Devaki attached her document and sent the email to the client. She made a couple of calls and switched off her computer. There would be no more time for work that weekend. She changed into a white cotton dress and twisted her hair into a casual knot. She took a green woolen shawl from her dresser and walked over to Amma’s room.
Devaki could hear the water running in the bathroom. On the floor lay two open suitcases. Saris, petticoats, and blouses were neatly piled inside them. Devaki tucked the shawl in the larger suitcase.
Amma had insisted on packing only the everyday saris. The ones she had collected over the years were stowed in her closet, each wrapped in muslin cloth with a naphthalene ball. Devaki opened Amma’s closet and unwrapped the saris one by one. The Assam off-white silk embroidered by the nuns of a local convent with designs of cranes in flight. The Jamdhani in light pink fabric woven with paisleys of pure gold zari. The black and red dazzler from Banaras with geometric designs. The rich silk Kanchivaram sarees woven in two shades of yellow with flower bootis and a temple border. Devaki wrapped them and carefully stacked them back on the shelf.
The bathroom door opened with a creak. Her mother appeared, steam silhouetting her slight frame. “Devaki? Am I late for the Cafe place?”
“There’s plenty of time. I just got ready early. I packed your shawl.”
Devaki watched her mother lower herself onto the cushioned dressing stool. Staring at her reflection, Amma turned her face this way and that. Slowly, she combed her white hair and arranged it, like reams of thin silk threads, into a bun. She patted English Lavender powder on her face, smoothing it into the wrinkles. She unscrewed the white cap of a red bindi bottle. Her lips were tight and her hands shook slightly as she applied her red bindi. It took her three tries to make it round.
Devaki closed the bindi bottle and put it away. Amma stood and re-draped her sari with precise folds, pinning the pallu in layers on her shoulder.
“OK. Ready. Let’s call the kids. I don’t want to be late for dinner.”
“Listen, Amma.” Devaki leaned forward, her hands pressed between her knees. “Are you sure you want to leave tomorrow before the kids wake up? They’re really keen to drop you off. They’ll be so upset if we leave without telling them.”
“I’ll find it hard to say goodbye, Devaki.”
“But I’ll have to deal with it afterwards.”
“I know. Blame it on me.”
Devaki inhaled deeply. “I’ll still be the one to face the fallout.”
“I think you can do this. You can make things a little easier.”
Devaki shook her head and rose. “It’s never going to be easier.”
The Blue Sky Café was spread over an entire side of the open courtyard of an old farmhouse. Orange trumpets and blue morning glory hung in clumps on wrought iron trellises. Women with craft jewellery chatted about vegetable dyes and men with casual hair ate edamame chat. Devaki opened the menu and was glad she came here only rarely. Everything was overpriced yet hard to resist.
She had come here often with Raghu when they were still married. It was the one thing they had agreed on, other than the divorce. Raghu, a doctor, lived in a village four hours away and practiced at a health care NGO headed by an earnest woman who Devaki was quite sure he was seeing. Two weekends a month, he drove to Bangalore to visit the children. Shriya marked these days on her school calendar. Sid wanted to be a doctor like his father. He sometimes talked about Raghu, the crazy things he had done in college, the movies he loved, the concerts he had attended. It all came as a surprise to Devaki, as if she was listening to the story of someone she had never known.
The purple-haired waitress placed their dishes on the table and complimented her mother’s sari.
Amma waved her hand and chuckled. “Oh, it’s just so simple.”
With the sounds of voices, laughter, and the clinking of silverware on plates surrounding them, Amma’s face began to light up.
Shriya bit into her pizza. “Yummy! I can’t believe we haven’t been here in years!”
“We were here a couple of months ago, Drama Queen,” Sid grinned.
Amma laughed. “It seems like a whole year, right?
As Shriya prattled on about her school play, Devaki forked up pieces of raw guava from her salad.
Amma put down her spoon. She patted her chest, as if she was soothing a cough, and said, “Devaki likes the guava from our garden, sliced with chili powder and salt.”
“But, Ammamma,” Shriya said, “we don’t have a guava tree in our garden.”
“Shriya,” Devaki said sharply, “you should know this by now. Ammamma means in her old house. In her old garden.”
“Every house has a heart, you know,” Amma began. “Some houses, it’s the kitchen. In some it’s the library or the living room. In my house, the heart is the garden. My house may be small, but my garden is, what’s the word? Extravagant.” Her mother opened her arms in a sweeping arch. “My garden is extravagant. You care for something, you give it time and thought and effort, and that is how you open up the beauty in it. Devaki, your father loves birds, so I hung feeders on the guava trees, bird baths on pedestals. For sweet smells, I strung jasmine on wires. The roses need sun, so they went up front. Now the hibiscus, I confess, I don’t do much to the hibiscus. But it still blooms. Oh, and summer! Summer is all about mangoes.”
Shriya sipped her juice. “It was the prettiest garden, Ammamma. Even my friend Zehnab says so. We played hide and seek there once. A long time ago.”
Devaki had driven Amma past the old house only once, just after they razed the trees. She never drove that way again and she wished her mother would forget the house that had long ago been torn down and the old garden that was now the cement floor of an office building.
The waitress brought the dessert. Sitaphal ice cream for Amma, and chocolate cake for the kids. Shriya and Sid grabbed their spoons. Amma looked away.
“Don’t you want your dessert, Amma?” Devaki asked.
“But I’ve had too much. I can’t eat another bite.”
Devaki’s lips thinned into a line. “Then why’d you order it?”
“It’s okay, Mom.” Sid touched her arm.
“No, it’s for you, Amma.” Devaki’s voice rose as she scooped ice cream into her mother’s bowl. “It’s your favorite flavor. In fact, the whole dinner was for you. Do you know that? This whole thing was for you and you’ve hardly eaten.”
Her mother spooned up a small bite.
Sid began to tell his Ammamma a story from his history lesson. He was completely absorbed, completely intent, as if he could erase everything by just keeping everyone focused on what he was saying. Devaki slowly dabbed her lips with her napkin and turned away.
On the way home, Sid sat slumped in the front seat. Shriya slept in the back, her head resting on her grandmother’s arm. Amma stared ahead, her eyes slightly crinkled. Devaki wondered if she was thinking, remembering, or trying to forget.
The next morning, before the sun rose, Devaki opened the kitchen door. Yawning, she poured idli batter into grooved plates and readied the steamer. Outside, the streetlights were still on, and the lights reflected off the garden grass, green and white. The garden had thrived under her mother’s care and now green barbets crooned while red heliconias drooped on large leaves.
She had sat with her mother in the garden the day she had first brought up Ashiana. She remembered that Amma had remained silent. Devaki hadn’t been able to gauge the cause of her mother’s silence. Was it fear, resignation, or shock? To Amma, the idea of a nursing home would have been about as real as a palace in the sky.
Her parents hadn’t made an old age plan. Whatever her father had managed to save had been spent on Devaki’s private school and her college and he had even withdrawn half his provident fund for Devaki’s wedding expenses. Her parents hadn’t made an old age plan because their old age plan was Devaki. They expected to live with her, just as their parents had lived with them, and their parents before them, and so on. It was a quilt, and each generation stitched on another piece. Devaki knew she would not be adding hers and that this absence would be the first of many.
The pan whistled. Devaki carefully spooned out steaming white idlis. She brought out the coconut chutney and broke pieces of dark chocolate into a platter. This was her mother’s favorite breakfast.
She walked down the corridor. Amma’s door was open, the lights were turned on.
Her mother was bent over the suitcases. Clothes lay in piles on the bed.
“Amma! What’s all this? What’s going on?”
“Devaki.” Amma’s voice was breathless. “Someone came in the night and packed these suitcases. But who?”
“Amma, stop this! Seriously.”
Her mother straightened, a folded towel in her hand. “Look! They wanted to take my saris, my towels, everything.”
Devaki took a deep breath. “We packed them. You and me. Don’t you remember?”
Her mother’s eyes opened wide.
“Come, come, sit. Just sit for a while.” Devaki led her to the dressing table.
Amma sat on the stool and faced the mirror. She ran her fingers on her cheek as if she didn’t know the old woman staring back at her, then looked at her daughter’s face reflected beside hers. Devaki felt herself becoming less solid, less real, as if she was not a person, but an idea that her mother couldn’t quite grasp. As they gazed at each other, Devaki was struck by the fear that, as her mother’s memory faded, pieces of their lives were breaking off and drifting away. She put her arm around Amma’s shoulders.
“Why don’t you have your breakfast?” she said, guiding her mother out of the room.
They sat on the veranda overlooking the garden. They watched the sun rise as they ate breakfast. Afterwards, they sipped their coffee and Devaki showed Amma the Ashiana brochure again. She pointed out the pictures of towering trees, the trimmed hedges, the small pond, the whitewashed brick building.
Amma slowly turned the pages of the brochure. When she reached the end, she carefully placed it on the table. She turned her face to the garden and gazed at it for a while. She then drained her coffee and looked straight at her daughter. “We should leave,” she said, pushing her chair back. “The kids will be waking up soon.”
Devaki refolded the clothes on the bed. She packed her mother’s powder, bottu bottle, and comb in a large kit bag. When it was done, her mother closed the suitcases.
“Devaki?” Amma creased her eyes.
“What is it, Amma?”
“There’s something I wanted to do. Do you remember what it was? I wanted to make some arrangements.”
“What arrangements? No more arrangements, Amma! We finished everything yesterday.”
Her mother cast her eyes around the room and opened the closet with the saris stacked in the back. She unwrapped a yellow sari.
“That’s it. There it is,” Amma said softly.
Amma handed the sari to Devaki. “I’ve saved this for Shriya. Make sure it’s the first sari she wears.”
Read the first chapter of Ashiana here