The villa I live in has glass walls. Not brick or solid stone like the houses we know. The walls are a special kind of skin – thin enough to let the light in, tough enough to keep the world out. All the houses in Orange County are built this way. Their reflections shimmer in the waters of a giant, egg-shaped pool (in which only the residents of Orange County are allowed to swim) on sunny days. Security is tight. The guards are always on the lookout for trespassers. If they catch anyone trying to sneak in, I’m sure they draw their guns and shoot the intruders dead. Orange County is a fortress – nobody gets in or out without permission, not even the wind and the rain.
Does this sound like a make-believe place to you? A picture I painted in brooding shades of grey? I wish … I wish this place would crumble to dust and let me come back home where the mountains loom and the breeze carries the hum of monks’ chants towards snow-capped peaks. In my dreams, I see the two of us walking down Dharamsala’s narrow, winding streets. Prayer flags flutter over our heads like rainbow-hued birds. The sun glides out from behind the clouds. The mist lifts. We head to the market, past the gates of the Dalai Lama’s temple where tourists and devotees line up, past a row of cafes teeming with the Sunday evening crowd. We take our time, stopping to chat with friends and neighbours on the way. There’s no rush. The market will stay open. After our weekly vegetable shopping is done, we drift towards old man Tsering’s momo cart. He has set up shop in a corner of the market. ‘Eat, Tashi,’ he says, giving me a toothless smile. ‘Fill your tummy, child. You’re all skin and bone.’
Was that just a dream? Then why does it feel more real to me than the life I live at the Dhawans’ glass house in Gurgaon?
This house has too many rooms. There are empty bedrooms on all three floors, high-ceilinged halls and lounges nobody bothers to step into. Babaji has the ground floor to himself. His room has a four-poster bed and a couch angled close to it for his nurse to sleep on. A stroke has left Babaji paralyzed. His right arm and leg are of no use to him. He can’t sit up straight or feed himself. His nurse helps him get around and bathes Babaji and feeds him and wheels him to the park in the evenings when the weather is fine. I’ve been to the park with them a couple of times. Babaji gave me a crooked smile when we got there. I think he likes my company – must be a change from spending all his time with Rana, the morose nurse.
The floor above Babaji’s is home to his eldest son and daughter-in-law. They have a gym up there, a den to screen movies, a bar, a billiard room with a pool table and a dining room that can seat more than a dozen guests. The floors are white marble, the walls the same dazzling white. The furniture is all silver and white. On the walls hang silver-framed mirrors. Marble statues, crystal swans, candelabras, silver salvers and silver centrepieces are scattered all over. I step on the first floor and sink to the bottom of a sea of white. Madam bosses me around when I polish the silver. Nothing escapes her – dust bunnies, a stain on a tabletop, a wrapper hidden under a corner of the carpet, a flimsy cobweb. I have to work hard to please Madam. When she is satisfied, she thanks me for a job well done and lets me climb up another flight of stairs to get to the second floor where the youngest member of the Dhawan family lives.
This floor is always empty. There are dustsheets on the furniture and the blinds stay drawn. Nobody has cooked in the kitchen for months. A ghostly silence hangs in the air when I go up there to mop the floor and make the beds. The floor belongs to Rohit Saab. But Saab has been home for only a fortnight since I got here. I saw him walk into the house late one night with a dazed look on his face, the expression of a traveller who had lost his way and was too stubborn to ask for directions. He went to bed straightaway and lived out of his suitcase for the next fortnight as if he were a guest at a hotel. Madam says her brother-in-law is too busy to feel at home anywhere. He is a man who hops across the world on jet planes. His home is up in the air. Rome, Paris, New York, Berlin, Dubai, Beijing – work takes him everywhere.
We should have travelled the world, you and I. Caught a flight from Dharamsala and gone for a spin. Seen the blue oceans. Seen the sprawl of cities and bald-headed skyscrapers buried in the clouds. Circled over craggy peaks and jungles and rivers in spate … We should have tasted the freedom of flight. We should have grown wings and travelled the world.
I clean and polish and run errands. Grocery shopping is my job too. The head chef and queen bee of the kitchen, Satyadi, hands me a shopping list every day. Two assistants scurry around, doing her bidding all day. They snivel when she pulls them up for putting too much salt in a dish or overcooking the meat. I am not like them. I can take on Satyadi when she throws a tantrum. We argue a lot and slug it out like a couple of prizefighters in the ring. Afterwards, I turn around and apologize to her. The thrill of winning an argument is nothing compared to the taste of the dishes Satyadi whips up, so I have learnt to say I am sorry even if she was the one who started the fight.
Satyadi is always at work. When she is done serving breakfast, she starts planning for lunch and dinner. Madam gives her special instructions when she is entertaining guests. Even the whiners who keep complaining about the weather and the overcrowded streets of Delhi cheer up when they taste Satyadi’s cooking. They ask for second helpings, polish off all the food and walk away from the table with a smile on their lips.
Satyadi is the first person to wake up in the house. She starts work at sunrise and goes to bed at midnight. Her room is tucked behind the kitchen, like a sparrow’s nest. The only piece of furniture there is a bed – no tables and chairs or cupboards, no photographs on the walls, except for the pictures of gods and goddesses she has cut out from calendars. Most of those pictures show snatches from Lord Krishna’s life – an infant Krishna with his mother, a toddler Krishna in the company of friends, a handsome young Krishna dancing with Radha in the rain. Satyadi shoos me out of her room when she catches me staring at the pictures. ‘Go to bed, Tashi,’ she orders, pointing towards the staircase.
My room is up on the terrace. Of all the people under this roof, I live closest to the clouds. My room is an island adrift in an ocean of green. The terrace is filled with flowering plants and creepers. Roses and lilies and marigolds sway in the breeze. Vines of jasmine cling to the walls. Potted bonsai figs and lemons shoot up next to a bower of fragrant herbs. Flowers bloom in every season. The air smells sweet. Bhagvan Kaka cares for the garden like a mother hen fusses over her chicks. He has been the Dhawans’ gardener for decades. Working for the Dhawans is the only profession his family aspired to – his father and grandfather also used to work for Babaji. I stick close to Kaka when he waters the plants. If he is in a good mood, he lets me plant new saplings and spray pesticides on the older ones.
Kaka is an encyclopaedia about the Dhawan family. He remembers every wedding and birthday, every fight and reconciliation, every ripple that crossed the Dhawans’ lives. Kaka told me that Madam’s father forced her to get married to Saab. She was in love with a classmate – a boy her family disapproved of. So her father fixed an arranged marriage to solve the problem. The wedding was a grand affair, with a celebrity filled guest list and a venue modelled after the Sun Temple in Konark. Madam’s father had hired a crew to recreate the famous temple in the heart of Bombay. Madam cried throughout the ceremony and the guests sympathized, thinking that the bride was upset about saying goodbye to her family and moving to Delhi. Nobody guessed that she was mourning the death of a dream.
‘Such idle chatter, Tashi,’ you say, knitting your eyebrows. ‘Gossip is for ghouls. Keep away from it.’ I haven’t forgotten your allergy to gossip. But Kaka is not a ghoul. He is a good soul who likes to keep me entertained. Also, he gives me useful information. Like what? He tells me things about the neighbours I should know – who does what, who lives in which villa, who are the friendly souls and who the worst snobs … Orange County is home to people with masked faces and veiled eyes, a crowd dressed up for a stage on which the spotlight shines all the time. This is a tribe I’ve never met before. We don’t speak the same language. We are not from the same planet. Kaka understands my confusion. His stories make me feel a little less lost, a little less like a fish thrashing around on land.
Thanks to him, I know that my next-door neighbour Leela’s father is a famous politician. A red light blinks on the roof of his car – like a one-eyed monster – when it zooms in and out of Orange County. The light tells the people that a Very Important Person is passing by. A second car filled with guards trails after Leela’s father’s vehicle. The guards follow him like a brood of puppies – they drive when he drives and follow him on foot when he goes for a run in the mornings and after-dinner walks in the park.
Leela has her own set of armed shadows. She hates them. I’ve seen her shooing them away. She yells at them when she is out on the lawn or at the poolside and doesn’t care if the neighbours hear her. ‘Leave me alone,’ she screams at the men, her heart-shaped face contorted with disgust. ‘Go away,’ she says, balling up her fists and punching the air like it’s her worst enemy.
Leela does not act like a Very Important Person’s daughter. She doesn’t dress up or wear make-up. Her shorts are frayed at the edges and she wears faded tops which look like they have never seen the inside of a washing machine. Her hair tumbles down to her waist, uncombed. Unruly curls spring up like dancers when she moves her head. Leela likes to walk around the lawn barefoot. She looks happy when her feet sink into the soft carpet of grass. She paces up and down furiously and then slows down to take a deep breath. The light shifts and a smile flits across her lips. I’ve seen her stare at the setting sun with something close to contentment on her face.
I am going to paint a picture of her standing at the edge of the lawn with her face angled to the light. Her shoulders won’t be hunched up with tension on my canvas. Her fists won’t be balled up in frustration. Orange County will loom behind her, scooping up the last rays of the sun like a mirror. Leela will stand there, scanning the horizon in search of something – a lost planet, a shooting star, a comet blazing a trail in the darkening sky. But a flicker of hope will light up her eyes. This is how I will paint her, standing there at the edge of night and day, suspended between dream and reality. When I’m done, I’ll sign the picture with my initials. My signature will float forever like a speck of dust in the periphery of her gaze.