Every evening, Kamala stood purposefully in front of her gods, armed with a carefully planned and numbered agenda. First and foremost, she prayed for her daughter Lakshmi’s health and happiness. Second, she prayed for her daughter to do well in her studies – a subject she considered important enough to be discussed as a separate line item. She had prayed for this every day, and hadn’t that worked? Didn’t Lakshmi top her class and win a scholarship to study abroad? Her third prayer was somewhat half-hearted, and she only included it because she considered herself a good person. She prayed for the well-being of all mankind, but even as she mumbled words in Sanskrit, she knew that however almighty her gods, and however numerous their numbers, they were simply not equipped to deliver adequate results on this front.
On that particular Saturday, with her daughter’s annual visit less than ten days away, the sense of anxiety that usually underlined her prayers was replaced by a sense of eager anticipation. However, she didn’t let that tempt her into taking any short-cuts, and she opened her eyes only when she was finished. She struck a match and carefully lit the lotus-shaped silver lamps in front of her gods as they continued watching her actions impassively through a smoky haze of jasmine incense.
The sun went low in the windows, casting a pool of amber light in the corner of the kitchen partitioned into a prayer room. Kamala could hear the shrieks of children playing in the distance, muffled by the sounds of a cement mixer at a construction site nearby. She did the time-zone conversion that she was now very familiar with and knew that it was noon where her daughter lived, where a more mild-mannered sun ruled the British summer sky. Wiping her hands on the edge of her cotton saree, she decided to check if her daughter had replied to her question about what she wanted for her first meal back at home.
She stared intently at the screen of her laptop as her emails loaded, as if it would not do its job properly if left unsupervised. Whenever Lakshmi visited, she would tease that this was the only laptop in the world that was never moved from its place nor was ever kept on a lap. Kamala would smile indulgently in response but make no attempt to move the laptop from its designated spot on the coffee table, where it sat importantly on its own tassel-edged embroidered mat.
Kamala felt a small flicker of disappointment when she saw that there were no new emails from Lakshmi. Peering at the keyboard with her spectacles perched at the edge of her nose, she typed with the tips of her index fingers, reminding her daughter to let her know whether she wanted potato roast or ladies finger fry for lunch the day she arrived. Sweet potatoes would also be in season, she added, making a mental note to buy some from the shop across the road, just in case.
She switched the television on and walked back into the kitchen to cook rice for dinner, humming the familiar theme song of her evening soap mindlessly. Her saree was hitched up to her waist and her long hair, which had suddenly turned very grey at 55, was tied into a neat bun at the nape of her neck. Her heart-shaped face had aged gracefully, and girlish dimples still puddled her cheeks when she smiled, but she didn’t believe in smiling unless it was absolutely necessary.
In the time that it took for the pressure cooker to puff up and whistle, she came back to her laptop and clicked the button that fetched new messages from the internet. When she saw a new, unopened envelope appear next to her daughter’s name, her heart leapt with familiar pleasure. However, she soon felt a frown arrive on her lips as she started reading the message. Lakshmi sent her regular emails, but they were usually short messages giving cursory updates about her life. She would say things like, The weather is so cold. I need the wool monkey cap you use in Chennai – lol, or Made Maggi with vegetables for lunch. Her message that day was unusually cryptic – Amma, there’s something I need to tell you when I’m there. Hope it doesn’t make you too upset. See you soon.
She read the email carefully again, adjusting her spectacles to be closer to her eyes. Her brain cycled through various worrying possibilities. Was something wrong with her daughter’s health? Was she planning to change her major from computer science to something that made no practical sense, such as history, like her colleague Dr Raman’s son? Or worse, did she want to marry a British boy whose accents she had previously described as – using one of those peculiar modern words – “cute”?
She was just about to reply to her daughter’s email, when Sundu rang the doorbell, arriving early for dinner. “Unbelievable,” Sundu declared as soon as she walked in through the doors, shaking her boyishly short hair for additional emphasis. Kamala simply nodded in response and motioned her inside. Sundu, shortened from Soundaravalli, was Kamala’s closest friend and had the habit of using the word ‘unbelievable’ to describe a wide variety of topics, which, on closer inspection, turned out to be entirely believable.
“This General Motors diet. I told you about it, didn’t I?” Sundu asked, still sounding belligerent.
“What about it?” Kamala enquired, although she was unable to recall any conversation about a diet that seemed to have an unlikely association with a company that sold motors.
“I gave up that diet yesterday. I was supposed to eat nothing but bananas and milk on the fourth day. Can you believe this nonsense?”
“No, I cannot,” Kamala replied with appropriate indignation, although she could. Sundu constantly worried about her weight and approached diets in the same way that cats approach a ball of yarn – with a sudden burst of frenzied attention before assuming their natural state of doing nothing. Kamala, on the other hand, had always been on the thinner side, and was often reminded by
Sundu about how lucky she was that she didn’t have to worry about losing weight. Like most people born with some sort of good fortune, Kamala didn’t understand why others valued it so much – so what if you had a few extra kilos here and there? she would ask Sundu, who would look back at her with unconcealed exasperation. Sundu stood leaning against the kitchen sink eating peanuts and Kamala was about to ask her to save her appetite for dinner, when she smelled the rain – the sweet smell of salt, mud, and summer reprieve – before she noticed the darkening clouds outside the kitchen window.
“I’ve left clothes out to dry on the terrace,” she exclaimed, and they picked up a plastic bucket each and went briskly up the stairs. The terrace was shared by all the residents of Grand Life Apartments and was sliced by a zigzagging clothesline from which sarees and towels hung crisped from the day’s heat. The tops of mango and coconut trees encircling the terrace rustled softly, and dark rain clouds hung low and ripe from the sky. The rain still seemed undecided whether to start pouring or not and was leaving large, thoughtful circles on the concrete floor.
“Not too long to go now, for Lakshmi’s visit, is it?” asked Sundu as she removed a saree with one hand and folded it deftly into the bucket.
“Yes, only eight more days. By God’s grace.”
Sundu had a newly-married son, who lived within easy reach in Bangalore. Although Kamala couldn’t be more proud of Lakshmi, she wished she could see her whenever she wanted as well, without having to wait fervently for her annual two-week appearance. The days before her visit would pass by slowly, with her stripping off each day eagerly in her calendar, and the two weeks Lakshmi was at home would pass by quicker than the time it took to fry mustard seeds in a pan. After that, she would have to start the excruciating countdown for the next year before she could see her again.
Excerpted with permission from Minor Disturbances at Grand Life Apartments, Hema Sukumar, Coronet Books.