Mrs. Prakash opened her eyes and began to sit up in bed, picturing her aging joints as rusty bolts creaking with every movement. She looked out of the window where the tender rays of the sun reached the corner of her garden. There was the young mango tree, robust and flowering, ready to bear its first fruit that summer. The jasmine, its small white flowers scenting the fresh morning air, was right next to it, leaning on the compound wall for support.
This image had also been part of a dream that had floated away just as she woke up. Avin was there. The young man, sitting on one of the lower branches of the tree was looking down at her.
‘Idlis’, he said.
Having prepared the batter the night before, she planned to steam them that morning.
‘Don’t eat all of them!’ He told her in the dream.
Mrs. Prakash got up, thinking of all the packing she had to do. In a week, she would be moving in with her brother’s family. She was going to miss her home as well as the neighbourhood, which had become an extension of herself, like limbs fused to the body.
Mrs. Prakash first met Avin soon after moving into her house, back when he was a chubby 10-year-old. His mother probed Mrs. Prakash on how many children she had, her eyes lingering on the streaks of grey that had begun to show in Mrs. Prakash’s hair.
‘None,’ Mrs. Prakash replied in an even voice, trying not to show the disappointment that had lessened but never disappeared over the years.
Then she changed the subject before Avin’s mother had a chance to make sympathetic noises about her being widowed and childless.
‘I’ve often seen your son playing outside. Aren’t we lucky to have at least some space around our houses in this crowded neighborhood?’
Soon Mrs. Prakash had transformed the bare and scruffy-looking area around her house into a blooming garden. Working outside on her plants, she would call out to Avin’s talkative mother. Both women would stand on either side of the low compound wall and chat while Avin flitted around them like a hummingbird.
On Saturday mornings, she would make him steaming hot idlis for breakfast. He passed freely in and out of her house, dipping his hand into a box of sweets here and savouries there. He helped bring books to her from the library and began to take an interest in reading. She began to involve him in the upkeep of her garden. They planted a mango sapling and he would get excited about it growing into a large tree.
‘What can we do to make it grow faster?’ He kept badgering her.
‘We do the best we can with water and manure. Protect it from pests, remove dead leaves and give it all the love we have.’
‘Yes, my dear. All living things need it. And love can be between anyone, even this tree and you.’
‘Well then, here is some of it,’ he said, throwing his arms around its frail stem as she looked on with amusement. He began to come over to water it and unfailingly embraced it every single time.
Years passed and the plant thrived under their combined care, its roots spreading into the earth that lay on both sides of the shared wall that separated the two houses.
Avin graduated from college and moved to Mumbai for his first job. He would come home frequently during weekends and holidays and before he went to his own house, he would stop by to greet his next-door Aunty.
‘I’m home! Do I smell idlis?’ He would ask with a smile.
When the topic of his marriage began to appear in conversations with his mother, Mrs. Prakash gleefully entertained thoughts about suggesting prospective matches from a pool of her own relatives.
‘We are not rigid about caste, as long as it’s the same religion and we think that the girl is good. We have even asked him if he has someone in mind already,’ his mother stuck her chin out in pride, flaunting her liberal attitude.
Giggling like a schoolgirl to herself, Mrs. Prakash thought of asking her brother’s daughter, who would sometimes come to stay with her during the holidays, if she was interested in Avin. She was of marriageable age and was good friends with him. What if they got married and had children of their own? She could see flashes of little hands among the green leaves, holding on to the strong branches of a fully-grown mango tree in her garden.
Mrs. Prakash felt foolish now as she remembered those sugary daydreams. She had danced without a care, losing herself in alluring musical notes only she could hear. Then the music had stopped abruptly and there was dead silence.
That year, when Avin came home for Diwali, he did not stop by her place on arrival. She saw him outside his house, lost in deep thought, with his hands in his pockets and one foot on their bolted front gate rocking it back and forth on its hinges.
He noticed her and looked up. ‘I’ll drop by at six thirty in the evening,’ he shouted and hurried inside.
At dusk, earthen lamps, ornamental lanterns and decorative electric lights shone brightly, making houses and streets look like brides resplendent in wedding finery. Every few minutes came the sound of firecrackers that left a sharp burnt smell. Mrs. Prakash sat in her living room in a new orange sari, looking through the etched window glass at the bright, hazy shape of the Diwali lantern hanging above her porch outside. Her brother had invited her to stay at his place for a few days and was going to pick her up that evening. She was waiting for Avin to come before her brother showed up.
Mrs. Prakash had made up her mind to broach the topic of her niece’s marriage with her brother and to talk about Avin. But first, she thought, she would try to find out whether Avin already had someone in mind. She kept glancing at the door. Where was that boy?
As soon as he came in, instead of settling into his preferred corner of the sofa, he began to pace back and forth, letting his words out in a sudden rush.
He was in love. With someone called Firoz. At first, she couldn’t understand. Firoz was commonly a male name, wasn’t it?
‘Yes, it is. I met him last year at a party.’
Mrs. Prakash’s head started to spin. Avin was saying that he was in love with another man. Until now, she thought to herself, such people had existed only at the rim of her world. Perhaps not even that close. And now here was a familiar face among an unfamiliar crowd.
Avin wrung his hands. ‘I thought you should hear from me first. I doubt if my parents are going to tell you anything. They are too scandalized.’
He sighed and continued. ‘I had expected that it would be hard, but it is ten times more difficult than I had imagined it would be.’
Mrs. Prakash’s mind raced back to her own youthful past on a fateful day more than thirty years ago. They were sitting on the steps of a dilapidated old fort, like all lovers who came to seek respite from the searing heat and hide from prying eyes in the cool shadows. He took her hand in his and said that he had told his parents about them the evening before. Then he shut his eyes in despair. How livid they had been on finding out that she belonged to a different caste! There had been shouting, crying, pleading then, when nothing seemed to work, threats of driving him out of the home, cutting him out of their lives forever and even suicide.
She came back to the present just as Avin was saying, ‘…the stress. It’s too much to bear. They want me to put on a show, meeting all those girls that are being lined up before me. Can you believe it?’
‘It is hard,’ she agreed, staring fixedly at a point behind him at something only she could see.
She thought about how it had been for her and for the man she had loved so long ago it seemed like it was in another lifetime. Her parents too were against their union. The lovers had kept up the charade as their respective parents refused to relent and paraded matrimonial matches before them. But someone had to give in. He did. One day, just like that, he surrendered. Two years later, so had she.
The sound of a car drew nearer and stopped outside her home. Mrs. Prakash barely heard it. She was still extracting herself from the sudden rush of memories. There she was standing in that old fort, trembling like a silvery thread in one of the countless spider webs spread over every dark corner.
‘You can’t give up, you can’t, you can’t,’ she was saying.
The doorbell rang and Avin opened the door for her brother. Diwali greetings were exchanged. Avin seemed less agitated than before. He carried her suitcase to the car and put it in the trunk.
‘Let’s talk more after I am back in four days,’ she told him.
‘I’ll be gone by then. I’ll try and give you a call sometime,’ he said.
She got into the car, feeling less eager than before about her visit.
The days at her brother’s place went by in a rush of food, chatter and celebration. By the time she got back, Avin had already left. His parents had also gone away for a week to help a sick relative. Avin’s disclosure regarding his love felt like it lay under layers over something that she had been intimate with once upon a time.
A day after Avin’s parents were back, she was pulling out weeds near the jasmine bush when a loud shriek coming from the house next door nearly knocked her off balance. Something was very wrong. When she rushed in to check, she found Avin’s mother collapsed on the sofa, crying so hard that she had to gulp for air in between sobs.
At first, all they were told was that Avin had been in a major road accident while travelling back from a work-related trip to another city. His colleague broke the news of his passing as gently as possible but it felt like a sword being brought down in one swift, fatal sweep.
Mrs. Prakash felt as though she was drowning in a sea of sorrow. She could not bear to look at Avin after they brought his body home for cremation. Muffled weeping sounds filled the house and kept echoing in her ears. Her grief refused to ebb for a long time.
The days hurtled by and it was only recently that life had started crawling back to an emotional state that could more or less be called neutral. That morning, as she prepared breakfast, she realized that it was a Saturday. She wondered when she had last made idlis. She was spooning the batter into the round hollows of the stand from the idli cooker when she glanced up through the kitchen window and saw a man in a sporty blue t-shirt standing in front of the neighbouring house. He raised a burly arm and began to click photos of the surroundings with his cell phone. Then he pushed open the gate to her house and strode purposefully towards the front door. The doorbell rang.
With knitted eyebrows, Mrs. Prakash opened the door a crack on its security chain lock and warily regarded the well-built young man with light skin and curly brownish hair.
‘My name is Firoz; I am Avin’s friend,’ he said. ‘May I come in?’
Mrs. Prakash gaped at him. As he shifted his weight on one leg, the bright sunlight coming from behind him hurt her eyes but she continued to stare.
‘May I come in?’ He repeated.
‘Yes.’ She said and removed the chain lock.
She led him into her living room and offered him a seat. From the kitchen, she handed him a glass of water. He noisily gulped it down while she sat opposite him in silence.
‘You have a nice house,’ Firoz said. He sat at the very edge of the sofa seat, hands clasped and eyes cast down on a corner of the red carpet that covered the central part of the floor.
‘Thank you,’ Mrs. Prakash replied.
He looked up at her suddenly. ‘You know who I am, don’t you? I mean, in relation to Avin?’ His brown eyes were soft and pleading.
Mrs. Prakash nodded, ‘Yes, he had mentioned your name.’
‘Avin was so upset about how things had gone with his parents but he felt hopeful after meeting you, Aunty.’ He said. ‘Today I happened to be in this part of the town for some work and felt an urge to come here. I think sometimes you feel like being part of your loved one’s past and talking to someone who knew him. Someone who was very close to him.’
Mrs. Prakash felt her eyes getting moist.
‘It’s been exactly three months, twelve days and ten hours.’ He said, swallowing hard. ‘The pain refuses to go away. What hurts the most is that I can’t even tell anyone, you know, anyone besides one or two friends, just how much I …’
He broke off and began to shake with sudden sobs. It took a few seconds for Mrs. Prakash to realize that Firoz was crying. She was filled with tenderness towards this unbridled flood of expression. Once again, she remembered how, all those years ago, she had returned alone to that old fort and mutely wandered about, all the while wishing to scream at the top of her lungs. Her parents had forbidden her to talk to anyone about her relationship and she had not done otherwise. The need to maintain absolute secrecy held her under its spell. Her father was a respectable man and there were two younger sisters to marry off. Her mouth was sealed shut, denied the luxury of venting her pain, lest it tarnish images and reputations and brought shame to everything that she touched. All for the sake of answering that ever-potent, ever-present question poised like a whip above her back. ‘What will people say? Oh, what will people say?’
Mrs. Prakash got up, wiped her tears, sat down beside him and laid a hand on his arm. ‘Let it out now, son, let it out.’
They sat together like that for some time until Firoz began to grow calmer and it felt like the air in the room had been cleansed and it was somehow easier to breathe.
After washing his face, Firoz came back to a plate of steaming hot idlis laid out for him.
‘Idlis!’ His eyes shone. ‘Avin’s absolute favorite! And you know what, no matter which restaurant we went to, he would always say that none ever came close to yours.’
Smiling broadly, Mrs. Prakash served him a generous spoonful of coconut chutney. ‘There are plenty of idlis, eat all you want.’
As Firoz took out his phone and clicked a picture of the plate, she clucked her tongue but her face held an amused expression. ‘Oh, you youngsters these days! Now, eat it up before it gets cold.’
Firoz laughed and began to eat. ‘Amazing! Now I know what Avin was talking about.’
After he was done, he showed her his phone. ‘Look, I clicked a few photos of both your houses.’
His fingers paused at a picture, ‘Is that a mango tree outside?’
‘Yes,’ Mrs. Prakash said, getting up and standing by the window to gaze at it. ‘We planted it together when Avin was a little boy.’
She laughed. ‘Listen, I have to tell you about what Avin used to do. It’s so funny! One day, when he was around eleven he asked me how we could make the mango sapling grow faster. I told him to water it well, protect it from pests and give it love. This intrigued him and so here’s what he did every single time. After he watered it, he would throw his arms around it and…’
As she spoke, a slight breeze stirred through the branches and for a moment, Mrs. Prakash imagined Avin encircling the entire tree in one mighty embrace.
A lover of books, Deepti Nalavade Mahule considers reading and writing as important to her as the oxygen she breathes. She maintains a blog called ‘Dancing Fingers Singing Keypad’ (http://dfsk.wordpress.com/). One of her short stories was highly commended in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition 1999, run by the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association and others have appeared in Sahitya Akademi’s (National Academy of letters in India) bimonthly journal ‘Indian Literature’, ‘Muse India’, ‘Women’s Web’, ‘eFiction India’, ‘The Literary Yard’, ‘Siliconeer’ and ‘The Bactrian Room’.