Hema Nair’s story is set in the fractured times of our lockdowns – about separation, distances, and the guilt we may face on account of it.
Venkat was on a zoom meet when the doorbell rang. He frowned. Nobody rang his doorbell at 8 pm. In fact, nobody rang his doorbell at any time. He muted himself and answered the door. Kaveri, the maid from downstairs, stood in the doorway, looking distraught.
“Anna1! Ajji2 is not feeling well. Please come fast.”
‘Ajji’ was Mrs. Ranganathan, Venkat’s 70-year-old landlady. She lived downstairs while Venkat rented the flat upstairs. When he had first moved to Bangalore, he shared a flat with two co-workers in a high-rise apartment. It had no privacy, a total absence of anything green as far as the eye could see, and the incessant noise of traffic. As soon as he had saved enough for a security deposit, he moved to this quaint old house in Jayanagar. Venkat’s interactions with Mrs. Ranganathan were limited to visits to pay rent and conversations about breakfast – a common enough topic in Bangalore. She tried to stretch the conversation like an elastic band, asking after his Amma or his job, but Venkat kept his hand on the stairwell banister – one foot on the step – and answered her queries politely before ascending to his abode. He couldn’t avoid the rent day visit though. She served him really good filter coffee and homemade snacks like puliogare3 or chakli4 and he would hand over the envelope with cash. Venkat would crunch away on the snacks while she religiously counted them out in front of him. Then he heard the creak of a steel almirah open and slam shut as she locked up the safe. Venkat preferred virtual financial dealings and did not approve of the cash transaction. It was inconvenient, and possibly dangerous since she lived alone, but was a necessary part of this arrangement. Her son Gautam, who lived in the US, explained that she used the cash for her living expenses because the bewildering world of passwords, pins, and plastic money, was beyond her understanding. He had figured out for some time now, that she made these snacks, particularly for him, but since he didn’t know how to handle the gratitude, he just ignored it and left it unacknowledged in a corner of his mind.