Devaki paused at the doorway of the dining room. Trying to etch every detail into memory was futile, she knew, like trying to grab honey in a fist. Yet, she took note of everything. The fresh yellow chrysanthemums in the cut-glass vase on the dining table. Sid’s head bent over his notebook, wisps of black hair curling up on his neck. Shriya to his left, drawing, crayons strewn around her coloring book. Amma sitting across them, staring out into the garden. The dust dancing over their heads in slants of late afternoon sunlight.
Her mother turned to her. “Already, Devaki? Already teatime? How fast the day has gone!”
Devaki carried the tray with bowls of cut mango and cups of tea to the dining table. Shriya scooped up a fruit bowl with a whoop. Sid barely glanced up.
Devaki pulled out a chair. “Sid, it’s Himayat. Your favorite.”
“I’m trying to finish my history project, Ma.”
Shriya dug into the bowl of mango. “What’s it about?”
“What’s the big deal about Adrian’s Wall?”
“Not Adrian.” Sid raised his eyebrows. “Hadrian. It’s Roman history. You wouldn’t know, Shri.”
Devaki smiled at the note of self-importance in his voice. At fourteen, her son was all elbows and knees, but with each accrual of bone and muscle, he grew more like his father. Raghu was a handsome man and though the divorce had been finalized four years ago, Devaki was not unhappy that Sid took after him. Shriya was nine years old and took after her grandmother.
Shriya waved her paper. “See, I’ve finished my drawing!” She sprang off the chair and rested her hands and chin on her grandmother’s shoulder.
Amma examined the picture. “Abboo! Lovely!”
Shriya pointed to a woman standing near pink and yellow roses. “That’s you, Ammamma, the day we planted the roses, Mummy and you and me. I wanted you to see them bloom, soooo I made them bloom, in the picture.”
Sid chewed on his pencil. “I had maths tuition that day. I wish I had been there.”
Amma squeezed Sid’s hand, “Next time, we’ll plant the flowers together.”
Shriya looked up. “When will that be?”
Devaki looked away.
After a short silence, Shriya said, “Ammamma, what do you want me to draw next?”
“Anything, paapa. All your drawings are first-class.”
“No, no. You tell. When were you the happiest? I’ll draw that.”
“Hmm.” Amma bit into a piece of mango with an absent-minded smile.
Devaki stirred the sugar and placed the teacup before her mother. Amma’s eyes had lost focus, her mouth opened like a half-moon.
“Ammamma?” Shriya clutched the sheet of paper and shuffled.
Devaki gently stroked her daughter’s back. “Why don’t you just draw your favorite thing about Ammamma?”
As Shriya sat back in her chair, Devaki noticed Sid glancing at his grandmother.
“Sid, tell me, why did they build the wall?”
He straightened. “Some people say it was to keep invaders out. Others say it was to show the might of the Roman empire. But no one knows for sure.”
Shriya picked a blue crayon. “You’d think they’d have figured it out by now.”
Sid scoffed. “As if you know anything.”
“I know lots of things.”
“The first time I rode a horse.” Amma’s voice was soft, but everyone turned to her. “I was just a girl, twelve, maybe thirteen, on holiday with my family. Where was it? Huge mountains in the back. Snow. Shimla! That’s where. And I rode a pony! For years, more than anything, I wanted to ride a pony, and there I was, on a lovely brown pony! I was so happy I thought I’d evaporate.”
Shriya bounced in her chair. “I’m going to draw that!”
Amma continued: “Then once, I came home from a party. My closet was fully open. My saris, blouses, petticoats were all over the bed. Devaki was just seven or eight. And there she was, in front of the mirror, nicely wrapped in my sari. And you should have seen her face! She was so scared that I’d be angry. But I couldn’t stop laughing. What a little thing she was – tottering on my heels, lipstick all over her face. We had a marvelous tea party where she pretended to be me and I was my friend Sashikala. After that, I always locked my closet carefully. But on that day, what a time we had!”
“I don’t remember this,” Devaki said. She wanted to ask if the sari was silk or cotton. What color was it? Was Devaki’s hair tied? Was it evening?
Sid grinned and reached for his mango bowl. “Ma! I didn’t know you were so naughty.”
“It sounds like so much fun, Mummy,” Shriya said.
Devaki sipped her tea. “When I was growing up, I remember all the hullabaloo. Family get-togethers. Neighbors and friends dropping in. When my father’s parents were alive, we had a constant stream of houseguests, cousins and aunts. Amma was always chatting with someone or other.”
Her mother smiled. “You’re saying I’m a chatterbox?”
Devaki cocked her head. “And you were quite the card shark, too. You ruled the bridge evenings at Bangalore club.”
“Don’t listen to your mother!” Amma swatted her hand and chuckled.
Sid speared more mango. Shriya bent toward him and he let her eat the piece.
“Why did you stop the kitty parties, Ammamma?” Sid asked.
Amma blew on her tea. “Oh, the ladies all became oldies. Only I stayed young.”
The kitty parties were disbanded after seven of the ten women died. The bridge games at the Bangalore Club stopped when Devaki’s father fell ill.
“Guess what?” Devaki squeezed Amma’s shoulder. “I got dinner reservations for tonight. At the Blue Sky Café.”
Shriya swung her crayon. “Yayyy!”
“For tonight?” Sid looked up.
“You still have a few hours to finish your homework, Sid. It will be special to take Ammamma out tonight.”
Amma said, “The ice cream there was great. Sitaphal, right?”
“It’s a seasonal flavor,” Devaki said. “And they still have it, I checked.”
Devaki carried the dishes to the kitchen and piled them in the sink. She went to her bedroom, booted up the computer and began editing a document. She worked in the communications department at a tech company. She liked her work. Most of the other employees were young graduates who had moved to Bangalore from smaller cities and towns. Devaki liked their naiveté, their raw ambition, their zeal. She saw her work as a creative process of paring volumes of information into clear and easy lines.
Devaki had always loved working with words. She had written for her school newsletter and had edited her college magazine. Even now, she jotted down haiku on a notepad. She read books of all kinds with an almost ferocious joy. When the beauty of a specific sentence struck her, she stopped and repeated it out loud. At times, a particular word brought to her mind a picture so vivid that it felt more real than the space around her. As a young girl, she had confided this to her father. He said she was bringing snippets of her dreams back to her waking life. He called her a dream catcher.
Her father had worked in a publishing house. He devoted his mornings to birdwatching and his evenings to All India Radio. As a girl, Devaki had sat by his side, immersed in her storybooks as the radio hummed in the background. Her father had worn khadi shirts, thick black-rimmed glasses, and a Titan watch. He had treated his wife with indulgence and a kind of wonder, as if she was one of his exotic birds. Amma, in turn, had fussed over his food, his lack of exercise, his smoking and he had glowed with the attention.
After he died, Amma had taken over the finances. At first, she invested in small stocks and chit funds. Over the next year, at the instance of a trusted friend, she mortgaged the house to invest in an import-export business. By the time Devaki found out, the business had gone bankrupt. Devaki had settled out of court – a court case would have dragged on for decades. Still, she had no option but to sell her mother’s house. The house sale shrouded Amma in a thick fog and she had moved in with Devaki like a child being led by the hand. That was three years ago.
Within the intimacy of their new living arrangement, Devaki noticed her mother’s strange behavior. Amma navigated the new spaces of Devaki’s house with the old map in her mind. She would gaze in astonishment at the sight of her clothes in a strange closet, her old appliqué bedspread on an unknown bed. And how had the old dressing table moved from that corner to this?
Devaki noticed other oddities. Amma’s gestures bore no relation to what she was saying, as if she was speaking aloud to you and silently to someone else. She’d say orange squeeze when she meant orange juice, and lady-sack when she meant handbag – only hers, and not anyone else’s. Devaki guessed that these were phrases from her mother’s childhood, a secret language that had resurfaced in old age.
The times when her mother seemed like her old self had grown further apart. Over the past year, Amma had started bumping into walls. Devaki would come home from work to see bruises, like ink stains, on her mother’s face. After administering a physical examination and a panel of lab tests, the doctor confirmed what Devaki already suspected. Devaki wasn’t sure exactly when Amma’s dementia had set in, but she was certain the slide had begun soon after her father’s death. In any case, Amma needed a part-time nurse and a full-time caretaker. Despite working twelve hours a day, Devaki knew she couldn’t afford that.
Two months before, on a warm morning when the kids were away with their father, Devaki showed her mother the brochure for Ashiana Nursing Home. The home was in a quiet, hilly area outside Bangalore. It was run by two of Devaki’s college friends who promised to keep an eye on Amma. Ashiana seemed ideal and a room had recently become available.
Devaki had spoken to her mother at length. They had visited a few times. Amma was to move there tomorrow. Devaki thought her mother was ready, but these days, with Amma, she could never be sure.