A shawl & a bottle

Short Story


His daughter-in-law had given him microwave re-heated rice and sambar before going to bed. He had been waiting for his son to return from office; that day his son had returned very late — the late night shows were on when his son had returned. Though the old man did not understand or grasp much of the humour, he had no option but to be seated before the TV; this was his own little method devised to make sure that his son spoke to him on his way from the entrance to the bedroom door (he had to pass through the hall to reach his room)

His son had come in, and watching him collapse softly into the overstuffed couch; the old man was reminded of a souffle on a cookery show that had collapsed onto itself with a spongy plop.

His son said, “How can you watch this garbage so late at night? Do you even understand any of what they are showing?”

The old man smiled, “Not all of it, but I wanted to see you before I went to sleep.

Anyway, I don’t have much to do at home and Rao also did not turn up today.” Rao, for the uninitiated, was an irascible old man who used to turn up once in a while for a chat and some coffee; Rao had been a doctor of mediocre success in India and had been a proud parent of NRI children before being lured into the vacuous and shallow seductions of America after selling off all his property in Hyderabad.

In America, he had become completely worn out with the utter lack of activity at home and had started to work in a supermarket; they had put him into customer service. That way he met the PIOs who came in to shop on the bargain Wednesday afternoons and helped the odd teehie from India who blundered into the store looking for mustard seeds and cooking oil.

The old man got down to business. “I have been thinking a lot; I want to go back to India.”  “Appa, I know you get bored here, lets go to Yellowstone park next week.”

“ That’s the third time you are promising to take me there and anyway, I don’t have the strength left to walk through miles of trees to see geysers. I know you are busy here.” Besides, his son would need the spare bedroom for his mother-in-law who would be visiting in a few months to witness the momentous event of the birth of their first progeny on American soil!

“Of course, I will be back to see my grandchild,” he had said knowing fully well that his son wouldn’t be in a position to send him a ticket for the next one year or so.

“Hmm, as you please. I will get your tickets done tomorrow.”

It had not taken long to get the ticket confirmed and he found himself on the return flight with the usual gaggle of returning parents, women with babies visiting India for family weddings, lone travellers returning to find a spouse; all packed into economy class seats and business class bags. He had endured the flight with fortitude and whisky.

From Bangalore, he had made the 1SD call to let his son know of his safe landing on Indian soil. He had walked into his house to find a three-month old patina of dust covering everything. After a futile attempt to get a maid for the job, he had taken it upon himself to get the house back into shape. He had looked at settling back into his home as a series of tasks with a prize at the end of it all — the promise of settling down with a nice drink in an armchair with a newspaper. In the middle of the activity, he had looked at each day’s specific challenge as yet another step closer to the prize.

Glendale; his family house off Cunningham Road, had been named by his grandfather following a visit to Scotland. Besides the name, there weren’t any Scottish architectural allusions to the house. It had been built in the symmetrical bungalow school of architecture with a shaded portico and a verandah running all around, with two rooms flanking the entrance and a large central living room with red oxide flooring and 20 feet high ceiling; at the rear, a kitchen and a bathroom at the lower level.

It also had a detached, commodious garage and a separate room that had served as servant’s quarters in better days. These days it had been stuffed with old wooden furniture and rusted garden tools, the old car having been sold off a long time ago to scrap.

That day, he had set himself the task of getting some of the fused bulbs around the house replaced. He had been standing on the wooden chair reaching out to the elusive bulb with as much elasticity that his 5 foot 2 inch, 65-year-old body allowed for. That’s when he had heard the doorbell and had found a man not much younger than him at the door. The man had a crumpled face and was clad in equally crumpled gray shirt and dark brown trousers. The man had shuffled his feet and said he wanted some work and hadn’t eaten for a while now. What had impressed the old man was the readily offered barter of food for work. The man, smelly clothes and all — Sidda he had said his name was — had immediately got down to work.

Sidda had replaced the fused bulbs and applied himself to the wild patch of land facing the portico. Within a week, he had removed the weeds, re-planted a border and started off the rudimentaries of growing a semi-circular patch of lawn facing the portico.

It had taken the two of them three months to fall into a gentle pattern of comfort. Their day was arranged around spurts of activity alternating with spells of indolence. The activity usually happening in the first half of the day with the rest typically choc-a-bloc with lassitude.

The old man no longer had to get the milk and newspaper in the mornings, buy  vegetables in the afternoon or do the dishes in the late evening. Sidda took on all these tasks. In return, he would get the Rs 500 per month, the right to stay in the single room next to the garage, the food and many stories about the big roads in America, the fast cars, the clean streets, the absolute quiet reigning in the neighborhood and so on.

The old man would launch into a story usually after his late afternoon nap and liked to see Sidda’s awestruck expression on being told some hitherto undiscovered facet from the vast panorama that America divulged to an outsider.

During one of these sessions one evening, the old man had poured himself a steel glassful of Old Monk. Sidda had not said anything apart from staring at the glass and sniffing the air with unfulfilled longing.

It had taken Sidda a few more of these story sessions and some more facial expressiveness to get the old man give him some of the Old Monk. The old man, though took care to ensure that Sidda’s glass was never as full as his own. Sometimes the old man would get quite generous with the rum depending on the mood of the story he was narrating.

Sidda would disappear sometimes in the evenings after having cooked dinner and placed the covered dishes on the table. On such days, the old man would bring out a special dinnertime drink, Johnnie Walker Black Label, look through old photographs or sometimes even make the phone call from Cunningham Road to Minneapolis and he would ask his daughter-in-law about her health and hung up before his son had a chance to groggily berate him for not calling often enough.

The old man had got a dividend cheque and had taken Sidda along to the bank. As they returned, the old man though Sidda could do the job of dropping cheques and drafts into the account provided Sidda took the filled bank slip with him. And soon enough, Sidda took the drafts and dividend cheques and brought back the counterfoils carefully folded eight times and hand them with ceremony to the old man.

Sidda also started handling the monthly provision purchases from the nearby kaka shop. He returned from the shop once with a woman; Sidda’s intent was to get her employed for cleaning utensils and washing clothes. The old man thought it a waste to employ two people to run his house, but gave in when the woman revealed that she could also make very good chicken curry.

That, in the old man’s mind, was one thing Sidda had not been able to show mastery at — Sidda’s chicken curry was like the weather forecast, never as expected and good when least expected; it would be too hard and undercooked in a translucent gravy or be at the other extreme of mush wallowing in murky gravy.

With the addition in domestic staff, Glendale took on an almost home-like atmosphere; just as it used to be when his wife was alive. The maid and Sidda complemented each other in work and also in the sounds that the house was filled with when they worked on their separate tasks; the creak of the gate and the clanging of steel vessels had a melodic harmony that had put the old man at ease.

This also marked an increased withdrawal for the old man from domestic affairs. He would come out of his room to take his coffee with the newspaper and take a nap on his easy chair under the shade of the jasmine creeper. He would wake up to the smells of cooking and after a good meal nod off again, this time in front of the TV.

His calls to Minneapolis also became far and few, his daughter-in-law was in her last trimester and the call that he waited for was the one announcing his grandchild’s birth.

That morning, though there was the usual chatter of vessels, something was lacking in the sounds; no scraping noises made by Sidda’s broom communing with the portico floor.

He had gone to see if Sidda had fallen ill or overslept; he had found the door to Sidda’s room open and the room itself totally bereft of all belongings — the bed, tin trunk, water bottles, the small shrine that had been created for Gods in a corner; all gone. The last thing he remembered was the maid shouting “Anna!”

The policeman had looked him over and asked him to take a seat; hard metal folding chairs those were. The questions had started soon afterwards, was Sidda his real name?

Did he know where Sidda came from? Did he have Sidda’s photo? Did Sidda ever have any visitors? Did Sidda have any friends? Did he know where Sidda had worked earlier? |
Was the safe always kept locked? Did Sidda know where the keys were kept? And so on.

Apart from moving his head from side to side to denote “No”, the old man did not have answers to many of these questions.

The only question he had replied to was in listing the items that had been taken away by Sidda — a shawl, a bottle of unopened Old Monk, five kilos rice and Rs 3000 kept in the safe. His left eyebrow still sported a defiant little bandage struggling to heal the gash he had got when he had fallen off the steps to Sidda’s room.

It was unusually cold for Minneapolis and he had welcomed his son’s offer of a parka.

They rode to the store in silence punctuated by the music from the Asian music station.

He got off at the store, waved to his son and entered his place of work. His friend Rao had found him a job at customer service and that way they could spend a lot of time together and catch up during breaks. One of the first customers that day was a software engineer from Hyderabad looking for Biriyani paste and appalams; the old man led him to the Asian food and spices aisle with a smile.

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