This was written at Write Club #337, 5th May 2018. The prompt/challenge was to write a story in a style similar to O Henry’s. This one was inspired by the title, “While the auto waits…” I hope you like it. I certainly enjoyed writing it.
The duck-like honk of the auto caused Ajay to look up from the Sunday edition. “She’s here,” he called out to his wife, who was just putting away the treadmill. “I told you there wasn’t enough time.”
His wife, Sreshta, bustled into view just long enough to show him her middle finger. “Keep her busy,” she added, rushing back to their room to change into something more appropriate. “You should have warned me I was running late!”
Ajay grinned. Ten years running, and some things never changed. He got up, dropping the Times on the seat that still bore the imprint of his buttocks. The auto honked again. Ajay waved to acknowledge the summons and picked up the key-ring. The gate was already unlocked, but he could still pretend that it wasn’t and gift his wife those precious seconds she needed.
He made his way down the driveway at his usual pace, the usual smile on his face, wearing his Sunday usuals – a Kurta top his wife threatened to give to their dog to play with, a comfortably-loose pajama bottom that had holes in places people wouldn’t, shouldn’t, normally see – and, as always, mindful of the usual protocol these situations demanded.
He fiddled with the lock for a few seconds, jerking it this way and that, pretending that it had rusted shut. When he felt he had run the charade long enough, he pulled the lock out of its clasp and opened the gates with a flourish.
“Ma!” he said, with mock indignation. “The doctor’s told you not to walk.”
The old woman beamed at him even as she tried to look dismissive of his statement. “That doctor told me five years ago I’d drop dead of a heart attack, and guess who had a heart attack last month instead?” She cackled good-naturedly. “What does he know?”
Ajay smiled, nodded at the auto-driver. A familiar face, once young and eager, now age-worn and contented, returned the gesture. Ajay knew that the son had taken over the family rick, but for trips like these – or was it the only one now – the father insisted on doing it himself. The son would have the day off; the father would wait until evening and then carry his fare back to her home fifty minutes away.
Sunday traditions. For as long now as any of them could remember.
Ajay bent forward and lightly touched Ma’s feet. She placed both her palms on the back of his head, letting her fingers graze through thinning hair and touching the scalp underneath, and closed her eyes for a moment as she wished this child all the best the Gods could offer. As he straightened up, she caught the scent of sandal and sacred ash. Memories threatened to overwhelm her.
Ajay let the auto pass into the compound before, with the familiarity of the intimate, taking her hand in his. Together, they trudged up the driveway towards the house, stopping every so often to smell this flower or comment upon that plant. She was proud of his green thumb and would never believe his protestations that compliments were truly due to Sreshta and the gardner who came in on Saturdays. It was a short walk, less than a hundred meters, but it was enough to wind her down by the time they reached the verandah.
Not for the first time, as he helped her up the three steps into the house, Ajay was struck by a sense of melancholy, a sense of how, no matter how much things remained the same, they were still changing. A year or so ago, she hadn’t needed his help. A year or so ago, she would have rushed into the house to greet Sreshta instead of plopping down, heavily, on top of his Sunday Times.
He let her grab her breath and returned to the auto-driver. Manik da stood up as the young man approached him. They exchanged namaste’s. “How are you, Chote Sarkar?” Manik da asked in Hindi. Every time they met, it was the same question, delivered with the same inflection, the same sincerity. Ajay knew the man cared enough to listen.
“We are happy,” Ajay replied. “And you?”
“Keeping well, by the grace of Him above. Achu-beta got admission last week at the local school. Now he says he will go, learn and then come home to teach me English. I tell him I need no English.”
Achu – Ajay could never really remember the actual name of Manik da’s grandson – was three turning fifteen, if the old man could be believed. Ajay inquired after Jaani, Manik da’s wife, and Mehul and Chokki, and then asked him if he could get him the usual. “Ek garama garam adraki chai, Chote Sarkar,” Manik da answered, years vanishing from his face for a blissful instant. “Sreshta ma makes it really well.”
Ajay didn’t have the heart to tell him that unlike the garden, the credit for the tea should go to him. He patted the old man’s shoulder affectionately, slipping in a 500-rupee note into his pocket for the day, and then returned to Ma.
Just as he reached her, Sreshta rushed out, bangles jingling, a big Sindhoor on her forehead, a bright red saree draped around her slightly-chubby frame. Slender frame, Ajay caught himself correcting that thought. You had to have it drilled into you so that you don’t get caught out in drowsy, unguarded moments, he remembered.
The reunion was brief but touching. Sreshta immediately asked if Ma’s knees were any better, if she had been taking her medicines, if next-door Samira had delivered and was well now, if Meera mausi’s descent into dementia had been arrested. At some point in between, the two women moved indoors, leaving Ajay all alone.
Ajay caught Manik da’s eyes and invited him into the cooler shades of the verandah. Manik da shook his head, then gestured that he was going out for a smoke. Both men shared the grin of conspirators. Ajay knew the old man was forbidden from smoking in his own house.
The two women stayed indoors the whole day and Ajay joined them from time to time when he was not working on his laptop. They gossiped; he listened in. They cooked; he tasted. They discussed sarees, relatives, cricket, politics; he commented. Ma asked about children; Ajay demurred. And when lunch was finally served, he was the one who set the table and the cutlery while Ma took Sreshta back into the garden so that she could tell her Bahu what her son needed to do to make it better.
Lunch had all their favorite dishes. Jeera rice for Ma, aloo fry for him, pickled salad and mango custard for Sreshta. When they were done, Ajay rooted through Ma’s handbag for her post-lunch meds. Grimly, he noted that the dosage had been increased once again.
Lunch – or was it the medicines – always made Ma sleepy, so they took her to the guest room and continued to talk until she dozed off. She would sleep, as she always did, for a couple of hours; Sreshta used the time to clean up, answer unanswered messages from her office and talk to Manik da. It never ceased to amaze Ajay how easily she struck up conversations with people, how she managed to get them to talk even when there seemed to be nothing more to talk about.
By five, suitably refreshed after tea and a plate of steaming pakoras, Ma said it was time for her to leave. “Manik da has to go back home,” she said, looking guilty. “Poor man. I kept him here the entire day.”
The departure rituals took half an hour to complete, drawn out as they always had been by fresh segues into unexplored topics. By the time the auto-rickshaw turned off their lane and vanished from sight, it was dusk turning dark.
Sreshta’s hand found Ajay’s, her head his shoulder. “Poor woman,” she said.
Ajay mumbled his assent. “Do you think we are being cruel to her? That we are fooling her?”
Her fingers tightened around his. “She must have loved them so much.” Her voice cracked. “To go mad after losing them… to keep coming around, thinking you’re her son, I’m her bahu… Maybe that’s why God moved us here, into the same house, to make up for taking them away…”
A few kilometres away, in an auto swiftly travelling north, an old woman sighed. Manik da’s eyes darted up to the rear-view mirror and caught her expression. “You did not tell them, did you?” he asked.
She looked away, the world dissolving in tears that refused to fall. “I’ve known for years,” she said softly. “But really… they have no one else.”