Ritu stood at the threshold of Nandini Villa, an old familiar ache stirring in the pit of her stomach. In the decade since she had left, the houses on the avenue had morphed into grander versions of themselves, cloaked in spotless white paint. One or two of them retained their colonial look, albeit with fading paint marring the sheen of the boundary walls.
Amidst all of the shining examples of prosperity stood the bungalow she had grown up in, crumbling and dilapidated, like a cake whose icing was melting. The tell-tale lines of water leaking through the pipes formed a haphazard maze on the outer walls of the house.
What a stark contrast to her quaint townhouse in Croydon.
She dithered, inches away from the spires of the gate. What was she waiting for? No one knew she was coming. Ma would implore her to stay away. So what if Ma had suffered through her fifth operation in two years? She would plead with Ritu to leave her alone, let her die in peace, but Ritu knew, she never meant the words she said.
Ritu sucked in her breath and pressed the mutilated bell.
The minutes ticked past. The sky turned steel grey with the promise of rain-bearing clouds.
She clanged the top handle of the gate. Rust had consumed the edges of the grille. The house and the gate were withering away, just like her mother.
The clanging was loud enough to wake at least one resident. Meena Aunty came charging out of the door. On catching sight of Ritu at the threshold she crossed the short path to the gate in a hurry.
“Oh! You have come?”
Neither disappointment nor pleasure lingered in her question, merely a tone of surprise.
“Yes, I have come.” Ritu wondered: had she ever left? The years fell away and she pictured herself wearing her faded blue tunic, the black ribbons unwinding from her plaits after hours of frolic in the school. She had no trouble recognizing Meena Aunty in her impeccably draped cotton sari. As she approached the gate to unbolt it from inside, Ritu spotted tea stains on the pallu and her blouse. Her hair, which Ritu remembered as jet-black, had now turned grayer than the overcast sky that was threatening to unleash a torrent of rains upon them. She had swept up her tresses in a bun as always, but stray hairs yielded to the breeze and flew in all directions as she huffed down the path.
She threw open the gate. “Come in, come in.”
Meena Aunty looked harried — anyone who lived with Ma would. Ritu fell in step behind her, hauling up the straps of her navy haversack while pulling her trolley-bag as its wheels rattled over the rough-hewn path that led to the house. “How is she?”
“How else will she be? Tired, ill, angry. Yesterday she threw the soup I made for her. ‘Too bland,’ she says. Tell me, have you ever seen her eating spicy food? Now she wants me to make sambar. How much more can I take?”
Ritu sighed. Ma’s advancing age had produced no calming effect on her demeanour. She had never forgiven Baba, and now that he had departed for the afterlife (not heaven, she said, because of his sins) she stockpiled her anger for whoever remained. She lived in a two-storey bungalow of her own, without having to share it with anyone else unlike her other sisters. She lived off a comfortable income that her husband’s pension and wise investments had ensured, and she had a devoted caretaker-cousin like Meena Aunty who tended to her without complaint. But Ma, like always, was never satisfied.
Ten years ago Ritu had climbed aboard the first bus out of Goriahat, and had vowed never to come back. Yet there she was, dragging the wheels of her suitcase against the pebbled ground.
Ritu trailed Meena Aunty into the house. Her cautious aunt tiptoed her way through the corridors. Ritu mimicked her soft footfall.
As she entered the house, the familiar smell of childhood filled her senses. The cry of the children running through the passages, feet pattering on the hard mosaic-tiled floor, and minutes later the same ruckus quieting down when Ma yelled at them because she felt the first pangs of a headache coming on. Ritu never heeded her mother’s many medical complaints, and when she did, she regretted it. There was always another problem lurking around the corner, always another ailment to tend to.
Meena Aunty swung open the door to her mother’s room and stepped inside.
Ritu stood rooted to the spot. She closed her eyes, muttered the first stanza of the Hanuman Chalisa, and followed Meena Aunty.
At twenty-one, she hovered on the cusp of a promising career after graduating with a degree in economics. The world was her oyster, and she was determined to knock down the glass ceiling at the investment bank that had wooed her with lavish lunches at the Taj Hotel and welcomed her into their fold.
By the faint light of the candle, on another rainy day that had wiped out the electricity in their district, her mother leaned back in the armchair, glaring at her.
“So much work to do in the house and this girl is running off to dance with her bosses and colleagues.”
Ritu stood with her arms crossed over her chest, staring down the woman who had given birth to her.
“I was not dancing. The client had thrown us a party and it would look odd if I was the only one who skipped it. And I got an award at the party! Thank God I went!”
Ma’s familiar grimace crossed her face. “What award? How much money you made from it?”
“Ma, not everything is linked to money. It is an appreciation of my performance.”
“Don’t raise your voice!”
Meena Aunty quivered. Ma, a thin wisp of a woman, radiated a quiet, dangerous strength.
Ritu met her fixed stare. Something snapped in her brain. “Fine, I won’t.”
She turned on her heel and stalked out of the house, stopping only to haul out the haversack that had accompanied her everywhere from the day she’d left home to enter the hallowed halls of the college hostel.
As the sole of her flats stepped into the soft mush of mud just outside her doorstep, Ma called out. “Don’t come back here if you leave the house!”
Ritu glanced over her shoulder one last time. “I won’t be back! I will never come back!”
She stared at the frail person lying motionless on the bed, on a cerulean bed sheet with matching pillowcases. If Ritu exercised her imagination a little she could almost picture Ma lying on a floating bed in a clear pool at the Hyatt.
Her eyes fixed on a spot far away, not meeting Ritu’s at all. “You came.”
Her voice sounded stronger than Ritu expected. “Yes.”
“I thought you will come only when it’s time to light the pyre.”
Ritu set down her haversack and slumped into the chair beside her bed. She placed her hand on Ma’s, half-expecting her to withdraw, but she didn’t.
“How is your work?”
“Yes. It’s good.”
Ma gazed at her, her face blank, her expression inscrutable. Soon she averted her eyes, then closed them. Ritu turned to Meena Aunty.
“Let her take some rest. Come, I’ll get you something to eat.”
They drank tea out on the patio, a light drizzle coloring the leaves and the stone walls a shade darker.
Meena Aunty poured out her tea into the saucer. She lifted the saucer to her lips, and slurped the tea from the rim.
Ritu watched her in fascination, a mixture of affection and repulsion clashing in her bosom. If her friends from Canary Wharf saw her now they would disown her instantly.
Her grandmother used to drink her tea exactly the same way, and, so she suspected, did most of the older generation of her mother’s side of the family. She had never seen her father do that, and she knew if he were alive he would frown upon it. He must have been squinting down at them right now (she believed he found his way to heaven, no matter what Ma said), curling his lip in disdain at his daughter stooping to such levels.
Meena Aunty set down her cup. “She does sit up and talk sometimes.”
Ritu drew her gaze away from the half-filled saucer. “Does she? She almost doesn’t look strong enough to.”
“It’s rare, but she does it.”
“Meena Aunty, where are our things? My photo albums of my childhood, and my diaries. Baba’s letters, diaries, memoirs. You know he was writing his memoirs, don’t you?”
Meena Aunty sipped once more, her demeanour resembling a satisfied tabby. Ritu suppressed a smile. It was very odd to compare the sturdy, buxom Meena Aunty to a lithe cat, but the picture that had popped up unbidden in her mind refused to go away, and she shut her eyes for a few seconds to steer it out of her mind.
Her voice was low when she answered. “She put them away.”
“What do you mean ‘put them away’?”
“She sent me away out of her room. She called some workmen and they locked the room while they….”
“While they what?”
“…while they probably destroyed his things. I think she got them to burn it. She knew I wouldn’t do it.”
“How could you allow her to do this?”
“I didn’t — she was adamant. That day she asked me for the cardboard box that held all your and your Baba’s things. She locked the room, and later she called me back. Only the empty photo frames lay there, and some ashes gathered up on a tray. I discarded the ashes and stored the frames in the loft.”
Ritu set her tea down gingerly, afraid her rage would shatter the glass cup.
“I want to see the frames. Also tell me when she sleeps. I want to check around her room.”
“I’ve looked everywhere for his things, my child. I couldn’t believe it for days. But there is not a nook or cranny in that room that I did not search.”
“I know, Aunty, but maybe I can find something you didn’t.”
A look of scepticism crossed Meena Aunty’s harsh features, but soon she offered up a bright smile. “Let me make you some jhal-muri.”
Ma was strong enough to emerge from her room three days later, and deigned to join them on the patio for their evening tea.
Ritu had spent every spare minute honing her investigative skills, snooping around her mother’s room, hunting for those fragments of memories her father had left behind.
Now Meena Aunty pandered to Ma, complimenting her saree and marvelling at how bright her eyes shone. Ritu stayed silent, fiddling with a stray thread of her kurta as her mother reminisced about a family trip to Shimla when Ritu was ten.
Vague snatches of memory flitted through Ritu’s mind. “Do you remember the toy train, Ma?”
Ma looked past her. “One hundred and eight tunnels. How could I forget?”
The corners of her lips twitched in a smile. Her face bore a distracted faraway look, as if she saw something in the distance that fascinated her.
“So strange. Something that is so exciting when you are young becomes so repulsive when you are older.”
Ritu watched her dig deep into her memories.
“The first time I travelled with your Baba to Shimla, I was twenty years old with stars in my eyes. I found it so thrilling to count the tunnels and watch the train thunder through them. I’d even run to the open doors and let the breeze shower my face with kisses. The second time, when we all went together, it was so different.”
“But we had so much fun on that trip, Ma, didn’t we?”
The sparkle in her eyes faded. She glanced over her shoulder, a signal to Meena Aunty.
She rose shakily to her feet. “Let us go.” Ma placed her entire weight on Meena Aunty’s arm. The duo shuffled back to the room, each step of their feet dragging against the floor.
Ritu stood up and watched them go.
“‘We had fun on that trip,’ she says. ‘We had fun.’” Her mother muttered all the way inside.
She’d lost the thread. She’d lost her mother.
She found them concealed under a false bottom, in a drawer of the small cabinet by her bedside.
How had Ma done it without Meena Aunty’s knowledge? Who had designed and created it for her?
After her morning dose of medicines, Ma had fallen into a deep slumber. The low hum of her snoring issued through the room.
Ritu crept to her bedside, and as she did almost every day, began rifling through the drawers. Inside the bottommost drawer were books — thick heavy volumes on history and law that Baba used to read, but Ma never did.
The depth was off, the drawer looked deeper than it was from the inside. She felt around the bottom, and sure enough, her fingers closed around a little knob.
She emptied the drawer of its books, then lifted the knob once more.
The letters and two diaries lay there, tattered and decaying due to neglect.
She sat at the edge of the bed, stunned at finally having found them. Baba’s face in the photos was blurred. So were hers. Upon closer inspection, she realized they weren’t blurred but had been scratched out, perhaps with the sharp edge of a key.
“What are you doing?”
The voice belonged not to Meena Aunty, whom she had expected to turn up at the door, but Ma.
She blinked at Ritu, her eyes limpid. Her gaze registered the letters in Ritu’s hand.
Ritu whispered, “How could you do this to Baba? To me?”
Ma turned her head to one side and closed her eyes.
“You are right. I shouldn’t have.”
Ritu felt the first prickle of tears sting her eyes.
Ma’s words came in hateful spurts. “But why should I have cared? What use was this family? It held me back, ruined my career, ruined my life.”
“What do you mean? You never wanted a family? You never wanted me?”
“My whole career lay ahead of me. I would have become the curator of the Fine Arts Academy. But at twenty-two I gave birth.”
Ritu’s shoulders shook as she struggled to talk through her tears. “You got your wish, Ma. Even if its twenty years too late. You won’t have a family. You drove Baba to his death, and now you’ve thrown me aside like a used rag.”
Minutes later, Ritu stood at the threshold outside the gate, bag in hand, waiting for the bus.
She wiped her eyes as she muttered to herself. “I won’t come back. I will never come back.”
Gargi Mehra writes fiction and humor in an effort to unite the two sides of the brain in cerebral harmony. Her work has appeared in numerous literary magazines. She blogs at gargimehra.com and tweets as @gargimehra
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