A bower in the wilderness

by Neeman Sobhan

wildernessTHEY took a left on Wisteria Drive, then a right on Wisteria Lane.
Rupa gave a theatrical groan, ‘You Americans and your predictable street names! Let me guess, the next one will be… Wisteria Court.’
Her cousin Lipi smiled as she turned her car into a circular driveway, and Rupa burst out laughing. ‘See?’
Number 27 Wisteria Place was a long and rambling building, wisteria-less but with some ornamental shrubs and greenery in front. The entrance resembled a hotel, wide glass doors opening into the hush and hum of a carpeted, air-conditioned lobby. Piped music floated like scent. A floral arrangement stood on a polished table in the centre of the room like a fountain dripping russet fall colours. Near a window were two ornate armchairs beside a corner table displaying some fanned-out brochures. Rupa caught the name: Serena Homes.
‘So your friends live here?’ Rupa turned to her cousin.
Lipi nodded, her hand pushing her Calvin Klein sunglasses over her streaked, honey hair. The woman at the reception desk looked up.
‘May I help you ladies?’ The voice was girlish, though the smile faded into a radiating web of bleeding lipstick lines on the woman’s thin mouth.
‘Hi… Brenda, Lipi said, glancing at the nametag on the receptionist’s cardigan. ‘Sharon not here? I’ve come for my lunch date.’
Brenda glanced at the register and said: ‘Sharon’s on leave. You must be Lipi Choudhury.’ When Lipi nodded, Brenda laughed. ‘Well, Carolyn’s been all dolled up since morning and waiting in the lounge, and Bernice is finishing therapy. Want me to show you in?’
Lipi waved a hand. ‘I know my way around. Thanks.’
Rupa followed, uncertain and tiny in her heels behind her tall, flamboyant cousin who was striding along in her stylish ballerina shoes, stopping when she stopped, which was abruptly at the threshold, for effect.
‘Caro! Honey! Wow, aren’t you just ravishing today? Look, I’ve brought someone with me.’
The frail woman stood up slowly, pink from both the compliment and the effort of rising. Rupa noted her fussy dress, elegantly coiffed hair, string of pearls at her stalk-thin throat and rings on her crab-like hands. Except for the missing pair of white gloves, the elderly lady might have stepped out of another era, when women dressed for afternoon socials and tea dances and stuff that Rupa had read about in old-time novels about the Deep South.
Lipi kissed the woman. ‘Caro, this is my cousin, come all the way from Bangladesh.’
Sharp grey eyes turned to Rupa. ‘Pleased to meet you, my dear.’ The voice was musical. ‘I am Carolyn Sutton, Caro to friends. What’s your name, dear?’
wilderness2Lipi whispered to Rupa in Bangla, ‘Speak up. She’s deaf in one ear.’
When Rupa enunciated her name, Carolyn asked her what it meant. One of the meanings of her name was derived from ‘roop,’ as in beauty. But in her fifties, well preserved and pretty enough though she was, Rupa preferred the other interpretation.
‘Silver?’ Carolyn repeated, visibly enchanted. Then, looking around she said, ‘Let me ring for some tea and refreshments. Where is my bell? Oh! Lipi, would you be a dear and see if my housekeeper Gladys is around?’
Lipi winked at Rupa and addressed the old woman, ‘Honey, don’t bother. We’re going out to lunch, remember? It will only spoil our appetite.’ Lowering her voice she muttered to Rupa, ‘Sometimes she thinks this is her house. Just play along when she does that.’
Carolyn gazed at Rupa. ‘Such lovely skin. Most women in the East have it. You are all so graceful and feminine.’
‘Oh! You are, too.’
Carolyn touched her hair and said, ‘Well, one tries, but it’s not easy when you’re away from home. I’m just here for a few days, you know.’
Rupa glanced at Lipi, who whispered, ‘Wavers between two realities.’
Rupa turned back to Carolyn, who was asking, ‘Do you wear your dress, that flowing thing, the…’ Carolyn searched for the word, then, eyes bright with triumph, she said, ‘The sari.’
‘Not when I’m traveling, but back home I do, of course.’
‘Lovely dress! My husband was in the diplomatic service, you know. We had many overseas postings… South America, Egypt and London. We knew a couple there, from Calcutta. She wore lovely silk saris. Calcutta is not in Bangladesh, I guess.’
Before they could go any further, a woman in a violent turquoise and lemon printed dress and matching beads came in on her wheelchair, chattering loudly: ‘Hi y’all! Sorry to be late. What did I miss? Oh! We have a new visitor!’
Lipi hugged her and Carolyn made the introductions, ‘Bernice, meet Lipi’s cousin from Bangladesh.’
‘How exciting! Oh! Let me get the camera so I can show Jimmy and the kids. My son, you know, lives in Williamsburg. Here, I have some snapshots of them.’
Carolyn put out a restraining hand on Bernice’s arm, ‘Honey, let’s first hear our visitor talk. My dear, how long will you be in Virginia?’
Rupa found that for an eighty-year-old woman in the first stages of dementia, Carolyn was remarkably lucid until the lines between her present and past blurred.
‘My house is being renovated, my dear. Next time, you must visit me there. It’s lovely on the deck, surrounded by magnolia trees and a rose garden. Walter, my husband, has collected thirty varieties of roses. As soon as the house is ready, I’ll move back.’
Rupa shot a quick glance at her cousin who was leaning over a photo album with Bernice. Lipi mouthed in Bengali that she would explain later. Rupa continued to look at her cousin, filled with reluctant admiration.
She felt humbled, somehow, even a bit ashamed. Rupa had always considered this cousin, the pampered only daughter of rich parents, to be a frivolous person who took her privileged life for granted. Growing up, Rupa thought of herself as the serious, more high-minded cousin and, among other things, a far better student than Lipi.
Her dream had been to go abroad to study, even though she knew her father, with his government officer’s salary and two sons to educate, would never be able to afford the expense. Both the cousins had studied at one of the top English-medium educational institutions in Dhaka, Viqarunnissa School, and later, Holy Cross College. At graduation, Lipi barely scraped through and decided to take a break from studying further, while Rupa joined the overcrowded English literature department of Dhaka University for the BA Honours course.
On sleepy afternoons, bored with lectures on books she had read for fun years earlier, Rupa would slip out from class, jump into a rickshaw at the university gate and escape to the British Council close by or the USIS library near Topkhana Road farther away. There, in the cool silence of carpeted rooms, with windows overlooking shady lanes and vermillion Flame of the Forest trees, Rupa would pretend to research Poe and Emily Dickinson, James Joyce and JB Priestly but would spend more time flipping through overseas university catalogues and brochures.
Exhausted, she would often lay her head on the table, resting the side of her face on the silky pages, her eyelashes stroking pictures of far-away academic buildings so different from the commonplace and dreary modernity of the four-storey, whitewashed arts building of DU, with its crowded verandahs. It looked like a hospital next to the only architecturally beautiful spot on the Dhaka University campus: the red-stone grandeur of Curzon Hall, which dated from British times. Through the haze of peripheral vision she would glide over the green lawns of some distant and enchanted American campus town where carefree students walked under ivy-covered arches and down garden paths or leaned against neo-classical pillars, the sunlight cascading down marble steps.
She willed herself inside those pictures. She had to escape. At home, her parents were talking of arranging her marriage. They could not afford to pay for her education indefinitely, unless she surprised them with an option they could not refuse. In her daydreams, while her mother approached her to try on a new sari to wear to a ‘tea party,’ which was nothing but an excuse to be taken to some aunt’s for ‘bride viewing’ by the family of yet another prospective groom, she would be tearing open an envelope and shouting: I have been accepted. A full scholarship!
She and her friend Tamara, who was in the same dilemma, were constantly looking for news about scholarships offered by universities in the UK or the US. She knew Tamara was applying slyly to many other places without telling her. Rupa also quietly applied to the American University of Beirut because she fell in love with the pictures and description of the campus. Situated on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean. She could smell the sea breeze when she whispered ‘AUB’ to herself.
It couldn’t be a coincidence that her newly discovered and by now absolute favourite poet Kahlil Gibran was from Lebanon. It had to be an omen that the day before she applied to the university she was reading his poems and her eyes had stopped at: Build of your imaginings a bower in the wilderness ere you build a house within the city walls.
Of course, by city he meant for her to understand Dhaka. Gibran spoke to her intimately. She returned home in the evening, reading the poem in the rickshaw. For even as you have homecomings in your twilight, so has the wanderer in you, the ever distant and alone. He continued to whisper to her like a phantom lover as she slunk to her room to flop belly-down on the bed with the slim book of poems open.
Your house is your larger body…. and it is not dreamless. Does not your house dream, and dreaming, leave the city for grove or hill-top?
Hill-top! Beirut in a grove of cedar and cypress, facing the sun-glazed sea. Oh! He spoke to her. She needed to leave this city, this house, which was becoming an increasingly uncomfortable place for her, with her mother plying her constantly with photos and ‘bios’ of eligible young men waiting to meet her. Her exceptional beauty attracted unwelcome interest from matchmakers.
Like clockwork, Rupa’s mother walked in followed by Rupa’s younger brother Fazal. She tossed an envelope on the bed. ‘Another Prince Charming or two, for our princess.’
Fazal laughed. ‘More like the Frog Prince, sis. Three of them, warts and all. You lucky girl, you!’
When Rupa did not lift her head, her mother patted it and started to leave. ‘Consider them seriously, dear. Time waits for no one. Now freshen up and come to the tea table.’
Even after they left, she ignored the envelope, her eyes fixed on the lines of her prophetic book, its lines biblical, its cadence soothing as a promise.
Verily the lust for comfort murders the passion of the soul…
But you, children of space, you restless in rest, you shall not be trapped nor tamed.
Her dream now was not so much to go abroad to study as simply to get away from Dhaka. In contrast to the never-changing world of her parents, the illusory world of foreign universities gave her hope. There she would not be a housewife like her mother, but the student sitting on the grass, head thrown back to an open sky. She would, somehow, escape the humdrum existence of her family and friends. But to do this, she needed to be admitted by an institution that would give her some financial assistance.
To her bitter disappointment, she was not accepted by any of the foreign universities she applied to. Raihan’s marriage proposal came at a weak moment in her life — the day she got the rejection from the American University of Beirut.
Urbane, bespectacled and pleasant-looking, Raihan was a hit with everyone in the extended family. Uncles, aunts, cousins all fell for his humour and easy manners. Raihan’s wealthy and sophisticated family lavished expensive but tasteful presents upon her own. Meanwhile, he took her to lunches and dinners at the Hotel Intercontinental. Sitting across from her at a table overlooking the pool, he had leaned forward to listen to her.
‘Of course, you must pursue your dreams, continue with your education, and have your own career.’ Raihan’s voice was melting and his lemony cologne wafted towards her, confusing her. But she still wasn’t sure. She needed time to think. Time in which some miracle might happen, whisking her away to a new world.
Then one moonlit evening, Lipi and some other cousins badgered Raihan to take them all for ice cream and a long after-dinner drive to the airport. They crowded into Raihan’s father’s Mercedes. Rupa sat in the front passenger seat, and a breeze kept blowing her chiffon dupatta towards Raihan. He held the steering wheel with one hand, his other arm stretched across the seat, his fingers lightly touching her shoulder. There were some film songs playing on the cassette. Lipi started to sing along from the backseat. She had a lovely voice. Raihan half-turned his face in appreciation and joined her. Rupa could never hold a tune. She felt Raihan’s hand withdraw from behind her and move to fiddle with the cassette player. It never came back to touch her skin as he and Lipi started to talk animatedly about music.
Later, Lipi laughed, ‘Hey, cousin, if you ever have second thoughts about marrying him…’ That did it. Rupa made up her mind instantly and the wedding took place without delay.
Two weeks after her wedding, she finally received an acceptance — from Mount Holyoke College. Raihan said with chivalry that he would not stand in the way if her decision was to be a long-distance wife, but his eyes were sad. She continued on at Dhaka University, got pregnant not long after, and her dreams of going abroad to a foreign university slowly faded. Yet she never regretted marrying Raihan.
Still, it had felt unfair when a few months after Rupa’s wedding, Lipi’s doting father sent his daughter to study in the US. In fact, jealousy had ripped through her like a blade, made her physically ill. Everyone thought it was morning sickness. Rupa had consoled herself by saying Lipi was only going to a mediocre college. Then, just a year later, Lipi came back to announce that she was thinking of marrying a Bengali doctor she had met in the US and would not complete her degree.
Rupa had lashed out at her. ‘You don’t deserve your luck. Other students would do anything for the opportunities you’re throwing away! Marry if you must, but finish your studies, for God’s sake!’
Lipi hadn’t listened to Rupa at the time and went on to live her contented housewifely existence in the US. But later, after her daughter Saba graduated and left home, she went back to school and completed her degree in community service. Rupa was gratified when, on one of her trips home to Dhaka, Lipi gave her credit for inspiring the return to her studies.
Now Rupa, principal of her own school in Dhaka, was finally in the US to attend the wedding of Fazal’s daughter. After the family gathering, Lipi invited Rupa to her home in Newport News, Virginia, and when she called Raihan in Dhaka, he seconded the idea of extending her holiday by a few days.
Lipi’s contemporary seafront house within a gated community was like a glossy magazine photograph made real, the setting for a glamorous life of leisure. Yet it didn’t feel like a home. Neither Lipi nor her surgeon husband, Masud were ever seen relaxing in the sunken living room with sweeping views of the beach from the bay windows or using the breakfast nook overlooking the deck. Rupa could hear early morning sounds from Lipi’s bedroom, then the front door closing and the whoosh of tires as Masud’s Porsche left the carport. By the time Rupa came down, not even an empty coffee cup in the sink showed he lived there.
The first evening, Masud was busy with surgery, and Lipi took Rupa out to dinner at a charming restaurant. The next day Rupa insisted on cooking a Bengali dinner for Lipi and they stayed in. Later, the cousins sat on Rupa’s bed chatting about old times and their families.
‘When did you last go to Dhaka, Lipi? Wasn’t it when…’
‘Yes, it was the year Daadi died.’ Lipi’s paternal grandmother was Rupa’s maternal grandmother, Naani.
‘Remember Daadi’s house in Dhanmondi? The back garden, the swing on the guava tree? The Eid lunches? Those ghee-fried Shahi tukra made with loaves of bread cut in cubes not with sliced bread the way we do here, soaked in real saffron and cream. The chicken roasted with almonds and prunes.’ Lipi sighed. ‘Pity all that stopped after she broke her hip and came to stay with us. My mother tried to continue the tradition, but it was not the same thing.’
Rupa said, ‘Your mum was a wonderful daughter-in-law, my mother always said so. But Aunt Chobi was a modern career woman. She ran her home in her own way. Our grandmother had a life that revolved around the kitchen, making and sharing food that went with each season, celebrating every ritual. Who does that these days? I know I can’t. Neither can my mother.’
‘Oh! You mean no one in Dhaka does the elaborate Iftar teas during Ramadan anymore? And the rose-scented, pistachio- and silver-covered halwa for Shab-e-Barat sent to neighbours on lace-covered trays? What about the distribution of the first mangoes of the season, the making of guava jelly and sun-dried pickles and syrupy morobba of pumpkins and gourd? And on winter mornings, the steamed rice peetha oozing with molasses and coconut…’
‘Stop! You are on a real nostalgia binge, aren’t you?’ Rupa laughed.
‘Sometimes, I wish we were all back there, Rupa.’
‘Where?’
‘Back in Dhaka, together. Our childhood, adolescence — that is home to me. I remember our first apartment after getting married, in Chester, South Carolina, and the life we created later in other houses all over this country, for Saba. They were all…you know, like an attempted imitation of the home I remember. My home before I left Dhaka. Before everything changed. You are lucky you never left.’
Rupa sat up straight and looked steadily at Lipi. The waves were ghostly drumming, outside the window yet sounding far away. ‘Listen, Lipi, the past…it’s elusive, so much more alluring when you are not living in it. Yes, I never left, but this business of what you leave behind, the grand, unsullied, unchanging world, believe me, it is not all it’s cracked up to be. Places change, you change. Nothing remains the same. It’s all in the mind.’
Lipi was smoothing the coverlet over and over again. Rupa touched her hand. ‘And hey! You have such a lovely home here.’
‘Yes, it’s a lovely house, a beautiful structure. But it only comes to life when Saba comes to visit.’ Lipi squeezed Rupa’s hand. ‘Or now, with you here.’
On the third day of her visit, at breakfast, Lipi mentioned that she would be out most of the day with two special lady friends.
‘Rupa, I wish you could meet them. They are amazing at eighty-plus! Both widows whose families don’t have time for them. I volunteer to spend a day with them, twice a month. They would be thrilled to meet you. But I know you have things to do, so I’ll drop you at the mall.’
Rupa, surprised, set down her mug of tea. ‘What are you planning to do with them?’
‘I’m taking them to lunch. Other days I take them to a film or a park for a stroll and conversation. This is what they love most. To talk and to have someone to listen to their stories. Rupa, they are so grateful, but I learn so much from them, too. I’m just as gratified.’
Rupa stared at Lipi. ‘I would love to come with you. Where do they live? With their families or in some Old People’s Home?’
Lipi laughed, ‘You’ll see. By the way, now it’s called “assisted living”, among other euphemisms.’
It had set Rupa thinking of the future of old people in Bangladesh. Her parents had probably expected at least one of their two sons to live in Dhaka. Not in the same house, as in the joint-family setups of another time, just close by. But destiny had pulled both brothers to different continents. Her elder brother Rizwan lived in Rome with his wife Shabana, and Fazal had married an American woman and was settled in the US.
Of the three siblings, Rupa had been the one who had always wanted to escape Dhaka. Yet it was she who had grown roots in the ever-deteriorating city. At least, her parents were happy to have her near, and have the grandchildren visit them regularly. But where would they live once old age advanced on them like evening shadows? Would her brothers share the responsibility of caring for their parents or would she have to shoulder it all herself?
Or would there be a Serena Home for them, too, in the future?
Now, sitting next to Carolyn, Rupa looked around her. The place was cheerful enough, but full of old people in all stages of decline. Men and women, shriveled or faded, some on their own feet, others on walkers or wheeled by attendants, drifted around the lounge. Some sat at tables playing board games. Some watched the TV desultorily. One old girl dozed, her freshly lacquered hair like a helmet on a sleeping guard.
The sight of a young person here must be like water to a parched plant, Rupa mused. Then she looked at the women beside her and smiled. The way both Carolyn and Bernice were leaning into two middle-aged cousins, as if absorbing sunshine on a cold day, made Rupa feel younger than she had in years.
Lipi rose, saying: ‘Well, girls, shall we start for lunch?’
Two sprightly old men shuffled over to greet and flirt with Lipi like it was an old routine. Frank, in a smart polo shirt, bowed gallantly over Rupa’s hand, and Bill, in a jacket, put a trembling hand to his chest, murmuring, ‘Be still my beating heart!’
Bernice giggled, while Carolyn said ‘Oh! You!’ and slapped Bill’s arm playfully. Rupa felt that all Carolyn lacked was a folded fan.
‘And where are you off to, ladies, cruelly abandoning us?’ Bill asked.
‘Let me guess, Ruby Tuesday, right?’ Frank said.
‘Wouldn’t you like to know?’ Bernice said gaily as she arranged a yellow scarf around her wrinkled neck.
At Ruby Tuesday, the older ladies spent a long time consulting the menu, but when their special mini portions arrived they only toyed with their food, instead spending their energy on the conversation. During lunch Rupa could see Carolyn reliving her past travels to foreign countries through her, but on the return journey Carolyn was silent.
Back on the lounge sofa, she looked around her uncertainly. ‘Seems a nice enough place. I must tell Walter about it.’ She looked at Bernice, ‘Is the staff here dependable, dear? Anyway, it’s only for a few days.’
Bernice rolled her eyes as she whispered to Rupa, ‘Needs her batteries recharged. She’ll be as good as new after her nap.’
Bill and Frank waved from a table where a game of Scrabble was starting. Lipi and Rupa helped Bernice park her wheelchair between the men, who asked about the lunch. Then Bernice nodded meaningfully towards Carolyn on the sofa.
‘Go get your beauty sleep, Caro,’ yelled Bill. ‘We’ll warm up, meanwhile.’
The cousins went back to Carolyn. Lipi said: ‘Caro, darling, you go rest. I’ll see you soon.’
Carolyn looked at her and shook hands formally with Lipi. Then suddenly, as if something had clicked back into place, she hugged Lipi. But when she turned to Rupa, her eyes were blank.
Lipi said, ‘This is my cousin, visiting from Bangladesh.’
Carolyn smiled, ‘When my husband was in the diplomatic service, we were posted to London. There we met a couple from Calcutta. Is that in Bangladesh?’
An attendant came to take Carolyn to her room and Lipi accompanied her. Bernice saw Rupa sitting by herself and laughed from the table. ‘Hey, if I had Caro’s legs and she had my mind, wouldn’t we be perfect!’
‘Your turn, Bernice.’ Frank was shaking the bag of letter tiles, jiggling the loose flesh of his arm under his polo shirt.
Rupa walked over and stood at the table watching the players shuffle through the chaos of tiles to create meaningful order for themselves on the board. A linked and connected structure of words that touched each other with the proximity of still-lively minds and housed their conjoined efforts.
She wished she had played Scrabble and other board games with Naani instead of making perfunctory visits to the old woman in her solitary room at her uncle’s house in Baridhara.
Among the jumbled tiles on Bernice’s tray she saw the ghost of a word. It could be put on the Triple Word slot if Bernice used her ‘s’ judiciously. Could Bernice see it, too? She leaned towards the woman hunched over the table.
‘It’s the name of your home,’ Rupa whispered.
‘My home? Back in Williamsburg that would be… Greendale Apartments.’
‘No, here. Now. This place,’ Rupa spoke from the side of her mouth.
‘Hey, no helping!’ Frank looked over his glasses and shook his index finger at them.
‘What? We were just saying goodbye.’ Bernice said and turned to the board. Rupa tapped at the brochure in her hand. Bernice looked at it, her eyebrows gathered in concentration before clearing, and with a whoop she lay down her tiles: SERENE.
Crowing with delight she winked at Rupa. ‘Thanks dear,’ she whispered. ‘At my age, sometimes where you live is not always where you are.’
Rupa thought of all the places she had lived, body, mind and soul. Different houses, in the same city. She thought of all the homes she had created in her forty years of marriage, spanning the seventies to the millennium. It was a blur. However, what showed up through the mist with utmost clarity was the city where she had lived her entire life.
As a young girl, she had found Dhaka as claustrophobic as her parent’s house, tolerating both as the place to wait for her life to take off. When she agreed to marry Raihan, she had wed herself to the city as much as to his large family. Dhaka had grown with her. From a sleepy little provincial capital with wide, tree-shaded streets, the once elegant young city had grown into a blowsy, foul-mouthed whore, letting everyone use her, dump their filth on her, mistreat her. The Dhaka from which she had wanted to escape had now grown old and toothless. She could never properly love this city, sprawling and chaotic as a derelict house, which nevertheless, had been home to her. At least, Rupa had never abandoned it, even when her dreams had, drifting away like a rudderless ship.
When Lipi came back, Bernice held her hands out to both of them. ‘Thanks, Lipi. Today was special, meeting Rupa. Honey, next time you visit your cousin, come see us again, you hear?’
‘I will,’ Rupa said. ‘About Caro…’
Bernice said quietly, ‘She’ll be just fine. Been here since her Walter died. This is not a bad place. And we are all here together, you know, waiting for the bus.’
Frank piped up, ‘Except our Caro, who’s waiting for the stretch limo!’
Bernice cackled and turned back to the Scrabble board.
Lipi nodded to Rupa, ‘You wanted to stop by Barnes and Noble. Shall we?’
Rupa put her arm around Lipi. ‘No, let’s just go home.’

***
IN THE car, Rupa thought of her grandmother. A few years earlier, Naani had asked Rupa’s mother to be taken to see her old house in Dhanmondi. Rupa’s mother had spoken to her brother, Lipi’s father, about it. He thought it was a bad idea because the place had been sold to developers and had changed drastically. But his sister had convinced him. And they had all gone as a family in two cars, carrying the wheelchair with them.
When they arrived, Naani had sat in the backseat of the car, her eyes expressionless, looking at the apartment complex that rose before them where once her bungalow ‘Nikunjo’ had stood. The tangle of bougainvillea and other flowering shrubs that once covered the front porch had disappeared. The right side of the house that had been dense with papaya and banana trees, now housed the glossy lobby with the lifts going up five storeys. Amberwood, the marble sign said. Asset Developers.
Long ago, Naani had explained the Bengali word to Rupa, Lipi and her other grandchildren at some family lunch around her table in the old house. Nikunjo: a garden nook shaded by trees.
A private, secret garden. Perhaps with thirty varieties of roses, and miles of flowering magnolia trees. Or a dreaming grove of cedars and cypresses on a hilltop overlooking a sea. Rupa smiled. A bower in the wilderness built of your imaginings, as the poet of her fleeting youth had once suggested.
‘Why are you smiling?’ Lipi asked, giving her cousin a sideways look.
Rupa shook her head. Lines from an old poem she had not read in years came back to her, like the relentlessly calling waves that she heard each night in Lipi’s creaking, dreaming house.
‘Did you ever read Gibran, growing up?’ Rupa asked.
‘No. But I read him a few years ago. Saba gave me the book for one of my birthdays. You know the stuff about children coming through you and not from you, not belonging to you. Wise words. Why do you ask?’
Rupa shut her eyes and recited aloud, surprised at her memory:
And though of magnificence and splendour, your house shall not hold your secret nor shelter your longing.
For that which is boundless in you abides in the mansion of the sky, whose door is the morning mist, and whose windows are the songs and the silences of night.

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