“That building there. No, not that one. Don’t you see?” Balaji said, as if her eyes were in his head, set below his eyebrows shaped like the wings of a bird in flight. “Yes, the other one, with each balcony poking a tongue out at the city.” It seemed to Uma that every high-rise building in Bangalore was doing just that as she peered into the distance past her husband’s pointing finger. “Did you find it?” Uma nodded. “Now, just three streets behind that is our house,” Balaji said.
From across the city, it was hard for Uma to imagine their 30-year-old house with polished red floors and shuttered green windows crouched amidst the spanking new buildings of this concrete jungle. She wondered if the view was the same from her son’s apartment, just five floors below this one. Before he bought the apartment, had he stood at the balcony and looked past buildings stacked like Lego blocks, back to a childhood spent playing cricket and kabaddi on quiet summer afternoons redolent with the fragrance of jasmine flowers or late evenings filled with the heady scent of clusters of night-queen flowers, or raat-ki-rani as they called it?
But—Uma reined in her imagination—her son had not handpicked his apartment. She reminded herself that his investment advisor in America had selected it from a brochure. A glossy brochure that peeled away the sleepy pensioner’s paradise and exposed a modern Bangalore donned with a fresh coat of technology innovations and fiber-optics wizardry. Not for her son to agonize over the selection of foyer tiles, shade of wall colors, or veneer of teak wood doors. Not for him to worry about the space between adjacent ornate iron grillwork on the balcony, lest an overactive child slip through and fall 15 floors onto the terracotta tiles in the courtyard below. Only for him to watch the value of his assets snake upward in the hushed confines of his investment advisor’s office. If it were not for this invitation to Swami’s housewarming ceremony, she would’ve had no excuse to journey past her hurt and come to the building where her son, Vishnu, owned an apartment.
“We should go in and circulate,” Balaji said. Uma realized that he had been watching the expressions on her aging lined face. The smoke from the havan—the sacred fire—inside had sent them out to the terraced garden. Uma followed her husband through the French doors into the vast living room and sat down on a dhurrie—hand woven cotton rugs spread across the marble floor. She would’ve preferred to sit on the cool floor, pass her hand over the smooth surface, lean back against the freshly painted walls, and imagine that this was her son’s apartment. Even through the haze of the smoke she could see the gleaming granite countertops in the kitchen. There was no shortage of building materials in these days of the global economy boom.
“How do they expect me to pay 60 rupees a bag for cement?” Balaji had said when they were building their own house in Bangalore those many years ago, when cement manufacture was controlled by the government.
“That much? I thought it was 16 rupees,” Uma said. But supply at that price was controlled. On one hand the authorities approved building plans; on the other, they restricted the purchase of cement. Not everyone had access to corrupt officials who could waive the quotas. And somehow she could not see Balaji greasing the palms of these officials. “
Of course, if we pay in foreign currency the government will release more quota for us,” Balaji said.
“American dollars?” Uma asked, as if she had francs or deutsche marks stashed away and only American dollars posed a problem.
Balaji sat at his desk and did extensive calculations in his ruled note-book, as if he were solving a difficult mathematical equation.
“We could ask Vishnu, could we not?” Uma’s tone was tentative. One could ask a son living in America for small items—things that did not skew the baggage allowance restriction on international flights. Where did bags of cement figure in this exchange?
For three days she watched Balaji disappear after lunch and return in time for his afternoon coffee that he drank while making even more complicated calculations in his notebook. On the fourth day, she saw him take out a thin blue aerogramme from his drawer. Even though it wasn’t Sunday. Letters to Vishnu were written every Sunday after the morning meal. A letter on Thursday meant the matter must be urgent. Balaji took his fountain pen to the inkwell and filled blue ink in it. He sat down at his desk and covered the aerogramme with his neat, closely spaced handwriting, stopping to consult the numbers from his notebook. Then he left the house to mail the letter.
Uma was in the kitchen when Vishnu’s reply arrived three weeks later. “See what your son has to say about my request,” Balaji said, flinging the aerogramme on the kitchen counter. Her son—as if Balaji had nothing to do with Vishnu’s birth. Nothing to do with raising him. Nothing to do with educating him. Nothing to do with sending him to America for higher studies. Uma switched off the stove and picked up Vishnu’s letter. “I have no interest in real estate in Bangalore,” his letter began, and went on to chastise his father for trying to circumvent the national cement shortage and succumbing to the government’s greed for foreign currency. “If 60 rupees is what it costs for a bag, I’m sure everyone else building a house at this time is buying it at that price.” When Uma came to the sentence, “Cut your coat according to the cloth, as you’ve taught me since childhood,” she dropped the letter back on the kitchen counter, switched on the stove and continued with her cooking.
Balaji had waited until the third loud clatter of a dropped vessel rang through the silent house. “Don’t break all the vessels in the house. Maybe the government will start controlling the supply of stainless steel next.”
“Did you tell him?” she said, the spatula making a ringing sound against the pan. “Did you tell him you would give the money to him in rupees?”
“What do you think?” he said. “That I asked him to get us the cement for free?” He switched on the radio and she returned to her cooking, feeling that she had uttered an obscenity by asking him if he had bartered correctly with his son.
Uma forced herself to concentrate on the religious chants sung by the priests as they welcomed the Gods and Goddesses of good health and prosperity into Swami’s new house. When it was time to leave the house-warming party, Balaji took the wrapped gift from his bag and gave it to Uma. “With our blessings,” she said, and handed the gift to Swami, the son of their dearest friends. Uma raised her hand as if to bless him, but instead ran her fingers over his thick black hair. He belonged to a chosen generation, as did her son where worry did not leave pathways of gray in otherwise black hair. Even if it did, Clairol and Revlon moved in with the efficiency of tar trucks and paved over the gray streaks with their hair-care products.
“Let us use the staircase and get some exercise,” she told Balaji when they had said their farewells, slipped into their soft brown leather slippers, and collected Balaji’s walking stick. Without a word he led her toward the staircase, as if the trek down 20 floors was no different from their daily walk to the temple.
Even the stairwells were broad, airy, and well lit. No shortage of cement there for sure.
During the days of cement quotas, in the months that followed Vishnu’s letter until their small house was built, Uma scrimped and saved as she watched Balaji cut his coat according to the cloth.
One floor was all they could afford to build. Nowadays it seemed that multi-storied buildings sprouted and grew as fast as weeds. When they neared the 15th floor, Uma slowed down. “Do you want to rest?” Balaji asked, as if climbing down five flights of stairs was the only reason her breath quickened at the exact floor where her son owned an apartment.
“Why do you insist on clinging to that little house in Bangalore when you can come and live with me in comfort in America?” Vishnu had asked when they continued to struggle with the repairs to their house. But his interest in real estate had surged when the Silicon Valley had discovered Bangalore and suddenly it became trendy to have had a childhood in Bangalore. As if a childhood in Bangalore had the same value as owning a home in a ski resort, or a cabin in the woods, or a cottage by the beach.
Balaji opened the door from the stairwell into the broad well-lit corridor on the 15th floor. He led Uma to the window seat at the other end of the corridor knowing that it would take them past the door of the apartment that belonged to their son—an apartment that his investment advisor had him rent out to foreigners. Americans who wanted an apartment replete with the fittings of a western lifestyle, an apartment with a doorman to keep out the dregs of Bangalore of yester year. Balaji and Uma had caught snatches of comments in passing:
“Must be fetching a fancy rent, being rented out to foreigners.”
“A bird’s eye-view of the city from each window.”
“And the city lights at night—a feast for the eyes.”
As they walked past the apartment, they saw that the door was ajar, as if someone had known they were coming. Uma’s footsteps slowed. Had the maid stepped downstairs to run an errand? But why use the main door when the apartment came equipped with a service entrance and separate elevator for hired help? This, too, they had just seen upstairs during a conducted tour of Swami’s apartment, so she knew the layout of her son’s apartment even though she had never stepped into it. What was life like in America to explain a door left casually open? If they walked into a holdup now, how would they explain their presence on the 15th floor when their invitation had been to a house-warming ceremony on the 20th floor, in a building equipped with a doorman and an elevator operator no less? These were the days of gated communities in Bangalore. Gone were the days when Vishnu and his friends would jump from roofs to compound-walls to branches of mango trees and back to roofs again to go from house to house. Gripping his walking stick, Balaji stepped in front of Uma, as if he knew what she wanted but did not want her to walk into any danger. They walked into the apartment.
A massive bouquet of long-stemmed red roses lay on a polished rosewood coffee table next to a cut-glass vase in the living room. With instinct honed through many years of tending her own rose garden Uma veered towards the flowers, picking up the vase to fill it with water. But Balaji stopped and looked back at her. She kept the vase back where it had been and followed him. Their feet sank into the luxurious hand woven carpet and muffled the sound of their footsteps as they followed the murmur of a female voice. They halted when they saw the curve of a shapely arm holding a receiver to her ear.
“But I’m so lonely, and I miss home,” the woman spoke into the receiver.
Inching closer to the doorway of what they knew to be a bedroom, they saw the gleam of a naked shoulder.
“Dan’s always traveling and I’m miserable.”
Balaji stepped behind Uma, more to protect the woman on the bed from the gaze of a male who was neither father, husband, nor son, Uma realized.
“Valentine’s Day and I’m alone in an apartment in godforsaken Bangalore talking to my ex-boyfriend in New York.”
The mass of shining hair on the spotless white pillow did not look mussed up. Uma wondered if the hair would lie flat against the woman’s face if she turned around. Would her blue eyes—for it could only be blue with that hair color—open wide and look startled? Would she scream? Maybe she would recognize Uma as the mother of her landlord. Had she met her landlord, Uma’s son?
“I’m afraid to leave my bedroom. Oh, I’ll find two-dozen red roses in the living room, I’m sure. That’s not romance, that’s preprogrammed into his PDA and delivered on schedule as if I’m no more than a deadline to be met, a performance evaluation to be passed, and a bonus to be earned,” the woman continued into the receiver.
Maybe the woman’s husband had met her son in America. Maybe they were Vishnu’s neighbors in the sub-division where he lived, walking across well-manicured lawns and through geometrically trimmed hedges to join each other for backyard barbeques. Or maybe they had merely rented the apartment, sight unseen.
“India was supposed to be about romance, visits to the Taj Mahal in moonlight, the gorgeous beaches in Goa.”
The sun streamed in through the airy drapes covering the large French windows of the bedroom.
“Instead I’m stuck in this miserable apartment hung high over this mess of humanity.” The woman sniffed.
With a bird’s eye-view of the city from each window, the mess of humanity below were as busy as ants trying to eke out a living in a city they could no longer call their own, a city they had given over to the dictates of Silicon Valley.
“Oh honey, I want to come back to New York.”
Uma and Balaji walked backward step by step as if in a choreographed dance until they reached the apartment door. They drew the door closed behind them and waited in silence by the elevator. “Ground floor,” Balaji said to the elevator operator.
On the ground floor, they walked across the marble expanse of the lobby with well-tended indoor plants towering above them. Outside the building, Balaji reached out and held Uma’s hand in his—not as if he were cautioning her to watch her footing over the wide polished stone steps. Not as if he were guiding her over a broken sidewalk. But like a teenager, like a man 50 years younger than him, as if love could flow through the mere touch of wrinkled skin on skin and warm her heart.
She tried to swing their hands between them as if they were young lovers out on a tryst, but at their age, with her arthritic joints and his frail stooped shoulders, they could only do one thing at a time. So they linked their fingers together and helped each other onto the sidewalk where they waited for a taxi to take them home.
Sita Bhaskar is the author of Shielding Her Modesty—a collection of short stories set on both sides of the globe. She has won a number of awards for her writing, in contests including the 24-hour Writing Contest co-sponsored by The Capital Times and the Wisconsin Book Festival, the Washington Post Magazine’s fiction contest, and the Desilit Rapid Writing Contest. She has also beein published in the Crab Orchard Review and TQR Stories. Visit www.sitabhaskar.com