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Lahari Mahalanabish


Lahari Mahalanabish: The Museum





Lakshman Prasad was still drowsy but his wife’s soft strokes etched paths on his head, forehead and shoulders to lead him out of the land of repose.

“Take me to the museum where you work,” Rukmini implored him in the most enchanting tone he had ever heard.

Before his marriage, which got solemnized just six months ago, Lakshman would sleep well beyond the sunset, deaf to the call of the birds, who returned to their nests from the lake, forming huge chains in the sky over his shack. Once his duty for the night got over, he would rush to his home, take a bath, have several pieces of bread and an egg, drink glasses of water and just fall into his bed. It did not take more than a second for sleep to completely possess him and he was kept under its grip till only an hour was left for his duty to begin. Within half an hour, he would brush, put on his uniform, comb his hair and have dinner at an inexpensive eatery. It took him another half an hour to commute to his workplace on his bicycle, skirting round the High Court, the Queen’s Memorial and peddling past the Big Grain Bakery’s permanently locked up gates.

Then Rukmini arrived in his life and in his home, converting the bare thread of his existence into a necklace with her colourful beads. On returning home, Lakshman would spend a long time in bed with Rukmini, ignoring the stuffiness within the mosquito net. In elated mind and spirit, he would sit down to have his meal of very soft chapattis, a curry and pickles – all prepared by her. While savouring the taste of her cooking, Lakshman would always wonder how she could rustle up a meal so well, with such limited ingredients and spices. It was only after breakfast that he would respond to the advances of his other companion in bed – sleep.

“I really want to go to the museum. We have already been to the parks and the zoo,” Rukmini’s voice delicately stirred the sound waves of the room, which was as dark as the night with the its only window closed, although it was just a little past midday. These days Lakshman took a break from his sleep towards the noon to have lunch with his wife. Some of the days, at least once a week, lunch would be followed by an outing within the perimeters of the city. Earlier Rukmini had expressed reluctance in going out, lest it deprived her husband of sufficient rest, but he would be adamant to show her around the city he had began to call his home.

Soon she began to look forward to such hours of enjoyment in one or the other, among the many government owned attractions in the city that charged little or no entry fees. Back from their little jaunt, Lakshman used to catch another couple of hours of sleep while Rukmini preoccupied herself in preparing his dinner.

Lakshman had never gone beyond the entrance of the museum. He, who had never seen the exhibits that he guarded night after night with an outdated rifle and another security man named Bholanath for company, was a bit wary at first of taking his wife there for he felt she would be asking too many questions about the objects on display and he would not be able to answer them. He need not have worried for Rukmini knew very well that he had to discontinue his studies after the third standard and was not silly enough to expect him to possess knowledge on a wide range of subjects. Nevertheless, Lakshman pretended to know everything under the sun when he was with his wife. The gap between his pretensions and the truth like the open sewerage between the lane and the line of huts did not draw any complaints from Rukmini.

“The museum is for babus (educated men). What will you do over there?” Lakshman said, suppressing a yawn.

“What? Billu’s wife went there last week. She can’t even read a word in Hindi but I can,” Rukmini replied. She had attended a few classes organized by an NGO for rural women as part of a literacy drive in her district.

Lakshman knew in his mind, that he would have relented to Rukmini’s wishes and taken her to the museum even if Billu’s unlettered wife had not gone there before.

Rukmini wore a pink sari that went well with her youth and shining copper complexion. She held her hair in a bun and encircled it with a cheap floral trinket she had bought at a fair. She always applied kajal thickly around her large eyes and wore a petal shaped bindi on her forehead. She possessed this particular design of bindi in many colours and chose the one that would match her sari.

As it had started to drizzle and the rain could gain in strength any moment, Lakshman decided not to travel on his bicycle. Instead they walked towards the bus stand. Rukmini’s glass bangles murmured softly as she shifted her hand to place her palm more firmly within Lakshman’s and her anklets tinkled contently; undeviating from its rhythm like one who has nothing more to ask for.

Rukmini’s heart skipped a beat at the sight of a tiger glaring at her. It took her several seconds to realize that it was stuffed. The room of taxidermy had leopards, antelopes, various species of birds, crocodiles, snakes and an elephant with long curved tusks. Artificial pools dotted the floor and trees almost touched the high ceiling, bringing about the feel of a jungle. Despite her fascination for the lifelike exhibits, Rukmini maintained a uniform distance from them throughout her stroll within the chamber.

She went into a reverential mood in the room of ancient sculptures – her eyes closed, her head bent and lips parted a little to let out a silent prayer, as most of the figures were of Gods and Goddesses, chiselled out of rocks in the nascent years of the first millennium. Musical instruments from all corners of the world concerted in another chamber, her eyes scanning the strings, flutes and the drums. It took time and effort on her part to put the letters together and read out their names. She pronounced them very softly, feeling the music of her utterances rolling along her tongue, striking the roof of her mouth, fluttering between her jaws, grazing the press of her lips before flying out of her mouth.

Just as many of the artefacts on display had been cleaned of the grime which layered them when they were discovered, Lakshman and Rukmini found a decade of monotonous ignorance removed from their ages, on recognizing the existence of the many things they had never heard of, the amazing relics they had never been told about, so they could look upon the exhibits with the unlimited wonder of pre-high school children. Lakshman could not have been happier about stepping beyond the gates he had guarded for the last five years. It was like pulling off a framed photo from the wall to discover it was the facade of a treasure filled drawer.

They sauntered among the royal furniture, toured around the newly learned of nations by means of their stamps, exchanged impressed looks over thousand years old gold coins, coloured their dreams with the shades of the master painters, threaded their attention along the richly embroidered fabrics, smiled at themselves in front of playfully curved mirrors and flittered between the preserved butterflies.

After coming out of the room dedicated to entomology, the couple stopped in the next chamber to admire the crowns and waist-length gold chains that once belonged to powerful kings and the earrings, anklets, nose rings, necklaces flaunted by their wives. Rukmini could not recognize certain pieces of jewellery and wondered which parts of the body they had adorned. It was then that her eyes fell upon a large diamond necklace. The other visitors in the room too stopped to stare at the ornament. It was shaped like an oxbow and studded with other gems such as rubies, emeralds and sapphires. The shine of the different precious stones seemed to give out the kind of mysterious light that emanated out of caves in mythological films. Each gem was replicated in brilliance by the next as if to disprove the belief that the pinnacle of perfection can be reached just once. Rukmini’s accumulating feeling of awe suppressed within for long like the steam in a pressure cooker, found release in an ecstatic squeal. The others in the room turned towards her but she was too excited to notice any of them. “It’s so beautiful! So beautiful”. The day being Sunday, there was quite a crowd within the room but yet there had been almost pin-drop silence till then as per the rules of the museum. Rukmini’s voice sliced through the quietness as if to cut a piece just for herself out of the visitors’ collective enjoyment. Lakshman was as enthralled on finding such expressions of joy on his wife’s face as she was on seeing the necklace and for a moment it seemed as if only the two of them were in the room along with the splendid piece of jewellery.

It was that time of the day when Lakshman and Rukmini enjoyed the comfort of bed and of each other. Instead, they found themselves seated, facing each other in a police jeep. Tears rolling down Rukmini’s eyes smudged her kajal. Lakshman’s voice had grown hoarse from repetitively insisting that they were not guilty.

Riding towards the museum gate on his bicycle, Madhu Chand, the morning guard was surprised at not finding Lakshman in the chair next to it. Lakshman was supposed to leave only after Madhu’s arrival and this was a rule the night guard had never broken. He had been the lone guard that night as Bholanath was on leave following his brother’s accident and efforts to arrange for a quick replacement had failed. Alighting from his bicycle, Madhu’s blood froze. His colleague lay, his face upon the dirt, a patch of blood at the back of his head, matting a tuft of his hair. With trembling hands he turned the injured man and pressed his palm on his chest. Madhu sighed with relief to feel Lakshman’s heartbeat. He unzipped his bag and undid the cap of his used plastic water bottle to sprinkle some water on his face. Lakshman groaned and his fingers twitched, his eyes still firmly shut. Madhu delayed no further in alerting the museum authorities. The night guard was roused into full consciousness, nursed and bandaged in the dispensary and finally dropped home. The police were informed based on his narration of the events. It was an hour later that the police jeep braked in front of his home.

Among the stolen goods, there were priceless paintings, sculptures and ancient coins. The diamond necklace was the only piece of jewellery missing while the rest remained intact in their cases.

In the fat file listing the museum’s daily visitors, they had found Lakshman’s name and address among many others. It seemed incongruous to them that the security guard of a museum would someday turn into its visitor and this led them to conclude that he had an ulterior motive. Some of the other people who had been there at around the same time were tracked and they described how a young woman in a pink sari had exclaimed on seeing the diamond jewellery. Most of them were able to recall the fetching face of the woman and their descriptions matched with the photograph slipped from Lakshman’s pocket during the struggle. The police concluded that Lakshman had entered the museum in the garb of a Sunday morning visitor to learn the positions of the exhibits he intended to steal so that he could creep back in the night, finish the job quickly and then fire a few shots in the air to indicate he had fought. Finally he had hurt himself; probably with the help of accomplices, and pretended to be overpowered by the goons. The necklace might not have been a part of his original plan but he had incorporated it on seeing how much his wife desired it. Nobody believed that Lakshman had thwarted a gang of five dacoits till he fell unconscious on being hit at the back of his head.

The jeep came out of the jumble of narrow lanes onto the main road. It was a morning like any other with children pressed down by heavy schoolbags waiting for buses and middle aged men walking towards the local market to buy vegetables and fish. It had rained that fateful night. The vehicle was making a lot of noise while slogging through a water logged stretch of the road. A lady on the way to her office grimaced as a spurt of muddy water dirtied her spotless sari. Lakshman unconsciously gritted his teeth, resolving to clear his wife’s and his names from all the accusations and get themselves out of the mess as soon as he could and in whichever way possible.

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