Standing there before the window of his room, looking out through the dust-coated pane of glass at the empty lot next door, at the ground overrun by grasses and weeds, the empty bottles of arrack scattered near the gate, it was this strange sense of being cast outside time that held Krishan still as he tried to make sense of the call he’d just received, the call that had put an end to all his plans for the evening, the call informing him that Rani, his grandmother’s former caretaker, had died.
He’d come home not long before from the office of the NGO at which he worked, had taken off his shoes and come upstairs to find, as usual, his grandmother standing outside his room, waiting impatiently to share all the thoughts she’d saved up over the course of the day. His grandmother knew he left work between five and half past five on most days, that if he came straight home, depending on whether he took a three-wheeler, bus, or walked, he could be expected at home between a quarter past five and a quarter past six.
His timely arrival was an axiom in the organisation of her day, and she held him to it with such severity that she would, if there was ever any deviation from the norm, be appeased only by a detailed explanation, that an urgent meeting or deadline had kept him at work longer than usual, that the roads had been blocked because of some rally or procession, when she’d become convinced, in other words, that the deviation was exceptional and that the laws she’d laid down in her room for the operation of the world outside were still in motion.
He’d listened as she talked about the clothes she needed to wash, about her conjectures on what his mother was making for dinner, about her plans to shampoo her hair the next morning, and when at last there was a pause in her speech he’d begun to shuffle away, saying he was going out with friends later and wanted to rest a while in his room.
She would be hurt by his unexpected desertion, he knew, but he’d been waiting all afternoon for some time alone, had been waiting for peace and quiet so he could think about the email he’d received earlier in the day, the first communication he’d received from Anjum in so long, the first attempt she’d made since the end of their relationship to find out what he was doing and what his life now was like.
He’d closed the browser as soon as he finished reading the message, had suppressed his desire to pore over and scrutinise every word, knowing he’d be unable to finish his work if he let himself reflect on the email, that it was best to wait till he was home and could think about everything undisturbed. He’d talked with his grandmother a little more – it was her habit to ask more questions when she knew he wanted to leave, as a way of postponing or prolong- ing his departure – then watched as she turned reluctantly into her room and closed the door behind her.
He’d remained in the vestibule a moment longer, had then gone to his room, closed the door, and turned the key twice in the lock, as if double-bolting the door would guarantee him the solitude he sought. He’d turned on the fan, peeled off his clothes, then changed into a fresh T-shirt and pair of shorts, and it was just as he’d lain down on his bed and stretched out his limbs, just as he’d prepared himself to consider the email and the images it brought to the surface of his mind, that the phone in the hall began to ring, its insistent, high-pitched tone invading his room through the door.
He’d sat up on the bed and waited a few seconds in the hope it would stop, but the ringing had continued without pause and slightly annoyed, deciding to deal with the call as quickly as possible, brusquely if necessary, he’d gotten up and made his way to the hall.
The caller had introduced herself, somewhat hesitantly, as Rani’s eldest daughter, an introduction whose meaning it had taken him a few seconds to register, not only because he’d been distracted by the email but also because it had been some time since the thought of his grandmother’s caretaker Rani had crossed his mind.
The last time he’d seen her had been seven or eight months before, when she had left to go on what was supposed to have been just a four- or five-day trip to her village in the north. She had gone to make arrangements for the five-year death anniversary of her youngest son, who’d been killed by shelling on the penultimate day of the war, then to attend the small remembrance that would be held the day after by survivors at the site of the final battle, which was only a few hours by bus from where she lived.
She’d called a week later to say she would need a little more time, that there were some urgent matters she needed to attend to before returning – they’d spent more money than planned on the anniversary, apparently, and she needed to go to her son-in-law’s village to discuss finances with her daughter and son-in-law in person, which wouldn’t take more than a day or two.
It was two weeks before they heard back from her again, when she called to say she’d gotten sick, it had been raining and she’d caught some kind of flu, she’d told them, would need just a few more days to recover before making the long journey back. It had been hard to imagine Rani seriously affected by flu, for despite the fact that she was in her late fifties, her large frame and substantial build gave the impression of someone exceptionally robust, not the kind of person it was easy to imagine laid low by a common virus.
Krishan could still remember how on New Year’s Day the year before, when they’d been boiling milk rice in the garden early in the morning, one of the three bricks that propped up the fully laden steel pot had given way, causing the pot to tip, how Rani had without any hesitation bent down and held the burning pot steady with her bare hands, waiting, without any sign of urgency, for him to reposition the brick so she could set the pot back down.
If she hadn’t yet returned it couldn’t have been that she was too weak or too sick for the ride back home, he and his mother had felt, the delay had its source, more likely, in the strain of the anniversary and the remembrance on her already fragile mental state. Not wanting to put unnecessary pressure on her they’d told her not to worry, to take her time, to come back only when she was feeling better.
Appamma’s condition had improved dramatically since she’d come to stay with them and she no longer needed to be watched every hour of the day and night, the two of them would be able to manage without help for a few more days. Another three weeks passed without any news, and after calling several times and getting no response, Krishan and his mother had been forced to conclude that they were wrong, that Rani simply didn’t want to come back.
It was surprising that she hadn’t bothered to call and tell them, since she was usually meticulous about matters of that kind, but most likely she’d just gotten so sick of spending all her time alone with Appamma that it didn’t even occur to her that she should let them know. Confined to a small room in a house on the other side of the country, forced to tolerate the endless drone of Appamma’s voice every day and night, unable to go outside the house for significant periods of time, since she didn’t know anyone and couldn’t speak Sinhalese, it made sense, they’d agreed between themselves, if Rani had decided after almost two years in Colombo that it was time finally to leave.
Excerpted with permission from A Passage North: A Novel, Anuk Arudpragasam, Hamish Hamilton.
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