I wouldn’t have come home, had my brother not left it.
I alight from a black and yellow auto-rickshaw. My parents are not expecting me. So, nobody picked me up from the railway station.
I pay the driver. He turns the tri-wheeler around and sputters away. I stand in front of imposing gates, with pink and white bougainvillea bursting from its sides. My hands tremble as I unlatch it after nearly 5 years. I crack it open just enough for me to slip in with my backpack.
The sweet fragrance of jasmine tries to ward off the bitter memories emanating from Casablanca. The crimson spurts of hibiscus suit it better, much more in harmony with the mistress of the house-a narcissist, strong-headed, wavering woman- who remarried within months after my father had passed.
“Baby!” I jump out of my skin and nearly topple onto the peacock-shaped hedge.
“Rosamma!” I squeal and before I know it, am being held close to the bosom of the only mother figure I have known in this house.
“Baby, how did you come? Madam didn’t tell me you were coming…oh leave it be… look at you…all grown up…you look so much like…”
I complete the sentence in my mind, “my father?”
Yes, I was always my father’s daughter and always will be.
“It’s okay Rosamma, she didn’t know. Anyway, the only reason I’m here is…”
“Baba left home…after a fight,” she completes my sentence.
And I don’t believe a word of it.
Mother will not be home before evening. And her husband…is he still the same one?
The job offer in Chennai was my ticket out of this mess of a house. I did feel guilty about leaving Adi behind. But I had always thought, if my mother loved any one person other than herself, it was him. So, I had convinced myself he would be safe here. Was I wrong? He was about to turn 18, and he had gone away, without even telling me!
I nibble at lunch, looking at the mango tree outside, with its tangy temptations hanging down the branches. There was a time when two kids played monkey on its branches, sat underneath in summers with their favourite books in hand, their faces contorted with the sourness of their pickings- one of them is missing now. I dump the remains of the lunch in the compost bin. Rinse my plate. And head towards what used to be Adi’s room.
The wooden floor is bathed in the warm glow of the afternoon sun filtered through lemony curtains. I pull back the curtains. The room is spic and span, just as all things in my mother’s house are, neatly arranged to serve her plan. It looks nearly the same as 5 years ago. But for two changes. A mosaic of acrylic paintings is on the wall facing the study table. And an Ibanez electric guitar is kept on a stand. I pore over the paintings. After an hour, I decide they offer no clues to his current whereabouts. Maybe I should find a magnifying glass or some divine powers. I rifle through the contents of the study table drawer. No magnifying glass, just a yellow highlighter with its lid open. Frustrated, I slam it back. A hardbound book falls off the table.
I pick it up. And stare at the title - Hindu Succession Act. The Adi I knew loved to read adventure books and paint in secret. What was he doing with this book? I flip through it, as one would shuffle a deck of cards. I find a few passages highlighted with yellow! A library book, vandalised by my brother! When did you change so much Adi? I take the book along with me to my room. And feel instantly suffocated by the last memories of my life there.
I scrutinise the book once again. Read through the highlighted passages. Check the due date slip pasted at the end. Rub my eyes, and count 15 days on my fingers.
“Baby, I brought you some sherbet,” Rosamma walks in just as I am about to head out. I gulp it down quickly, savouring the sweet-sour concoction laced with cardamom notes. I ask her on an impulse,
“When did Adi…go missing?”
She answers hesitantly, “last Wednesday night.”
But he got a book home from the library on Friday!
I cover my mouth wiping the non-existent traces of sherbet.
My last trusted lieutenant in this house had just proved herself a traitor.
In my eagerness to ferret out the truth, I have forgotten The Central Library has a weekly holiday on Monday. I take a longer route back home, stopping for a cup of filter coffee at one of the innumerable cafes on Margosa Road. I leaf through the book once again, hoping it would spill out some clue; point me towards something that would help me reach Adi.
When I enter Casablanca, it is cloaked in darkness. The golden light from the twin windows upstairs peer at me. And tell me Mother is home. I am torn between wanting to confront her and not wanting to look at her face.
My prayers are answered.
Just as I am about to scoot up the stairs, my mother calls out from the living room with her back turned to me,
“So, it took some bad news to make you come home!”
I battle revulsion, anger, and wanting to hug this woman. She has grown frail and her shoulders are hunched.
“Well, it seems I underestimated your power to create more bad news, mother!” I rasp in a voice my colleagues would have never recognised.
She turns towards me, looking beautiful in her white and silver dhakai cotton saree; the quintessential businesswoman, ready to take on anything.
“Avni, I’m glad you are here…I needed someone in…”
“Isn’t it always about what you need, mother?”
Her dark eyes flutter ever so slightly at my tirade. The dark circles around them are new.
“You couldn’t wait to get on with that man so soon after Papa and now you have conveniently chased away your son as he was becoming a threat to your ambitions!” I cringe as ugly words come out of my mouth.
I see the flecks of cold fury gathering in her eyes.
“I chased away my son! You think I can do such a thing?”
I continue without batting an eyelid,
“Mother, I’m sure your lawyer has already told you. Adi can challenge your sole ownership of the company when he turns 18. Especially as you remarried in such a hurry!”
“You forced him to run away so that you remain unchallenged!”
“What?” She is incredulous.
I walk towards her, emboldened by her weak denial, and say menacingly, “But I’m not going to let it happen, mother.”
I am puzzled by the twinkle in her eyes.
What games are you playing, mother?
The two-storey structure of the City Central Library looks spruced up. A fresh lick of paint makes it stand out among the shops selling flowers and vegetables close by. The librarian seems to have changed as well.
I proceed to his desk and return the book. He checks the due date stamp and deftly pulls out the issue card and hands it to me, barely looking up. I feel like an idiot for thinking the library would show me a way…to Adi. I shuffle my feet and turn to leave. The friendly voice of the librarian calls out,
“Excuse me, Aditya…you have two more books with you that are well past the due date. Please get them renewed. We don’t want you to pay a fine unnecessarily.”
“Um…hello, I’m Avni. Aditya…my brother has gone out for a few days. I’ll check for the books. Can you please tell me the titles?”
He looks at the screen and reads out, “The Alchemist and When Breath Becomes Air.”
I blink rapidly, thrice. I remember Papa gifting us a copy of The Alchemist a long time ago. Since when did Adi switch from adventure to autobiographies by the terminally ill?
My mind pumps up dread and pushes the words through my mouth, “Uh…I want to surprise my brother with a set of books on his graduation day. Based on his reading list what would you recommend?”. In my desperation not to be brushed off, I lob a coquettish smile at the young librarian. He analyses my brother’s reading list on his screen and frowns. My heart thrums.
“Mmm…Till about six months ago he read a lot of art and adventure…of late though he seems to be studying law and uh… cancer. Maybe he wants to pursue law or medicine,” he flashes a winsome smile.
I am at a loss for words. I manage a feeble, “Okay, thanks”.
I rush back home. Wantonly rummage through Adi’s things. But can’t find the overdue library books.
Where are you, Adi? What are you trying to tell me?
I leave the receptionist gaping at me as I barge into what used to be my father’s office. Mother does not look surprised at my brazen entry. She gestures at the receptionist to let me be and smiles at her present company of executives,
“Let us continue after a tea break, people, give us a minute please.”
We two are left alone within seconds.
“Sit Avni. What will you have? Your favourite mango lassi?” her cool, pleasant voice sends the monster in me on a rampage.
“How can you do everything so coolly or rather coldly Mother? Your son has run away and you seem to be carrying on just fine…just as you carried on after papa…don’t you feel anything? Not even for your son?”
She winces and steadies herself within a fraction of a second. Then says in a tired voice,
“Avni, I know how much you loved your Pa. And how devastated you were when he left us suddenly…”
I cut her off and sneer,
“Nothing compared to how you married again within no time…”
“Avni, I am not going to apologise for that. I felt loved as never before, and it was the right thing for me to do.”
“But now your lawyer must have told you it was a very unwise thing to do.”
Her face is a blank canvas.
“You cease to be the owner of this export house the moment Adi challenges you in court. You knew this, and you made him go away!” I spew the words.
Mother’s breath grows laboured.
“Yes, I sent him away. But not for what you think…”
My heart drops to the bottom of my stomach.
Is what I suspected true? Oh! God…No…Please…
“Because he is sick? And you didn’t want your shareholders to know the company’s future is shaky?” My voice trembles.
Mother looks at me with a strange mix of sadness and pride. And bravely crosses the distance between us.
“You know something, Avni? We both are…similar. Maybe that’s why you hate me so much.”
I shudder, “Similar? As in cold, unfeeling, and cunning?”
“No. As in smart, brave, and resourceful. Your father knew it, and it was always you who was going to inherit the business.”
“But you chose to grab it with both your hands instead.”
Mother pauses and says with a kindness that hits me.
“Your father was a good man, Avni. Kind, gentle, and artistic- but he left us in debt. You were too young then, but now I think you are old enough to face the truth.”
She coughs and continues,
“I knew when I took over the business, all I had to do was turn it around and hand it over to you…Adi never was and never will be interested in running a business.”
My head begins to swim. Is she spinning one of her yarns again?
“Forget about me. The only reason I came back was to find Adi. Where is he?”
A violent bout of cough pushes Mother back to her seat. A strange rattling sound from it unsettles me. She covers her mouth with a muslin handkerchief.
“I sent him on a skiing trip with his friends…just to take his mind off things…” She pauses to catch a breath. And puts down her white handkerchief.
To take his mind off what things? This woman is unbelievable!
“Then why did Rosamma, ring me saying he has run away?”
Mother smiles and says, “Because, unless you knew…he had left home, you would not have come!”
The crimson spurts on her handkerchief slap me hard.