Yes, the car was approaching that very house – that astonishingly large mansion which could be seen from very far. The walls around it were newly painted, adorned with fancy iron grille work – and bore the usual warning against pasting advertisements on it. The dog’s spacious kennel was next to the gate. Just one look, and Sujatha knew that it was bigger than her one-room house.

The car had barely reached the house when the dog in the kennel began to bark loudly. Sujatha looked at it fearfully. The reddish face with a black scar was scary. But in the place of its tail, it had just a stump. It wiggled a bit. Sujatha felt very sorry for the dog that did not possess a curled tail – which, as the old saying went, would not be straightened ever. Crossing the front yard covered with soft sand and lined with potted plants, Sujatha reached the porch.

She removed her sandals.

Many heads appeared in the doors and the inner courtyard. She heard the sound of muffled talk.

–Already here?

– She’s here, did you hear?

– Get the coffee now?

– No, after we ask.

They went past children playing caroms and watching TV at the same time and reached Sujatha’s new room. Ammachi lay on a cot, her face to the wall.

– Ammachi, here, look – see who’s come . . .!

Swallowing the pain of the prospect of staring at the walls with dull eyes for the rest of her life, Ammachi lay on her side, not moving. The playful words hit somewhere outside Ammachi’s ears and broke. They scattered on the fancy mosaic floor.

In her mind, Valsa and Molly ran around playing with their friends, having a whale of a time. Thampi and Sunny fought to sit on her lap. She knew how they smelled when she kissed them. Now they smell of Allure and Chanel and other French words she can’t pronounce. Thampi and Sunny sit in the chairs laid at a distance from her cot. No one wants to snuggle up close to her before they leave the country after their vacations get over. Valsa and Molly are so busy, they have no time to smile, even.

There was a time when Ammachi gave off the comforting smell of the Asanamanjishtaadi oil. Now her children sighed inwardly, even though they did not mention it to each other, that her room was filled with a faint hospital-like smell, of cleaning lotion. I was never anyone’s companion, Sujatha noted. Others see the harbinger of death in me. I am the end of the journey from illness to hospital, then from hospital to the restrictions of one’s own bed – the home nurse. The fear – that the next step led to death – glinted in everybody’s eyes. Half of them complained to God for denying them release without this hurdle.

It was to this house, where Ammachi had bustled about without anyone’s help, barely a month back, that Sujatha had arrived, like a bad omen. She had been busy getting a feast ready for her children who were arriving from the cold of Chicago, the heat of Doha, the rush and tumult of Mumbai and the dust of Kolkata. She slipped on the kitchen floor tiles – she blames herself for the careless hurry.

Sujatha was the very first nurse in this house. As if she couldn’t forgive her for that, Ammachi lay face turned towards the windowsill, looking out through it, refusing to even smile at her.

She knew perfectly well that after two weeks, her children would fly back from wherever they came. And it wasn’t that she was unaware of the fact that after her children’s departure, this Sujatha—or some other Sujatha – alone would keep her company. But somehow, the smile of friendship lay dead on her lips.

Looking through the window, she could see the huge pots and pans that Ammachi had hauled on the stove with much effort. They now lay under the tap outside, awaiting a good scrubbing and cleaning. They have been lying out too long, she grumbled. The crows will spoil them. Radha, who was going to wash the dishes, was sent off to the tailor to get a sari blouse stitched by the younger daughter-in-law. Ammachi, you know well, the cruel truth is that there isn’t a single tailor in the whole of North America who can stitch a decent sari blouse.

– You have to manage for the next three or four years with the saris and blouses you got on this visit home.

The daughter-in-law unburdened herself. Pots and pans will surely wait under the tap without complaint. But if the blouse does not reach the tailor on time, Daughter-in-law’s fashion world is going to go topsy-turvy. Ammachi’s mind reaches out again through the window and complains again, with effort. A banana flower was almost done blooming on the banana tree down in the garden. It should have been plucked and chopped fine, for a thoran with lentils. A clothesline of blue plastic thread was drawn and tied across the empty cowshed. Clothes hung to dry on it made faces at the rain which fell fitfully and flapped mischievously. It was Ammachi herself who had removed the bell that had hung on the cow Omanakkutty’s neck and put it on the roof of the cowshed. Her mother who used to shake her horns menacingly was called Bhadrakaali! Sunny’s doing, that name – Ammachi smiled to herself. There will never be an Omana, the darling of a calf to live in that cowshed again, she thought. Seeing the nutmeg ripen and fall off the trees, their skins breaking, Ammachi’s heart sank. There’s no one around to pick them and lay them out in the sun to dry!

All Ammachis have the same voice, Sujatha felt. The broken-up, scattered voice of desolation. This was her eighth house in three years. Her agency would not let her grow roots anywhere. Three months in one place; then a few off-days at half pay. Then a new house. To be with someone who was left all alone when the children became busy. All the houses looked alike, she thought. Well-kept exteriors. Inside, the floors gleamed with expensive tiles and mosaic. Showcases and walls bright with curios from all over the world. In between them, family photos of children, like Horlicks ads. Only in Sujatha’s room, an old cot and an aged body on the foreign-made coverlet. A life that loved the world intensely, and yet yearned to leave it.

Excerpted with permission from “Sujatha’s Houses” by Nirmala, from Feeling Kerala: An Anthology of Contemporary Malayalam Stories, translated by J Devika, Penguin India.