|| A Bottle of Wine ||

When I left college, I thought I would not see Yoseppu again. It was not so much because he was going to find a job somewhere down south, while I wanted to return to my roots up north. I had fallen out with him. Over a trifle, if you ask me … But, somehow Yoseppu did not think so.

Yoseppu had known this girl – he never told us her name – since his school days. They went to the same church, ‘The Church of South India’. It was kind of queer between them. We all thought he rather liked her. ‘Cause, when he went home, he made it a point to take her out. He bought her ice cream or cold coffee. He also bought her dolls and Enid Blyton. Ice cream and cold coffee, we understood. But a doll! For a girl in her late teens! That was kind of mushy. We never said as much to him. But, for a strong and silent, and intelligent (yes, intelligent too) guy like him, she was not the right sort. And, those silly letters that she sent him by the dozen – unbelievably, he replied to all of them! He would say he had a duty to her. In fact, he often asked me to drop his letter in the letter box near the mechanical lab when I went there for my afternoon sessional. It was so that the letter made it just in time before the letter box was cleared.

To return to what I was saying. I thought I would not see Yoseppu again, because of this small incident that happened just before our last exam in the final year. Yoseppu had gone to the railway station to meet his parents who were passing through. He came back looking glum. And his gloom had not lifted even after a week. Meanwhile, I had been to my mechanical lab twice, without any letter from him to post. So, one good friend had to ask another, what the matter was. He would not come out easily, strong and silent as he was – I have said this before. But, finally he yielded. He first took out his handkerchief and started polishing his glasses. So, I knew he was preparing me to hear some bad news. Then he came out with it. “Look, I am not going to see her again. She is getting married in December.” I kept quiet. It sounded real bad. I mean that. Of course, a few of us knew there was some difference in terms of social standing between the families of the girl and Yoseppu. He had told us. He had been afraid his parents would not accept her. Her ancestors had been from a lower Hindu caste than his, or something like that, before they all converted to Christianity.

I kept quiet – it was bad news, and one had to defer to a friend’s bad time. But, one need not keep quiet for long. I had to say something, something to bring him back to even keel. So, I said, “Is it not good in a way that she has broken off with you?” “Broken off with me? Who said that? What are you saying?” he snapped. I blurted out, “I mean, you know … Like you had said earlier … That your parents would not accept her because of her lower … caste.” At once, Yoseppu flared up, “Oh, shut up! You do not know what to say when. Go away! Just go! Go, and, leave me alone!”

Still, on our last day we exchanged addresses. But, I did not believe he would write to me. I noticed how mechanically he took the slip with my address on it, and tossed it on his table, empty except for some scraps of paper and old photographs that he had discarded. He had already packed everything.

But then, eventually I had got my first good job in this city down south. So, after the first year of my training, I wrote to Yoseppu. It was actually to his parents’ address. I recalled he had said his father had few years of service left. I had no way of knowing if my letter would reach Yoseppu. It did, as I was to know it later. After two years (note that!), I got a postcard from him, in his characteristic neat cursive hand. It read,

“… There is nothing much to tell about the past few years. But, last year I got married. I won’t tell you about her till we meet. Yes, that is about to happen soon! I am coming to your city for one-year post grad. Hold your horses! It is just a certificate course; I will not get the full degree. But, if I do well, I can choose my next posting. I am thrilled, because we have a detachment there. So, see you soon!

Joss is how we called him. Actually, it was “Joss-sticks”, because of the sweet smelling joss sticks he lit in front of a picture of Jesus he kept on his table. That name got whittled down to just Joss.

Yoseppu arrived just as the city was getting its first showers at the fag-end of April heat. He stayed in the Officers’ Mess for a fortnight, before he dropped in to see me. He came alone, to tell me he had managed to find an accommodation through the local church he had started attending. It was just on the other side of Cantonment station, beyond the underpass. He gave me the address and asked me to come over the next Sunday. I had to help the couple with cleaning up the house and unpacking. I had a choice to have lunch with them, or go out for lunch. “Go out for lunch – after all the grueling work of cleaning a house?” I protested. He smiled indulgently, “Unless you want to taste Prudence’s cooking!”

Well, well! So, she was Prudence!

When I reached his house next Sunday – sans any broom or bucket – but, with a box of four coffee mugs (in case, there was a chance to brew some coffee), Prudence came out with Yoseppu to greet me. She was little shorter than him on the squat heels she wore. Her small head was set on sloping shoulders, and carried a huge bun clipped behind, above a graceful neck. I quickly took in her fine wavy hair, the beaming smile on a wide generous mouth, and two very fine eyebrows arching over jet black eyes. She was light brown. At the moment, she wore tan corduroy slacks with a cotton top of yellow polka dots on white. The palm of her extended hand was warm, humid and very nervous. She led me inside, saying diffidently, “I hope you like this place. Joss tells me you are quite finicky.”

A little later, Yoseppu had pulled me aside and said, with a mischievous smile, “I think you can congratulate me now!” I did, and asked, “Tell me about her.”

There was little he had to tell (or, would tell). Prudence had been an orphan, brought up in an orphanage of his church, till she started going to school. Then she was adopted. Yoseppu had met her in some Bible class a year back, liked her and proposed after a couple of months. His parents had not objected. She was an arts graduate and wanted to teach. “There is one thing about her that I like,” Yoseppu said, “She gets what she wants.” “Were you one of them?” I cajoled. He just smiled.

Yoseppu settled down to his college routine. Soon, Prudence joined a B.Ed. school. Life moved on. They got a woman to help at the house – to cook and clean on weekdays. She arrived after Prudence left at half-past ten. Having left earlier in the morning, Yoseppu came home for lunch. After lunch he left for college again, and the help cleaned up and departed. Prudence returned home late in the afternoon. He returned from college at half-past five. The couple entertained but rarely, and only on Sundays. On some of those days I got invited to lunch, often preceded by attending Sunday mass with them.

I never saw the help, who did not come on Sundays, until … Well! I will come to that soon.

The house they occupied was double-storied. They had the entire ground floor. In the upper floor lived two Iranian students, who had fled their country to avoid conscription. One of them had a rarely seen pudgy wife too. They kept low profile, and though Yoseppu did not get to see them much, they were a decent lot, he told me once.

Situated on a lonely stretch of the road behind their church, the house was flanked by an orchard of some sort on one side, an abandoned house in an overgrown ground on the other and a graveyard at the back. Set deep into an oblong ground with some large leafy trees to which clung squash vines, the house remained almost hidden from the road. To reach it, I took a short cut through the grounds of the church. Emerging on the lonely road at its back, I always had the eerie feeling of entering an entranced world where, without a soul around, queer things merrily happened, quietly, till the time I stepped in; and then every movement just froze with nothing but a dispersing crowd of whispers in the trees.

One Sunday, while leaving the church after attending mass with them, I was still in the pews when I saw something glittering. It was lying on the floor near where Prudence had sat couple of seats away from me. I picked it up and found that it was a very ornate nail-cutter. Made of a gleaming yellow metal, it had intricate floral design in exquisite translucent lacquer work. The back of its nail file had some inscription that appeared to be Arabic script. I thought of asking Prudence if it belonged to her, but she had already mingled in the crowd. I saw Yoseppu. He waved at me and said, “Let’s go home. Prudence is seeing the pastor, and will come home later.”

Walking with him, I showed him the nail-cutter and told I had found it on the floor where Prudence had sat. “Does it belong to her?” I asked. He looked at it with interest, took it from me and said, “I do not think so. But, ask her if you want, when she comes home.” He gave it back to me. I put it in my pocket. Then, I just forgot about it. After I had lunch with them, it began to rain. Prudence asked me to stay for tea in the afternoon. We sat in the living room listening to music. After a while, she excused herself and retired, singing, “Time for some siesta!”  Yoseppu followed her. I stretched out on their sofa, after emptying the contents of my trouser pockets on a side table to be comfortable. When I woke up, it had grown dark. In the faint light coming from the windows, I saw things lying on the side table, and remembered the nail-cutter.

About to reach for my things, I realized that the nail-cutter was not there on the table! Yoseppu entered, switched on the light, and nearly jumped, “Oh, you are up!” As the sudden glare of the light lit up the things lying on the table, I saw that they were not mine. They were a brown leather purse, a fountain pain and a bunch of house-keys, none of them mine. Prudence came in with tea-cups and a plate of pastries on a tray. Putting them down, she handed me a cup, and then my faded black bill-folder and my singleton house key. She said, “You had dozed off, leaving these on the table. I had taken them away for safe keeping.” Somehow, I could not ask her if she had not seen a nail-cutter.

A few days later Yoseppu told me Prudence had shown the nail-cutter to the Iranian woman upstairs, but she had not recognized the writing. It was certainly not in Arabic. Out of curiosity, he had taken it to a shop in Middle Row Street that dealt in old curios, and was shocked to learn that it was made of 22 carat gold, except for the embedded steel cutting edges. Obviously, it was expensive. So, he had thought of putting up a notice in the church. Puzzled, I said, “Oh! It was with you. How I have been worried that I must have lost it somewhere!” Yoseppu said quickly, “But, Prudence told me you had given it to her that day after she returned from the church!”

A series of unfortunate things happened the next few months. First, Yoseppu told me that the camera flash gun he had borrowed from me had disappeared. One evening he had used it to take pictures of a party they had thrown. Prudence had got pretty annoyed with him when he would not let her use the camera because the batteries were low. Next morning he could not find the flash gun. After a few days, he lost his favourite Ray Ban aviator glasses. A few more things disappeared with random breaks in between. One day I asked him if he suspected anyone. He shook his head. I asked, “How about the help?” I was told that she, a devout Christian widow, was above suspicion. “Moreover,” Yoseppu said, “all these things have disappeared from our bedroom. Prudence locks it up before she leaves for her classes.” I persisted, “What if the woman enters the bedroom when you are at home for lunch?” At this question, Yoseppu gave me a disapproving look, and said exasperatedly, “You mean, I would let a young woman enter our bedroom when Prudence is not around? You got to be stupid to even think like that!” ‘A young woman – is that the way you look at her?’ I wondered, but not aloud.

A year passed. Yoseppu completed his course and asked for a local posting because Prudence needed another six months to complete her B.Ed. After that, she got a job at St. Mary’s School. Meanwhile, they lost a few more things. Some were quite insignificant – unless one considered their emotional value – like the Parker pen he had received as a gift from his father on getting admission to college; a worn out pure-leather Italian wallet that he had bought from Fancy Market of Madras with the first stipend of his vocational training; an old album of his school and college days; the bow of his violin that he played no more. Still, life was good in this somnolent city of balmy weather and indolent people. So, knowing very well it would delay his promotion, Yoseppu still opted to stay here. He kept the house – the first after their marriage, as they called it.

Near the end of the second year of Yoseppu’s stay, I went home, got married and returned with Saanaa. To introduce her, I invited a few close friends including Yoseppu and Prudence to dinner. Daniel, my French teacher, came with a bottle of campari. I took out my whiskey. I did not much care for the campari, but its bottle was lovely. Made of thin flawless glass of the palest turquoise shade, its contour had a blend of the tender slenderness and the budding fullness of a teenage girl on her way to become a woman. Daniel always served campari when I visited him. I had often wanted to ask him for an empty bottle, but never quite came to it.

Everyone loved the campari. Surprising me, Yoseppu asked Prudence, who did not drink, if they should buy some. She said, “Why not? Such a lovely bottle! Just for that, yes, I would like to have such a bottle to put flowers.”  I asked Prudence, hoping she would say no, “Would you like to have this bottle?” She said, “Let the drink get over.” I did not understand what she meant. Before laying out dinner on the table, Saanaa went in the kitchen to put away the bottle, which still had some drink left in it.

Yoseppu and Prudence were the last to leave, as she stayed to help Saanaa with the dishes. When they finished, I saw Saanaa take a shawl into the kitchen. Soon, Prudence came out wrapped in it, a slight bulge in her middle barely discernible. A stiff cold breeze was coming up as they left. Later, I asked Saanaa “Why the shawl? Is she in the family way?” Saanaa said, “Oh no! She just said it would be chilly outside.”

The next time going to visit the couple, I remembered the campari bottle, and thought of taking it for Prudence. But, Saanaa could not find it where she thought she had kept it. When we reached Yoseppu’s place two fair men, one stocky with a beard, and the other thin, tall and clean shaven, were standing in the porch, talking to Yoseppu. Seeing us, they reluctantly moved apart. I asked Yoseppu what was the matter. He said gravely, “They live upstairs … came to tell us our help left the house with a valise. They think she might have stolen something … I can’t understand how.” I asked, “Is any valise missing?” “We never had a valise!” he said with a stress, “What is puzzling me is that she had asked for an off for today.” I pressed on, “Are they sure it was the help?” “Yes” the stocky man said. Indicating me, Yoseppu told him, “He is my friend. Please tell him what you have just told us.” The man began to speak, obviously ill at ease to repeat his story intact in a language over which he had poor command. He said Leyla (I presumed that would be his wife) had been sick and stayed in bed all day. Overlooking the garden through the bedroom window, she saw the help arrive. A little later, Prudence left the house carrying a valise. When she returned in the afternoon, she wore a different dress, and carried just the usual satchel she took to school, Leyla noticed. Then Yoseppu returned, and the help had not still left. Leyla felt something was wrong. She dispatched her husband to inform Yoseppu about ‘what had happened’. I asked, a little brusquely, “What had happened?” The man tried to explain patiently. One woman arrived wearing a sari and a chador. Another, wearing trousers and a shirt, left with a valise. She returned in slacks and a sweater, with a satchel. Wasn’t it simple? Prudence butted in, “It is so plain! Don’t you see? The help came, changed into my clothes, put her clothes and whatever she was stealing in the valise and left. Because she wore my clothes, Leyla thought it was me leaving the house!”

We went inside. I was so full of curiosity – so many ifs and buts! I recalled Prudence had met ‘the woman upstairs’ to ask about the inscription on the nail-cutter. Wasn’t Leyla the same woman? She had a view from above. So she may not have clearly seen the face of the woman leaving. Could she, thus, have mistaken the help for Prudence? Possible, if the two were of the same built and height, in which case one’s clothes would have fitted the other too. Yoseppu said they never had a valise. It was clear that Leyla had not seen the help arrive with a valise. Where could she have got the valise? Did she bring it hidden under her shawl? Also, apparently Leyla had missed seeing Prudence leave the house before the help arrived. What would have been the turn of the events otherwise, I mused. I wanted to quiz Leyla, but a stranger approaching a woman of purdah was out of question.

Mulling over all this, I settled on the sofa with Saanaa, while Yoseppu and Prudence went pottering around. I found both absent minded yet tense, moving in and out of the rooms, checking for things. All of a sudden, Yoseppu cried, “Oh my God!” Prudence rushed out of the bedroom, looking scared. I jumped to my feet and shouted, “What is it?” Yoseppu appeared at the kitchen door. He looked bewildered. He wanted to say something, but held back. I asked, hopefully, “Have you found some clue?” He scowled, and said, “No … actually… OK, I need to show you something first.” He went inside, and returned with a large carton. He put it down on the floor and said, “This is my junk carton. Anything I think of throwing or giving away, I keep in this until my mind is not made up.” He squatted beside it, took out some stuff and laid them on the floor. A Cassio calculator, its screen smashed; a Parker pen; a leather wallet; a Ray Ban with cracked glasses; an old and frayed album. Everything was damaged, or looked old and spoiled. Yoseppu began, “I do not know how to tell you. We found … I mean, your flash gun was found lying in the backyard. Its glass had cracked, probably from being thrown down. I wanted to show it to you.” He paused, and continued, “So, I went to put it in the box. It was then that I found all the other stuff we had been losing in the carton. Someone had been stowing them there.”

There was more in the box. Yoseppu looked at me and said, “Most things that had disappeared from the house I found in this box, but beyond use or repair. Everything is still there! Just your flash gun is missing, and that nail cutter you had found in the church. I had kept that too in this box, and now it is not there.” He looked into the box, rummaged in it again, shook his head and said, “It is gone! Did whoever was putting the missing things in this box take those two?” I asked, “Why did you put the nail-cutter in the box?” He said, “Oh! Its cutting edges were blunt. When I tried to cut nails with it. I could not. But, looking at it you could not tell. So, I did not take it to the church, and thought of just giving it away to someone someday.”

I shifted my gaze from his face to the box. I saw the glint of something, and asked, “What is that?” “Oh, that … is an empty wine bottle from last Christmas – it was a present from my boss. The cork is missing”, Yoseppu said, beginning to put the things back. I asked, “But, what made you think of this box now?” He said, “I don’t know. I just thought, ‘let me check if the nail-cutter is missing’ … Look, I am really sorry about your flash gun. You need one, don’t you?” I said, “No. I have already bought one.” He started saying, “Actually, Prudence and I have been thinking of buying you a replacement for it, but …” Before he finished, Prudence, who had been standing at the bedroom door watching us, hissed, “Oh, really? We did not even know someone had found the flash gun in the backyard! And, what nail cutter are you talking of?” There was an unmistakable stress on ‘someone’ in her outburst.

That was the first hint of something unpleasant, discordant between them that I saw. It made Saanaa and me fidget and want to leave. We did leave after a short while, declining their invitation to stay for dinner. Prudence looked extremely distraught. Still, when Yoseppu said good bye from the porch, she said, “Wait! I will walk you to the gate.” She went inside and returned with something wrapped up in paper. Giving it to Saanaa, she said in a low yet clear whisper, “Here is your shawl. Take it, before it disappears too.” Then walking silently with us up to the gate, she said, “I will not be seeing you for some time. I am leaving this Sunday to visit with my parents. I plan to return after four weeks. However, do visit Joss from time to time, and see that he is taking care of himself.” As I pushed open the heavy wrought iron gate, it made a high pitched screeching sound at the hinges, and I knew what had alerted Leyla to the movements during the day. But, just as I understood why she would not have seen the face of the woman leaving with the valise, I remembered that the gate was left open throughout the day and closed at nightfall.

When we reached home Saanaa opened the package. The shawl inside – almost of the same colour, but some material that was not wool – was not hers.

For about a month, I returned home very late from the office, and we could not see Yoseppu. He too seemed to avoid us on some pretext or the other, the most common being that he would be going out for dinner. Obviously, the help had not returned for work, and he had to eat out. I decided against asking him anything about her. On weekends, he said he would be busy with some church work.

After another two weeks we still had no news if Prudence had returned. Finally, Saanaa and I decided to visit the church on a Sunday, hoping to catch Yoseppu there. We reached the front gate just as people were coming out after the mass. I saw Yoseppu come out by a side door with a woman by his side. Prudence? But, the woman was wearing a sari. They spoke and then she parted. Yoseppu started for the gate, walking interminably, looking tired and sleepless. Seeing us, he sort of pulled himself together, and said, “You! What are you doing here?” Saanaa asked, “Isn’t Prudence coming? I think I saw her come out with you.” Yoseppu shook his head, avoiding our eyes. He took a few steps forward, going past us, and then turned back. He said, “Oh! I am leaving for good in a week’s time. I have got posted at Dehradun. I will not be seeing you folks anymore.” Then he looked at Saanaa, and his eyes were dull. He said, “Prudence is still with her parents. The woman you saw coming out with me was Jeslin, our help at the house.” He quickly crossed the road and reached a motorbike. It was a gleaming new Royal Enfield. He kick-started it and drove off with a pulsating roar.

The next Sunday, I was woken up by our neighbour. He wanted to catch us before we went out. He gave me a tall brown packet sealed at the top by a stapled satin ribbon. He said the previous evening, when we had gone out, someone had come on a motorbike and left the packet for us. I thanked him, came back to the bedroom, tore the ribbon off the top of the brown packet, and looked inside.  There was a pale turquoise bottle with a cork in place of the twist-cap I was so familiar with. The bottle was full of some brown liquid. Taped to the neck of the bottle there was a small note. I detached and unfolded it to read:

“Prudence had learned to make wine at home, and there was plenty of it around when she left. Here is some she had set aside for you. You will, of course, recognize the bottle Saanaa gave her.
I am also returning the nail-cutter you gave her.
Make whatever you want to of all this. I will probably never see you two again. Not in the short run. But, if we meet in the unpredictable distant future, I hope you will see someone with me. Bless her soul that she may complete my story!
Good bye for now …

I folded back the note, my mind drifting to my last day at the college. After Yoseppu had left, I had gone to his empty room. There was a broken wastepaper basket with a few scraps of paper lying in it – some shredded old letters; the slip of paper with my address; and, some photos, including one full height photo of a teenage girl. At its back, written in a childish hand, ran a seemingly meaningless line:
Jesus exists! So, love is natural”
Written in blue ink, the first letter of each word had been made bold by repeated overwriting. Below that Yoseppu had scrolled –
“The best way to treat obstacles is to use them as stepping-stones” – Enid Blyton

For some unexplored reason, I had kept the photo, loose in my album, till Saanaa came across it and persuaded me to throw it away, saying Yoseppu would never want it back.

The thought of Saanaa forced me to the present. I reached inside the packet, and there it was, the nail-cutter, in a small envelope. I took it out and looked at it for some time. Then, gingerly I put it against one of the toe nails of Saanaa sticking out under the blanket, and pressed. With a faint click it cut a neat crescent of the varnished nail.

Saanaa woke up with a start, blinked at me and asked, “Why are you up so early? Isn’t it Sunday?”

© mikupa / 31 July 2015