours since joining the train at dawn in Delhi. A smiling doorman greeted them, as a waiter approached carrying a tray of refreshments. The spacious and impressive foyer displayed expensive antique furniture and rugs; in the centre sat a large sculpture with bright orange marigolds scattered at its feet.
Ivy and Andy’s room had two comfy queen beds and was nicely appointed. Ivy decided to lie down for half an hour, while Andy went off to check out the grounds, swimming pool and upstairs bar. She had showered and dressed for dinner by the time he returned.
‘Priya called, she suggested we eat here at the hotel restaurant tonight to save going out again,’ Ivy told him. ‘I’m about to meet them there. I’ll tell them you’ll join us when you’re ready.’
‘Fine,’ Andy said and disappeared into the bathroom.
They were greeted by a smiling maître d’ and shown to a table. By the time Andy joined them, they were ready to order from the range of Indian and international dishes on offer. Ivy chose a paneer, Priya decided on a Chinese dish— ‘anything but Indian food’, she said—Anil opted for risotto and Andy plumped for biryani.
‘So, what are we in for, tomorrow?’ Andy asked.
‘Temples of Khajuraho,’ Anil said between mouthfuls.
‘What’s so special about these temples?’ Ivy asked.
Priya shot a glance at Anil.
‘They’re temples of Kama Sutra,’ Anil said, wiping his mouth with his napkin. ‘Priya mentioned that this week you are celebrating the anniversary of meeting each other — it’s a must, isn’t it? Achcha! Okay, we should kick off early. Breakfast here at eight and ready to leave by nine o’clock.’ Anil signed the chit for dinner and went to the reception desk to confirm the driver for the morning’s trip to the temples.
Priya went off to her room to finish unpacking.
Ivy was ready for sleep yet could hardly wait to see Khajuraho by daylight. She and Andy undressed in silence and sank into their respective beds.
Priya popped into her brother’s room for one last nightcap. ‘What are your thoughts?’
Anil knew quite well the question was in relation to Ivy and Andy. He wasn’t sure exactly why he was here on this trip, only that Priya had said he must accompany her. He had acquiesced because he had missed her graduation ceremony—he owed her. ‘My Master’s—and you, Bhai, missed my big day when I passed out of university, haan?’ Priya had said.
‘I noticed they hardly spoke to one another or looked at each other for that matter. Each wrapped in their own thoughts,’ he said.
‘That’s what I mean. When I was with them in Sydney last summer, you could hardly prise them apart. Now they seem to be drifting in opposite directions. Ivy looks so sad. One reason for bringing them on this side trip is that the temples of the Kama Sutra might have a desirable effect.’
‘It’s a push in the right direction, but one hand alone cannot clap. Let’s see what tomorrow brings.’
Priya raised her glass. ‘To tomorrow’.
After breakfast, the four gathered in the hotel lobby where they met Raj, their guide, before being whisked away in the hire car to the temple gates.
Wrapped in the cool embrace of the morning, they wandered through the grounds of the Western temples. Raj showed them the feats of fine craftsmanship, from the oldest ninth-century constructions to the more recent eleventh-century temples. The relief carving and sculptures took Ivy’s breath away. She couldn’t resist taking snaps.
Anil preferred his own pace, while Andy lingered to examine the temples more thoroughly. Ivy and Priya continued on with Raj.
‘Ma’am, where are you from?’ he asked.
‘Australia,’ Ivy answered.
‘Ah, Kim Hughes, very good captain,’ Raj said with a broad smile.
‘Kim Hughes and Kapil Dev.’ Ivy nodded and returned his smile.
Raj had a practised patter, a comedic routine. No doubt he had various approaches depending on his clients. As a guide for two females in their late twenties, he thought himself quite the star.
Priya fell in love with the Nandi temple, dragging in Raj to take snaps. Ivy noticed a sign advertising a sound-and-light show that night. ‘We must come back, Priya,’ she said.
At midday they all met at the gate to go on to the Eastern Group and Jain temples. In the golden light of the afternoon, they visited temple after temple, each one intriguing and skilfully crafted. The black marble statue of Parsvanath was exquisite.
Ivy was speaking animatedly as she walked beside Anil. Andy had wandered ahead with Raj. Priya caught up as Ivy put Anil in the sights of her camera lens. Anil posed and smiled but seemed a tad embarrassed. Later, at dinner, Ivy focused almost all her attention on Anil. Even Priya found it difficult to engage with her.
‘Sound-and-light show,’ Priya reminded, as they left the restaurant.
In the dark of the moon, the town centre itself was a light-and-sound show. Neon signs, streetlights, multicoloured fairy lights festooning trees and balconies; and, high above in the heavens, a scattering of stars. Music filtered down from restaurants and merged with a medley of voices, accompanied by sounds of traffic. The fragrance of jasmine and aroma of spices blended with earthy, animal scents.
In the quiet grounds of the Western Temples, they settled into chairs that had appeared since they left earlier. Priya squeezed in between Ivy and Anil.
An illuminated temple and music signalled that the light-and-sound show had begun. From a speaker in a stand of trees, a voice boomed out telling how the magnificent temples had been built, then lost to the jungle for centuries, and their rediscovery. Each temple, in turn, became luminescent with coloured lights as it became the focus of the narrative. Voices ‘off-stage’ representing British army engineer Captain TS Burt, who rediscovered the temples in 1838, and his English staff were comically pukka. The show was exciting if a bit melodramatic at times.
The four strolled back to the car, enjoying the night air and a display of stars that spangled the heavens.
‘Tired, yaar?’ Priya asked.
‘It’s early yet, we could have supper,’ Anil suggested.
They scanned neon signs for a suitable place. When they were ensconced at their table, Priya noticed that Ivy was again flirting and taking photos with Anil. She invented an excuse to take Anil away from the table.
‘What are you doing?’ Priya demanded to know.
‘What’s all this flirting-shirting? I’m trying to reignite Ivy’s romance with Andy and you’re posing-shosing for her holiday snaps.’
‘You’re a hopeless romantic,’ Anil said with an indulgent smile. ‘But you should know something. As we left through the gates after the light-and-sound show, someone bumped into Ivy and was then quite rude to her. Andy stepped in at once and guided her through the gate.’
‘So, you’re saying, it isn’t a hopeless cause?’
‘Perhaps what they need is a cause—a common cause,’ Anil said with a pronounced wink.
Priya frowned. ‘What kind of common cause could we possibly find for them?’
‘Everything okay?’ Andy asked when they returned to their table.
‘All izz vell,’ Priya joked.
‘Let’s order then.’ Andy was an action man, especially when action filled a void.
They made a few selections, veg and nonveg, to share. A waiter took their order, which left them to sit and wait. The air seemed thick with awkward silence.
‘So, what did you think of the light-and-sound show?’ Priya asked in desperation.
‘Great,’ Ivy answered. ‘Spectacular colour illumination, lots of drama and history to boot.’
‘I wonder what the Brits think of the representation of their accents,’ Andy mused.
‘Lucky it wasn’t the Australian army,’ Anil said. ‘Imagine the locals trying to get their tongues around Aussie accents, leave alone their colourful idioms. There are times when Aussie sounds like a foreign language rather than a version of the English language—g’danya mate—I can’t tell you how many times I heard that before I realised what it meant. I query that Aussies have English subtitles for Indigenous Australians but not for regular Australians—as if people understand everyone there except the Aborigines.’
‘That’s to ensure Indigenous people aren’t disadvantaged,’ Ivy assured Anil.
‘Surely it’s discrimination?’
‘Well, positive discrimination, then,’ Ivy answered, a trifle sharply.
‘So, Australians discriminate positively by adding subtitles to their dialogue, yet your Indigenous people are overrepresented in prisons, have a much shorter life expectancy, higher infant mortality, are dispossessed, have lost languages and suffer from chronic illnesses—where is the positive discrimination there?’
‘It’s happening—it’s difficult, complicated—there are policies and programs to address the problems. Attitudes are changing—the mortality rate is better than it was.’ Ivy’s frown deepened.
‘My query, are attitudes changing fast enough for a prosperous place like Australia?’
‘Anil is just being the argumentative Indian,’ Priya said with an apologetic smile. ‘We love Australia, you know that.’
‘It’s a valid query, Priya. We all know about racism in Australia.’ Anil was not about to be shut down.
‘Hang on a minute, mate,’ Andy interrupted. ‘We’re not all racialists in Australia.’
‘Of course, not,’ Priya agreed.
‘You’re not suggesting that we…’ Ivy couldn’t finish her sentence.
‘No one is suggesting anything of the kind,’ Priya soothed.
‘I’m not pointing the finger at any one person,’ Anil went on, ‘but…’
‘But what?’ Andy asked testily.
‘That’s the word Australians use, isn’t it? I’m not racist—but—it was said to me regularly when I was in Australia—to Priya, too.’
‘Not by me,’ Andy argued, ‘or Ivy.’
‘I’m not accusing you two.’
‘Just Australians in general,’ Andy said sourly.
‘Some Australians,’ Priya said, trying again to calm troubled waters.
‘Many Australians,’ Anil corrected her.
If looks could kill, Anil would have died right there and then.
‘Leave it, Ivy. He’s just being a smartarse,’ Andy said.
‘At least we don’t have passengers carrying automatic rifles on our trains!’ Ivy snapped. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it!’
‘It was disconcerting, to say the least,’ Andy agreed.
‘We don’t have our trains blown up, either,’ Ivy added.
‘My God that has been worrying you?’ Priya asked. ‘Why didn’t you tell me? It’s a sad way to make a point, don’t you think? We live with these things all the time—violence is part of our history—but we don’t get hysterical, we take it in our stride. Australia could take a leaf out of our book.’
‘Action rather than what passes for debate.’ Anil nodded. ‘It’s wonderful in a way that Australians are so relaxed about security—there’s a certain charm in their naivety—but it’s not a realistic attitude in these troubled times.’
Their meals arrived at last and the four lapsed into silence. Anil ate with gusto while the others pushed food around plates, nibbling a morsel here and there. ‘Tomorrow morning, we leave for Orchha,’ he announced, ‘to visit mausoleums. We should call in at nearby Shilpgram before we set off. It shows examples of ancient Indian culture, various styles of dwellings, folk arts and so forth, including dance. It’s well within walking distance from our hotel.’
‘Definitely worth making time to see it,’ Priya agreed, relieved at the change of topic.
Anil noticed Ivy and Andy exchange meaningful glances and chuckled inwardly.
They paid for the meal, woke their driver, and made a tense journey back to their hotel.
‘What got into you?’ Priya asked Anil when Ivy and Andy had disappeared into their room.
‘Me?’ Anil asked with an air of faux innocence.
‘You were so mean!’
‘I was thinking the two of them seriously need someone to gang up on. Meet the devil’s advocate’, Anil laughed.
Priya scrutinised his face. ‘What am I supposed to say to them tomorrow, Bhai?’
‘Let’s see if the trap is sprung first.’
Priya checked her wristwatch for the umpteenth time while waiting for the others at the breakfast buffet. Anil appeared and checked the time. ‘They’re late,’ he said. ‘We should start breakfast.’
‘Maybe they’re swimming in the pool before breakfast,’ Priya said. She and Anil chose freshly made dosas and Darjeeling tea. They checked with the maître d’ for messages while they ate breakfast. Though they took their time, there was still no sign of Ivy and Andy when they had finished.
Anil said. ‘I’m checking if they’re out in the pool.’
Priya knocked on the door to their room several times without a response.
Anil shook his head when they met in the lobby. ‘No sign,’ he said.
‘I hope they’re okay.’ Priya’s concern showed in her worried frown. She went to the front desk to ask the staff to check on them.
‘Room is vacant, madam,’ the young man said, ‘since last night.’
‘They left?’ Priya asked him.
‘Yes, madam, checked out late last night. All accounts settled, then called taxi.’
Anil settled their own bill and the porter took their luggage out to the waiting car.
‘I can’t understand,’ Priya said. ‘I know they were angry with you—but to leave without so much as a word to me. I’m definitely hurt by this—yet I still feel responsible. Where can they be?’
‘How am I to know?’ Anil said. ‘They at least have their train tickets back to Delhi, Andy asked for them when we arrived back at the hotel last night. Said something like “in case we’re separated”.’
‘So, Ivy and Andy planned this?’
‘It may have been spur-of-the moment, pure coincidence. They’re adults, Priya, they’ll be fine.’
‘Oh, you know that for a fact, do you? ‘
‘No need to worry, madam,’ their driver interrupted. ‘Your friends are at hotel along the road only.’
‘I’m definitely not getting my head around this at all. They left this hotel to put up in another hotel in Khajuraho?’
‘Yes, ma’am, Lalit. I took sir and madam. They are booking car and guide for Western temples visit today. Anniversary, yes?’ His smile resembled a leer.
Priya’s expression was pure astonishment, but she did not doubt that the driver knew all the latest gossip. ‘Ivy could at least have let me know. Does she not think I’ll worry? It’s just not done.’
‘Relax. Your wish has been granted, haan? You wanted the two back together. Now you should leave them alone, let them holiday in peace. SMS her, say See you in Sydney next summer.’
Anil leaned back in the comfortable car seat with a smug expression on his face. ‘Anta bhala to sab bhala.’
Glossary of words and phrases
Acchaa – great!
Anta bhala to sab bhala – all is well if end is well (or all’s well that ends well).
Biryani – Indian dish of meat, fish, or vegetables cooked with rice flavoured with saffron or turmeric
Haan – yes
Yaar – friend, mate (colloquial)
Sharon Rundle is a book editor, writer and mentor. She co-edits anthologies published in print and e-books in Australia, UK and the Indian Subcontinent, the latest: “Glass Walls: stories of tolerance and intolerance from the Indian subcontinent and Australia”; (Softcover and e-book: Orient BlackSwan, 2019). Her stories, essays, articles, conference papers, and book reviews have been published in a range of international publications. She is enchanted by books and writing; and now also the possibilities of storytelling online. Sharon’s doctorate of creative arts examined the production of novels by South Asian-Australian authors published in Australia.