Manisha Sahoo | April 2022
Our maternal grandmother, our Nani, is quick to slap Kamal’s back. She pushes his open arms away, annoyed. “Naan, my foot! Do I look like I’ve been baked in a tandoor? Call me Nani, or don’t enter my house.”
“Aw, come on. Naan sounds cool. Why you gotta be so old-fashioned?” He pouts as he says it, but the moment she turns away, he grins and laughs in mute. They have been having this argument for one and a half decade now. When Kamal turned fifteen, he thought it cool to shorten every word into a single syllable. While he has since restored those massacred words to their original spelling in his brain, he has kept ‘Naan’ in a shrine. He just loves to tease Nani.
Despite her declaration, she ushers him inside and turns to me. Waiting on the porch, I am ensconced by bags because Kamal is ultimately an ass who won’t carry even his share of luggage in. She grabs me into a hug, despite the barrier, and slaps my back as well.
I separate from her and hold her by the shoulders. Cropped white hair, wrinkles which smile on their own, walnut brown eyes which bore a hole into one’s soul sitting tight over a little snout, thin, stern lips dyed a faint red, and clip-ons in the name of earrings— yes, that’s our Nani. Her cheeks are sunken, her hands and feet appear bonier, and the soft blue cotton salwar suit hangs loose on her.
She notices the change in my expression and slaps my arm. “Would you just come in? You arrive after so many years and you’re just going to stand there, gaping like an idiot? Speaking of idiots, where is that Kamal? Run away to his room again?” Pulling me inside and thus causing the fortification of bags to topple over, she barks out, “Kamal, you useless son of my daughter, come back and bring your bags in! Kavita is not your butler!”
A rueful Kamal appears from behind the wall to our right, which conceals the way to our bedrooms, and drags his feet forward. I snort and smirk, wheeling in the only suitcase I have brought along. His Highness needed six bags, all of which have soaked in the last of the dying sunrays and are ready to absorb the evening dew. I bet if his stuff is packed with diligence, it will fit snug in a bag or two.
The living room and its adjoining dining area are picture perfect replica from my memories. Long threads of beads bordering the heavy green drapes, yellow walls with stains of age, wooden sofa set decked with cushions, glass-top centre table with a bowl of fresh lilies and a folded newspaper, display case in the wall behind the larger sofa filled with trinkets and pictures of our parents, of us and of Nani’s wedding day— it has all remained the same. There is a garland draped on one half of the wedding picture, encircling Nanaji’s face. The flat screen television on the opposite wall I remember from when Papa gifted it to her. Beyond all this is the antique dark wood four-seater dining table. A bookcase and a refrigerator stand guard by its side against the walls.
“Go get freshened up now. Subhi— you remember Subhi? You loved her carrot halwa last time you were here. She will arrive soon to make dinner. Yes, yes, I won’t have her put cardamom in anything. No, but you will have to eat an extra paratha. Just look at you! You’re all skin and bones! Couldn’t you eat and enjoy like your brother? He’s glowing. Look at the lad, so healthy! Stop dilly-dallying and carry the bags all at once! Where’s your strength? Do you want your Nani to show you how to do it?”
Kamal, drenched in sweat from walking ten steps with his excessive luggage, locks eyes with me and we both grin. Nani switches gears in her monologues faster than a race car.
The aforementioned carrot halwa turns up at dinner. Though Nani spoke of it, I’m still surprised to see the steaming bowl of crimson garnished with fried cashew nuts arranged in a neat circle.
I chat with Subhi as she lays down the dishes on the dining table. Her kids are now in fourth and second standard respectively, and her husband has been promoted. She need not do this job anymore, but since she considers Nani as her family, she is happy to carry on.
“This idiot girl tells me she’ll cook for me for free,” Nani pipes up and shakes her head. “Like I’ll ever allow that.” She addresses Subhi and says what I assume she’s said to her a thousand times already, “It seems for now that you have enough money, but take it from someone who’s lived a full life. You’ll always need more in the future. Do you not want your kids in college? Middle school, high school, those won’t be cheap either. Nowadays nothing is cheap. Meanwhile, I’m living on a comfortable pension and have enough to spare for you. Tomorrow I may not be around and you will lose a source of income. That’s not good, is it? You should start looking for alternate jobs too, you know.”
Subhi clicks her tongue in annoyance. “Why do you always have to talk about dying, mausi? You have a long lifeline, you should speak only positive things.”
“Positive, my foot. I’m old and I have a right to be bitter and mean. Don’t go making an idol out of me.” Nani wags a finger at her and then points to the empty seat at the table. “Get your plate and sit down for dinner.”
“Not today, mausi. Husband has night shift, and nobody’s there to watch the kids.”
“Okay, be careful on your way back.”
“Yes, mausi. Good night.”
“If tomorrow he has night shift too, come early to cook and go back. Did you take dinner with you? Okay, good.”
Once Subhi leaves, the only noise in the house is the clattering of dishes and chewing. Kamal, a recent vegetarian convert, is hogging the fried okras and the parwal curry, which also has diced potatoes in it besides the sliced pointed gourds. Nani and I are happy to stick with our butter chicken, and halwa for dessert. Kamal still dislikes carrots and has forsaken his claim on it.
“I’m glad the two of you could make it here this time. Feels like old times,” Nani says without looking up from her plate.
Kamal musters up an awkward smile. I try to come up with some syllables which do not sound like an excuse, and fail.
For the past five years or so, excuses were all we had to give whenever our parents asked if we planned to visit our only surviving grandparent anytime soon.
Work is too busy. I can’t take leave.
An important promotion is coming up, how can I take leave now?
My team is relying on me, I can’t leave them high and dry.
…and many more of the same vein. We ‘barely had any time’ to visit our parents, much less ‘other relatives’.
I decide to change the topic. “So, what do you want to do tomorrow? Go for a walk around town? I hope the weather will hold—”
Nani waves her hand. “It hardly ever rains here at this time of the year. Tomorrow evening the haat will be back after so long.”
“Oh God, I remember going to those bi-weekly markets as kids! It used to be so crowded. I cried when I thought I got lost!”
Nani laughs. “And we were standing right behind you! In fact, it was Kamal who really got lost. Didn’t even realize it until your mother found him again.”
Kamal snorts and coughs. He reaches for a glass of water while I thump his back. “T- thanks. What was I doing there? Ah, yes. I had found a vendor of my age and I sat down to learn the ‘ropes of business’.” He drinks the water and snorts once more. I am ready to help him swallow again with my arm raised and angled for a direct hit, but he holds up his hand. “I- I’m fine. It’s just funny, that’s all.”
We fall into easy chatter after that, without anyone choking anymore, the funny anecdotes being served between bites. I wonder why we hesitated to come here when we were kids.
Every summer vacation, it was a sure trip to both sets of grandparents, and the chacha-chachis too if time permitted. Neither of us were fond of being around ‘oldies’, people who we were sure would never understand us and could thus never play with us. We wanted to be left alone, we wanted to be with our friends.
Once school life ended, we went to separate colleges. Some years we made the trip, some years we did not. But, we were no longer children. We did not dislike the visits, even looked forward to them as happy getaways.
“This was a great idea,” Kamal says as he pulls out the legs of his cot. We had cajoled Nani into letting us sleep on the terrace for the night, and she had warned us we would “get carried away by mosquitoes” – yes, those were her exact words. My once-in-a-lifetime resourceful twin had brandished a mosquito repellent spray in response. She gave permission then, and told us where we’d find two foldable beds in the storage room.
“Dust them properly. God knows when they were last used. Might not be this century at all. Your Nanaji loved to sleep on the terrace. He bought two beds in the hopes that I would join him someday. That never happened.”
Sure enough, even after dusting and cleaning them, the joints on the cots creak and groan as we unfold them. With sheets and blankets spread, pillows propped up, we are all set.
Millions of tiny glowing beads dot the inky blue backdrop. A crescent moon rests amidst them like a candy bowl which had been knocked over and had spilled all of its starry treats. I cannot tear my eyes away from them.
Kamal, fantastic that he is at timing, shatters through my reverence for the countryside night sky. “Say, Kavi. Do you think it was especially awful of us to have avoided coming here all these years?”
Yes. “I don’t know,” I say with a shrug. “I mean, we were planning to come last year, right? To celebrate Nani’s eightieth.”
“Yes, of course.” He falls silent for a second. The springs in his bed announce his movements as he shifts to his side. “But, you know, when the lockdown was imposed and all the flights and everything got grounded, I was…kinda glad. I don’t know. It’s not that I dislike spending time with Nani or anything. I mean, I love her a lot. Just that…”
I nod so he can stop spelling it out. The more he says, the more my stomach churns. I turn to face him too. “Last year was beyond our help though. The world messed it up. We were just caught in its wires.”
He pulls the blanket closer to his chest and purses his lips. He remains quiet for a while and then moves his head up and down. “I’m glad we did not let this chance go by. Who knows when things will get ugly again?”
Someone has wrung my stomach like a wet cloth, I’m sure. I sniffle and say, “I was so scared we were gonna lose her when she fell sick last September. I wanted to run over right away.”
Kamal grows grim as well. “Me too.” He adjusts his position so he’s facing the stars. “Let’s not put off these things anymore. Tell me when you plan a trip to the chachas and chachis. I’ll join you.”
Manisha Sahoo is a writer from Odisha, India. Her stories have appeared in or are set to appear in Rivanna Review, Frost Zone Zine as well as in several anthologies including Everything Changed After That and Sharing Lipstick. She has twice received Honorable Mention in L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future Contest.
Photo by Deepak H Nath
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