A small dust cloud enveloped the road as the slow-moving truck lumbered down the rain-parched part tar part mud road. Chennai municipality had long forgotten about its electoral promises! A silver Toyota Innova followed behind the truck at a sedate pace. It was a Sunday afternoon, and the road was free of the usual school bus traffic. It stopped in front of an old but well-maintained house surrounded by tall mango and coconut trees. There was a majestic banyan tree to the side of the house, its drooping vines casting a benign shadow. Aromatic and colorful jasmine rose and hibiscus interspersed with holy basil plants encircled the well-tended lawn in front of the house. Pink bougainvillea creepers cascaded down the chest-high compound walls. A wrought-iron gate created a protective barrier between the road and the house. Beyond the gate, there were two men on scaffolding putting a final coat of paint on the front of the house while yet another was painting the inside of the compound wall. Two other men were loading torn plastic sheets, paint-stained newspapers, empty paint cans, and construction debris, onto huge wheelbarrows and carting them to the backyard.
Mahesh alighted from the car, cane in hand, and helped his wife Chitra out of the car. They stood in front of the house mute, taking in all the activity. Chitra sighed, "Seems just like the old days, doesn’t it?" She continued without waiting for Mahesh to respond, looking around her, "Remember how Contractor Babu used to be busy just repairing and painting all the houses on this street from April right till July? It was an unspoken tradition - first Raman's house, then the Iyers, then Subramanyam’s, followed by the Narayanan's and then us. We were all so young and happy - helping each other out during the painting and after that. I remember how we all started with simple one-bedroom homes and then over the years built on to them. I am sure Contractor Babu made a fortune just working on this street - we gave him so much business in those days!"
"Hush now, Chitra. Remember, we agreed we wouldn't get sentimental now. We have come here to say goodbye and we will finish it as quickly as possible so that we can continue our journey," Mahesh said. Chitra wiped her eyes with the tissue in her hand and said, "So many years, so many memories!" Mahesh patted her shoulder in silent understanding.
Chitra was not alone in her nostalgia. Mahesh recollected how he had bought the house on this street with a loan from the bank forty years ago. They had been ten of them from State Bank of Mysore who had got together and invested in this distant little-known suburb of Madras, now renamed Chennai. Their quiet suburb was now a much sought-after location by young professionals working in the city for its proximity to the metro rail network and proliferation of exotic restaurants and pubs. Their lane, which once had quaint houses with traditional architecture and streets decorated with elaborate rice rangolis, was now dominated by towering buildings with swanky cars and sophisticated car lifts. Only two houses had survived the relentless pursuit of the developers looking to convert the simple one-storey houses into swanky multi-storeyed apartment blocks. Mahesh had been one of the last to succumb, pressurized by his sons in the US to move into something more modern. Well, amidst all the change, at least the name of the lane had stayed constant - 'Mysore Street', a nod to the bankers who had stayed here.
He tightened his hand around Chitra's shoulder. It was going to be difficult adjusting to their new life alone. He had always expected to spend his twilight years with his old friend Shankar drinking endless cups of coffee while solving the crossword in The Hindu paper and arguing about all things political - state, national and global. They had made meticulous plans for holidays, pilgrimages, and city outings, careful to work around the visiting schedules of their children and grandchildren. He wondered if he could say farewell to Shankar and Nitya in a composed manner. Maybe Chitra would do it better than him. After all, she was the stronger one in all these emotional matters, while he only pretended to be calm and in control.
Just then an elderly couple came round the side of the house, deep in conversation with Contractor Babu. They spotted Mahesh and Chitra waiting outside the gate and hurried towards them. "Mahesh, Chitra, when did you come? Why are you waiting outside in this heat? You should have walked in and called out. We were just round the back inspecting the new fence," Nitya said. She was always the most talkative of the four of them and Shankar the quietest. They were an odd couple, just like him and Chitra, but somehow the four of them had forged a strong friendship, often the envy of many of their colleagues and neighbors. Shankar hung back while Nitya hugged Chitra and dragged her inside the house. He nodded at Mahesh and pointed towards the house. Mahesh put the cane down and walked alongside Shankar, steps dragging, the silence pregnant with memories.
The walls of the house sported a pretty lilac shade. Nitya had changed the upholstery and curtains to go with the new colors - there was a brass planter with a potted plant in a corner and the walls had nails waiting to be adorned with memorabilia. The color scheme, the fancy muslin curtains, and the luxurious sofas with large floral cushions were a far cry from Shankar's preference for minimal antique teak furniture and an open, airy layout. Chitra and Nitya were going around the house, examining the furnishings and artifacts and talking in hushed whispers. Mahesh and Shankar sat on the edge of the sofa, gripping their walking sticks. Mahesh looked around, wondering what to say now that Chitra, his buffer, had gone away.
Shankar cleared his throat and said in a gruff voice, "So, it's all done? I saw the truck go by. Have you checked that the packers loaded the truck properly, and matched it with your packing list?"
Mahesh nodded. "The packers are good. Raman had used them when he moved to Mumbai last year. They are efficient and reasonable. Arun and Anup also asked their colleagues and felt that we could trust them. Anyway, it's all done now. Just have to keep faith in God and keep our fingers crossed and pray everything goes as per plan."
Shankar nodded. He knew Mahesh was a meticulous planner and thought of all potential risks and problems and worked out solutions for them. But this time, even Mahesh could not have expected the turn of events! Mahesh looked at Shankar with a smile and said, "So Contractor Babu reappears! Has the rascal improved or not in so many years?" Shankar chuckled and said, "Babu is now just a figurehead. All the actual work is now being done by his nephew, his brother's son, who is an architect. Smart boy, sensible and polite. Willing to listen to what you say and respects things like costs, budgets, timelines, etc. Babu likes to pretend that he is still in charge but everyone, including his own team, knows who is the real boss."
As Shankar fumbled for his glasses, Mahesh got up and walked around the house, running his hands over the walls and doors, reliving the days of listening to cricket commentary on Shankar's trusted imported Phillips radio back in the 1970s. The wives and children would tiptoe around the house to avoid inciting Shankar's wrath for making noise during an important match. Once television had replaced the radio, there were many evenings of watching movies and teleserial together. Meals were potluck affairs with Nitya and Chitra planning the meals and snacks. They were a noisy lot - the four of them and the boys - Anup, Arun, and Shiva. The boys had been hell-raisers constantly up to mischief. It was a miracle that they had gotten into IIT and then gone on to the US for their MS. The boys had all gone to different colleges, but somehow landed up working for Apple Inc. Their childhood friendship had grown stronger and the boys had lived together until they got married.
Anup and Arun had chosen their own life partners, much to Chitra's anguish, but Shiva had married Uma, a girl of his parent's choice. Shankar and Nitya had conducted the wedding on the terrace of this house ten years back. He remembered how the entire street had come together to host the members of the wedding party and help with all the wedding activities. Uma’s parents and brothers had stayed with Mahesh and Chitra for a week. Mahesh peeped into the kitchen, where Nitya and Chitra were stirring something on the gas stove. There was a small puja room near the kitchen and stacked next to it were two large photo frames, covered in brown paper and bound with twine. He drew back as though as though stung and beat a hasty retreat to the living room. Shankar was where he had left him, scrolling through something on his phone, peering through his glasses.
Mahesh felt the gentle unseen breeze of memories waft past as he took his seat on the sofa. He understood why Shankar didn’t want to leave the house. If he had a choice, he wouldn’t want to move either. The banyan tree in the front yard, visible from the window in the living room, had been a silent spectator of their shared lives’ peaks and troughs. The swing that had once hung on the tree had been a rosewood antique from Shankar's ancestral property in the village. Nitya approached, holding a tray in her gnarled hands, her knuckles swollen because of arthritis. Mahesh hurried to take the tray bearing steaming cups of coffee and a plate of homemade savories, from her. Chitra also bustled in, from another room carrying a small bag in her hand. Shankar helped serve the coffee and savories as Nitya sat down next to Chitra. Nitya smiled at Mahesh and said, "When are Anup and Arun arriving? Will they stay to help you unpack and settle down?"
Shankar looked at Nitya and said in a gentle voice, "Nitya, Chitra just told you that only Anup is coming now. Arun didn’t get leave from work. He will try to come during the Christmas break." Nitya tapped her forehead ruefully. "Aiyyo, my memory is like a sieve nowadays. God knows what I would do without Shankar. Can you believe, the other day I went to the temple without wearing my glasses and slippers and with no money? It was a good thing that the young couple from the next building recognized me and drove me home. They reminded me so much of Shiva and Uma."
Shankar looked at Mahesh and saw the unspoken question in his eyes. He nodded, confirming that as suspected by Arun's wife, they had diagnosed Nitya with Alzheimer’s. It was early days, but the decline was clear. Shankar's mobile rang as Nitya continued her tales of forgetfulness. He got up and went outside to take the call, Mahesh following him. "Babu, please tell your nephew that the swing and play set is out of storage and it has been repaired. He can send someone in the evening to fix it. Also, please clear out all the debris by tomorrow morning. My guests will be here by evening. Yes, yes, don't worry, I will pay the workers extra charges for this."
Mahesh laid a hand on Shankar's shoulder. Shankar put his hand over Mahesh's without turning around. They stood in silence, heads bowed, backs bent, lost in their own thoughts yet connected by their shared history. This was their goodbye and thanks. Chitra broke their silent communion coming out of the living room with the bag and a small tiffin in her hands. Her eyes were red and swollen and she was sniffing. Nitya followed, wiping her eyes with a handkerchief. Shankar and Nitya followed Mahesh and Chitra to the car in a slow procession. Nitya and Chitra hugged and promised to stay in touch. Shankar and Mahesh looked at each other - there was much to say and neither knew how to say it. Finally, Mahesh turned away after shaking hands with Shankar and said, "Take care of your health and call me every evening to discuss the crossword and Sudoku solutions. Don’t become lazy because I am not here. We will come to visit for Diwali." Shankar closed his eyes, a lone tear escaping before he could wipe it away. Mahesh pretended not to have seen it and got in next to Chitra. The car started and moved at a slow pace because of the narrow roads. Mahesh and Chitra peeped out of the windows, waving to Shankar and Nitya until they were just distant specks.
No sooner had they turned into the main road that Chitra burst into tears. "Do you know what Nitya gave me in this bag? It's photos of our trip to Ooty. All the children are there in it, including Shiva and Uma and Priti, the baby in the pram." She turned to Mahesh and wailed, "Why are they being punished like this? What did they do wrong? How can God be so unkind to take away their only son and daughter-in-law in such a cruel manner?"
Mahesh had heard this litany many times over the last month, and passed her a handkerchief from his pocket. Chitra continued in a quavering voice, "Poor Priti, the child has only these aged and ailing grandparents left of her family. What kind of people turn their back on their only sister's child and dump her on these old people? They were really looking forward to moving into the adjoining flat in the same retirement home. Now we will have some strangers living next door till the time we die." Chitra continued to sob and rail at the injustice done to Shankar and Nitya and their family.
Mahesh murmured agreement with Chitra’s moaning, but his mind strayed to his friend’s plight. At seventy, when Shankar had been expecting a quiet and relaxed twilight of his life, the death of Shiva and Uma in a car crash while on holiday in Iceland had orphaned their five-year-old daughter Priti. Uma's parents had passed away soon after their marriage, and property disputes had estranged her from her brothers. Priti was in the care of Uma's cousin in California and would move to India as soon as her paperwork was done. Shankar had used the time to revoke the purchase of the retirement flat and the sale of their old house. On one of his last visits to India, Shiva had told Shankar, "Appa, can you please find and put that old swing back on the banyan tree? Some of my best memories were around that tree and swing. On my next visit, I will put Priti on the swing and watch her laugh like I used to when you used to push me. Appa, promise me you will fix the swing before my next visit."
Shankar and Nitya were an honorable couple and had always kept their promises. Shiva would watch his daughter swing from the banyan tree from the photograph on the wall.
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.