You must be joking!” This, from Nandini.
“Are you?” This, Arvind.
I was in the armchair, across from the window. Arvind was over by the fireplace, resting his arm lightly on the mantel. Nandini jumped up from where she was sitting on the couch and strode over to the window. She grabbed the drapes, clutching the maroon velvet in her hands, fingers clenched tight, the knuckles white. She whipped them apart. The late afternoon sun streamed in, making long rectangles of light on the maroon carpet and the wall opposite. Can’t keep those open too long, I thought involuntarily, the carpet … I stopped, mid-thought. Who cares? I always hated that carpet anyway.
Nandini’s voice brought me back. “You can’t be serious! This is … ridiculous!” I noticed she bit back the swear word just in time, knowing how I hate it. I was surprised, and touched. Maybe there was hope after all. “You can’t just, just walk out and leave us all like this!” Her voice rose.
“Nandini, take it easy,” this, softly from Arvind. Always the gentle one. The sane voice amidst chaos. Not that this was chaotic. Not for me. But for Nandini, it was. I could see how she felt, I knew how she felt, and I felt with her. I’m her mother after all.
I’m sitting in the armchair, watching the golden rectangles on the carpet grow longer as the sun begins its downward journey. The drapes are no longer there; I have a clear view of the lake from where I sit; the gray blue of the water reminds me a of a particular crepe silk sari I haven’t worn in years. I’ll wear it tomorrow, I decide suddenly. It caught my eye in the sari emporium on Devon Street one afternoon and I bought it on a whim. It wasn’t very expensive, and had a barely visible line of zari at the hem and pallu, but it reminded me of summer vacations spent in Madras—going to the beach and standing in the surf and watching the water as the sun went down. I bought it right then, deciding to wear it for a party we were going to that evening, even though I had a sari ironed and waiting on its hanger in my closet.
Ashok didn’t see it until after we got out of the car and walked into the lobby of the hotel where the party was being held. I took off my coat and handed it to the attendant and turned to see him watching me with a blank expression.
“Well?” I had asked playfully, hoping he would notice how well the sapphire necklace and matching earrings that he had given me at our last anniversary matched the sari.
“What happened to the brocade sari that we had planned you would wear?” he asked, his expression still neutral.
“Nothing. I just saw this sari today and thought it might be fun to wear something different …” my voice trailed off.
“Well, next time, make sure you check with me first,” Ashok said, his face still carefully controlled. And then, as a couple we knew came up the steps, he smiled and putting out a hand to me, led me down the hall to the party. His fingers, lightly touching the bare skin at my waist, felt cold against my flesh.
Ashok. My husband of 30 years. No, 31 years, almost. He had died a week before what would have been our 31st wedding anniversary. One moment, he had been sitting across from me at the dining table, one hand raised in emphasis at a point he was making, the other hand cradling the glass of red wine, moving upward to take a sip. The next moment the Swedish crystal dropped, the red looking flamboyant against the snowy white of his shirt. His head fell back against the chair, the face frozen in an expression of outrage and disbelief.
Outraged disbelief. Yes that was it. Even as I reacted, racing around the table towards him, putting my ear to his chest, calling 911 and then waiting for the paramedics, his head cradled in my arms, one crazy part of my mind was trying frantically to put a name to the expression on his face—so familiar and yet so seldom seen. It came to me late that night—after they had told us it was hopeless, after my son, Arvind, called the doctor for a medicine to help Nandini calm down, after he gave me some sleeping pills too for good measure—as I lay wide-eyed and sleepless on the bed I had shared with Ashok for most of my adult life. Outraged disbelief. Disbelief when someone did or said something that he did not agree with, and outrage that that person actually had the temerity to go against him. The expression was rare—very few dared to disagree with him—but when it appeared, it mottled his face and turned the handsome features into twisted, ugly shapes. Yes, that was it. The sleep that had been evading me so long, fell suddenly, like a heavy velvet drape—yes, like those awful maroon ones—flung over my body to keep me hidden in the night.
Nandini was angry when she heard what I had to say. Furious would be a better word. Her face, not quite beautiful, but with fine features, grew dark and twisted. On her face was a familiar expression. Outraged disbelief. Nandini is her father’s daughter. Just like Arvind is his mother’s son. When they were born, I didn’t believe it when people said that daughters are close to their fathers, sons to the mothers. They’re ours, I would say. They will be close to both of us. But I was wrong. Even as I watched, my darling girl, my firstborn, drew herself away from me and towards her father. He was her idol, her hero. She wanted to do everything like him. When she was very young, and I would be dressing her to go to a party or the temple, she would tug impatiently at the frothy pink frock, or the red and gold silk lehenga and ask for a black suit or kurta pyjama like her father was wearing. As she grew older she wanted to be like him in other ways. And she was. She demanded things of life, and expected them to happen the way she wanted. She became a doctor, like her father, and she craved not only his success, but also his prestige and power. Yes, she was just like Ashok.
Arvind on the other hand, wasn’t anything like his father. He was more like me. With one important difference. He knew what he wanted and he worked hard to get it no matter what. He decided, when he was quite young, that he wanted to be a journalist, and he did just that. In spite of his father’s patent disapproval. Ashok had even threatened to cut him out of his will. My son had just listened silently and then used that entirely American expression, “You gotta do what you gotta do,” and left the room.
So when he died, Nandini was naturally devastated. To her, he was invincible and the center of her universe—unfortunately for her husband, I always thought—and his sudden death turned everything upside down. I knew how shaken and upset she was. This was why I had waited six months to tell them my plans. It took me a while to make up my mind about the details, but almost within a week of becoming a widow, I knew what I wanted to do. What I had to do. After it was all settled, I told them.
I was selling the penthouse, also most of the furniture. I had found a buyer for both. I was keeping the vacation cottage and moving a few personal things there. Then, I was packing my bags, and moving to California. I hoped they would visit.
They both reacted as I knew they would. Arvind, calm and gentle as always, listened quietly to what I had to say, nodded his head after I was done and said, “Tell me what you need me to do.” That was his way. As was mine. Usually calm—my husband called us “passive,” though it suited him for me to be like that—and saying very little, only as much as needed to be said to get the point across. Oh, we felt emotions strongly too, we just didn’t make a big display of them. I knew that Arvind would call me later to talk.
Nandini, on the other hand, was outraged. She couldn’t believe I was doing this to Dad, she said. How could I be so selfish? Arvind interrupted to ask her what exactly it was that I was doing.
“This … this whole thing! Selling the penthouse, going to California, everything! She can’t just abandon us, Dad, his memory … their whole life together. What on earth are you going to do there anyway?” she turned to me again.
I told her. I was getting myself an apartment in a suburb of San Francisco. In fact I had already signed the lease. I had a job. I was going to work as a designer in an import business run by an old friend. She demanded to know her name. Actually, it’s not a “she,” I said; it’s a “he.” I told her his name.
“We were classmates in college. We both studied art and design. He runs a very successful business now,” I said.
She didn’t have much to say after that, except to explode in frustration and anger every few minutes. That was always her way when she felt out of control or in a situation not to her liking.
There was not much to say. Ashok had left the apartment and the cottage and their contents to me. I could do what I liked with them. He had left both his children a considerable sum, though he had left more to Nandini. He was petty that way.
“What I can’t understand,” said Nandini, striving hard to be calm, “is why you want to leave at all. What’s wrong with what you have here? How can you exchange this beautiful, elegant penthouse for some dingy little apartment somewhere?” That someone would leave the life that meant so much to her was something she could not comprehend.
Arvind remained silent. He didn’t need to ask these questions. He knew the answers without actually knowing them. That’s always the way it has been between us. Knowing how the other feels without having to talk too much about it. How glad I was when he was born and it became apparent almost immediately that we had a special bond. Sadly, Nandini and I never had that connection. I tried very hard; I even imagined it was improving sometimes. But nothing came of my efforts. As her mother, I knew a lot about her. But as two individuals, adults, we remained strangers to each other.
Just like with Ashok. I had spent more than half my life with him—I was 20 when I married him—yet we were strangers. Perhaps that was my fault as much as his. Early in our marriage, he made it clear what he expected of me. Don’t get me wrong. He thought he was doing his best; his best was just not enough for me, I suppose. On my part, I tried a few times to convey to him how I felt, but when he brushed me off, I just quit trying. It was never my way to press and insist.
I knew what he liked, what he disliked—he made that quite clear—he liked his clothes pressed just so, his breakfast laid out in a certain way, his bed made without a wrinkle. He liked to drink filtered Indian coffee in the morning, and a glass of wine before going to bed—good for the heart, he said. He liked his cars black and luxurious, his crystal the most expensive, his suits custom-made, and his wife …
Well, he had strong opinions about that too.
So, what could I tell her? A lot. Or nothing.
I shrugged and fell back on Arvind’s line. I said: “I gotta do what I gotta do.”
I hope she’ll understand some day.
I’m sitting in the armchair, and the rectangles of light have disappeared. The patch of sky I can see from my seat is streaked with gold and purple, orange and blue. I sit staring at the violent colors of the sky, knowing that inside me, the colors are very different: calm blues, soft mauves, mellow hues of orange and gold. I stand up and walk into the study. The papers for the sale are on the desk, waiting to be signed. I sit down in the antique chair, upholstered in maroon leather, and look around for a pen. I cleared and emptied this desk months ago. Of course there’s no pen.
I’ll look anyway. Maybe I overlooked something.
The drawer to my right sticks a little. I pull harder and it jerks open. Something rolls to the front. A thick, old fashioned gold fountain pen. I stare at it. How did I overlook this? It must have gotten wedged at the back somehow. This was Ashok’s special pen. He bought it for a huge sum from an antique dealer who told him it was solid gold, and that it came from the estate of an impoverished English lord. Perfect for you, I thought, when he told me. He never let anyone use it. Or even touch it. He signed everything with it, and once he was done using it, he put it away immediately. Lest it get tarnished he said.
I pick it up slowly, feeling its weight in the palm of my suddenly sweaty hand. I smooth my finger down its length, leaving little fingerprint marks on the cool, shining metal. I place it on the table.
I wipe my sweaty palm on the fabric on my thigh and pick up the pen once more. I open the pages to the right place and sign my name firmly, once, twice, three times. I put the cap back on, and opening the drawer, drop the pen into the empty space there. The movers will be here tomorrow to take the furniture away for the new owner.
I pick up the papers and leave the room.
Sumana Kasturi is a freelance writer, media studies scholar, and a documentary filmmaker.
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