“How can she sleep so peacefully?” his elbow nudged her accidentally as he shuffled in his seat.
He felt annoyed at her complete lack of nervousness in the wake of the situation that awaited her, few hours away.
“How can she not feel nervous, or atleast anxious?” Then he reasoned and scolded himself for thinking like that. “A typical Indian!”
She mumbled in her sleep at being nudged and then settled cosily, with her head on the small pillow. Her golden hair, with dark brown streaks pushed up messily. A thick red line was smeared on her parting. She had used her favourite red lipstick. When they were three hours away, she changed into a salwar kameez.
“You don’t need to.”
But she insisted.
Realizing that sleep wouldn’t come, and having already had two glasses of wine, being done with the good movies and the book he’d carried; there wasn’t anything left to do. He decided to look out of the window. The darkness outside offered no view.
“Soon the clouds will be visible as the plane descends.”
And so would his spirits. He closed his eyes.
Ma, I am coming home. Yes, I am coming home. Yes, she’s with me.
Her voice, rather her silence…he could hear her silence sitting in his office in NY. That was a month ago.
Ma had passed the phone to baba and then Choti. He knew Ma was upset. He could always hear her thoughts just as she could with him. It had always been that way, as far as he could remember. When he wanted the blue Nike shoes that cost 2000 bucks and didn’t have the nerve to ask his baba, ma had done it for him. And also made sure he got it. The Titan watch. The sports bag. The list was endless. And then when he wanted to go the US for higher studies, she was the one who spoke to baba and made him agree. He had been less angry when she handled him and the situation.
“You aren’t coming back, are you?” It was she who said it first, even before he had decided.
“No, ma. This is a very good job. it will help me…” he had begun explaining and then stopped.
“It’s ok, I know.” She never spoke too much or created a scene. Sometimes he wished she would. Then he could argue his point, make her understand. She just kept quiet. And her silence screamed.
And now 8 years later, Alok was going back home with Cathy, his wife. Ma knew about Cathy.
Alok leaned back as far as the economy seat allowed him to, pushed his fingers through his short hair, pressed his head with the finger tips. He was worried about something else. Ma he would manage. He always could.
“The house. What will Cathy say when she sees the house I have lived in. Three tiny rooms, peeling paint on the wall, dark and musty. The furniture so cheap and worn out. And the bathroom…oh my god.”
He almost sighed, feeling…he didn’t know what he was feeling.
Part of him felt ashamed.
“I have lived there for 24 years and now I am ashamed of it. What have I become?”
“What have I become? I have worked so hard to be where I am. The house, the car, the money…nothing has come easy. I love my life and I have nothing to be ashamed.” He told himself again, pressing his forehead against the cold glass window.
But deep inside he knew, the main reason why he went away. To make a life so far away from his home. I want a different life. The penury, the grim neighbourhood felt like a pit of quicksand.
“Alok, go far away from this…shit. This city and its poverty is like a demon. It sucks the life out of you.” That was his school friend, Amit, who lived next door, in another dingy dreary three room house.
That was also the reason why he stayed away for so many years. It was easy to pretend in NY, that the dark dingy three rooms in the dirty smelly by-lanes of Chetla didn’t exist.
He had been preparing Cathy for the past month.
“Baby, why are you so worried? I know your father is a shopkeeper.”
Did she think baba owned a food mart?
“I think you just don’t want me to go,” she had sulked. “But I will, you know. I want to see your city.”
He had booked a suite at Taj Bengal without telling her. He’d planned to stay just one night and then escape to the plush hotel. It was also his dream. He’d promised himself, many years ago.
One day I’ll earn a lot of money and stay in this grand hotel. In their most expensive suite.
He had booked the best room.
The car moved ahead slowly towards the house. He was cringing inside. Nothing had changed. In fact it was more dirty than he remembered. People lying huddled on the pavement, sleeping next to a mangy dog. The dirty houses that had seen a fresh coat of paint decades ago. The dimly lit street. He resented it all. He tried to draw Cathy into a conversation but she was engrossed soaking everything she saw.
They saw the cab before he could see them. Baba, ma and choti. They must have been waiting for a long time. Their fingers were cold.
Oh! God. Alok said in his mind, dreading to walk into the house.
He almost closed his eyes but then Cathy’s squeal startled him.
It’s so pretty, mummy. She drawled in her heavily accented voice.
“Whose house is this?” He looked around seeing the new sofa, a centre table with a vase of fresh flowers, crisp white curtains with tiny designs on it. The walls freshly painted. It wasn’t opulent. Simple but pretty. He rushed into the other rooms. New, fresh and pretty.
Thank God. He muttered under breath and collapsed on his bed.
Ma stood at the door and pushed the curtain to one side and looked at Alok. That’s when he noticed.
Her wrists were bare. So was her neck. Her ear lobes, with the hole enlarged from years of wearing a heavy earring. They were bare too.
Ma stood still looking at him with a faint smile on her lips and said, “Go and freshen up. There are clean new towels in the bathroom.”
Alok looked around, at the new furniture, cushions, carpet, curtains, fresh paint on the walls… and closed his eyes.