To Suresh and some of his cousins, when they were growing up in India, their youngest uncle had seemed like a rebel. With his pensive good looks and unconventional manner, he’d been quite different from the rest of their traditional, straitlaced family. He usually wore a white cotton kurta that was slightly crumpled, and his unruly hair—which almost touched his shoulders—invariably attracted disapproving looks from a few relatives. It was rumored that he had a girlfriend in the city. During the summer or winter vacation, when Suresh went to his ancestral village, his uncle came there for a visit. Hari would lounge in his room, listening to music while reading and writing, or he would wander around the paddy fields as he smoked unfiltered Charminar cigarettes. Sometimes he would join Suresh and the other boys for a game of cricket.
Suresh clearly remembered his uncle’s last visit to the village, not long before Hari got engaged to the woman he’d met in college. That day, in the spacious yard of his grandfather’s house, Suresh was playing cricket with Bhavani’s son, Ranga, who did errands for the household and also took care of the cows. It was hot and sultry as they played, and in the torpid silence of that long afternoon their faces glistened with sweat. Fortunately, every now and then, a strong gust of salty breeze from the sea close by brought some relief. Behind the house, the drooping coconut trees came to life and, for fleeting moments, swayed like graceful dancers on a stage.
Suresh’s grandfather, whom he called Thatha, and his grandmother—Mama—were in the house, probably taking their customary nap. Ranga, short for Rangiah, and his mother lived on the sprawling property in a shed-like building that had a sloping tin roof. Suresh knew that it was Thatha who supported them. Bhavani’s husband, who’d started working for Suresh’s grandparents as a boy, had died in a road accident years ago.
Holding his bat in a defensive position, Suresh stood expectantly in the shade of a sweet-smelling jackfruit tree, whose sturdy and capacious trunk acted as the wickets. When only the two of them were playing, Ranga was usually the bowler-cum-fielder. The next ball came flying towards him and Suresh hit it hard, relishing the popping sound of the willow. While he waited for Ranga to fetch the ball, Suresh was startled to see his uncle watching them intently, with a smile on his face and a cigarette dangling from his lips, as he ambled up the path that led to the yard. He had walked from the bus stop nearby, carrying his suitcase and bag. With a whoop, Suresh dropped the bat and rushed forward to greet his uncle, and Ranga came from behind to help with the baggage.
Putting his arm around Suresh’s shoulders, Hari said, “That was good batting. I was watching you. Did Ranga also get a chance?”
“He doesn’t mind bowling, Hari Uncle …”
“But did you ask him, Suresh?”
“No,” he said, feeling guilty. “I’ll ask him next time.”
Later that evening, when Hari unexpectedly asked Ranga to join them for dinner at the small table, there was a shocked silence. Mama, who was getting ready to serve the food, glared at Hari but did not speak right away. Dreading an awkward scene, Suresh kept looking at the plate in front of him. Surely, his uncle knew that Ranga never sat at the table with them. He belonged to a low caste. Ranga used his own plate and glass, which were kept on a kitchen shelf, and he always sat on the floor when he ate. Often, however, he had dinner with his mother in the outbuilding.
“That’s okay, Hari,” Mama finally said. “Ranga will eat later.”
But Hari was not so easily dissuaded. “What’s the harm, Amma?” he said. “There’s enough room for everyone. Let him join us.”
“If that’s what you want, I’m leaving.” She sounded angry. “You can serve yourselves.”
“I can’t believe you still do this … even after what happened. Let him sit here, Amma.”
Without answering, she put the bowl down and left the room, and Suresh realized that she’d gone to Thatha’s room to check on him. After his stroke, from which he’d only partially recovered, Thatha was a shadow of his former self. In the past, he’d been an irascible and controlling patriarch who hadn’t shown much affection; now in a twist of fate, he was a docile, helpless man who was wholly dependent on his wife.
After what seemed like an interminable pause, Hari said, “Sit, Ranga.” He’d spoken calmly, but there was a look of grim determination on his face. Ranga, looking terrified, obeyed instantly. At this moment, for the first time in his life, Suresh hated his uncle. He’d made everybody uncomfortable by suddenly changing the rules in the house. Hari picked up the bowl Mama had been holding and started serving the rice. Ranga’s usual plate and glass still lay on the kitchen shelf.
“I have to go,” Ranga said, standing up. His voice quavered and he seemed close to tears. Before Hari could say anything, Ranga abruptly left the room and slipped out of the house. Suresh lost his appetite and he, too, wanted to get up and walk away. But he couldn’t bring himself to defy his uncle.
The following morning, when Ranga was feeding the cows behind the house, Suresh walked over to watch him. Something had been bothering him and he wanted to ask Ranga about it. One of the cows mooed, perhaps in annoyance at being disturbed, and Suresh retreated to a safe distance.
“Is it true that Thatha used to come to your house before he got sick?” he asked.
Concentrating on his task, Ranga did not respond at once. “Yes,” he finally said, looking up.
“Why?” He’d heard whispered rumors, and now as he waited for a direct answer from Ranga, Suresh could feel his heart thumping vigorously.
This time Ranga did not look at him. “To see my mother,” he said softly.
Just a few days later, when Hari received a long-awaited job offer, he hastily packed all his things and left for the university. At the end of that summer, Suresh told his parents he didn’t want to spend any more vacations with his grandparents. Surprisingly, they didn’t ask for a reason, and from then on Suresh went to the village only for very short visits. He seldom saw Ranga, who’d now begun to work longer hours in the fields, and even when they did meet on that rare occasion, their interaction was a little awkward and perfunctory. There were no more cricket games. When Suresh was in high school, both his grandparents died in the same year. After that, he completely lost touch with Ranga.
At the airport, having arrived early, Suresh became nervous about meeting his uncle after all these years. Would it be tentative at first? What was he going to say to him? Suresh wasn’t even sure if he would recognize his uncle right away. But he needn’t have worried because, although Hari was nearly bald and had gained weight, his face hadn’t aged much and he was instantly recognizable. He greeted Suresh effusively and before long they were chatting with easy familiarity; it was as if they’d stayed in touch all along. After stopping for dinner at an Indian restaurant, they drove to Suresh’s apartment building. Hari was going to spend the night with him, and after meeting his friend at a local university the following day, he planned to leave for the seminar in another city.
“Suresh, I thought you’d be married by now,” Hari said, entering the building.
“You sound like my mother now, Uncle.”
Hari chuckled. “You know, Suresh, Ranga is married to a nice girl. They have a child.”
When Suresh heard that name, a buried emotion bubbled to the surface. He fumbled with his keys. Suresh often felt guilty that he’d cut Ranga off so completely. Yet, even before he left for the United States, Suresh hadn’t tried to contact him again.
“How is Ranga?” he asked. “Where is he these days?”
“In his village. They all live in Thatha’s house, which he now owns. Did you know that?”
Stunned by the news, Suresh couldn’t speak for a moment. “No,” he said at last. The food he’d eaten made him thirsty and his mouth felt dry. He asked his uncle if he wanted a drink. When Hari shook his head and flopped on the sofa, Suresh walked to the kitchenette. They were silent for a few moments. Suresh wanted to ask his uncle something, but he hesitated.
“I suppose you also don’t know why I’m estranged from the family,” Hari said, as if he’d just read Suresh’s mind.
“No, Uncle, I don’t. Nobody told me anything.”
“It doesn’t surprise me.” Hari laughed bitterly. “You know, Suresh, we certainly know how to keep secrets. I was accused of coercing Thatha to give the house and a portion of the land to Ranga and his mother. It’s not true, although I did make that suggestion before relinquishing my claim in their favor. I think the old man made the right decision, but in the end it was entirely his decision. After all, Ranga also was his child.”
Suresh had been quietly filling his glass with chilled water. Now, inexplicably, it slipped from his hand and crashed on the brightly lit floor. Instead of looking at his uncle, who’d risen from the sofa, Suresh stared in shock at the glittering fragments of glass that lay scattered in the rapidly spreading pool of water.
A year later, almost to the week, Suresh traveled by bus to his ancestral village in India. He’d finally managed to take time off from work for a vacation, and this was his last stop on the itinerary. Months earlier, upon hearing that Ranga’s mother had passed away, Suresh managed to track down his phone number in the village. On a static-filled line that cut them off a couple of times, they spoke amiably. Sounding very pleased to hear from him, Ranga cordially invited him for a visit on his next trip to India.
What had been a sleepy village was now a bustling little town—a place that seemed relatively prosperous but also more crowded and dirtier. As Suresh emerged from the small bus station, which looked newly built, a lanky man approached him from a teashop nearby. Without any hesitation, Suresh realized that it was Ranga. His boyish features and that quick smile—which lit up his big dark eyes—were so familiar to him.
Suresh noticed many changes around him, but the ancestral house looked much the same from a distance. Up close, though, it looked out of date compared to the other houses that had sprung up in the neighborhood, and he could see that it needed some repairs and a fresh coat of paint. As Suresh walked across the neatly maintained yard, which seemed less spacious than before, pleasant memories of his childhood came flooding back to him.
Much of the old furniture was still there, and judging by the absence of any updating either inside or outside the house, Suresh realized that Ranga hadn’t prospered that much—at least, not yet. With her daughter in tow, Ranga’s wife entered the room and shyly greeted Suresh. After some coaxing, the little girl came closer and accepted his gift. Then, despite Suresh’s protests, Ranga’s wife returned to the kitchen to continue preparing an elaborate meal in his honor.
“It’s good to see you here again, Ranga, after all these years,” Suresh said, sitting down. “I wish I had come earlier to see your mother.”
“Yes, she would have loved that. She always had fond memories of you as a boy.”
Ranga asked him to stay for a while, but Suresh regretfully said that he had to leave the next day because of his tight schedule. Although their conversation was quite free and wide-ranging, they tactfully avoided any awkward discussion of their past. Looking at Ranga, as he sat on a chair and casually talked about his family, Suresh realized that their childhood days in the village truly belonged to another—thankfully distant—era. He could finally see that Ranga was completely at home in this ancient house.
A little later, when Ranga went to the kitchen to get drinking water, Suresh walked up to the back window. His eyes instinctively searched for the outbuilding on the property. He did not see it.
“It’s not there,” Ranga said quietly. “I tore it down.”
Startled by his sudden appearance, Suresh turned and saw him standing close by, a glass of cold water in his hand. Ranga’s manner was friendly and gentle, as always, but now Suresh could detect sadness in his voice. There was no hint of bitterness.
“Yes, I’m glad it’s no longer there, Ranga,” he said, taking the glass from him. Then, holding it firmly, Suresh drank the refreshing water slowly and gratefully.
Murali Kamma is a writer and editor based in Atlanta. His fiction has appeared in AIM: America’s Intercultural Magazine, Trikone Magazine, and Khabar.