There was still the matter of the thirty rupees and the exam fees to be paid. The private moment that he sought with his mother was proving elusive. With his father, he did not dare. He might have to rely on his sister after all, as he did with most things.

By the time he woke up, his mother was well set in her day. She had bathed and was out in her grove to tend to her tulasi plants and offer her morning prayers. She would peep through her fingers to look at the eastern sun, for who can look the sun directly in the eye, and summon him by all his names.

When he went to the kitchen Kaveramma was already there and she had his mother’s complete attention. Kaveramma had, strangely, spread out several clunky-looking gold ornaments on the kitchen counter, like a display at a bangle store. Lying on one side was a soft pouch, mouth agape, disembowelled. This one, Kaveramma said, pointing to a fat pendant, more an encrustation than a piece of jewellery, a gift from my uncle when I got married...this chain with gold coins, when my son was born...

On the terrace, his father and uncle Suchi were standing at the parapet wall and looking at the garden. There was another visitor with them – his father’s cousin, who was sitting on a chair, holding a walking stick, a fine rosewood specimen with a carved head. He was quite fond of this cousin, whose name he wasn’t sure of, for his father and Suchi mama referred to him by an unflattering nickname.

Of all his father’s relatives, he was the one with some taste. He carried in the pocket of his silk jubba a tin of slim cigarettes and a silver snuff box, objects of endless fascination for Ashwath when he had been a boy. On Sundays the cousin went to his club to play billiards and have a drink. There was more than a tinge of disapproval when his father spoke of his cousin, which marked him out in Ashwath’s favour.

His father usually disapproved of anyone – any of his relatives that is, for people outside his circle didn’t count – who had done better than he had, who hadn’t followed the straight and narrow – a rank in engineering or medicine, a government job and marriage into a good family, and who marked all the regular milestones in life with ritual and ceremony.

Anything outside the sanction of convention, an original thought, an exhibition of individual style, was taboo. His sister had found ways around his father’s strictures, but he was clumsy and collided with them head on. Ashwath often boiled over at his father’s parsimonious ways which reduced things to their shabby essentials – his anxious counting of every paisa they spent, the endless lists of expenses he prepared and his exhortations to Ashwath’s mother to be careful.

There seemed always a piece of property that was in peril, papers that were not in order, dues that did not measure up and rents that were not forthcoming. These were the only things he and Suchi mama discussed; Ashwath was sure his father actually enjoyed those conversations, that he had begun to nurture these anxieties and worries.

He was a far cry from his openhanded cousin who was standing there, one beringed hand on the parapet wall, and the other holding a cigarette. Not once had his father taken them out on a vacation that did not involve visiting a crowded temple or had a celebration at home that was not a religious occasion.

Normally, he joined the conversation when the stylish cousin was there but that morning, he would rather not have met any of them. They caught sight of him though before he could retreat and Suchi summoned him over with a wave of his hand. How is your head? Have the stitches been removed? Oh it was nothing, a scratch merely. A tumble from the cycle is quite common.

I’ve been going to college, he said. He has a hard head, difficult to make a dent in it, his father said, without smiling. Speaking of college, the cousin said, when are you going to America? He has to finish his engineering first, get a degree...And for that you have to stop day dreaming – his father looked visibly put out.

That may be but you must plan right from now if you are thinking of your Master’s. The cousin’s younger son had migrated to Canada, and was trying from there to get to the United States.

And why should every young man want to go to the US? Leave home and hearth and go to some unknown land, seeking a pot of gold? Isn’t there life here? His father sounded pained. The cousin looked surprised.

Where are the jobs here, show me – he rounded on Ashwath’s father. You know how my son struggled for years after his Master’s as a lecturer in a college, being paid a pittance, before he went to Canada. That is the fate of our boys.

Nonsense, his father said. Nonsense – where is the guarantee that our boys will have a better life outside? We must keep our eyes open to all opportunities – for once Suchi mama seemed to express an opinion contrary to his father’s.

Even the likes of Kaveramma know that. She is trying to raise hand loans now, preparing to send her Prakash abroad next year – Suchi mama said approvingly.

Suchindra, our case and Kaveramma’s can hardly be compared. I could raise the money if I wanted. I don’t need to pawn my wife’s jewellery – his father stood up, making his displeasure clear, signalling that the conversation was over.

Why don’t you take Ashwath with you when you go to inspect the kharab land today, he said as he turned to go inside. We need to think of what to do with it. You could have your morning meal and leave. The cousin got up to go down to the kitchen to pay his respects to Ashwath’s mother.

Morning show at Vijaylakshmi theatre – James Bond – he winked at Ashwath as he passed by. But there was no escaping the job that had to be done. Every Sunday, his father thought up these errands. There was something or the other to be done, some chore lying in wait for him.

As his father’s cousin sauntered past in a waft of scented tobacco, Ashwath remembered that the matter of the examination fees was still to be settled. Mama, he said, I’ll walk downstairs with you till the kitchen. You don’t need that fine cane of yours inside the house.

Boys From Good Families

Excerpted with permission from Boys From Good Families, Usha KR, Speaking Tiger.