Two names, Vijay and Kavita. Vasu carefully transcribed the words to two pale yellow notes imprinted with the intricate logo of some out-of-business dot-com. He gripped the wide serrated barrel of his favorite blue pen tightly as he wrote on the wrong side of the paper, the one with the faint trace of glue on the top. With sure fingers he folded each rectangular sheet along the long end and then once more in half, until the names were completely enclosed, externally identical, like the backs of two photographs. He laid the notes down on the altar besides the elephant-shaped stand for the incense sticks. Numerous deities watched with kind but detached eyes, their multihued photographs enclosed in wooden frames, the glass surfaces smudged intentionally with turmeric and vermilion and unwittingly by greasy residues from the daily lighting of oil lamps. Vasu clumsily joined his hands in silent prayer, imitating the gesture that he had observed his wife, Kala, repeat over the years. One religious parent praying for the health and prosperity of the family had been sufficient. Now Vasu had to start taking the responsibility for his family, for himself. He would ask little Uma to pick one note and hand it to him, warning her to not rip them up, as was her habit. He hoped God would show him the way by making the child his instrument.
It was time for his morning walk. He would have to forgo his breakfast of sugar-free cereal with cold low-fat milk. His feet, accustomed to the rough leathery feel of his faithful Bata sandals, found the sneakers heavy and uncomfortable. The synthetic texture of the forest-green waterproof jacket, with the built-in hood, scraped his face.
“You have gone walking in the rain for three straight days, Appa. Why do you have to go now? A major storm is predicted for later today.”
Vasu paid no heed to Vijay’s concerns.
“At least wear the jacket and sneakers then.”
Vasu had reluctantly conceded to Vijay’s wish. A father did not have to take advice from his son. Vijay’s newfound ideas amazed Vasu, who was of the old school. He had never dared raise a question to his own father, leave alone raise his voice! Vijay hated wet weather; Kavita had been the one who loved rain. She would have happily joined him without an invitation, stepping purposefully into each puddle.
Vasu kicked the spiky fruit littering the driveway as he made his way to the park. Sooty clouds, like loosely woven spider webs strewn across the dark skies, loomed in the distance. “Major storm, he says. Whoever made the prediction obviously did not experience the fury of monsoon in Mumbai,” he muttered under his breath. The stories of the times he had made the trip from the suburbs to his Nariman Point office after the trains had stopped mid-way were legendary. These Californians seemed to cower at the first sign of rain!
Vasu moved briskly along the sidewalk, scrubbed clean like a child’s face, savoring the silent rain, invisible except for brief appearances against dark backgrounds. He assumed Vijay had slipped back into his warm bed after that brief exchange of words and rain gear. To be fair, the twelve to fourteen hour days that both Vijay and Charu put in during the week justified their extended sleep and lazy schedule on weekends. Vijay usually awoke first and made coffee but lately they had started programming the new coffeemaker, which roused itself every morning and miraculously brewed excellent coffee with minimal human intervention. Vijay had seemed extra groggy this morning, probably from the antihistamine he had taken for the bee sting last night. Uma’s anguish at the sight of her father’s pain had been heart-breakingly endearing. The vision of Uma’s tear-streaked face had kept Vasu awake, reminding him of the tears in another daughter’s eyes that he had seen recently. Conflicting emotions had overpowered him until he decided to take the approach that Kala followed all her life, allowing God to choose. She had prepared two notes to decide whether or not to undergo surgery when the cancer was first diagnosed. She had implicitly trusted the decision that she believed had been sanctioned by God—to spend her last few months at home. Only later had they discovered that the cancer had metastasized.
Flowing rainwater cascaded hurriedly down the street, pouring down the drains with a tired sigh. Gold and red leaves, shaped like broad fingers on a narrow palm carpeted lush green lawns and concrete walkways, shaken from their homes by the whistling wind and lashing rain. None of the foliage remotely resembled the familiar neem, ashoka and gulmohar trees that thrived in tropical sunshine and humidity.
Vasu made a mental note to ask Charu the name of these spectacular trees that gracefully lined the streets and changed colors with the seasons. His daughter-in-law was the gardening guru in the house, not Vijay. He smiled faintly at the use of the word guru that seemed strangely common in American lingo. He was more amused than annoyed at the careless use of Sanskrit terms like karma and nirvana in casual conversations.
Vasu followed the street as it curved around Dr. Reddy’s house, the one with the fluttering plastic mango leaves on the door frame, just before the park came into view. Some of the older houses had low trees drooping with ripe limes the size of large Nagpur oranges that he relished in sweat-soaked summer months. He was sure Uma would love the sweet oranges bursting with juice just as Kavita had. At two, Uma’s energy and enthusiasm reminded him of Kavita. It wasn’t unusual for a child to take after her aunt. He wondered if it was raining in Chennai now. He could visualize Kavita bravely tackling the traffic on her moped, her sari tucked at the waist, allowing the border to hover above her ankles, as she dashed around in her well-worn yellow raincoat. “Look, Appa, I’m a duck. The water just slides off my body.” Had she really said those words on one of the many mornings that he had escorted her to the school bus? Or had he imagined that scene?
A group of boys kicked a muddy ball in the waterlogged grass. Vasu sometimes regretted the missed opportunities, playing football, or soccer as they called it here, with Vijay or teaching Kavita to ride a bicycle. He hoped Vijay would spend more time with Uma and the new baby when it arrived. It was a shame that Kavita had no children after twelve years of marriage.
Vasu was relieved to see only the occasional dog and his owner walking around the park, silently going about their business. He absently nodded or replied softly with a hello as they passed him. In his first week in the United States Vasu had been tempted to earnestly reply to polite “how you doing?” until he realized that a reply was not needed or expected. Most people seemed friendly except the disgruntled man who had positioned himself directly in front of Vasu and Vijay one morning to curtly point out that “walkers keep to the right of the path in this country.”
The solitude of the early morning hours on rainy days enveloped him like a luxurious blanket. He was wary of the crowds, mostly of Indian origin, that seemed to assemble in the park when the sun shined. He wondered if it was a peculiarly Indian trait to congregate into dense communities in a small circumscribed space, regardless of the fact that they had successfully migrated thousands of miles from their place of origin. “Where are you from, Mr. Vasudevan?” they would question. In Mumbai he knew everyone from the barber to the mailman. It had been ages since some new friend of Vijay or Kavita had referred to him by his full name. Of course, Kala had never called him by his name. Uttering your husband’s name reduces his life expectancy, she would often point out. She had been very old-fashioned.
He followed the two-mile loop out of the park as it circled around a new housing development. Almost all the homes sported twinkling lights or Christmas decorations. Kala had always insisted on hanging paper lanterns in their balcony for Divali, just as she had personally made the sweets and savories associated with each festival. She had thrived on religious rituals and traditions. Her faith had been as constant and reliable as the complex designs that she made outside their door each morning with rice flour paste, marking the entry into an auspicious household. There were other traditions, not religious, that they had jointly created, like the mouth-melting vegetable pakodas that she whipped up on rainy afternoons when Vasu returned home drenched, complaining about the poor architecture that caused a flood at the entrance to their building. Kala would bring second helpings of the fried treats while Kavita handed him a dry towel and a steaming cup of filter coffee, brewed exactly to his liking.
The elaborate nativity scene erected on the front lawn of the sprawling two-level house surprised Vasu. He had recently read some statistic about how the number of people shunning religion had risen sharply in the last decade in America. As he walked by the display, his attention was distracted by the sudden burst of water from the lawn directly ahead of him. The automatically programmed sprinklers sprang into action, like children jumping out of their hiding place, dutifully completing their task, come rain or shine, literally. “It is too much trouble to change the setting just for a few weeks, Appa,” Vijay had murmured when Vasu had complained about the redundancy of the sprinklers when mother nature was providing abundant liquid life to all living things in their yard. Vasu decided to bring up the topic again when he got home. Kala would have abhorred such waste. She had been a frugal, not miserly, housewife. They had made a good couple, he liked to think; a good team. The gods had been kind to them, as Kala often reminded him, when Kavita brought home an outstanding report card or when Vijay had been selected as captain of the cricket team. They had enjoyed a smooth life until Kala’s death. He had not wanted her to go first though he knew that was what she had wanted. A wife should die before her husband, Kala had always claimed, another of her extremely traditional opinions.
Vasu stopped to admire the brilliant green of the new shoots of grass, almost luminescent with their tender stalks, glowing in spite of the cold, incessant rain. For some reason he was reminded of Kavita, probably rushing out to work on most mornings with that trademark smile lighting up her face, regardless of her mother-in-law’s hurtful comments or her husband’s indifference. She had been the same before her marriage, always smiling, making light of Kala’s superstitious ways. Kala would have preferred Vijay to be her first-born, to have the prestige associated with bearing a son in her first pregnancy, though she had not verbalized that wish. When Charu had been pregnant, she had hoped for Vijay’s first-born to be a son and wanted to name him Umesh but the arrival of a granddaughter had required a quick change of plans. It had been easy to pick the diminutive feminine form of the name, Uma, for the tiny infant. Kala believed that a son was essential to propagate the family name and care for aging parents; daughters were meant to be raised well and given away to her husband’s family. Vasu was not so sure he agreed. Kala’s archaic views had been quite different from his own though he humoured her in most situations, mainly to keep the peace. With her gone, he sometimes suspected if his current opinions were his original views or the ones that he had passively imbibed through osmosis.
The rain stopped abruptly. A dark humid haze hung around, as though the clouds had taken a break to refuel. Vasu felt a gradual tiredness overcome his legs and slowed his quick strides wondering if he would feel the same pain today. The profuse perspiration and pounding heart that he had experienced last night had been terrifying. He did not want to worry Vijay. It was probably indigestion. He had bought some visitors medical insurance for this trip but it probably did not cover major illnesses in this country of skyrocketing healthcare costs and complex medical systems. Charu had been quite hospitable in the last two months though occasionally he saw traces of impatience in Vijay at changes they had made to accommodate him. Kala had wanted Vasu to move in with Vijay after her death. From a traditional perspective, living with his son was a father’s right. Vasu had bought a four-month round-trip ticket using the excuse of needing to come back to sell the Mumbai flat. With Kala gone, the place was too big and too full of memories. He would have to sell it if he moved in with Vijay permanently. He could buy a smaller, manageable flat, not necessarily in Mumbai, where he could be peaceful. Chennai was a possibility, there were new buildings being constructed in Kavita’s neighbourhood. Vijay had been adamant about leaving Vasu alone and forced him to make this trip. Vasu had pictured himself as a long-standing guest in his son’s house, not as a dependent invalid, which looked like a possibility now. He thought about the time he had fractured his left leg while stepping across a wet patch during the monsoons. He had picked the ideal location for the fall, right in front of Shanti Polyclinic, which listed the name of an orthopaedic surgeon on the rusted billboard. Kavita had flown in as soon as she heard, braving the taunts from her tight-fisted and tight-lipped husband. She had stayed for two weeks, relieving Kala from her daily responsibilities, allowing her to single-mindedly make multiple trips to the hospital with home-cooked meals and thermos flasks filled with piping hot coffee. If last night’s pain was a sign of his failing health, he wanted to be in a place that was known to him, within easy reach of familiar medical systems and facilities. He had read enough to feel apprehensive about his ability to access adequate healthcare in America. The bigger issue was the distance from the one person he knew who would truly care for and about him.
As Vasu wiped his muddy feet on the doormat, he wondered if Uma was up. The long walk had refreshed him but he was unsure about the decision itself. He did not feel ready to make it himself. Kala’s way was better, leaving it in the child’s innocent hands. Still a small doubt nagged at his conscience. Kala had followed this route many times, sometimes asking a neighbor’s child to pick one note for her, but she had fostered and nurtured her faith everyday. Like breathing and eating, it was part of her body, her life. Vasu had only been a spectator, not particularly religious or spiritual. Could he count on God to come through for him, to make the right decision by looking into his future? Was an abiding faith in God essential to this act? Or could faith be turned on and off as needed, like a light bulb?
He unlaced his shoes and hung up his jacket before entering the family room. Uma was crouched in front of Vijay, intently examining his swollen big toe, wide-eyed with concern, tears glistening on her childishly long eyelashes. He had seen the same expression on Kavita’s face the day before his departure to the United States. The sight of the doctor lancing and pressing the pus-filled boil on his index finger had caused physical pain to his daughter. If he had not seen it himself, he would have been hard-pressed to believe or even imagine her borrowed pain.
On the plush beige carpet at Uma’s feet lay tiny bits of pale yellow paper, some dotted with blue ink. Vasu did not have to glance at the altar to know where those shredded sheets had come from. Like the sprinklers in the rain, the notes were unnecessary. He knew which one to pick.
Ranjani Nellore is a scientist by training and a writer by choice. She lives in Hyderabad.