No, I half-smiled, attempting to remain serene. This is where all such conversations began to run into troughs and potholes.
âShail had girlfriends in college. He knew his wife for three years before they decided to get married. Luckily, she is Gujarati, but we had to give our blessing. And these days, everything is on TV anyway, so nothing can shock the parents.â Her rocking grew slightly more discernible, as she entered into the spirit of teasing me.
âBut there must have been girlfriends while youâve been there. While you were a student, after you started earning? What happened to them?â
She wasnât really smiling, so I couldnât be sure to what extent the baiting was innocent. The fan whirred and the swing creaked. I was glad the maid wasnât watching. But I got this line of grilling all the time, from grandparents, uncles, even strangers on planes and trains, and beyond a point, I lacked the patience. I decided to fold the visit.
âIs Mr Mehta home?â
No, he still goes to the Kalbadevi office every day. Heâll be back after six.â
âI should get going. I have a lot of people to see. I only have four more days.â
âYou didnât eat anything.â
âNext time, I promise to come at a better time, and stay longer. Will you do me a favour? Can I take down Shailâs cell number? Iâd like to give him a call.â
Her phone was right beside her, behind one of the cushions. She expertly located and read off Shailâs number, then asked if Iâd like to speak to Kavita too. I said sure, if Mrs Mehta thought she would remember me. Then I asked for her number as well. I said Iâd call before I flew off.
I wondered if I should touch her feet before leaving. In my indecision I made a hesitant move towards her and then drew back. Instead I folded my palms and left. Even I could agree that this was excessively formal.
The rest of the stay flew by doing the obligatory rounds of visits â seeing the ill, the dying, the old and the easilyoffended. There was no use my protesting, since Amma invariably reminded me this was all she asked once every three years. Besides, she griped, she didnât force me to go to the temple any more. At this point, I hastily agreed, knowing well the next ace she would throw down: how, after my âcruelâ outburst during the last trip, she had even given up arranging matrimonial viewings without my approval, in her tireless quest to introduce me to potential brides.
In this way, for my final four days nearly every mealtime was booked in advance, and often impromptu slots had to be created on the spot for a second (even third) teatime or lunch. I was repeatedly vindicated in keeping only so much energy in reserve to deal with the marriage question whenever it arose. At such junctures, Amma would fix me with a look of silent reproach, and then turn away the moment I acknowledged her. It was her way of underlining that I could be merry and carefree in California, but she had to suffer the consequences of my callousness. It wasÂ herÂ Achilles heel at every clan gathering.
I suppose none of the relatives could make up their minds about me: on the one hand, such unanimous approval of the career and its milestones, and yet, such a wilful waste of the same golden years. Perhaps they concluded â looking at my non-flammable idiot grin, my effort to grit my teeth and ride over the awkwardness with sheer mute amiability â I was slightly autistic.
For some reason, even after such sustained battering, I decided to keep my word and call Mrs Mehta before I left. To avoid interruption, I told everyone I needed to make a call to London, and then made sure by bolting my door.
Iâd picked the same hour as when I visited her, since Iâd be likely to find her alone. She asked if Iâd contacted Shail or Kavita yet. I said no, but they were on my list for that evening.
âIâm sorry if you were watching your show.â
âI watch it to keep Mala company. Anyway, the story never moves.â
âI wanted to say something that I couldnât the other day.â
She waited to hear me out.
âMrs Mehta, itâs always bothered me that I never visited you after Avinash passed away. I wanted to tell you that I still remember him as a close friend, on the day of his anniversary and at many other times.â
She must have put the programme on mute, disappointing Mala yet again. I couldnât hear a sound of affirmation.
Silence followed. I didnât say any more. My piece was complete.
âWhy didnât you say this the other day?â
âSomehow I couldnât. I still feel ashamed of it. I should have just gone to see you, no matter what my parents thought. They didnât need to know.â
âAnyway, thatâs what I wanted to tell you. Iâll go now,â I said after allowing for another longish pause.
âWe found a letter for you.â
âI did. It was in the same exercise book he was supposed to be studying.â
âIt was written to me?â This was genuinely unbelievable.
She remained silent, until I called out her name.
âHe was begging you not to go to America.â
Her voice stayed even, although the silences were getting longer. âBut he gave up after a few lines, and tore the page in half and threw it into his drawer.â
âNo one ever told me. The last time I spoke to him was after the rehearsal exams. But we didnât fight, and I promise, I never saw him whole week.â
âBut then you talked to Shail?â
At that moment, I cut the line. This woman held all the cards. It was I who was finding it difficult to breathe or keep my voice down. And yet, I had set it all up. I visited her, asked for her number, called back to say goodbye.
Amma would choose this moment to hammer on the door and insist I hear out an uncle in Malaysia who wanted to say Happy Journey and reprimand me at the same time for not flying through KL, but for once, I gratefully surrendered.
Later of course I wondered if Mr Mehta knew, and what Shail or Kavita knew. But when Iâd had a few minutes to absorb everything, set it all down in front of me and consider the likelihood one way or the other, I felt pretty sure she wouldnât have told many people, or there would have been repercussions. And I doubted she was going to begin now. She didnât think of what she knew as a âcardâ.
And the more I turn things over in my mind, last night, later again on the plane to Hong Kong, and now while I wait at the airport to board my flight back home, the more certain I feel about this.
Rajorshi Chakraborti (born 1977) is an Edinburgh-based novelist and academic. He grew up in Kolkata and Mumbai, and attended the University of Edinburgh, where he completed his doctoral studies in African and Indian Literature. Chakraborti is the great grandson of the Bengali writer Hemendrakumar Roy. Chakraborti’s first novel, Or the Day Seizes You, was shortlisted for the Hutch-Crossword prize in 2006. His second novel, Derangements, was published in July 2008. He teaches Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh.