Nisha stalked out of her room at the stroke of nine.
‘Grandma, I cannot sleep,’ she declared.
I thought of putting down the newspaper and telling Nisha that she was too old for bedtime stories. I didn’t have the numbers, but how many sixteen year old girls pestered their grandmothers to tell them stories on Friday nights? I bent the corner of the paper to one side and peeked around it. Amma had been looking at some old photographs all evening, and she was holding one now in both hands, down on her lap.
‘What are you looking at?’ said Nisha, and sat next to her.
‘Nisha, don’t bother grandma tonight,’ I said.
‘No, no,’ said Amma. ‘Let her be.’ She turned her black, bird-like eyes on her granddaughter and gave her a plucky smile. ‘Do you want me to tell you a story?’
Nisha considered the photograph in Amma’s hand with suspicion. ‘If you’re going to tell me about how you met Grandpa, no thanks.’
‘Oh yes, even I am bored of that story,’ said Amma. ‘No offence to your father, Arjun.’
I ducked back behind my newspaper, pretending not to have heard. My eyes rolled on their own up to the side wall, where Appa looked down at all of us from within a garlanded picture. The flowers were fake. The frame was gathering dust. The vermillion on the forehead had long turned a deep brown.
I made a mental note to get the maid to clean it the next morning.
Appa didn’t seem to mind Amma’s snide rebuke; he smiled down broadly, showing his even white teeth. I’d heard Amma say now and then over the last few years – after Appa had passed on – that he smiled more in pictures than he did at people.
‘Today I will tell you a different story,’ said Amma, and my ears perked up. But before I could catch the rest of the sentence, my attention was drawn away by the vibration of my phone inside my kurta pocket. A message from Shalini: the fundraising meeting was taking longer than expected. She would not be able to make it back home before midnight. The three of them should go ahead with dinner without waiting for her.
Nothing out of the ordinary. I thumbed out a reply and refocused.
‘Why don’t you put down the paper if you’re so interested in what I have to say?’ said Amma.
Nisha suppressed a giggle, and offered a hand to her grandmother for a high five.
I folded the newspaper once lengthwise, then the other way. I unclipped the reading glasses off my nose and returned them into my pocket. ‘Whatever story you’re going to tell her, I’m sure I’ve heard it a thousand times before.’
Amma’s face turned dark all of a sudden. Her lips had a dry, sanded look. She ran her tongue over them. ‘No.’ She shook her head slowly. ‘I’ve never told you this.’
Something about the way she said those words made me and Nisha exchange a glance with each other. Amma was still holding the photograph in the gentlest of grips; her thumbs were caressing its glossy surface, and the tips of her forefingers twitched. She had spent just about sixty years of her life in the kitchen, Amma did, but her hands carried no burns or oil stains. If you looked past the wrinkles, you could mistake them for a child’s.
A small wind sighed into the room and sent the photographs strewn on the table running toward the edge, but Amma took no notice. Nisha moved closer to her. She laid a chin on Amma’s shoulder, and looking down at the picture herself, said, ‘Who is the other man, between you and Grandpa?’
With that question I knew which picture was in Amma’s hands, even though its bright white background was turned to me. I’d heard that question a hundred times from a hundred different lips.
‘John,’ said Amma, with fondness. Once again my eyes rose on their own to look at Appa’s expression. He was still smiling in his fixed, frozen way.
And then Amma said something that made Nisha stiffen and gasp. It had a strange effect on me, too – it did not shock me, but I felt like I was being pulled away from this room by chains of iron, and that I was hurtling through a blur of space and time back to the old Warangal house I’d grown up in, that small room with the grilled door and windows in which John mama and I would sit on the opposite ends of a chess board and speak of the pawn sacrifice.
Amma’s words, chopped up into single letters of the alphabet, floated around me in bright crystal colours, rotating and hopping and waving, but my mind could still see the sentence out of which they’d sprung.
‘I once loved him more than anyone else in the world.’
* * *
It did not take more than a moment for Nisha to recover.
She was at that age. The fact that her seventy-five year old grandmother was admitting to a crush was, to her eyes, cute. Here was this old woman she had always thought to be asexual, and here she was, confessing to feelings for a man who was not her husband. What could be more romantic?
‘Grandma!’ she said, her eyes twinkling, her mouth wide open in mock horror. ‘Did Grandpa know?’
I wondered for a moment if Nisha would react with the same guilty pleasure if she came to know that Shalini was in love with one of my best friends. But I wasn’t being fair; these were people pulled out from the long dead past for Nisha. This was real life gossip from forty years ago. Harmless.
Amma did not answer her question; instead she looked at me straight in the eye from across the table. ‘I loved you more than I loved him, Arjun,’ she said, and until that moment I’d not realized that I was burning with envy for John mama, for having taken my mother away from me without ever asking.
‘I loved you more than anything else in the world, of course,’ she said, giving Nisha her hand at the same time. ‘And then you came along. Now I love both of you equally, okay? So don’t fight.’
‘What about Appa?’
‘I loved him too,’ said Amma, pursing her lips, and I knew that she was making an effort not to look up at the man’s looming picture. ‘Your father was not an easy man to love.’
I could not take this impersonally. All my life I’d heard how I’d taken after him – the same heavyset shoulders, the same sturdy posture, the same voice, the same shoulder-shaking laugh, the same slurry, rolling way of speaking – and now I was being told that he was not an easy man to love.
Amma didn’t say it of me, of course, but she wouldn’t. I was her son. Did Shalini think of me as a difficult man to love too? What about Nisha?
‘He provided for us,’ I told Amma defensively. ‘He was a successful doctor. He paid for my education. He paid for all those degrees you did.’
Amma nodded, and looked down at the photograph.
‘He was financially responsible,’ I said. ‘Never lost money, as far as I know. If we’re all this comfortable today, it is big thanks to him.’
Amma nodded again.
‘He never abused you,’ I went on. ‘He never hit me, or treated me unreasonably. He advised me well. He taught me how to live. He was a good grandfather to Nisha, a great father-in-law to Shalini –’
I stopped. Amma was nodding.
Nisha said, ‘Why are you scolding her like this?’
‘I am not scolding her!’ I said, and caught my voice when I saw that it was echoing in the room off the smooth saffron-lit walls. ‘I am not scolding her.’
‘You are! How does it even matter? It happened forty years ago.’
Amma placed her hand on Nisha’s wrist. Then she looked up at me. ‘I agree with you. He was a good father. A good husband. A good grandfather and father-in-law. All of that is true.’
‘And yet he was not an easy man to love?’
She inclined her head, as if weighing her words. ‘Not as easy as John.’
I stared at her. ‘Amma, do you hear what you’re saying?’
‘What’s wrong with what she’s saying?’
‘Nisha, wait, you don’t understand.’
‘I don’t understand? Of course I understand. It is you who don’t understand your own mother!’
My phone vibrated against my hip at that moment. I would have let it go, but I had a sneaking feeling that it might be Shalini. I pulled it out and looked at the screen. It was.
‘I will come back after this,’ I told them, getting off my seat and making for the inner room.
‘Yes, Shalini,’ I said, closing the door behind me, ‘everything is all right.’
* * *
It was twenty minutes later that I found myself back in the living room. Amma and Nisha were chatting about something. I caught Nisha right in the middle of saying ‘Aww’, so I guessed the topic had not changed in my absence.
‘Everything all right?’ Amma asked, and I nodded at her as I sat down.
‘So,’ she said, turning back to Nisha, ‘John would call us after shutting down his clinic for the night, and he would say, “Anu, I want a bowl full of pasta. Make it with plenty of tomatoes” and your grandfather would sit on the side grumbling, because he never liked tomatoes, you know.’
‘That’s so sweet!’ said Nisha.
I leaned forward and picked up the picture from the table. Both John mama and Appa had stethoscopes around their necks, of course. Appa was dressed in a full-sleeved checked white shirt, buttoned at the wrists, tucked in, a shiny black belt around the waist. The top two buttons of John mama’s shirt were open, and his collar was thrown behind his neck. Amma stood a good two feet to his left, and she was pointing at the camera.
‘That thing went off just as I was asking Nataraj to check if it’s working or not,’ said Amma. ‘That was the night we found out I was pregnant with you, Arjun. John brought cake – and asked me to make some pasta, of course.’
‘Appa didn’t like pasta,’ I said, and tried to penetrate that hollow smile on the man’s face in the photograph. Did he know?
‘He didn’t,’ said Amma, and for a moment I did not know whether she was answering my words or thoughts. ‘But I always made something else for him when John came over.’
‘Tell me more,’ said Nisha, holding a couch cushion on her lap and leaning forward on it. ‘What did you think when you first laid eyes on him?’
I could not be sure, but Amma might have blushed at that moment. ‘Oh, it wasn’t like that. He is not a handsome man.’ He wasn’t, I noted, appraising John mama’s features with ‘that eye’ for the first time in my life. His front teeth were misshapen and yellow. He had spiky, unruly hair. A round face, and eyes that went small as a sleepy cat’s when he smiled.
‘The first time I met him,’ said Amma, ‘he was just Appa’s colleague who came home on a social visit. I took no notice of him. Most of Appa’s friends took no notice of me either.’ She was looking at Nisha, but her words were addressed to me.
I could picture this scene in our old house in Warangal. Amma, Appa and John mama sitting around the old cane furniture that we sold when I was fifteen or so. John mama pulling Appa’s leg, laughing at something Amma said, asking for a second helping of pasta, or anything edible from the kitchen that Amma had made. The three of them discussing a medical case, the men talking and Amma listening. Politics of the day. Literature.
‘He was the first man who saw me, you know,’ said Amma, looking down at her bare fingers. She had never worn a ring her whole life. Appa hadn’t at the beginning too, but he died with his hands full of them. All gold, all fitted with bright precious stones. ‘He would ask me what I thought about this, why I did not think some way about that, how I feel about something else – for the first time I felt that a man was listening to me. That what I said mattered.’
‘Besides Appa, you mean,’ I said.
‘Nataraj treated me very well,’ she replied, in a distant voice. It felt strange to hear his name on her lips again; ever since his death, she had never had occasion to refer to him by name. Whenever she spoke of him, it was either ‘Appa’ or ‘your grandfather’ or ‘your father-in-law’.
Amma did not believe in nicknames, either. So there was no ‘Nattu’ or ‘Raj’ when it came to Appa. He was always ‘Nataraj’. Prim and proper.
‘He treated me very well,’ she said, ‘but he did so only because he felt that was the right thing to do. You know? He only asked for my opinion because he thought he ought to; not because he was interested.’
I thought of Appa, he of the buttoned-at-the-wrist shirts and black polished shoes, he who smiled at the camera more widely than he did at any human, he who could be relied upon – until his last breath – to do the accepted thing. And yet there must have been a time when he’d been different; the Appa that Amma had fallen in love with.
Somewhere in this very pile of photographs was that moment too, of Appa and Amma on their wedding day.
Somewhere between that day and this one – on which they came to know that she was pregnant, on which John mama brought cake – Appa had lost himself. Or perhaps he had begun to become what he’d always been.
‘You’re awfully silent,’ said Amma.
‘I am thinking,’ I said, and flicked the corner of the photograph. ‘Where did it all go wrong?’
‘Nothing went wrong,’ said Amma. ‘I stayed with your father until his death, didn’t I? We had you. We reared you. And now I have all of you. What has gone wrong?’
‘You loved another man,’ I said. ‘Appa’s friend. Did you ever tell him?’
‘Do you mean John or your father?’
I thought about it for a moment. ‘Both.’
She shook her head. ‘Never told either of them. But I’ve always suspected that they knew.’
‘Both of them?’
She looked at me with those black, mirror-like eyes. ‘Both of them.’
* * *
For a long time we were silent in that room.
Then Nisha said, ‘Why are you so shocked? It is possible to like more than one person at a time, okay?’
I looked at her as if she was a stranger. I wanted to ask how many boys in her class she ‘liked’, but thought the better of it. My gripe was not with Nisha, not tonight.
My gripe was not with Amma either, I thought suddenly. The cold, rational part of me saw this for what it was; adulterous thoughts had resided in human hearts for at least as long as marriage had been in existence. Why was I surprised now that one woman came out and admitted it? Just because she was my mother?
‘Did you – uhm –’
‘Appa!’ Nisha whispered fiercely.
‘No,’ said Amma. ‘I did not. John never visited us when your father wasn’t home. I never invited him. He never expressed a wish to be invited.’
‘I cannot believe Appa knew and was okay with it.’
‘That is between her and grandpa!’
‘Nisha, wait,’ I said, toning down the anger that bubbled under my skin.
‘It’s okay,’ said Amma, grasping Nisha’s wrist and calming her. It struck me then how very alike their hands were; when she’d been born, the universal opinion had been that Nisha had taken after Shalini’s side in every aspect. But why did they look so similar now?
‘Let him ask,’ Amma told her. ‘Arjun, you’re right. I do not know for sure what Nataraj knew or guessed. In the same way, I cannot tell for sure if John knew either.’ She looked around herself, gushing a little. ‘It was not a time when women went around announcing their affections to the world.’
‘But Appa never asked you about it.’
‘He did not. But maybe – in the heart of his hearts – maybe he knew.’
‘Where is he now?’ said Nisha. ‘Do you know?’
Amma’s eyes widened at the question, and now she looked straight up at Appa’s smiling photograph. ‘I don’t know,’ she said, linking her fingers together. ‘We began to lose touch from the time Arjun turned six or so. We left Warangal then, you see, and came here to Bangalore. He promised to write, of course, and he did, for the first few months. Then we promised one another that we will meet once a year without fail, and we did, for two years.’
She smiled at me. ‘And then we got lost in our lives. John must have got lost in his.’
‘Why did you leave Warangal?’ I asked, not without a note of suspicion in my voice. My mind flashed back for an instant back to the grilled room. John mama and I were playing chess, and Appa was watching. Now to another moment: John mama arriving on my fifth birthday (was it? Or sixth?) on Appa’s heel long after sunset, after Amma’s dinner had turned cold, with a stack of comic books under his arm. Yet another: John mama teaching me how to hold a table tennis bat, and how to roll the wrist while driving back a top spin return of serve.
‘Nataraj wanted to work in a big hospital,’ said Amma. ‘And he wanted you to grow up in a city. Not in a small town.’
‘And John mama?’
‘Oh,’ said Amma, smiling. ‘John was quite happy where he was. He wasn’t a particularly ambitious fellow. Not ambitious for the normal things, I mean.’
‘You know, money, security – all the practical things that your father was good at. Nataraj actually wanted John to come along with us, but John would just laugh and say “run after money all you want, Nattu bhai, just leave me out of it”. He also said that we would not make it in the big city, that we would come back to Warangal one day. “I will be right here, waiting for you,” he said.’
A great sadness invaded her eyes, then. I looked at Nisha. She was eyeing Amma out of the corners of her eyes, her chin propped up on the pillow. She looked about to cry.
‘But we never went back,’ said Amma, looking at the photograph in my hands. ‘John was wrong. Nataraj was very well suited to life in the big city. It was actually Warangal that was too small for a man of his type.’
‘When was the last you heard from him, Grandma?’ asked Nisha.
‘After emails became a thing, John wrote to Nataraj a few times. In each letter he would address me directly. Anu, he would say, you make the best pasta in the world. I hope you’re still making it for whoever you’re friends with now. You will all come back one day, I know. One day you will get tired of all the running. You will stop. And you will come back. And we will sit together, the three of us, and I will eat your pasta or whatever you make that day, and I will bring cake and we will take another picture, and it will be like old times again.’
Amma looked up at Appa’s picture with bright, lustrous eyes. There was a smile on her lips. ‘That was twenty years ago. Arjun was in college then. We wrote back and forth a few times, and then we ran out of things to say. Went back to our lives. Never got tired of running, did we, Nataraj?’
‘Did he get married?’ asked Nisha.
‘He did, yes,’ said Amma. ‘I forget his wife’s name. He mentioned her in his emails once or twice.’
Nisha gave Amma a hug and held her for a long minute. I watched them, marvelling again how alike they looked. Nisha placed her head on Amma’s lap. Amma flattened her palm on the girl’s forehead and caressed it. Not too long ago – and yet longer than it seemed – I would fall asleep every night on that very same lap, caressed by those very same warm hands.
Our eyes met, and I asked her a question that had been plaguing me all evening. I did it without moving my lips.
‘It is his birthday today,’ she said.
I looked down at the picture in my hand at the small eyes, the devil-may-care smile, hair pointing all over the place, the easy confidence with which he had predicted futilely that they would return to him.
‘Happy Birthday, John mama,’ I whispered under my breath.
* * *
After dinner, Nisha brought out her laptop into the living room and said, ‘Did you say his name was John Matthew? Full name?’
‘Yes,’ said Amma. ‘I don’t want you to find him.’
‘Sorry?’ said Nisha. ‘Hello? After all the things you said about him, you don’t want me to find him?’
‘No,’ said Amma, examining her fingernails. ‘I wouldn’t know what to say to him.’
‘Then don’t say anything! Just stare at him, all right?’ Nisha looked at me. ‘Can you believe her? If we find that he’s still in Warangal, we will take her there. Right?’
I did not answer her at once.
‘No,’ Amma was saying. ‘No. Close that thing. It’s too long ago. Too much has happened. Too much. He is not the same man. He cannot be the same man.’
‘Put it away, Nisha,’ I said.
‘But she’s crazy!’ Nisha said. ‘She doesn’t know what she’s –’
‘Nisha, take that back into your room.’
She looked at Amma, then back at me, aghast, as if we were a couple of lunatics. Then she shut the laptop with a snap and stormed out of the room, muttering ‘crazy’ a couple more times, just loud enough for us to hear.
When we were again alone, Amma said, ‘Your father was a difficult man to love. But I loved him.’
‘I loved him enough to live with him until his death,’ she said. ‘No one can ask for more than that of anyone.’
‘I agree,’ I said. ‘Do you ever regret marrying him?’
Amma tightened her lips, as if steeling herself to speak. ‘No.’ She shook her head once, as if convincing herself of the truth of her words. ‘No. He gave me stability. Security. I knew what I was getting with him. And he never broke his promises.’
‘You didn’t say he gave you love.’
She smiled at me, and in her blooming face and neatly done grey hair I saw echoes of both John mama and Appa. ‘He gave me you,’ she said, in a wondering sort of way. ‘I’ve loved you more than anything in the world. How can you say, then, that he didn’t give me love?’
She’s evading my question, I thought at once, but then the phone rang, and I spoke to Shalini for twenty minutes in the other room, and on returning and finding the living room empty, I looked up at Appa’s picture. A couple of minutes later, it came to me that she had in factanswered the question, as plainly as anyone could.
* * *
Later that night, after Shalini had gone to bed, I knocked on Nisha’s door and stole into her room. Together we searched for John mama, and after about fifteen minutes, found him.
His social media profile had him down as the head of department of cardiology at Warangal’s biggest private hospital. He wore a suit and tie in all of his pictures. His hair had thinned from the old photo, and now it hugged his scalp and was parted to the left. There were rings about his hands, I noticed; and the smile on his face looked eerily like Appa’s. Slick. Oiled. Pale as butter. He had put on a considerable amount of weight, and his cheeks sagged. Gone were the sharp lines, the gleaming eyes, and the damaged front teeth had been replaced by white, perfect fake ones.
He cannot be the same man, Amma had said.
‘So?’ said Nisha. ‘He looks pretty successful. Shall we show him to Grandma tomorrow?’
‘No,’ I told her. ‘Grandma knows better than you what is good for her. Promise me you won’t show her this.’
‘Fine,’ Nisha said petulantly, and shut the lid of her laptop. ‘I am sleepy.’
It was not the ending that Nisha wanted in this tale, but she would come to know, I hoped, in the fullness of time the difference between romance and real life. Sometimes the two met; most times they didn’t. Amma understood that better than all of us – me, Nisha, John mama, even Appa – and so she was content with the love she carried in her heart for that John, the John who loved her pasta, who brought her cake on the day he found out she was pregnant, who played chess with her son. That John. Not this one. That Anuradha. Not this one.
Maybe in some parallel universe they would still be grinning at one another on old cane chairs, the three of them, talking literature and politics and medicine through the night. And that night would never end. They would never grow old or apart, and Amma and Appa would never leave Warangal, never come to Bangalore, never tire of each other. They would be frozen in that timeless instant of the photograph, with Amma pointing at the camera, asking Appa to see if there was something wrong with it. And John mama would always wear his hair like a mop, and the front two buttons of his shirt would always be undone.
Maybe in some parallel universe. Not in this one.
Here, every moment must pass. Every memory must fade. Every person must change. Everyone must run.
Amma knew this. Better than all of us.
I let myself out into the hall. Before I went back to bed, I stopped by her room to plant a light kiss on her forehead. I took care not to wake her up.