By order of the mayor, the scaffold for a makeshift platform went up almost overnight in the Vashishts’ backyard, close to the pond. The Vashishts didn’t object. How could they? It was their boy after all who had caused this rupture.
“Mind you,” said Mrs. Vashisht to her husband when Mr. Kumar and his haggard, slovenly-in-comparison assistant, Mr. Luthra, left on foot to check on the other villagers’ well-being; the son having been sent up to his room to mull over his mistakes without the distraction of food or games. “Given time, even he’d have had a go at it.”
Their house became a thoroughfare, and they watched as a flurry of men went up and down the scaffold all day, taking up baskets of fruits and sweets and jaggery, platters of rice balls dipped in thick gravy and stuffed with delicious fillings, and jars of milk and fresh water and cool refreshments. The mayor even had the local doctor, a semi-retired general practitioner and the only doctor in the village, to set up a rusty home dialysis machine that belonged to his late wife. The least they could do was to let her hang up there with dignity, he said.
If anyone was afraid that the village reserves would run low soon, they kept that opinion to themselves. Uncle Goswami, because he was hoarding a lot of stuff in his godown, waiting for the opportunity to hike the prices, for who knows how long it would be before anyone could access the markets beyond. Others, because they saw her as their lifeline, the godsend cork keeping the air in and them all alive.
People started showing up around the Vashishts’ house at all times of the day. Mostly to get a closer look (that is, gawk) and take pictures. Some to offer prayers, like the priest, who turned up at sunrise and sunset, guided by the dim ascent and descent of the sun in the frozen sky. And some to make a quick buck on the side. Selling toffees, samosas, chat, and lassi.
It was almost like a fete during days. What with no electricity and stifling heat and the general desire to mingle and quell unspoken fears, people poured out onto the streets and made a beeline for the Vashishts’ backyard. Older folks lounged about on folding chairs that they carried from their homes and chatted with their mouths full. High schoolers danced about to live music. And kids played on portable Ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds and ran around with streamers and candy floss. Though none was allowed to climb up the scaffold and chat with the lady upstairs.
Mrs. Naidu, having overcome her initial annoyance at being robbed off her roses, even got her Class III students to put up an impromptu musical play for the entertainment of the fat lady in the sky. Which wasn’t that impromptu at all. The village having been subjected to many versions of her masterpiece over the years. Even the mayor and Mr. Vashisht had essayed the role of the dock worker who makes it big on Broadway in tights at different points in time.
The fat lady, on her part, ate and drank to her heart’s content all day, occasionally sending down a shower of milk or a burst of rice grains. She laughed heartily and waved magnanimously at all the delightful little people gathered around just to see her. That is, when not flapping her arms about like a bird for fun and signing autographs for her fans. For that’s what the Vashishts’ boy told her when he sneaked up to her perch and got her to sign numerous copies of her stuck in the sky.
When Mr. and Mrs. Vashisht found out that he was charging ten rupees for each from the crowd, the enterprise was swiftly called to an end and the boy sent up to his room yet again to repent.
At night, the fat lady, alone at last, hummed and sang long into the night. The dome boomed and quivered under her operatic voice. For it was the worst kind of screeching and howling and scratching one could ever imagine leaving the throat of a living being. Worse than nails on blackboards, high-pitched kettles, and frogs on raining days. With a lot of yodeling thrown in. Even Mrs. Naidu’s class III musical that was in parts as harmonious as a pail of nails being dropped on a leaden floor with cats being strangled at the back seemed more melodious than the fat lady’s singing.
It got so bad that even the birds, who had so far stuck to their routine, abandoned their nests and cawed like mad. And the dogs barked and howled and the cows, tethered, mooed in anguish, struggling against their restraints. The villagers begged for mercy and banged at the mayor’s door. Who in turn banged down his assistant’s front door and showed up at the Vashishts in the middle of the night, in his dressing gown and bathroom slippers and a haggard assistant in tow, much distressed about being spotted by his constituents in such a state of undress. And the Vashishts had no choice but to climb up the scaffold themselves to keep the fat lady company.
“Hello, there,” said Mrs. Vashisht, clambering after Mr. Vashisht and settling down on the platform, careful not to upset the lantern or the doctor’s machine or any of the other objects lying around. “I am Vinita Vashisht and this is my husband, Vinod,” she said catching her breath. “We live in the house below. We’ve been meaning to come by and introduce ourselves, but this area being restricted, we never got the chance.”
“Oh, how nice it is to meet you both up close in person,” said the fat lady, looking at them with gleaming eyes. “Tell me, how’s the boy doing? Haven’t seen him around skidding pebbles below anymore.”
Mrs. Vashisht looked at her toes, embarrassed. “He’s being punished,” she said severely. “You see, he was selling your autographed pictures, that too without your knowledge, and we couldn’t have that. We apologize on his behalf.”
“Well, isn’t he a little entrepreneur, now?” she replied delighted, humming tunelessly.
“He also got you in this mess,” said Mr. Vashisht, shrugging at the hole plugged with her behind.
“Let bygones be bygones, shall we? Why I could hardly have been able to resist taking an aim at me myself! I was quite the sharpshooter in my heydays, you see. Capped many a porch light and a glass eye for certain,” she laughed and hummed loudly some more. Mrs. Vashisht looked alarmed as the frozen sky groaned and quivered around her. “I am Mrs. Godse, by the way,” said the fat lady, interrupting Mrs. Vashisht’s sombre thoughts. “Tell me, has your rabbit problem been fixed?”
“Why?” asked Mr. Vashisht, eyebrows raised, ignoring the tuneless humming. “How did you even know we had one?”
Mrs. Godse smiled mysteriously and began to sing. “Day before yesterday,” she stopped mid-verse, “I saw her rummaging through your cabbage patch. And last night, I am certain she got away with a bunch of carrots. If you stand vigil tonight, I am certain you’ll catch a big, fat two-legged mole tossing up your pumpkin patch. She comes over that fence every night. You’ll see.”
“I knew it,” shouted Mrs. Vashisht, slamming her fist into her open palm. “I knew that it was her! She’s our neighbor, Mrs. Godse. Meenakshi. Doesn’t let a branch from our side ‘clutter’ her yard, but our garden is apparently open season for her. By the way, what is that you are singing?” she asked as an afterthought, swinging her feet like a child.
“It’s something I’ve been working on,” replied Mrs. Godse. “Do you like it? I’m no Mozart or Beethoven, but all the beautiful views down below inspire me so. And it is so hard to contain all the feelings at night time. It is so quite and peaceful, isn’t it? Almost frighteningly calm.”
“Well, it has a certain newness to it,” said Mrs. Vashisht cautiously.
“A unique voice for sure,” nodded along Mr. Vashisht.
“Would you like it if I leave you with my radio set?” ventured Mrs. Vashisht. “It may give you more inspiration. Mind you, I don’t know how long the batteries will last and only the local station’s up. And it plays the same songs over and over again.”
Mrs. Godse nodded her consent, smiling to herself. The flickers of light in the windows going out one by one, like fireflies calling it a night.
“It is rather hard to sleep while one is singing to keep the silence away, isn’t it?”
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