Meera is happily submerged in the role of corporate wife and cookbook writer. Then, one day, her husband fails to come home. Overnight, Meera, disoriented and emotionally fragile, becomes responsible not just for her two children, but also her mother, grandmother and the running of Lilac House, their rambling old family home in Bangalore.
A few streets away, Professor J.A. Krishnamurthy or Jak, cyclone studies expert, has recently returned from Florida, to care for his nineteen-year-old daughter, the victim of a tragic accident. What happened on her holiday in a small beachside village? The police will not help, Smriti's friends have vanished, and a wall of silence and fear surrounds the incident. But Jak cannot rest until he gets to the truth.
Meera and of Jak's paths intertwine as they uncover the truth about the secrets of their pasts and the promise of the future. The Lilac House is a sweeping story of redemption, forgiveness and second chances.
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St. Martin's Griffin
April 24, 2012
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Excerpt from The Lilac House by Anita Nair
CYCLOGENESIS OF DESPAIR
A child, awake or asleep, has no sense of evil. No presentiment of what may happen in the time to follow. A child's brow rests smooth, unlined, untroubled, until knowledge descends upon it.
In the painting Infant Moses Brought Before Pharaoh's Daughter by William Hogarth, let us for once turn our eyes away from all the supporting cast - the maids and the Pharaoh's daughter; let us not dwell on the dark shadows or the building clouds. Instead, let us seek the child Moses who is a child as children should be, without the burden of a past or the knowledge of a future. It is that perfect moment when we believe all of us and all around us are in harmony. Only children know it, and the clouds and the seas.
But even the clouds and the seas are not untouched. For with no real warning, with neither portent nor omen, it is quite possible for a quiet wave to begin within what is considered a closed system. A stream is activated. When the wave turns counterclockwise, it does so by turning on its head all that is known and understood, causing a deeply intense and unstable atmosphere.
When despair strikes, it is the same. There is a mad scramble to make sense of what is happening. The mind whirls, turning every event over, seeking an explanation, a reason ... The only certainty about a cyclone or despair is the uncertainty it triggers. And as with despair, the cyclogenesis of a tropical storm is seldom announced. What is certain is the resultant turbulence.
Professor J. A. Krishnamurthy The Metaphysics of Cyclones
The scream pierces the house. The lilac house. A long drawn out scream of terror.
Meera wakes with a start. Her hand goes to her mouth. Has she been screaming? She waits for the lights to be switched on, doors to be opened. But there is only silence and darkness and hair that stands on end.
Meera gets out of bed, pushes her feet into flip-flops and creeps into the corridor.
A grove of shadows, where Meera who fears nothing can chase that shout of panic, shackle its goat legs and slit its throat. In all these years, Meera has forbidden panic entry into her lilac house.
When Daddy died leaving very little behind, when a silver oak came cascading down on the kitchen, when Giri was laid off work, when Nayantara left home at seventeen, when Lily's ankle broke, when the septic tank overflowed and the mushy sweet pong of faeces began permeating their every breath, when Lily's maid and Meera's anchor decided that henceforth every new moon night the goddess of Melmarvathur, Parasakhthi, would seek her out as an oracle, high priestess and repository, when nine-year-old Nikhil's class teacher called Meera to say that he had smuggled in a bra to school as part of a dare and Meera didn't know whether to laugh or cry or worry if the bra was an ancient one with frayed lace or an extravagantly sexy red confection of nipple net and underwire hoist, when silverfish chewed their way through all the notes she had been making in the hope that one day she would do her dissertation 'on the role of water tanks in American fiction rooted in suburbia', when she discovered a lump in her breast and in Giri's briefcase a secret sheaf of bills - lunches, drinks for two, a bottle of perfume - each time the furies and fates disturbed the quiet fabric of siesta that was her life, Meera strangled panic even before it made known its presence. Who dares panic in her home now?
She pauses outside the door of a bedroom. Her mother's. She can hear even breathing punctuated by a gentle snore. She smiles, a curl of grimness. Mummy, who actually claims that most nights she doesn't sleep a wink, and that's what causes the dark circles around her eyes. The next time she uses her sleepless nights as an excuse to get out of something she doesn't want to do, Meera will tell her. It just might wipe the smugness off her face for a second.
Next, she pauses outside her grandmother's door. Two sets of snores heave within. The old woman on the bed. The maid on the floor.
As she walks towards Nikhil's room, she hears the muttering. He is talking in his sleep. Meera opens the door and creeps in. The thin quilt he covers himself with is tangled around his legs.
She caresses his brow. 'Hush, hush, baby!'
Nikhil's eyes snap open. 'Daddy! Is Daddy home?'
'Go to sleep, darling. He'll be home in the morning, you'll see!'
'I dreamt Daddy's car was perched at the edge of a cliff. He was trying to get out before it went over. He was shouting for me to help him.' Nikhil shakes at the horror of it. 'I tried to run to him. But my legs wouldn't move. I really tried, Mummy, I did...'
'Ssh ...' Meera murmurs, cradling his head against her.
Sheela, the woman from the PR company, had arranged for someone to drop Nikhil and her home. A man who was at the party and lived in her neighbourhood, Sheela said. He was perfectly safe, even if he was a stranger. She and he had been friends from their college days.
Meera was relieved to hear that he was a stranger. She preferred that to going with someone she knew. A stranger would ask few questions and wouldn't speculate about Giri's going away.
She had watched Nikhil's eyes scan the road. He searched faces, parked cars, number-plates. When the scream resonated throughthe car, the blood drained from her face. What on earth? Then she saw Nikhil's grin and felt as if she wanted to burst into tears. How could he?
And Giri, she wanted to scream. What is this game you are playing? Where have you gone?
As if from a distance, she thought she heard the man say something. And she heard herself replying on auto pilot, 'Oh, what you need is a recipe for a quick cold soup! A gazpacho, perhaps.'
What had he asked?
The car pulled up outside their gate. Nikhil and she stood watching it drive away. A little blue car.
'Did you see the inside of his car? What a mess! He has groundnut shells in a paper bag along with a million books and files. Do you think he treats the back seat as his office?' Nikhil chattered.
She listened without registering what he said. All she could think of was Giri and his disappearing act. What was it all about? So when he suddenly asked, 'Did Daddy text you?' she said automatically, 'No.' Then, because she was afraid of what she might see in his eyes, she said carefully, 'Nikhil, don't tell anyone yet that Daddy went away without telling us. You know how they are...' she finished, not knowing what to say next.
'But where do you think he went, Mummy?' Nikhil asked, more curious than afraid.
Meera shook her head. 'I don't know. Maybe he had an urgent business meeting to go to.'
'Why couldn't he have just told you that?' Nikhil said, accepting her explanation and kicking the gate open in one swift boyish act of innocence.
Meera watched him walk in. She followed, wondering what excuses she could make for Giri's absence. Unless, of course, he was already home. She hurried in, the thought lending speed toher step. Maybe that was it. Something, the heat or the alcohol, had triggered a migraine and he had rushed home before it became unbearable and he couldn't drive. He knew, if he told her, she would have insisted on their leaving together and he wanted her to have a good time.
He must be in their room with the curtains drawn tight to block the light and with the fan whirring at top speed. He would be lying there reeking of Tiger Balm, his arm over his forehead, as if only by this careful arranging of his limbs would he be able to leash the pain. If she were to even exhale, he would growl, 'Can't you keep it low? I have a headache!'
The bathroom would bear the stench of vomit. That, too, was routine. The throwing up. Mostly, he cleaned up himself. He was a meticulous man. But if he was really unwell, then that too would be waiting for her.
For once Meera longed for the growl and the irritation, the bits of food and bile splattering the toilet bowl. For the stench and for her own insides to heave involuntarily. Poor baby, Meera thought, rushing to minister comfort to the migraine stricken Giri.
Meera walked into the house to hear Nikhil say, 'Dad's gone to the golf course.'
Her mother said, 'Your father doesn't play golf!'
'Actually, he doesn't play anything.' Her grandmother laughed.
Nikhil pushed his hands into his pockets. 'Did I say he was playing golf? He's gone with a friend.'
'What friend?' her mother asked.
'He has no friends,' her grandmother added.
She wondered if she should go to the police. The very thought was daunting. She had never been to a police station before. What did one do? What did one say? Then there was the matter of bribes. She could hardly slip notes into the policeman's waitinghand under the table or into his pocket while muttering, 'A little tea money!'
From the movies, she knew that twenty-four hours had to go past before a missing person complaint could be made. She was panicking for no reason. He would be back soon. She would wait twenty-four hours before she worried, she told herself as she removed her earrings, sitting in front of the dressing table.
In the mirror, she could see the bed with its coverlet stretched tightly across and the plumped up pillows resting against the bolsters. A pristine bed, strangely forlorn.
At seven her mother settled in front of the TV with a notebook and pen. 'Please Nikhil, no chit-chat!' she told the silent Nikhil who was plugged into his iPod maze of 1756 songs.
'Why don't you just ask me to shut up?' her grandmother said.
'Please Mama, it's my favourite programme. I have a library meeting next week. I need to know what to recommend!'
'Rubbish! Do you think that man reads any of those books? All he does is read the back of the book! How can you be taken in by him? And I think he wears foundation cream. Can't you see that line by his jaw?' Lily mumbled querulously.
'What do you know of books? All you do is watch movies or talk shows all day. I don't know how you can watch such mindless nonsense.'
'Better than those travel and living programmes you watch. Where do you think you are going? Or, for that matter, when was the last time you cooked anything? Ha!'
The bickering continued. Meera rubbed her forehead. Her head throbbed. She wished she could turn and snap, 'Shut up! Shut up! Can't you see that I am worried? I don't need this as well.'
But she couldn't. No matter what, Meera never lost her temper. She never flared or snapped. She was just not like that.
Hoping to restore peace and some calm in her head, she intervened with a 'Lily dear, can I fix you a drink?'
Lily dear gleamed. 'I thought you would never ask. And pour her one too. She'll say no if you ask and then steal sips from my glass when no one's looking.' Lily gestured to her daughter with her chin.
Lily pounced on the sigh. She scrutinized Meera carefully. The drawn face and the shadows beneath her eyes. Lily frowned. What was wrong, she wondered. Then she put it out of her mind. One of the benefits of growing old was this: being able to push aside any troubling thoughts that entered one's mind with, it will resolve itself or somebody else will do it! No need to get your knickers into a twist.
Nevertheless, Lily reached across and touched Meera's elbow. 'What about you? You look like you need one!'
Meera shook her head. 'I had plenty to drink at the party. Too much, in fact!'
She caught Nikhil's eyes on her face. What was he thinking?
Meera thought of the image they must make. Three women of three generations and a young boy, cast in a room of fading splendour. The pools of light, the shadows, the long convoluted histories of how they came to be where they were.
In the 1930s, when Raghavan Menon began working in Calcutta, he fell in love with a way of life. Calcutta reminded him of his Calicut in many ways but there was more. Art flourished in every home and in one of those soirees he had taken to attending, he met Charu, a Bengali woman. When he married her, he became a born-again Bengali. Charu died some years later and Raghavan Menon decided to send his daughter Leela to Santiniketan. 'I want culture to course through her veins. I'd prefer culture to blood, in fact!' he told his brothers who advocated that he send Leela to study in Calicut instead.
The brothers shook their heads in sorrow. If the girl had come to Calicut, he would have returned home perhaps and made a life there. Now, he was lost. Soon thereafter, they sent him a cheque as his share of the family estate.
Then a well-known Bengali director spotted Leela, and Lily was born. Hindi cinema already had a Leela and so it was decided that the name she was called at home would be her screen name. Lily the actress did only offbeat cinema and just as the movie-going world was getting interested in her, she married Sandor, a Hungarian painter. They came to live in Bangalore in this house that Raghavan Menon found them.
Saro was born. Saro was sent to expensive schools. Saro fell in love with her best friend's brother and married him. Sandor died, and a year later Saro was widowed when she was thirty-nine. It was to this house she came then, seeking refuge for herself and her nineteen-year-old daughter Meera.
A window rattled, shaking Meera out of her reverie. She ran a hand through her hair and leaned back in her chair, pretending to be absorbed by the breaking news on TV.
Lily and Saro had settled their differences and were sipping their drinks. The bickering was customary. Like Saro's book buying. One book of fiction preferably by someone who had just won an important prize, or was being hailed by the literary establishment that month as the voice of the century. And another of non-fiction, usually a biography or a historical account, preferably by an Englishman. Saro only bought books that had sold at least 100,000 copies or would post a major prize. And the books programme steered her towards these titles. It was completely beyond her to consider a book merely because the title excited her, a book no one had ever heard of. She couldn't take the chance. Her reputation was at stake after all. Saro liked to be thought of as a woman of taste, whether it was in clothes, jewellery or books.
In contrast, Lily picked her reading by the book jacket. 'Give mea book with a man and a woman searching each other's eyes. Or one with a knife and a red blob. Or some such thing. I assure you it will be truly unputdownable. Though she won't agree, of course! She is such a snob.' She cocked an eyebrow at Saro, her daughter, Meera's mother.
They quarrelled through the day. If it wasn't books, then it was a plant or a piece of furniture or a memory they both remembered differently, or a recipe that each swore was the authentic version. If they didn't, one of them was ailing or troubled. So Meera gauged the well-being of the old ladies by the vitriol they hurled at each other. That night, they were well enough. They didn't seem perturbed by Giri's absence.
Nikhil worried her, though. He was quiet. Too quiet. 'Are you all right, baby?' she asked.
He peered at her. 'Don't call me baby!'
Then he asked suddenly, 'Did you try his mobile?'
Meera nodded. 'Unreachable.'
'What will you tell them if he doesn't come home by midnight?' Nikhil whispered. They looked at the old ladies watching a programme that they both enjoyed. A talk show with a hostess who was sophisticated enough to satisfy her mother. And an ex-movie star, which made her glamorous in her grandmother's eyes.
'No whispering in public,' her mother said.
'Naughty secret, is it?' her grandmother added, speculation lighting up her face.
Meera sucked on a melting ice cube. She hoped it would freeze the scream that threatened to erupt from her mouth any moment now.
Her phone beeped. Nikhil looked up. Meera grabbed the phone. New Message. It would be Giri texting, explaining, apologizing, saying he would be home soon.
It was an advertisement for ring tones. Meera dropped the phone and reached for another ice cube.
'Can we order a pepperoni pizza?' Nikhil said.
'No,' Meera snapped. 'You had pizza three days ago!'
'It's not good for you to eat so much pizza,' Lily chuckled. 'All this junk food will show itself twenty years from now. You will be a very fat man.'
'And a poor one,' Saro added. 'Pizza doesn't grow on trees. It's expensive. Do you realize your mother could buy groceries for all of us for a week for that much money?'
Nikhil slammed the book down. 'We never have money for anything. What I can't understand is how we can afford to live in a house like this. Look at it!'
'Nikhil...' Meera growled. She looked beyond him and saw the stillness that had swept into the other women. She sensed it inch into her too. The house. The lilac house. Somehow it always came to that. The house.
Meera asked herself, if it wasn't for the house, would Giri have lingered that first day?
Had the house lost its power to enchant and keep?
Meera kisses the brow of her sleeping child. In the morning, if Nikhil remembers, he will be embarrassed by how he clung to her. He might even deny it outright. 'You must have dreamt it,' he will say defiantly.
But for now he is her little boy again. A little boy who doesn't know what to make of a father who disappeared mysteriously one Sunday afternoon, on a perfect September day.
It had been a perfect September dawn when he saw her first. He said he had been enchanted. He said he didn't know if he wanted to collapse with laughter or lean against the gatepost and watch her forever. Giri said that was when he fell in love.
'Imagine this,' he said, leaning forward to coil a strand of her hair around his finger, 'a girl in an ivory dress. The sun teasing glints of amber in her hair. A barefoot girl chasing a flock of geese through the grass!'
'A gaggle. Not flock,' she murmured.
'Flock! Gaggle! How does it matter? All I knew was, that's where I want to be. With that girl and her pet geese in their lilac house.' He sighed and leaned back in the chair.
His eyes swept over the house and the garden, the blossom laden trellises and borders, the trees and the carp pool with its little stone frog. She saw his eyes pause on her face with the same rapt pleasure. And she knew she couldn't tell him that the white dress was a faded nightie. Or that she had heard the geese in the front lawn and leapt out of bed and run out to chase them away before they trampled all over the newly planted aubergine plants. Or that the geese were merely biding their time as they were fed and fattened to be sold to Hamid Bhai in time for Christmas. (For every goose was worth its weight in gold or would at least help pay for changing the termite infested rafters of the back kitchen.) And that she didn't waste tears or sentiment over the geese as they were taken away to have their long necks wrung and their down plucked. That she feasted on the goose, with as much relish as anyone else. He would have been horrified. He called her his pet goose. Goose girl of the lilac house.
She smiled. She liked being his pet goose.
'All I could think of was, how am I going to get my foot into this door? I was the prince inching around the enchanted house, seeking to find a way in.'
'You just had to say hello and I would have hello-ed you back!' She grinned.
He frowned. 'You don't understand. A hello would have been way too ordinary. I had to discover you, my goose girl of the lilac house.
'So when the model coordinator suggested that we use this house for the photo shoot of Coconut Kisses, I didn't think twice. I said yes.'
She saw it in her mind then. The inward jerk of the elbow, the clenched fist, the explosion of a yes as it conveyed from deep within the desire to discover her. His goose girl of the lilac house. And she gleamed in reflection of that yearning.
The model coordinator couldn't stop beaming. She had never had it so easy. The location and props in one place, with a stylist thrown in for free. Meera had brought out the crocheted doilies and organza napkins with their delicate scalloped edges, the silver napkin rings and the silver tea service, the tiered porcelain cake stand and the Royal Doulton teacups. She had arranged the Coconut Kisses and even found a way to position the biscuit packet in such a way that it blended in, and then set the table. Meera heard the pleasure in the art director's voice. 'Gracious living! It's exactly what we had planned for!'
Meera smiled. She wondered how much she could pad her bill for the props. Gracious living doesn't come cheap, she wanted to say. Then she met his eyes and she saw herself there. And she didn't say anything. She would talk to the model coordinator on the side and she wasn't going to budge from the figure she had in mind.
But he had found reasons to not leave her alone. Again and again he lingered at her side, chatting between the shots. Could it be that a miracle had occurred? Could it be that he was drawn to her? When he came by the next day with a small basket of flowers for her, she laid out gracious living once again, just for him. It was her only weapon. Other girls showed the tops of their breasts or batted their eyelids. Meera had just this to offer and she wasn't going to shy away from it. And the old ladies, they played their parts.
They sat there, mother, daughter and granddaughter, each one of them wooing him, and he didn't even realize it. Lily with her lace fan, fluttering it ever so often with an elegant little movement of the wrist. Saro in her pearls and crisp cotton sari and 'Shall I be mother?'
Only Meera was as she always was. Uncertain, tremulous and hiding behind a fa?ade of remote charm. She prayed her hands wouldn't shake when she offered him the cake. She so wanted it to be right. For Meera had utterly and hopelessly fallen in love.
She crossed her ankles, laid her hands in her lap and said little.
She could see he was charmed. Giri offered adulation as if it was a ginger biscuit on a plate. 'I love the colour of your house,' he said.
Lily widened her eyes and began, 'The painting contractor...'
But Saro cut in with, 'It is very pretty, isn't it? We have such trouble matching it each time we repaint.'
Meera swallowed convulsively. Lily, she realized, had intended to bring forth the story of the painting contractor who had offered them the paint for half the actual cost. He had made a mistake elsewhere and was trying to salvage some of the cost. And they didn't have to pay as much as they would have