As I stared at myself in the mirror getting ready for another clandestine rendezvous, I giggled. I would have never imagined this in a millions years, I thought. At my age, behaving like a giddy school girl! Really, this must be how one feels when one is past the point of no return. Excited. Nervous. Audacious. Thank Heavens that Howard has been so persistent because I wouldn’t have mustered the nerve otherwise.
It was a bright and uncharacteristically pleasant afternoon. For the past few Sundays, Howard and I had chosen to take a walk around the garden after church services, but he felt doing so any longer was bound to cause tongues to wag. We were perhaps being seen together far too often. So, this time, instead, we had decided to meet at Raunaq Coffee House. It was close to the settlement and yet conveniently detached from the usual crowd. Mr. Raunaq Lall, the proprietor, was an educated man, always affable and welcoming. We had used his premises to meet once before in the past, so today’s meeting was not likely going to raise eyebrows.
The coffee house was quiet, bereft of patrons on this lazy Sunday afternoon. We had chosen well. The serving section was spread on two floors, with seating upstairs on a terrace overlooking the splendid greenery of this lovely town.
As I approached him, Howard got up to greet me. We were polite, social, proper lest there were any covert eyes watching.
“Yes”, was all I said, to make his bluish green eyes sparkle brighter than emeralds. I have made him a very happy man, I felt, yet, not happier than I am at this moment.
Howard and I had first met at the Autumn Ball in Dalhousie six months ago. An impeccable, well groomed soldier was perhaps all that an old, unhappy woman like me needed to be swept off her feet. My life with Reggie had never been a joyous one despite our 20 years of marriage. He was always a difficult man to live with, and the pressures of his current posting had made things decidedly worse.
As it was with our community, there were plenty of occasions for Howard and I to meet frequently and get to know each other well. We exchanged thoughts on life, family, travels, even political matters. He had never been married. As weeks progressed, the attraction from both sides grew stronger. Our passions inevitable took over the propriety of a platonic relationship in Shimla a month ago.
I was in love with a man some twenty years younger. The point of no return.
“I have written to my lawyer in London and I expect his response soon,” I said. “As soon as he confirms the details, I will tell Reggie, and you and I can be on our way back home!”
“That is delightful news, my love! I have waited for the day for many weeks now.”
“As have I, my darling!”
“I got a letter from mother two days ago. She will come around, I am sure. Once she meets you, everything will change, I promise.”
“I trust you.”
“And I heard back from Henry as well. He is going to get the flat in Kensington ready for us.”
“God bless your brother”, I said.
“Oh, I am so daft, I haven’t even asked you what you would like to have! Some tea, perhaps?”
“No, don’t bother, my darling. I am just so happy to be with you.”
And to know that it was all going to be all right. Soon. We were going to be home, married, happy. Soon.
And just then, the fireworks began, as if to herald good times. It was the harvest festival, of course, I remembered! It was still broad daylight, and it appeared that the townsfolk had chosen firecrackers to launch their festivities with. Seemed a bit early to celebrate, but I figured one couldn’t expect happy folks to contain their joy for very long on such a big day, could one?
The sound of the bursts felt quite close. Quite close and quite intense.
Howard and I looked at each other and smiled.
“Do you know what the festival is called?” I tested Howard.
“Bay-saak-ee”, said he, as he contorted his mouth to get the pronunciation of Baisakhi correct. “I had my man teach me how to say that!”
“Well done, Major! And do you know why they celebrate it?”
“I believe it is the start of the new year for the Hindoos. For the Sardars, it is to mark the beginning of the new harvest. Am I right?”
“Quite right!” We both continued to look in the general direction from where the sounds appeared to be coming from. The cacophony seemed to be getting louder.
Could this feel any more right, I thought. It’s like God is agreeing with our decision!
The din went on for around ten minutes and finally sputtered into silence. It was only then that the human sounds of revelry could be heard.
“They must all be dancing on the rooftops and on the streets!” Howard said.
“I have often wished I could join them. They do seem to have such a rollicking time when they celebrate”, I laughed. “Can you imagine how highly inappropriate that would be? A British Lady doing the Punjabi dance with the natives. They will have their knickers in a twist if they heard that in London!”
“Well, that will happen soon enough, anyway, wouldn’t it? They will soon find out about us. Perhaps you should consider dancing with the locals just to ease them into the bigger shock that’s coming their way!”
We laughed amidst the ambient human cheers of joyfulness. How quaint, these boisterous Indians, I thought. Sometimes, I can’t distinguish whether they are shrieking with joy or wailing in pain!
I spotted my personal guard come forth towards where we sat. Havaldar Salim Khan had been faithfully by my side for over two years now. As he reached our table, he gave a quick salute to his superior. Khan’s face looked determined and his voice firm – enough to thwart any protestations from me or from the Major for interrupting our parley.
“Excuse me, My Lady, but you must come with me immediately”, he said. “We must head home at once. Those are the orders”.
“Whatever is the matter, Salim?” I enquired, suddenly concerned.
“I will explain when we are home, My Lady. May I advise, Sir, that you also head back to the cantonment without delay”, Salim uttered calmly to Howard.
I collected my things and bade Howard goodbye. I wished I could give him a kiss. That will have to wait until London, I thought. Howard, probably sensing my naughty mental indiscretion, smiled and bit his lower lip. He then gallantly took my hand and kissed it. As I made my way to the buggy with Salim, Howard chose to ignore his advice and stayed back to read The Times over a cup of tea.
The military cantonment was a mere ten minutes away. As the reassuring clippity-clops pulled the buggy towards the destination, I brought my head by the window and looked up at the marvellous blue Amritsar sky. India is such a beautiful country – how I wish I could have stayed longer, I thought. I wish I was here under better circumstances. Perhaps I will return to this wonderful land with Howard. Once the brouhaha of the divorce settles down, I know I will. I continued to gaze at the clear sky – the only clouds were the ones in my mind about the business that lay ahead. I was too oblivious to notice the kettle of vultures flying low in the eastern sky.
As the buggy came to a stop at the end of the sweeping driveway, I sighed in relief. At least the General was not expected home until later in the evening. I need a moment of peace away from this awful man, I thought. I wonder what’s keeping him so busy today?
“We are home, Lady Dyer”, said Salim Khan, as he held the buggy door open for me.