She had no difficulty in spotting him through the grimy, rusted window bars that cut his face into even proportions. His eyes were anxiously scanning the compartments as the train zipped past him, coming to a laborious halt a little further from where he was standing. As a child, he loved this game, competing with his brother in spotting his uncles or cousins before anyone else. It was tricky to do so when the train was in motion and there were always too many people on the platform.
The female announcer, in her drab, I’ll-die-in-this-room voice, announced the arrival of the Karnataka Express in English, Hindi, and Kannada. She saw him jostle past a red army of porters who were leaping into random coaches. She stood at the gate, tightly clutching her handbag with one hand, suitcase by her feet, watching him, his eyes still roving restlessly – ignoring the euphoria around him – and trying to seek out his mother’s familiar face. He finally reached her, elbowing and shouldering passengers aside, who, chuffed at having finally arrived, at having freed themselves from the confines of the steel cage, the mugginess, the engine soot, the soiled toilets, and from those who occupied their seats saying they will get off at the next station, but never did, didn’t seem to mind much.
“Men these days have gone too soft,” she said once in the car. “An entire family just unfurled their bed-sheets and slept on the floor, and no one said a word. At night when I had to go to the bathroom I couldn’t find my slippers. And I was so worried of stepping on the child.”
He’d asked her to take a flight, but she had refused, as always. “They don’t even let you take a walk,” she’d reasoned.
She knew that now he’d expect her to go on and on about how there were these people on the train who hogged like pigs on their oily pooris and pickles, and these smokers who, despite her requesting them not to, sucked voluptuously on their cigarettes, coughing in her face; but she wouldn’t.
She couldn’t catch a wink on the train. She had to wait until morning to use the bathroom, until that family cleared out. Only then was she able to locate her slippers and hold them lovingly to her heart.
In the car mirror she noticed that her cheeks looked more sunk-in than the last time they had met, at his father’s funeral a year ago. She felt a little shiver.
“It’s always mildly cold here,” he offered, always the intuitive one. “I hope you brought some sweaters.”
Two mornings ago, when her younger son had made the call, she figured her elder one must be tucking hungrily at the MTR restaurant, into his usual breakfast: kharabath, crispy vadas, kesari and a hot cup of filtered coffee.
“What now?” he barked with mock irritation in his tone.
His brother had laughed, walking out to the balcony. “Ass.”
But she still heard most of it.
“Mom’s coming to Bangalore.”
“To meet you of course.”
“Dude, you know…”
“I know, I know. Just ask Andrea to crash at a friend’s for a week or two.”
She’d wondered who this girl was.
While she eyed the women on the road with flowers in their hair, she considered asking him about Andrea, but decided against an inquisition, not on the first day of her arrival. And what was the point? He wouldn’t tell her anything. She was even fine if they were simply living together for companionship. She had long given up on the idea of marriage, especially when so many were crumbling around her. If she was worried about something, it was her son moving out of India.
“Ma, how about lunch?” he said. “Maybe later I can show you around.”
It was her younger one’s idea to send her here for a change of scene; to get her out of the mourning mode; to help her rediscover travelling, which she had done extensively with her husband; to help her escape from the singeing Delhi heat and into the cool arms of Bangalore. But she’d rather be at a temple, occupying a cold corner, soaking in the peace and quiet or staring admiringly at the lord’s statue with all its decorations.
He took her to Sri Krishna Café with its minimalist set up: rudimentary granite-topped tables and wooden chairs with maroon back-covers that were paper-thin from over-washing, dull pink-tiled walls, and strong smells of coconut chutney and sambhar. She felt out of place in fancy places where food was bland and expensive and where even the waiters spoke in English and were too attentive, where the grating sounds of forks and spoons against the ceramic plates drove her mad.
She didn’t even consider looking at the menu as she went for her plain dosa, as always, discarding all his suggestions to try something else. She laughed when she heard him explain their order to the waiter in his broken Kannada.
She nibbled at her food, looking up from her plate only if one of the cleaners dropped the dirty dishes on the floor and now embarrassed, cleaned the mess while avoiding the eyes of the manager, or if her son enquired if she wanted anything else.
Lately, she’d been feeling acutely glum. During these phases, she broke down in tears and rambled about her dead sibling, her parents, about how she married the first man they chose for her. There was no time to get to know your future husband, like girls do now, she’d say. You met once and that was it. About women having to live with strangers after years of living with their parents. At my mother’s we weren’t expected to even step into the kitchen, and here, at my in-laws’, I was made to work like a donkey. But not once did I raise my voice at my husband’s mother because that’s how my mother brought me up. She’d talk lovingly about her bed-ridden brother who lost his mental balance when he was quite young. And how she did everything for him: bathing him, changing his soiled clothes, powdering his back so that he wouldn’t have any scabs, reading and singing to him.
She gave a small cry and flinched.
“What’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” she said, shaking her head.
“Should I call for the menu?”
That had been one of her long-term complaints: Nobody cared whether she ate or not. No one bothered to ask even, or at least pretended to care. She found it adorable that he remembered; that he was trying not to give her any reason to feel slighted.
“No, I’m fine,” she said.
At home, after she cleaned up every corner despite the crick-crick in her back, she sat down in front of the television, but was annoyed at having to navigate through so many Kannada channels and by the fact that her son didn’t know what channel Sun TV played on. In between the advertisements for Idhayam sesame oil and Joyalukkas jewellery, she turned her attention to her son.
She still didn’t understand what he did for a living, except that he listened to songs on his computer and then made some changes to them and then played them all over again, until he was – to her ears it was all the same – happy with them. He looked so innocent, so focussed on his work now, his eyes closed in concentration, his fingers dancing with the tunes. How old was he? Thirty-five, thirty-seven? She had no idea, and she felt guilty about it.
For the longest time he was his father’s boy, worshipping the man, his every word of appreciation a gold medal. But by the time he graduated, he had changed. Changed in ways she thought wasn’t possible. He had grown more affectionate towards her, understanding her moods, the subtle shifts in her expressions, the way they changed from breakfast to dinner. He started coming to her defence when his father yelled at her for some trivial slip-up like a misplaced tool, or too little or too much salt in food. All in good humour, too. He’d mock-punch his father, or pretend-charge at him while she held on to his arm even as he told her to let go without really meaning it: “Let go, Ma, let go.” If she did, he’d say, “What’re you doing? Pull me back.” In all this, everyone’s mood lightened and things would return to normal.
He loved showing off Bangalore to friends from abroad, who often, on their quest to travel around India, sought refuge at his home. For them he’d painstakingly plan the itinerary based on their preferences. Some loved the night life, though complained when pubs closed too early, or how cops stood right outside these days, waiting to pounce on people stumbling out, drunk and happy. Some loved the food, eating too much and falling sick while others, with their pricey cameras around their necks, loved to click at everything, as if looking at the pictures later would somehow transport them back to a time when they were jubilant: the shopping streets, the imposing Vidhan Soudha with its Neo-Dravidian architecture, women in colourful saris, the smells, the gardens, the fountain, the warm, welcoming vibes that Bangalore gave off. And when someone said they felt at home, he grinned and said, “Tell me about it.”
But with her, it was simple: temples and maybe some gold shopping. He took her to the Bull temple, the enormous stone-faced Nandi with those big eyes that called out to you. She spent hours there, praying like she always did for the well-being and happiness of everyone, especially her children.
She’d threaten them when they were young, especially if they were being disobedient, that one of these days she’d go off somewhere and never return. When their histrionics got too much for her to take, she often wished to go deaf like her husband did in his latter years. He was blissful. Nothing ever reached his ears, and on afternoons when some uncouth neighbour drilled or fixed a nail on the wall, he slept without a worry. It was she who’d keep tossing around in the bed, and eventually, after being thoroughly frustrated, would get up to prepare the evening tea.
“Where would you go?” they’d ask.
“Someplace. Why should I tell you?”
Suddenly, it was only she and the Nandi, and the bull now asked her to get on its back. It got up on all fours, dwarfing everything around it, and her head was in the clouds, secretly watching the activities of the Gods. There, Krishna was playing his sweet tunes for Radha, and there, Rama and Sita were walking hand-in-hand. She was higher, higher than everyone, everything, but she felt safe on the animal’s back, its coarse, hairy skin warm and alive under her hands, and the way the nerve in its neck trembled.
And then she heard the voice of her mother: How are you my little princess? There they were, her entire family, looking pleased, happy to see her. She was ten again, pony-tailed, plucking mangoes and guavas from the trees in the backyard, getting her thick, curly hair combed for louse on the verandah, the sharp bristles leaving trails of flame on her exposed scalp. But with every swipe came out big, fat cooties that her mother handed her to squish between her thumbnails. She never understood what they were doing up there, what was so interesting. A friend, who was somewhere in the U.S. now – still dressing in jeans and painting her lips (at this age!) – had once suggested that maybe it was a sanctioned experiment by the Government to find out what goes on in a woman’s head.
Then quickly, one after another, her family sat on the Bull’s back, and at once heard gongs that sent vibrations in every direction possible. She closed her eyes and felt these sounds settling on every pore on her body.
They walked and walked until they saw every inch of the universe.
Kailash Srinivasan has a Masters in Writing from Macquarie University, Sydney. His first book, What Happened to That Love, was published in 2010. His second book is looking for a publisher. His work has appeared in Sincere Forms of Flattery (OandS Publishing), Urban Shots Love Collection, and Yuva (GreyOak), Chicken Soup books, and literary magazines like Going Down Swinging, Regime, Bluslate and Them Pretentious Basterds.