On the floor below, a candlelit dinner.

Ritika had put the lights off, though the streetlights cast neon shadows from the windows and the halogen in the kitchen and the LED in the corridor had, of course, been left on.

Satish didn’t appreciate wine, so they were drinking beer instead. Normal glasses, not beer tankards, although they had a set of six in the wood and bevelled-glass cupboard that showcased their crockery. Kingfisher Lite, as Satish didn’t appreciate that expensive stuff in cans, either.

The chicken hadn’t come out quite as she had expected; it was rubbery and chewy and frankly unappetising. But they were doing fine with the garlic bread. Satish liked garlic. And onions. And mint.

“Let’s try a tandoori chicken next time,” he ventured cautiously.

“Well, you could try making it next time for a change, Mr Satish!” she replied in a tone that teetered between the flirtatious and the shrewish. “We both have jobs, we both enjoy food, so perhaps you could develop your cooking talents too!”

The candle flickered. The lipstick had snagged on her lips.

He kissed her tenderly on her cheek. “I will make you a tandoori chicken,” he promised. “Next week.”

Her job in the travel agency was not taxing even though she had to commute a long way to the office. She was quick and focused, and enjoyed being in charge. Ritika always wore saris to work; silks in the winter months, crisp cottons in summer, nylons during the monsoon. Sometimes, during the rains, she broke her own rule and wore trousers and a formal shirt, or a kurta with jeans. It was important to strike the right note, always, in these things.

Today at home, to commemorate the “French evening”, she wore a diaphanous dress – not quite a gown but near enough. She had read a post on Facebook about keeping romance alive and had decided to give it a shot.

It had been an arranged marriage, even though they had met a few times before they finally made up their minds. Satish had been a romantic at heart – he still was. He held her hand, examining the lines on her palm, which couldn’t possibly be visible in the dim candlelight. She stroked his arm in response, feeling the soft underside, the rough knuckles, the wiry hairs around his wrist.

“What can you see in the dark?” she asked teasingly. An image flashed in her mind, of her mother-in-law in the room upstairs, bathed in perpetual darkness. She tried to change the subject, but Satish had already picked up the thread.

“I know every line of your palm,” Satish replied. “I know every frown and wrinkle and laugh-line of your face. Even in the dark.”

Something in her mood had changed. She was still thinking of her blind mother-in-law. She shuddered.

“Your mother...’ Ritika said. “Your mother can see in the dark too. Sometimes I think she is not really blind; maybe she sees everything and we don’t realise it.” She had the sense to control herself, to hold herself back. “Matangi-Ma is really courageous,” she continued insincerely. “I really admire her for how she carries on, despite her handicap.”

Ritika’s smile drooped as she made her way to the kitchen. Their maid, Irina, who lived in the slum cluster nearby usually stayed on to do the dishes, but there was a no-show today. “Kaf and Fiver,” she had reported in the WhatsApp message. Ritika had correctly decrypted her message. “Cough and fever”. Irina was twelfth-pass and proficient in Hindi; it was her ambition to be fluent in English as well.

One had to be careful with coughs and fevers, what with the coronavirus spreading out of Wuhan. She would have to wash the dishes herself today. After her manicure yesterday – how annoying! But at least there was no residue of oil and turmeric and spices to foul up the plates after a continental-cuisine meal, she consoled herself.

Rahul was in his room, hopefully asleep. Satish had gone for a walk. Ritika settled herself on the cane chair in the narrow balcony and lit up a cigarette. Holi was approaching but the air was still cool. The waxing moon was playing hide-and-seek between the branches of the neem tree. The scent of fragrant night flowers descended from Matangi’s veranda. Everything about the evening was sensuous and seductive. She stretched herself and admired the pleated flounces of her diaphanous dress. She sighed and examined her nails. This sense of yearning that consumed her – what was it?

Her hands smelt of garlic. The beer was making her fart. She felt bloated. Ritika puffed on her cigarette and thought of Paris. They had gone to France and Switzerland for their honeymoon. Satish had kissed her on the lips, out there in front of everybody. They had ascended the Eiffel Tower and contemplated the Matterhorn.

A strange sound descended from the floor above, from Mataji’s veranda. Somewhere between a wailing, a keening and a serenade, it played with the rapturous scents of the night flowers, with the jasmine and the raat-ki-rani. She could make out the words now, even though the tune was unrecognisable. It was her mother-in-law, singing to the moon she could not see. Like a dog, or a lunatic.

Ritika stubbed out her cigarette, then realised she needn’t have. The old lady was blind as a bat. She wouldn’t know the giveaway gleam of the lit cigarette, even if she sensed the cigarette smoke. Damn. She shouldn’t have stubbed it out. Damn.

She lit up another cigarette. She hadn’t given an undertaking not to smoke, had she, when she got married? In a joint family, everybody had to adjust. Everybody.

She strained to listen to the words. Jaane kahaan gaye woh din. That was the song her mother-in-law was singing. There was a pleasing quality to her voice, Ritika reflected, even though the pitch was too low.

The singing stopped. She heard a long sigh, then silence. Had Matangi-Ma smelt the cigarette smoke? Probably not, she concluded. There were too many contending aromas. The exhaust fan from the downstairs kitchen wafted up the fragrance of spiced freshly cooked rice. A passing van spewed diesel fumes. This was a city of many scents, many smells.

She inhaled the fragrance of the night flowers and smiled. The moon behind the neem tree emerged to smile back at her.

The Blind Matriarch

Excerpted with permission from The Blind Matriarch, Namita Gokhale, Viking.