Part III: Ila Das Leaves Carignano
Tea is set and Raka sits restlessly while her great-grandmother complains that Ila Das will no doubt be late. Ram Lal is also apprehensive.
Ila Das’s arrival is preceded by mocking: cruel schoolboys make noises in her face, bump her, and laugh at her claims that she will tell their teachers. She finally yells at them and opens her umbrella, but the spikes are broken. They kick it away and it falls into the dust and rolls away.
Ram Lal marches down to retrieve the umbrella and yells thunderously at the boys, who scurry off. Ila Das thanks Ram Lal, and the two begin the walk up the path. He hears her breathing like “an old animal that has been made to run before the hounds” (109).
Ila Das is used to this treatment, though, for all her life, “mobs had taunted and derided her” (110). Nanda Kaul thinks about this, reflecting that even as a child, Ila Das must have garnered disapprobation. When Ila Das was young, the family was wealthy and had servants and luxuries. Yet that was just a piece of Ila Das’s life, and Nanda Kaul “had seen so many pieces of it, littered over the northern plains” (110).
Ila Das’s cackling voice is heard, a voice that does not even sound human. She had the voice as a young girl when Nanda Kaul first knew her. They played together as girls, then went to school together. Teachers and pupils hated the voice. Her parents bought her a piano hoping she’d be silent vocally while playing music, but she still sang horrifyingly.
Nanda Kaul sighs as Ila Das comes through the gate, beaming. Ila Das embraces her happily, for Nanda Kaul has always been “like a beacon, like an ideal” to her (112).
Nanda Kaul brings Ila Das in and the latter chatters away about the trees and the house—and about Raka, once she espies her. Ila Das shakes Raka’s hand vigorously, to Raka’s evident distress. Ila Das proclaims that they will be great friends, and she insists on being great-grand-aunt to her.
Nanda Kaul is watching this, amused that while she has never touched Raka like that, Ila Das presumptuously did so and made Raka very upset. This is slightly satisfying to Nanda Kaul.
Ram Lal hovers over the tea, for it is not every day they have someone to tea. Raka does not seem to know how to behave at a social gathering.
Ila Das immediately begins to wax poetic about the home they knew from childhood, remembering Nanda Kaul’s mother, the paradisiacal home, and the piano. As Raka listens, she becomes terrified that the old ladies will relive their memories all day. Nanda Kaul becomes annoyed when Ila Das starts singing along with her fake piano-playing. The past seems overloaded and oppressive.
As she sings, it is like nature itself rejects her: pebbles crash down the hill, crickets whine, and pine trees shiver. Raka and Nanda Kaul gape at Ila Das “crooning over the imaginary piano with round glass tears popping out of her little eyes” (118). Ila Das pulls out a handkerchief, blows her nose, wipes her eyes, and swings her legs. Stiffly, Nanda Kaul asks if she would like milk or lemon.
Ila Das laughingly apologizes and says music was so much a part of their lives. She remembers the glamour of the Vice-Chancellor’s home. At this, Raka feels even more despairing at this game of old ladies. She dreams of the burnt, solitary house, of the monstrous ravine, and of a forest fire wiping it all away.
Nanda Kaul also seems weary of this game and lets Ila Das prate on. She speaks of the little house she had near the Vice-Chancellor’s, the difficulties of teaching the girls, the winter season and its music, and how lovely Nanda Kaul always was. Nanda Kaul sits rigidly, refusing to engage. It is too shameful.
Ila Das continues, now remembering the summers with the melons and lychee trees. There was the badminton court where the teachers all hoped for an invitation to play with the Vice-Chancellor. They’d play mixed doubles, and she remembers playing with one of Raka’s great-uncles while the Vice-Chancellor played with Miss David.
Suddenly she stops. Raka looks up, surprised. She sees Nanda Kaul put her fingers together and Ila Das sitting silently, her mouth agape. She cannot understand what “sharp, swift scissors had descended on the endless tangle of her game” (122).
In this section, we meet Ila Das, whose voice was memorably heard at the beginning of the novel. She comes across as extremely annoying at first, her appearance and behavior palpably disturbing to Nanda Kaul and Raka even though the former has known her for decades. Ila Das is unmarried, has a club foot, is “small, shrunken” (118), wears shoddy clothing, and has a singular voice that is described as, among other things, “shrill” (110), a “cackle…[a] scream…It was the motif of her life, unmistakably. Such a voice no human being ought to have had” (111). While not immune to others’ disapprobation, she seems to have had a pleasant enough childhood, especially due to her parents’ wealth under the British Empire. Though that wealth does not exist anymore, as readers will find out in the next chapters, she has retained a degree of autonomy and morality that she and Nanda Kaul ascribe to good breeding.
When Ila Das joins Nanda Kaul and Raka for tea, she is full of exclamations, emotional tears, and recitation of memories. Though Nanda Kaul gives her nothing to run with, she plows ahead with her remembrances of when she was at the university as a lecturer in Home Science, the Vice-Chancellor’s house and Nanda Kaul’s presiding over it, teachers and students, summer recreation, music and badminton, etc.
Unfortunately for Nanda Kaul, many of the remembrances Ila Das indulges in are painful and problematic for her. Ila Das realizes this when she mentions Miss David and the Vice-Chancellor, who were having a lifelong affair without any regard for Nanda Kaul. Elaine Yee Lin Ho explains, “the unbridgeable distance between this ‘anti-social’ voice and what it speaks of sharpens the pathos of Ila. Her account, re-membered in nostalgia, of the past life of Nanda’s household as a rich social tapestry, full of human warmth and the pleasures and satisfaction of food company and conversation, is crucial to Ila’s self-worth—that she too has once experienced life in its plenitude. Nada, behind apparent composure, is increasingly perturbed not only by Ila’s fantasy of her self and Nanda’s family history, but more fundamentally by the dissociation between memory and truth which enables Ila’s account and which bonds Ila to her in feelings of admiration and loyalty.”
Perhaps of all the main characters, Ila Das best exemplifies a feminist worldview. She is unmarried, childless, and works for a living. She challenges men when they are wrong, telling Nanda Kaul, “it’s so much harder to teach a man anything” (129) in terms of changing outmoded behaviors, and that the priest “sets the young men in the village against me” (129) but that she is not going to stop advocating for the cessation of child marriage and for the assumption of new forms of medical treatment. Ruth K Rosenwasser writes that “by challenging male authority, Ila Das espouses the feminist cause through her conscious need to empower women…As a heroine and a feminist, Ila Das combines energy, determination, and courage to protest male dominance which relegates women to positions of subservience and submission.” However, as we will discuss in the final analysis, Ila Das is not allowed to fully inhabit this space and is instead punished for her behavior.