TWO THINGS HAPPENED on the eleventh day after my mother’s passing. One: Vinay wanted Amma’s watering can for himself. Two: a man came to visit me; a man I’d never seen before; a man who had one of those vaguely familiar faces that made you uncomfortable; a man who introduced himself as someone who once ‘knew your mother’.
The first was not a surprise. Mother did not have life insurance. (She never yielded to my sales talk.) No jewellery. Her only other possessions of note – besides her four saris and some undergarments – were the fifty seven flowering pots she had arranged on the terrace, in nine rows of six and a tenth of three. She had been in the process of finalizing the purchase of a nandivardhana on the day she died. That would have added a fourth pot to the half-filled tenth row. Vinay would have been hard-pressed to accept even half of these plants for himself; unlike a can made of sheet metal that could be locked up in a corner somewhere, a garden demanded daily attention. He even said, ‘If Amma had made a will, I am sure she would have left all these pots to you.’
We called each other by our first names. Though I was born three years before Vinay, Amma insisted that he would call me Kartik. Sometimes our father would chafe at this, but what power did he have over house matters? Work at the cigarette factory kept him busy; over the course of his career he rose from being a clerk to Assistant General Manager of the factory’s Hyderabad division. Amma always told us that Father – Mr K. Krishnaswamy; everyone called him KK – was a self-made man. She admired him. So did we.
The second incident – of the visit from the familiar stranger – was more striking, if only for the fact that I was winding down for the night after having paid off the cooks and the flower-sellers. About fifty friends and relatives had gathered at the house that day, and a priest had performed the necessary function of ushering Amma’s soul safely to the abode of Yama. The whole process set me back by twelve thousand, four hundred and forty eight rupees, none of which Vinay (of course) offered to pay. And judging by the number of policies I was on track to secure that month, it would be a small miracle if I covered the electricity bill. All these years Amma’s pension was a god-send. Now I had to make do without.
So it was not with a bright smile on my face that I opened the door that night. The man introduced himself as Gopalakrishna. ‘I used to know your mother,’ he said. ‘May I come in?’
* * *
The name rang a bell, of course. A loud one.
Amma had told us, often, the story of the three friends of Palem: she, Kavita; Father, Krishnaswamy; and another boy by name Gopalakrishna. I heard Amma’s voice float into my ears, that rich, thick and heavy voice that had drawn admirers all her life. It whispered words that I thought I’d forgotten. Gopal and I were to marry, and your father carried love letters between him and me.
As we settled into our respective chairs in the front room, and after I’d given him a glass of water, I took a good look at the man. He was of an uncommon height, a good two or three inches over six feet, and seemed to hold himself well. A bush of lustrous grey hair covered his scalp, hair that he had evidently never dressed in his life. He was clean-shaven, and the skin of his face was unmarked. He bore the appearance of a much younger man who had turned up in a wig to play a part.
‘Amma told me many times about you,’ I said, when the silence became too unbearable. ‘You should have come in the afternoon. Had some lunch.’ I had some leftovers from midday in the kitchen, enough to feed an army of twenty, but I did not want to offer any to this man. From what Amma had told me, she would not have liked him attending her death ceremonies either.
‘Happened suddenly, did it?’ he asked. His voice was uncertain, soft, the kind you would expect on a man with plenty to hide. ‘I heard only today, and I – well, couldn’t stay away.’
‘Amma didn’t want you to come, you should know that.’ He nodded, and fixed a pair of sad brown eyes on me. I looked away. Then I went on, hurriedly: ‘She just stepped out of the house to get some ghee from the corner shop.’ A small lump threatened to choke off my words. I cleared my throat. ‘Slipped on something, fell and hit her head against a rock.’
‘Right,’ said Mr Gopalakrishna. He made a swallowing gesture too. ‘I’d always wished she would call me.’
‘I don’t see why she should have,’ I said, some of Amma’s long-buried hurt making its way into my voice. ‘You made her promises that you didn’t care to keep.’
‘I wanted to,’ said the old man. ‘Some circumstances came in the way.’
‘Circumstances you should have told her about. She would have understood. Maybe she would have waited for you. But you – well, what is the point of all this now? Will you tell me what I can do?’
‘I don’t know if there is anything I’d like you to do,’ said Mr Gopalakrishna. ‘I don’t even know why I am here.’
That last sentence was a lie, a plain one. We sat that way for a few moments, without saying anything. We were both staring at one of the empty chairs in the room. I imagined Amma sitting in it. Perhaps my visitor did the same too.
And then, almost without warning, a wave of anger washed over me. Amma had promised not to leave; she had told me that she would be with me always. She had always said out loud that Vinay was her favourite son, but when it had come down to the choice of whom to live with, after the ugly arguments following Father’s death and the subsequent division of the property, she had chosen me.
Father was the opposite. When asked, he would make long and impassioned speeches about how he loved both me and Vinay equally. But in his will, where it mattered…
Without my knowledge I had begun to drum the armrests of my chair with my fingertips. Mr Gopalakrishna noticed it. ‘I am sorry if I am intruding in your private moments.’
‘Yes,’ I told him. ‘As a matter of fact you are. You cannot betray someone without explanation and then expect to walk back into their lives some thirty years later. Amma has never forgiven you for what you have done.’
This seemed to puzzle the man. He said, ‘For what I have done?’
‘Yes, for what you have done,’ I said, sitting up straighter. ‘You told Amma you loved her. You told her you would marry her. Then you went away, got a job in the city, and forgot all about her. What did you think, that she would pine for you and waste away? She found a worthier man. My father stood by her through it all. They had a happy marriage. They were happy, you understand?’
‘I know they were happy,’ said Mr Gopalakrishna. ‘They were best friends.’ After a pause he asked, ‘Is that what she told you happened?’
Amma’s voice again: Your father went to visit Gopal in Hyderabad, to see why his letters had become infrequent. I told him that he must not worry, that Gopal was probably busy with his new job and everything. But KK would not listen. He insisted that something seemed to be wrong, and that he would get to the bottom of it.
(By the time Amma first told the story to me, she had long lost the habit of calling Father Swami. At around the time of Vinay’s birth, she had begun to call him KK, just like the rest of the world. I’d often wondered why.)
Father’s will stipulated that his wealth would be divided between his sons, but four parts would go to Vinay, who had – in the man’s own words – had made every dream of mine come true. As for Kartik the laggard, the dullard, out of a sheer sense of duty I leave a fifth of my estate to him, in the hope that he will make something of himself yet.
‘That is what happened,’ I said to Mr Gopalakrishna. ‘Father visited you in Hyderabad, and you told him that you were no longer interested in Amma. And you were not even man enough to admit it! You let Father break the news to Amma – do you realize how heartbroken she must have been?’
Mr Gopalakrishna frowned at me for a few seconds. His eyes had become active points of light, appraising me. Once again that feeling of familiarity returned; where else had I seen the exact brightening of the eyes, the tensing of the body during times of attentiveness, the rounded, hunched, sitting posture?
He smiled then. ‘That is why she told me to stay away,’ he said, as if speaking to himself.
* * *
KK came back and told me all that Gopal had said. I still remember: we were sitting in the shade of the guava tree, by Ellamma Cheruvu. It was there that Gopal had given me his pocket comb, and like an ass I’d been carrying it all the time with me. I was running my fingers down the teeth of the comb as I sat and listened to KK. He told me everything.
‘He doesn’t want to come back to Palem, Kavita,’ he said.
And I asked him, ‘Did he say anything about me?’
‘He said he cannot marry you. He has already given his word to another woman.’
This ‘another woman’ was the daughter of his employer, KK said. I didn’t begrudge him anything, not even this betrayal, but the fact that he did not have the courage to face me, to tell me everything to my face – that broke me.
‘I am sorry, Kavita,’ KK told me that night, as I hurled Gopal’s comb into the lake. ‘I want you to know – you’re a beautiful, beautiful woman. You will make some man very lucky some day.’
Mr Gopalakrishna finished the water in his glass. ‘I am wondering,’ he said with a disarming smile, ‘whether or not the truth is important.’
‘The truth is always important.’
‘No, no,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘It is not always important. But two of the people concerned with it are dead, and the third – is getting there.’ Again a glint in the eye, a touch of a smile across the lips. ‘So now maybe there is no harm in it coming out.’
‘You’re being sneaky,’ I told him, with anger that I could not quite explain. What was it about this man that I was finding so irritating? ‘Either you tell me what you have in mind, or you go and leave me alone.’
‘I will tell you,’ he said. ‘First, the number of letters I wrote to your mother never flagged during the year I left Palem. Every Saturday I wrote to her. And I wrote to her with all the love in my heart.’
‘Amma said your letters became irregular after the first month or so.’
‘Yes, yes,’ said Mr Gopalakrishna, ‘your mother was not wrong in saying this. I kept writing my letters at the same frequency. But her replies came very sporadically. On the rare occasion that I would call her on the phone – well, those days a trunk call would cost a lot of money, you understand. By the time we got through the pleasantries half my salary was gone!’ He chuckled and shook his head. ‘I wonder sometimes what might have happened if we had these phones in those days…’
‘You say Amma stopped writing to you?’ I asked him, scornfully. ‘You’re lying. Amma wrote to you every Monday, without fail.’
Again Mr Gopalakrishna nodded. ‘That too is not a lie. I was writing at my regular pace to her. She was writing at her regular pace to me. But you see – I was writing to the post box in Palem. Her parents did not know of us, and I did not want any of my letters to fall into their hands before – well, before we were ready to tell them. Do you know who we employed as messenger between us?’
‘My father,’ I said.
‘Yes, your father,’ said Mr Gopalakrishna, smiling affably. ‘He was the one who carried Kavita’s letters to the post box, and my letters from the post box to her house. Do you see now how it is possible for two people to write letters to each other and yet not receive them?’
‘This is ridiculous,’ I said, though somewhere at the back of my mind, I felt it wasn’t.
‘I think you’re beginning to see,’ said the old man. ‘The three of us were such good friends, you know. It never struck me or Kavita that your father – well, Kavita told you about Swami’s visit to Hyderabad. Let me now tell you what happened there.
‘Swami stayed with me for a week or thereabouts. It is true that by this time I was in secure employment at the forest office. I asked him why Kavita had become uninterested in me all of a sudden, and he told me that she was beginning to fall in love with another man. I was aghast, and said that I would leave for Palem straight away, win her for myself again. But Swami shook his head sadly and advised me against it. Don’t bother, old man, he said. The two of them have already begun to think of marriage. If you came back, you would only ruin things for her – and for yourself, I dare say.
‘We sat that night over a bottle of Bagpiper, and he talked me out of it. He told me that I have so many things going for me – a career, life in the big city… girls will queue up for you, Gopal, he said. Why do you want to run after a woman who has already forsaken you? It seemed the right thing to do at the time. From my point of view, you see, Kavita had chosen someone else, and she had not even had the decency to tell me. So I kept my distance, and after Swami went back, I wrote only to him, never to her.’
I listened to the man speak in his thoughtful, structured sentences. He seemed to be the antithesis of what my father had always been. Mr KK was stern, stoic and loyal. He expected much of himself and of his two sons. He was not given to tantrums or outbursts, but he did not show affection often either. Of all the memories I had of him, how many of them involved him embracing or kissing Amma? A dozen? Five? One?
‘When did you discover this?’ I asked Mr Gopalakrishna. ‘Surely at some point – when you learnt of Amma’s wedding to Father, perhaps?’
‘Oh, it was a bit after that,’ said Mr Gopalakrishna, still grinning, as if we were sharing in some neighbourhood gossip. ‘I took Swami’s advice, of course. Immersed myself in work. My employer was impressed enough with me to suggest that I should marry his daughter, and I said okay. So a year or so after that first of Swami’s visits to Hyderabad, I got married.’
‘And what year was this?’
‘Let me see now,’ said Mr Gopalakrishna, looking away at the wall. ‘It must have been eighty-five – eighty-six? No, eighty-five, I am sure. March of eighty-five. As you get older you remember months and dates better than years.’
‘My parents got married in September of eighty-four.’
‘That’s right. Swami visited me five times between September and March. He came to my wedding too. He told me that Kavita got married, but he never mentioned it was he who married her. Can you believe that rascal?’ Mr Gopalakrishna chuckled and licked his lips. Shook his head. ‘Such a rascal.’
‘So when did you find out?’
‘End of the year, I went to Dhavaleshwaram for some work,’ said my guest, ‘and thought I’d drop in at Swami’s house and surprise him. I was by this time over Kavita, you see. I thought she’d long left Palem, and was living in some city somewhere. Imagine my surprise when I see her tending to some flowers in Swami’s front yard.’
I tried to imagine the scene, the long-lost returning lover and the stay-at-home bride meeting in person after years. I tried to picture Amma’s long young face, with a watering can in her hand (or did she use a pot in those days?), wrestling with a whirlwind of emotions as her eyes fell on her visitor. Did she feel disgust when she saw him first? Contempt? Wrath?
‘As it happened,’ said Mr Gopalakrishna, ‘I visited their house at around eleven in the morning, and apparently Swami had taken a job in Dhavaleshwaram that very month. So he was not at home as I arrived. Kavita and I – we had an opportunity to talk to each other.’
His voice softened at those last words, and his eyes became moist. I thought of all the past they would have had to unravel together on that afternoon, of all the words they would have needed just to make sense of it all. All those lost letters. But then, maybe not much was – or needed to be – said.
‘She was pregnant with her first child then,’ Mr Gopalakrishna said, looking straight at me.
‘I did not stay long,’ he said. ‘Palem is not a place in which a married woman can entertain a male friend in their house when her husband is away. I left in an hour or so, after we’d both figured out just what had happened.’ He laughed shortly. ‘Wouldn’t mind admitting I was in a bit of a daze.’
‘She – took it rather well, I must say,’ said Mr Gopalakrishna. ‘I may have used a few abusive words against your father, but she – she was just the dutiful wife. I – I suspect your father was a good husband to her. In that one thing I have no qualms against him.’
‘Yes,’ I said, nodding. ‘He was a great husband.’
‘He and Kavita had always gotten along well.’ Mr Gopalakrishna examined his hands, and grimaced just once. ‘When we were younger and were playing on the bank of the lake daily – I used to think that she liked him more. I used to pine for her at night, and I used to promise myself that I would be a loyal friend to them both if she does choose him over me.’
His voice had taken on a dream-like quality once again, as if he were speaking to himself. With a start he realized I was in the room too, and broke into a smile. ‘Imagine the irony – after many years, I was given my wish. She had become his. I was the third wheel.’
‘She was deceived into becoming his,’ I said.
He shrugged his heavy shoulders, and smiled in a lopsided way. And at once I realized whom he had been reminding me of all evening. All the little mannerisms that had been ticking me off – the stoop, the slouch, the voice, the height, the messy hair – oh, but how could it be?
‘I left that day after leaving my home phone number with her. We promised to write to each other. This time we were not going to use a messenger!’
‘And? Did you?’
‘Did we what?’
‘Write to each other?’
‘Oh, yes, of course,’ said Mr Gopalakrishna. ‘We wrote back and forth for a few years. Until she had her second child. And then she said we must stop.’
‘The reason she gave me? That it was getting too hard to keep up the charade.’
‘With you or with my father?’
Mr Gopalakrishna’s eyes turned sad once again. Yes, he had his eyes. ‘Probably both,’ he said. ‘To tell you the truth it was getting tough for me too. I had a wife and child of my own by this time.’
‘Which year did she send you her last letter?’
‘Ninety,’ he said at once. He did not have to think or remember. ‘Thirty years ago, give or take a few.’
‘Right,’ I said. ‘You know, you have said that this is the truth. But what if I challenge you? Out of the three people who knew just what happened, only you are alive. Who knows what the other two will make of it?’
His massive shoulders heaved up and down again. ‘I just told you what I know to be true.’
‘And my mother told me what she knew to be true,’ I said.
‘Or she told you what she thought was the convenient version of the truth,’ he said. ‘It is easier to build a family when children think well of their father. Your mother knew that.’
‘Do you have anything to present as evidence?’ I asked.
‘What are we in, a court?’ said Mr Gopalakrishna, chuckling, but he leaned forward in his chair to reach into the back pocket of his trousers. He brought out a faded brown inland letter, on which even from across the room I recognized Amma’s handwriting. ‘I have this – one of her last letters.’
* * *
I refuse to blame Swami for what he did, Gopi. He is a good man to the world, a good husband to me, and a good father to our son. Even if I had married you, I doubt I would have received a man so dutiful, so right. You know he has always been an admirable character – in many ways, among the three of us, he has always been the straightest. Do you remember, he would never steal, never lie, always doing what is proper. Always knowing what is proper, and then doing it.
If anything, he has become more set in his ways after we got married. And he adores me. I know it. I see it every day in his eyes. Maybe you will say that the love he has for me is akin to what a robber has for gold that he has stolen. But I refuse to take such a cynical view. I’ve known both of you all my life, and I’ve known, all my life, that both of you have loved me, with all that you have. For years and years when we were growing up, one question consumed me every day and night, Gopi. You know what that is?
Why must I choose one of them?
But of course, this does not deny the fact that Swami’s actions have wronged you immeasurably. And for that, I will punish him. I will also see to it that the injustice that has come your way due to this whole mess is righted to some degree. I am my husband’s wife; I have come to imbibe some of his love for propriety.
It is not proper what has happened with you. It is not in my power – nor is it in yours – to go back to how things were. The past will never return to us unblemished. We must look to the future, all three of us. And it is destined that Swami and I must do it together, and you alone. But can I say something, Gopi? You’re always with us. We don’t speak of you, almost by unwritten contract, but we’re always, always, always, thinking of you – me in my mind, Swami in his.
Has it ever occurred to you that the three of us have never been three, but have always been two-plus-one? When we were younger, the plus-one was Swami. Later, during the years when Swami was visiting you regularly and building his house of lies, I was the plus-one. And now it’s your turn.
You have not suggested it, but the idea of going away somewhere with you and building a life of our own – that has occurred to me once or twice. But think of the practicalities: Swami and I have a son. You have a wife, a daughter, a respectable job in a respectable city.
Even if these all did not exist, even if you and I were free to run away, we will not have Swami with us. Will you not miss him? I know I will. It is not in the nature of things that three people can get together and become one entity. They will always be two-plus-one. Given that fact (and I can see you shake your head and grin in that crooked way at my words), is it all that bad what we have?
But Gopi, dear Gopi, I will reiterate one thing. Swami will get his comeuppance, and you your deliverance. I shall see to it that the wrong of the past is at least partially righted. You must be content with that, however. Don’t ask for more.
* * *
Mr Gopalakrishna returned the letter to his pocket, and faced me once again.
‘What did she mean?’ I asked him.
‘What did she mean about the punishment and the deliverance – and all that?’
Mr Gopalakrishna did not reply at once, but saw that I’d understood. He inclined his head at me, as if seeking permission to still say the words, and I nodded back at him. Very faintly.
‘In eighty-nine,’ he said, ‘your mother took a month-long vow of chastity. At the end of the month, she took a five-day trip to Sabarimala. I met her there.’ A pause, a meaningful one. Then: ‘We stayed at a hotel – together.’
I nodded. ‘Is that why you’re here today? You want to meet – Vinay?’
‘With your permission,’ said Mr Gopalakrishna.
‘Will you tell him the truth?’
‘Whose truth?’ asked Mr Gopalakrishna, with a grin, and then shook his head. ‘I won’t tell him anything. No good can come out of it, with…’
‘Yes, two of the people dead, and one getting there.’
‘That’s right. I just want to – see him. I think Kavita would have told you this whole story if she had not passed away – you know, so suddenly.’
‘Yes,’ I said, agreeing with him. ‘Did Father know?’
‘No,’ said Mr Gopalakrishna. ‘That was his punishment.’
‘What about you? You were punished too, weren’t you? You didn’t see Vinay all these years.’
Mr Gopalakrishna said, ‘But we had him. That is enough.’
I thought of Father, of his staunch protests that both his sons were equally his, of the pride he took in Vinay’s accomplishments, of the disappointment he had felt about my own staid life, of the final act of leaving a vast proportion of his estate to his younger son after having snubbed me, of all the fights Vinay and I had with each other during the days following Father’s death – how Vinay had said, again and again, ‘He didn’t even consider you his son!’
How I’d believed him. How Amma had stayed silent through it all. How she then chose to come live with me with the matter came up, how it had astonished and angered Vinay because he thought, with certainty than anything else, that Amma would choose him.
And now this. What had Mr Gopalakrishna said just before about irony?
‘Are you okay with this?’ he was asking now. ‘I will just speak with him for a while. You can introduce me as the Gopal Uncle of the story she told you. I am your mother’s old lover who spurned her. Your father is the hero that came to her rescue. I just – want to see him, that’s all.’
I told him that I would do all that I can. And after Mr Gopalakrishna had left for the night, I sat by myself for a couple of hours, looking over some of Amma’s old photographs. I picked out one in which she was a thin young thing of perhaps eighteen or nineteen, on the bank of a lake that I guessed was Ellamma Cheruvu, under the shade of a guava tree. Next to her, with his hands held behind him, stood Father, smiling toothily. It was a black-and-white picture, and it had been further browned and yellowed with age. Amma’s eyes were fixed on something in the distance; she was not looking at the camera. I thought of her words, spoken in her whisper into my ear: we must look unto the future.
I turned the photograph over, and noticed something on the back that I never had before. In very faint blue ink, in Amma’s handwriting, were written the words: Picture Courtesy: G.
That night, after I’d eaten some of the leftovers, I gave Vinay a call. He did not answer until the sixth ring. He sounded sleepy – or drunk.
‘I have something to tell you,’ I said.