‘Ajay must be on his way,’ announced Kamini Devi. Her cheeks were suffused with just the tiniest blobs of pink and her voice seemed pitched just a teeny-weeny notch higher today. But, it was her eyes that gave her away. That rare glint of uncontrolled happiness, expectation and impatience shone through them. People who knew her well could tell that this meant she was mighty excited. Her only son, Ajay Baba was coming from Amreeca.
A few hours after landing, Ajay reminded himself yet again not to be surprised by this country.
‘Amma!’ hollered Ajay as he enveloped her in his passionate embrace. For a mother so restrained, Ajay sure was a free spirit. Amma hugged him back, but there was a characteristic lightness to her embrace; as if she was afraid he would disappear into thin air if she hugged too tightly.
The unyielding heat was the first assault on his senses. Ajay had forgotten what it meant to be in Vishakhapatnam in summer. He instinctively checked the car air-conditioning about 20 times to be sure it hadn’t had a meltdown already! The last thing he wanted was the air-conditioning to die on him.
A series of tiny stores – bookstores, cloth stores, food stalls, footwear stalls – lined the streets randomly. Colours were popping out everywhere. Beggars occupied the same street as posh restaurants. Temples, mosques and churches existed on the same single street, sharing the walls with other common homes. Why hadn’t he noticed this before? It suddenly occurred to him that he hadn’t appreciated how much spirit it takes to set up that ‘Blouje dukaan (All woman welcome)’ right there, bang in the middle of the market square?
‘I should study their business models,’ the entrepreneur in him made a mental note to himself.
‘Maybe we could make a life here together some day – the two of us,’ mused Ajay. After all, this country seemed to have a voracious appetite for variedness.
Amma was just as Ajay left her – calm, self-assured, totally in-control. The same kohl-rimmed eyes, the same red bindi and her same unshakeable routine. Her light footfall on the way to the puja room woke him today as it had years earlier. Most questions and requests were met with a genteel smile. The unguarded laughter that he remembered of his younger mother was getting increasingly rare.
She showered her affection on Ajay, but not in a clobbered way. He knew she loved him, yet he would never see her like other moms hovering around him. Over the years, he had grown accustomed to the restrained manner of his mother. Amma was never impulsive, spoke softly and always remembered to rein in her emotions; almost as if she was afraid of letting herself too close to life.
As expected, his tongue seemed to be making the most of all those assaults on his senses. Meal after meal seemed straight from heaven. About ten people simultaneously prodding him to eat ‘well’, neighbours dropping in unannounced just to say ‘hi’ – these things didn’t happen where he currently lived. Not that Ajay was complaining. This was a perfect vacation.
‘I have 15kgs of baggage allowance on myself,’ guffawed Ajay loudly when rendered helpless and embarrassed from all the attention.
He allowed himself the baggage allowance line everywhere he went – it did help alleviate some of the guilt of binge-eating.
‘Have you spoken yet?’ a Whatsapp message flashed on his phone.
‘Not yet, honeybunch – very soon. Love you!’ replied Ajay.
Ajay caught Amma in a particularly remarkable mood and surroundings the next afternoon. Amma was on the swing, crooning to a ’70s song on the radio, singing and smiling to herself. The fan whirred reluctantly as if screaming to say it was too much effort in the heat.
Amma looked up as he drew closer. Smiled.
‘I know there’s somebody,’ she said, knowingly, naughtily.
‘How did you know?’ said Ajay, partly shocked, partly relieved.
Just the smile. Crooning again.
‘Tell me about her.’
Ajay paused; measuring each word. It meant she didn’t really know.
‘Ma…it’s a him.’
The next morning, Ajay waited to hear Amma’s footfall towards the puja room. He heard none. Neither did he see her the previous evening. Or for that matter, after their conversation ended abruptly the last afternoon.
He finally spotted her under the plastic canopy (so named, because it was made of discarded plastic bottles). A bunch of high-school kids hung around the place, buying cool drinks for their girlfriends, apparently trying very hard to up the cool factor for themselves. Some other tourists were engrossed in a selfie-binge next to the “Welcome to Vizag” head post. The beach beckoned nearby, even though it was a brutally hot afternoon. The plastic canopy did provide some protection, but was clearly wanting.
Amma didn’t move when Ajay sat next to her. Her eyes seemed far away, as if searching for something far into the sea?
‘Amma, I meant to tell you earlier, but I didn’t know how you would react. I didn’t even think you would understand such a thing!’
‘Amma, please try and understand. I am not like other guys. I just can’t be. I tried. I really tried!’
‘Amma, I am sorry.’
‘Don’t be. I am proud of you!’
‘I meant to tell you something too, Ajay.’
‘It was a rainy day. It was also raining congratulations for us. We had just become parents. You were in my arms and I silently promised the entire world to you.’
‘As you were busy growing up; I was busy learning to be a mom. I was the new hassled mom. Between feeding and toilet schedules; between feeling exhausted and elated, between rituals and unsolicited advice, I failed to notice.’
‘I failed to notice that your father had become quieter. I failed to notice that his work hours kept growing longer. At times, when I did catch his pensiveness, I dismissed it as “New-Pop syndrome”. I failed to notice that he meant to say something, but never could bring himself to tell me.’
‘One fateful morning, the shell dropped. Your father killed himself that morning – slit his wrists with the kitchen knife. Of course, I desperately hoped my sleep-deprived brain was playing tricks on me. Of course, it was not.’
‘The letter he left me only made it worse. He felt trapped in our marriage. His growing responsibilities seemed to be only dragging him deeper into the trap. Mr. Prasad, who he introduced to us as his business partner, turned out to be his secret lover.’
‘At that point, all I could think was – it’s bad enough if he left me for another woman – but for another man? It didn’t make any sense. I lost my confidence, my sense of identity. I felt bitter, unloved, cheated. If not for you in my arms, I would have ended my life too. Later, I told you he died in an accident, too ashamed to tell you that your father hadn’t loved me.’
‘All these years, I have churned the happenings in my mind, as if doing that will somehow change what happened. What if he had someone had heard him? What if he had had the courage to tell his parents? What if he had said “no” to our marriage? What if we all had the courage to accept differences? Would he have lived? Would I have been happier? With someone, who wanted me for my sake and not as a cover-up for an anomaly? Did he ever ask himself, ‘What about her? What about us?’
Amma and Ajay walked the streets of Vizag like old times. Good old sugarcane juice on wheels was now available with “no hand-touch”. The “99-Variety Dosa” now had a Pizza Hut flashing. The Muniraju Coffee Works had morphed into a swanking bright bustling coffee shop – the familiar mermaid beaming “Starbucks”.
‘This is where your Appa and I first met,’ she said. ‘It was an arranged marriage and seeing each other was unheard of then, even after being engaged. But meet we did, once. It was called Muniraju Coffee Works then.’
Even today, I often come here, sit at the same spot we took the first time, replaying the conversation we had. I can’t help wondering if he asked to meet so he could tell me? Had his courage not failed him that day, it would have been different.’
The night refused to provide any respite. Dreams filled his sleep and Amma filled his dreams.
Ajay drifted in and out the coffee shop.
He heard noises. Screeching, screaming.
He saw colours. Rising, billowing.
And then he saw Amma.
She sat in the Starbucks cafe, sipping her coffee and staring out of the window. The blood stained knife lay next to her handbag, covered with her blue silk scarf...Appa sat opposite her.
The colours enveloped her once again. She willed the noise to quieten...her inner demons liked to play havoc with her, but she won’t let them.
As the smoke parted, revealing her once again, surrounded by deafening silence, Ajay saw her eyes. They were shape shifting in the dark. Happy, cheerful, inquisitive, surprised, dismissive, steely, stoic, sad, hopeful, anguished, dejected and finally pained. Extremely pained as her eyes fell on the knife.
Pinning Appa with her gaze, she asked, ‘What about me? What about us?’ her quiet voice demanded. Appa looked downcast, hopeful – hopeful that he might be forgiven, someday.
‘What about us? What about US? WHAT ABOUT US?’ The voice steadily grew, boomeranged on the walls of the café until they physically filled his ears with pain. Ajay was screaming when he awoke; his body wet with sweat.
As Ajay opened his eyes, Amma was leaning over his sweat-drenched body; her brow furrowed in worry.
As she cradled his head in her arms, in a rare physical show of affection, she asked softly, ‘When are you bringing him home?’