Peeling newspaper eyelids fluttered over the half-shut windows. The skin of the facade was lined and cracked, dusty whitewash bleeding out of deeply pitted splinters. The stooping verandah was littered with mildewed remnants of cardboard boxes and long swirling ribbons of grit-hardened duct tape.
Light filtered sluggishly into the darkened house, through winding mazes of unpacked boxes. The disarray of drifting clothing, clamouring utensils and tottering piles of books was a living churning mess, pulsating and engorging slowly.
A tall straight-backed woman, with her silvered hair wound into a severe bun, battled with the ever-swelling chaos. Broom in hand, Veena swept away strata after strata of grime and cobwebs with ruthless efficiency, and bundled clothes and crockery into wooden cupboards all but swallowed by mountains of crates.
The fractured walls were patched over by dozens of photographs of frozen, glass-imprisoned memories. Small, medium-sized and large frames cradled the immobile expression-coloured faces of a shifting boy, walking in and out of childhood and early adulthood.
Even though Akshay called Veena almost every day since he had left for college, his deep disembodied, slightly impatient voice seemed less real to her than the untarnished gleaming photo frames she had preserved so carefully. Veena had kept every toy, however battered and dilapidated, and every award, however trivial, he had won over the years entombed in a proudly scintillating glass cabinet. It stood incongruously in the center of the half-unwrapped living room, glimmering in its wreath of floating dust motes.
Her arms and back ached; her eyes burned. Wiping her bedewed forehead, Veena threaded her way to the verandah. She crinkled her nose in disgust at the rubbish underfoot, and looked outwards at the unfamiliar view spread before her in a warped enveloping canvas.
The squat, stunted houses mouthed the road with depressing uniformity, manicured lawns faced with the bristled teeth of well-trimmed hedges.
Across the road, Veena noticed a congregation of her neighbours discoursing amiably over the separating rows of bushes, their pristine appearances as meticulously cultivated as their groomed lawns. She tilted her head in acknowledgement, and smiled awkwardly. They nodded, and she felt their appraising, almost hostile gaze raking her up and down, categorizing her, sizing up her begrimed appearance and disordered hair. Veena felt exposed, the cloying, oppressive feeling even worse than the dank disarray of her new house.
She turned away from the sunshine-clad suburban street and walked slowly back inside, the eaves scowling silent shadows upon her fading silhouette.
Veena watched as Nitin eased himself painstakingly into the desk chair. The hunched bones of his back flexed angrily as if fighting to push through his thin cotton shirt. His plain gold wedding ring glinted feebly, suffocated by the knotted fingers, as he gripped the chair handles rheumatically.
His fragile leathery hands shuffled the towering piles of papers, the thick blue veins slithering restlessly, snake-like, beneath the frail skin. Within only a week of joining this new office, the mounting papers had steadily carpeted the study table in a sifting, writhing ménage.
And yet, despite his diligence, his brilliance, his moral tenacity, or perhaps because of it, he was never promoted. Every year he was shunted from one far flung branch to another, his wearied family settling briefly, hopefully, before being set adrift again.
Veena clenched her fingers unconsciously, the ring biting into her palm. Would it have been so wrong, so impossible for him to adapt to the changing times, if not for himself, at least for the benefit of his family?
This was a cynic’s world; this was a world which was reverting to the animalistic harshness of nature, where morals were discarded in the interest of survival. Lofty ideals had no place in this world. And those who persisted in clinging to such moribund ethics would be discarded and disregarded like unwanted garbage, like Nitin.
Veena carried a hastily wiped tray to the table, bearing two cups of herbal tea, and a plate of browned spiced biscuits. She rested the tray gently near his spindly forearm, noting with a pang how thin and gaunt he had grown.
“I thought you said these biscuits weren’t available here,” Nitin said, looking deeply contented as he bit into one of the biscuits.
“I found a store a bit further from the main square,” Veena said, smiling. She had scoured the marketplace for the biscuits; they were his favourite kind.
“You know…Today I gave two hundred rupees to the errand boy in the office…He had been pickpocketed and couldn’t go home,” he said suddenly, almost conversationally, calmly sipping his tea.
Veena’s smile froze. Her fingers shook with suppressed rage and frustration. The tea spilled from her trembling cup. She almost felt betrayed.
“You didn’t have to,” she said accusingly, “You’ve only been here a week…How do you know that he’ll return it?”
His accursed naiveté, his irreconcilable obstinacy, were dragging them down. It had doomed him and their family; it had made them vagrants, outcasts. Her eyes filmed over with silent angry tears. For a fleeting moment, she wanted to throw the cup at him.
“He seemed to be an honest boy in genuine distress. No one else would help him…He commutes by train. He was about Akshay’s age.”
“You will never change;” she retorted in a low furious voice, “People will forever be cheating you, and taking advantage of you…”
Just then, the urgent trilling of the phone sliced through the air. Veena snatched it up on the fourth ring.
“Hello Ma,” said a deep voice she had grown to associate with Akshay, sounding even deeper on the phone.
“Hello Akshay. Have you had your dinner? Are you eating alright?”
“Yes, yes Ma, I’m fine,” he answered, a shade of impatience colouring his tone, “I have to go soon…I called to tell you that you and Baba don’t need to take a day off to pick me up. I can go home from the train station on my own.”
“But Akshay, you’ve come to this house only once before, with us!” Veena protested.
“Ma! I’m not a child; I can manage a half-hour journey without disrupting everyone’s lives,” he answered irritably, his voice harsh with annoyance.
“Yes,” Veena said softly, all the fight draining from her voice, “You are not a child anymore.”
Veena paced the cluttered living room worriedly, while Nitin kept calling Akshay’s mobile, still clad in his sweat-crinkled formal shirt and creased pants.
“Still no network?” she asked, her voice tremulous with anxiety.
“No,” Nitin answered, almost tripping over his office briefcase lying abandoned on the floor, “Do you know if his train is running late?”
“It isn’t running late; he should’ve been home one hour ago!”
She covered her face with her hands, her voice rising in a hysterical crescendo.
“I knew we should’ve gone to pick him up! Maybe he lost his way…”
“I’ll call a cab and go to the station,” Nitin said reassuringly.
Suddenly the doorbell pealed joyously; Veena rushed for the door and embraced a tall curly-haired boy carrying a slim suitcase and a ponderous backpack.
“Akshay, we were so worried,” Veena almost sobbed in relief.
“I’m okay Ma,” Akshay answered, nearly smothered, “I’m sorry for worrying you.”
Nitin took the suitcase and backpack from him, encircling him in a clumsy one-armed hug.
They all trooped into the living room, animated anew with an air of festivity. They sank into the half-undressed couch and Nitin turned to Akshay.
“Now, tell us what happened.”
Akshay looked more than a little abashed, his face sheepish.
“While I was getting off the train my wallet was stolen. I didn’t know what to do…My mobile wasn’t working…I didn’t know the area well enough to take a bus…
Luckily an elderly man noticed me searching for the wallet on the platform. He lent me two hundred rupees, and I promised to pay him back…But I forgot to take his address…”