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By Ankita Saxena

It is somewhere between mid-afternoon and evening. Inside a semi-detached, beige-bricked house, with three double bedrooms, one bathroom, a staircase toilet and a store room, Mayawati is searching for something. In this precise moment, she does not know what.

Outside, Vishal is putting out a cigarette half-heartedly. The boot of his car open to a semi-permanent yawn, overflowing with boxes, suitcases, and plastic jars jammed with preserved lemons and mango pickle. Soon, all the contents of his mother’s home will be transferred to the ground floor suite he has had custom-decorated for her in his own modern duplex in Block B. Under the new local council guidelines, people over eighty are not meant to live in Blocks A-C – we want vibrant streets, thriving communities, liberal mindsets the Young Advocates had campaigned for, using behavioural science to imprint an anti-elderly sentiment in people’s minds. Prickold, they would call Vishal when his mother moved in; Vishal the prickold.

Mayawati does not know what she is searching for, but she knows that if she does not find it, it will be lost forever, like the countless things that have been lost now that she cannot remember them. She opens the drawer beneath her jewellery cabinet. Inside, are a vast assortment of useless, daily strays: red bindis unstuck from their plastic cages; bobby pins stretched out to the point of no return; empty cellotape wheels. Closing the drawer, she catches her reflection in the mirror above – touches it with her finger, wiping off a thin layer of dust. That’s better now, she thinks, unsure whether the dust accumulated on her finger has come from her face or the glass, unsure which version of her she has cleaned.

Through the mirror, she looks around her now-empty bedroom, the carpet peeling at the seams. At the edge of the room, she spots an assortment of bright blue, crumpled up kites, with ridges in their skins. Her eyes light up, thinking of her childhood of chasing kites – hers always flew the highest of course, higher than her sister’s, higher than Rakesh’s. She suddenly wishes to cradle one in her arms, stroke its majestic beauty and unleash its potential for flight. But as she turns around and walks over, she realizes that they are not kites after all, but rather large, flimsy carry bags, built from bright, blue plastic. Inside, piles and piles of neatly folded salwar kameez’s: rose pink, and green the colour of paan mingled with tobacco, which Rakesh would chew endlessly.

Stop that dirty habit – it is staining your teeth. She used to say to him. It will stain your lungs too and then what will I do! So, gradually he cut his habit down. From daily, he started to take it once every two days, then three, then five, then only when the grandchildren came to visit, as a special treat. To show he was a man and they were not, he would order the paan wala to make his with tobacco, and theirs without. Then, at home, she would give him a glass of cold milk to take the smell away. See how your grandmother scolds me, he would tell them, his eyes gleaming like a boy returning home after dusk with scrapes on his knees. He would put his hand around her shoulders, his fingers dangling dangerously near the folds of bare skin between her sari blouse and petticoat. A man must always listen to his wife, he would whisper.

As she looks around the now hollowed out room, these memories stray into her mind much like the pins left behind in the dresser’s drawer, nearly forgotten save for a chance reminder. She half expects to hear Rakesh call her from the other room, Mayu, Mayu, my love, have you seen my paan?

Instead, a well-built stubbled man in a creased T-Shirt and jeans emerges through the doorway, relief and concern mingled in the furrows between his large, brown eyes. Ma! There you are! and then, in the same tone an adult uses to boost a young child’s confidence, when accidentally defeating them in a simple game, despite wishing all along for the child to win…“Wow, Ma! Just wow! You have done such a good job. The house is looking wonderful. I am so proud of you.”

Mayawati froths over with an inexplicable rage. What right does he have to call this empty house, wonderful! How could he say she did a good job, when all she did was sit while he packed up her belongings, passively concurring against her will. What was there to be proud of, when leaving the house behind, felt like her life’s biggest failure.

Mayawati can’t help remembering the wild and roving summer at the start of her marriage, when she and Rakesh moved into the house. They would turn on the radio, and eat dry, perfectly hourglass shaped peanuts, tossing shell after shell aimlessly to the corner of the room. Because they could. Because who could stop them. Because this was their house and they could do as they pleased.

Soon, simply because of the nature of time, which lets present priorities supercede past frivolities, they filled the empty corners with furniture bought second-hand from relatives and market places, each glass cabinet and wooden shelf containing histories of bargain and barter. They would go on long journeys in rented cars to collect them, always stopping for tea, never for dinner. Believe it or not, Mayawati was the stingy one! Do we need another side table, jaan? Where will we put it!

But of course, Rakesh’s approach to money was also one of his most enduring qualities. The first month, when his pay cheque came in, he stored half in the safe, and gave half to Mayawati. You must do what you want with this, and you must not tell me, he said, and she, in return, stroked the large beard framing his jaw with her right palm. Don’t be silly, all your hard work... what will I do with it? So in that first month, while he was busy at work, she took the money he gave her and went down the road to Jack’s bookshop. Along with her usual dose of magazines, she bought a handful of travel books, each filled with colourful pictures of places all around the Republic; beaches where bamboo boats took you to secret islands, and volcanoes, with craters the size of small seas. When he came back from work that day, she said we will save this money, jaan, and use it to travel!

So before long, this house became an island of treasure: walls covered with tapestries from toothless women in dusty towns; and window sills jewelled with statues of Gods rescued from mountains with temples carved into their bodies.

History – Rakesh’s history, relied on the memories in the walls. Leaving them behind meant proving they were right – that she, with her decaying mental and physical capacity, her growing dependency, her inability even to cook for her son anymore or tell a coherent story; let alone contribute to the economy or cultural heritage, was hardly worth keeping alive.

Beta, Mayawati says, in barely more than a whisper, There’s something I still need to find. I don’t, I can’t remember what, but I know it’s there – in Pitaji’s study. Take me there, one last time? Vishal is used to this by now – he has exited and re-entered the house at least five times in the past hour, each time finding his mother inspecting some unimportant part of the house as if for the first time.

He remembers the mornings before their trips across the country; his father always the first to be ready, waiting outside the rusty hatchback, luggage already loaded, engine switched on. Unlike most men of his age, his father never commented at the time, never rallied off on a vicious spiral on the waste of petrol, the unlikely but not impossible loss of a train ticket, of vacation days, of money, and [again] of time – that spent earning the money. Instead, he let his mind wander to more favourable things – the food he had eaten that morning, the last funny thing his young daughter had reflected on, thoughts he could snap out of in a second when beckoned inside by his wife to check the windows were shut, the fridge emptied, the children dressed appropriately one last time.

Of course, his father’s laid back nature was only possible because of his mother’s precision; his patience necessary for their livelihood, her tenacity for their survival. Even if Rakesh himself missed a plug socket, the house never burned down when they travelled; even if Rakesh forgot to lock the window in the midst of the wave of robberies that changed the shape of the neighbourhood, not one thing was stolen from Mayawati’s home.

Vishal holds out his arm for his mother to rest on, picking up one of the blue bags in his arms to take outside. He is unsure which is heavier – the bag or the weight of losing his father. It is him now, he realises, accompanying his mother on a final house inspection; it is him now swallowing any rising tides of impatience. In spite of everything the Young Advocates have told him to believe about the elderly; that they must not be trusted; that their assets must be seized; that they must be controlled, forcibly if necessary; it is him now listening to his mother’s orders, falling into a natural position of tolerance without question or rationale, just as his father had done for sixty-five years, even until the day he died, when Mayawati sat with him night after night telling him story after story of their youth, hoping to hear his voice, his laugh, even his crackly snores, just one last time.

As Mayawati enters the study, she can still smell the musk of Rakesh’s perfume, hand-mixed in a shop they found in the middle of a mighty souk. This room, save for the perfume, now completely naked. How shameful, Mayawati thinks to herself, recalling the maze of newspapers, magazines and thick files that used to clutter it. So much mess! She used to chide as she slid in with Rakesh’s customary tea and vanilla biscuits at 3pm, stopping to chat about his last legal case, sneaking him a kiss in the midst of all the chaos. How she wished now to revel in the mess. To stumble upon endless, useless, rolls of paper! To trip on it! To clean it! All recycled now, of course, joining the endless rotation of words that are built and then destroyed within the course of a generation.

Vishal too, breathes in the space around him. There was a day when his father thought himself a local hero; harbouring an “illegal” family in this very study; making a bed for them while helping them fill out asylum applications, while his mother cooked them fresh takda daal, okra, rotis that inflated like small balloons, and thick chicken and tomato soup. Remember that – Ma. He says. How strong Pitaji was. Writing letter after letter to the Migration Ministry. How brave you both were.

In that moment, a memory rushes back to Mayawati— the cupboard by the window, which they painted in camouflage with the same peach-colour paint as the wall. It was there they instructed the family to hide whenever the Council conducted their routine home inspections. And when the family was long gone, safe in a suburb not too far from the ocean, it was there they stored their secret letters. What is it Ma? Vishal says, noticing the expression on his mother’s face.

The letters! Mayawati says, raising her voice and looking at him directly for the first time in twenty-four hours. Mine and your father’s letters! Forgetting the many reasons she has to be angry at the world and herself; forgetting what year it is, and day it is; how old she is; how many years this cupboard has been shut for; Mayawati scrambles over to the door, and instructs her son to prize it open with the crevasses of her knuckles. Inside, is the whole clutter of the room collected into a single rectangular cavity. No neat dividers, or ordered boxes. Rakesh was never one for discipline. She rushes in – hands first, gripping at any piece of paper, devouring each invoice and clipping, each mark of his handwriting as if it were the last scraps of a glorious meal, letting the fragments of her memories piece together in her mind into coherent chronology. Among the paper is a photo from her wedding day – neither of them looking at the camera, but she, looking radiant and mischievous, and Rakesh, of course, looking so kind.

At last, she finds what she has been looking for the whole day – a small bundle of paper tied with a red rakhi. The papers are thin and barely visible now, especially in the dim light of the cupboard. But she can still just about make out some of the words. She remembers her grandmother scoffing each time the post came in – another one for our princess, she would sing, sliding them under her door. One letter contains a song Rakesh had written for her, when he was still trying to convince her to marry him. She remembers him putting it to music, playing it on his tiny keyboard, his voice always a different pitch each time he sang it, but his smile always the same.

Where is the space for love? You say, There’s too much to do and too much at stake.

I say – love is like hawa upholding our kites, and love is the chand commanding the tides.

How will we still be free? You ask, There’s so much of me that I’ll have to look past.

I say – partnership frees us like trust frees a child To laugh uncontrollably, and cry without pride.

How will we keep ourselves young? You say, I cannot be everything for you each day!

My dearest Mayu, my queen, my jaan. I promise you this – I swear on my paan.

If you love me back and agree to be my wife, We will hold each other for the rest of our lives. For what is love but care, and what is life?

Hearing Rakesh’s voice play in her head, Mayawati drops the letter and starts aggressively crying out, clapping her hands, roaring with laughter. What is love but care! she sings to son, who feels his own body collapse with the emotional exhaustion that manifests when one no longer has to play the happy part, no longer has to force a sad person to be cheerful.

Outside, the sun is setting, cloaking the world in an amber glow. Mayawati looks into her son’s hazel eyes, and finds that they are Rakesh’s eyes. And she looks at his hands, and finds, that while firmer and larger, they are his hands. She turns to hug him, cackling at the smell of tobacco on his jacket, not too different from the smell of Rakesh’s paan. What is love but care, Mayawati thinks to herself, and what is life?

She does not know what year it is or what day it is or what tomorrow will be, or how alienating her new neighbourhood will feel under the Young Advocates’ Guidelines, but she knows that right now, her love has just sung her the most beautiful song, and her son is standing there, tall, handsome, patient and caring like his father.

And is that not something, indeed, to be proud of!

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