Several houses in our neighbourhood sport rusty locks and chains at the gate and flower gardens overgrown with weeds. In some, stray red flowers bloom in broken pots, coconut palms sway in the backyards—signs of hope, of return and of continuity despite stiff odds.
One such desolate cottage I often see isn’t quite empty, but for an ageing couple. They go about their quiet routine—walks in the park, reading newspapers in the club, shopping at HOPCOM. Invariably it’s the little old woman who’s more gregarious. At the vegetable kiosk she chats with people, normally about soaring price of thondekai or the Kannada soap on TV. Occasionally, she is spotted, all dolled up in rich thick silk sari, jasmine adorning her hair, leading her ambling husband to the kutchery down the lane.
A neighbour of the duo, a recently retired Bengali man, tells me sometimes the landline rings in that quiet empty house late at night. Immediately, everything comes to life—lights, excited voices. The voices from the other end, very American, can be heard clearly though they come from thousands of miles away.
“Typically”, confides the Kolkatan, “the conversation is about what the doctor had to say about sugar, BP, whether they received the money transfer and when they would like to visit. The son apologises for not coming to Bangalore due to work commitment. ‘But if you come over’, you can hear him say, ‘I will take you to San Diego zoo or maybe Disneyland over the weekend. That should be fun. Amma can cook my favourite sambar and fry dosa. Tell her to bring the frying pan. What do you say?’”
“Instead of being cheered, the old man says little. I guess he is just numbed by memory,” the neighbour reflects, as I hang on to the story.
“It seems just the other day the boy was going to pre-school,” chips in his wife. “I remember it was the day we moved in from Kolkata. Now that boy is married, to a white woman, and is a big techie in San Francisco. How time flies!”
“You know what I heard the other night after the long distance call?” the man continues. “The old couple was having an unusual tiff, loud enough to be heard over the wall. The lady said she missed her little boy and that it was the husband’s fault for sending him away for studies. Responding, the old man scolded his wife. He said that’s how life was meant to be and will she please shut up. He needed sleep. He was going to the travel agent first thing in the morning.”
“One more thing, he added, and I repeat, ‘Lady, better check your arthritic leg, start making preparations for the journey, list all our medicines, tightly pack pickles and don’t forget those small onions for the sambar!”