Mr Swaminathan died suddenly, as he was walking back to his flat from the Veg dining hall after dinner. He was ahead of me on the path, and I saw him slow down. His gait changed from a fast stride to a slower, hunched walk. His left arm went limp. He lost his footing and crumpled to the ground. If I had not been swift, I imagine he would have hit his head on the cement. There would have been blood. But I caught up with him. Before he fell, I squatted to the ground and put my hands out, and his head fell directly into my open palms. Carefully, I slipped my hands out from behind his head, set it gently on the cement and sat at his side talking to him. His left eye looked lower than his right. His left cheek sagged, as if it might slide off.
I held his hand until the ambulance arrived. It was the first time that I had held a man’s hand since my husband died. The rectangular diamond on Mr Swaminathan’s gold ring was hard and cold in contrast to his warm skin. Before they loaded his body onto the gurney, he opened his eyes, looked at me and said, ‘Renuka.’ Then he squeezed my hand. Whether he was asking me to summon his wife, or whether he thought I was his wife, I cannot say. He died before he reached the hospital. He was seventy-five years old, the same age my husband would be if he were alive today.
His death was our first. Hard to believe, since this is a place for old people. But Malliga Homes is a new facility, and the first residents, myself included, moved in just two years ago.
The other day, I spoke to my daughter Kamala on the phone, and told her how expertly the personnel handled the whole Swaminathan matter. They were prompt in calling for help. The area was cleared immediately, and the ambulance rolled right onto the freshly trimmed landscaping, crushing a row of golden dewdrops that took a year to grow.
‘I am so glad to hear that,’ Kamala said.
Malliga Homes is not a bad place. It is a rather nice place, in fact. Just a bit isolated for city people like me, coming from places like Chennai. The facility sits at the intersection of Thambur Road and NH-181, just outside of Coimbatore. Going to the outskirts of a midsized city gave the developers more space, and allowed them to invest in luxuries that we all appreciate. We have stone tiles in the bathrooms, cabinets made of Thermofoil, those wood laminate floors that are in style now, picturesque landscaping, and Honda inverter generators with eight hours of runtime for when the power goes out, which it does daily.
I am lucky to be here, my Kamala likes to remind me. It is only the second place of its kind in South India, and the units sold out quickly. Still, no amount of expensive stone or carefully worded praise from my daughter can change what Malliga Homes is: a place for those who have nowhere else to go.
We are of the upper middle class, here. We do not come from families who own hospitals or factories, or vast tracts of land. We work for those people – worked for those people. Those people belong to a different cut entirely, and will never move here, no matter how beautifully our gardeners maintain the bougainvillea vines and oleander shrubs. Those people will stay in their posh city flats with their many servants and their children nearby. The offspring of the rich are rich, and they do not seek their fortunes elsewhere.
Like me, nearly every resident of Malliga Homes has lost sons and daughters to Foreign. That is the reason why we live in a retirement community-cum-nursing home, rather than with our families. My Kamala left India twenty-five years ago. She is deputy managing director of a company called Synchros Systems, based in a small town outside of Atlanta.
Renuka Swaminathan also has two children living abroad, one in Germany and one in Australia. They must have arrived already, to help with Mr Swaminathan’s kariyam preparations.
I am knitting a sweater made of fine, green mohair for Renuka. After the kariyam, she is going to Adelaide to spend time with her son. I was the one who said, ‘Better to go. It is depressing to be alone right after.’ Her son is the manager of a movie theatre there. He was not able to finish his graduate degree at the University of Adelaide, but somehow found a way to stay there. ‘Good for him,’ I said, when Renuka told me. I meant it.
Those of us at Malliga Homes with children in America rank higher than those with children in Dubai or Qatar. Somewhere in-between fall those with children working in Singapore, Australia, England, Germany, and the rest of Western Europe. Africa falls below the Middle East, both because of what people imagine it is like there, and because it is so hard to get to. What our children do, how much money they make, whether our grandchildren are bright or mediocre – all of this matters. It is a tragedy to have a brilliant child and a dunce of a grandchild.
The yarn for Renuka’s sweater cost me five rupees per meter, much more than I typically pay, but I decided it was worth it. The sweater will bring out the green in her eyes and it will be good for the Australian winter. I checked the climate in Adelaide on the Net; it can drop down to ten degrees. But also: death turns you cold, and I want Renuka to stay warm. In the months after my husband died, a chilliness plagued my being, even in hot weather.
My husband’s death was what brought me to Malliga Homes. After he died, Kamala flew to India and spent two weeks with me in our Chennai flat. She insisted that I leave my red bottu on my forehead, and keep all my jewellery on.
‘This is not the end of life for you, Amma. I don’t believe in such things,’ she said.
I did insist on taking off my toe rings. I never liked them. Initially, they would not come off; Kamala tried to help, and gave up. They had been on for forty-five years, the silver rings tightening around my toes as I became fatter over the decades, my flesh curling over their edges. Finally, after soaking my feet in soapy water for thirty minutes, I had success.
Kamala collapsed on our cane sofa, the same one she spent years reading on as a teenager, her legs leisurely stretched out while she held Somerset Maugham high above her head. Her eye make-up was smeared from crying. Both of us had done a lot of that.
‘Amma, come lie down with me,’ she said, a cricket ball in one hand and a brochure in the other. My husband loved cricket, and she had been carrying the ball around with her since her arrival.
‘Move over,’ I said.
We lay squished on the sofa, side-by-side, hip-to-hip, mother and daughter. That was when she brought up Malliga Homes. She handed me the brochure.
‘Open it,’ she said. ‘Look how nice the grounds are. Like Brindavan Gardens.’
The brochure was from Kamala’s friend in America, Padmini Venugopal. Padmini’s parents had just moved into Malliga Homes.
‘All the comforts of home, without any worry – and so many friends,’ Kamala read out loud. She looked at me eagerly.
‘Consider it,’ she said.
‘You will make them.’
‘You cannot force me. What if I had stopped you all those years ago from going to America alone?’ I asked.
‘This is not the same thing,’ she said. She sat up and climbed over me to get off the sofa. ‘It is not the same thing at all.’
The following night, I had a small fall in the bathroom. Though I was not seriously injured, Kamala became unstoppable. I could hear the determination in her voice, like when she was a girl and wanted a Peach Melba from Jafar’s on Mount Road. She would not stop until I relented.
‘You are my responsibility now,’ she said. She was combing my hair, because I sprained my right wrist in the fall and could not do it myself. ‘I’ve already made a booking. I paid the deposit today.’
After she tied my white hair into a loose bun, she stroked my head as if I were a child. Her own hair, long and braided, was speckled with white.
‘It’s a two-bedroom,’ she said. ‘So we can visit you.’
She extended her trip by a week, so that she could move me into Malliga Homes.
Two years have passed and they have not visited. They were all supposed to be here this time next month – Kamala, my son-in-law Arun, and my granddaughter Veena. I prepared the bedroom for them as soon as Kamala told me the plan. I bought new sheets and an extra single bed. But just a few weeks ago, Kamala called to say she was coming alone. Arun is busy with work. Veena started a new job.
They would enjoy it here, I think. It is like a resort. There are three swimming pools on the property, and a boy scoops out the leaves with his large net many times each day. The Veg and Non-Veg food is cooked in separate kitchens. We have tennis matches, movies in Tamil, Hindi and English on the big screen in the lounge, yoga, a walking group, a bridge group, and a Hindu prayer group that meets at the small temple we built on the grounds. There are smaller Muslim and Christian prayer groups that meet in residents’ homes. Malliga Homes, as Kamala says, is ‘inclusive’.
There is nothing wrong with Alpharetta, Georgia, but for all the space and privacy that America offers, it is a country that longs for life. You go for a drive and the road is endless. One fast food restaurant after another. Wendy’s. McDonald’s. Waffle House. The coloured lights shine bright in the evenings, beckoning visitors. ‘Like temples,’ I used to say. The grocery store is three kilometres from their house. What sort of place is that? One where people are too busy driving to enjoy life. Nobody has time to talk, and yet everyone is seeing a therapist.
‘It is only a ten minute drive to Starbucks,’ Kamala would say, when we visited. ‘Should we go?’
Ten minutes. I may as well plant a tree, pluck the beans myself and grind my own coffee, I used to say to my husband. He would gently put his palm over my hand and whisper, ‘Shush. She may hear you.’
He spoilt her. The best school. The best tutors. The clothes she wanted. The books she liked. Let her go to the movies. Let her relax. No need to make her cook with you, he would say. Do not trouble her. Do not upset her. Let her be.
He was just as bored as I was in Alpharetta, even if he never said so. He, too, hated the burned taste of Starbucks, and how we went the whole day in America – the whole bloody day – without seeing a single person but the mailman, while Kamala and Arun went to work and Veena went to school. I always enjoyed living right in the heart of Chennai, with the noises of the street cluttering my day. Everything I needed was a stone’s throw away.
‘No point in living in the city in America,’ Kamala said, back when they bought the house. ‘Dirty, unsafe, no parking, bad schools.’ She said ‘America’ but was she also talking about her childhood home? I could not help but wonder.
What do you do with a big, empty house full of rooms that you do not need? She never talks about this, but somewhere inside she must feel it. She is my daughter after all. Her house, with its vaulted ceilings and skylights, it is no better than Malliga Homes.
‘At least she is in America.’ All those years ago, when her Georgia Tech admissions letter arrived, I said this to my husband.
‘If she has to go, let it be there.’
I dine with the Venugopals, the parents of Kamala’s friend Padmini. Over his empty plate, as we wait to be served, Dr Venugopal cannot stop talking about Mr Swaminathan’s death.
‘For me, it is an intellectual curiosity,’ he says. He is a retired cardiologist. His wife Lakshmi, fit and elegant, has gray hair but smooth skin, undoubtedly from years of sandalwood paste facials. We are in the Non-Veg dining hall, and Mr and Mrs Sharma are also with us. The Venugopals and the Sharmas always sit together. Only once before have I been invited to join them, when I first moved in. It was a sort of welcome and thank you. When Kamala signed me up for Malliga Homes, the Venugopals received something called a ‘referral bonus,’ by way of a free out-of-station trip to Ooty.
The Sharmas and the Venugopals are sipping gin and tonics. Dr Venugopal summons the mobile bartender with his fully stocked cart for me. I order a fresh lime soda. Alcoholic drinks cost extra, and I do not like to waste money.
After listening to me describe the way Mr Swaminathan fell, how his face drooped on one side, how his speech slurred as he said his wife’s name, Dr Venugopal declares that it was most certainly an ischemic stroke, not a haemorrhagic one.
‘Absolutely,’ he says.
He seems thrilled to have determined this. He has a sharp, well-shaped grey beard and a moustache of the same colour. His right finger goes towards his moustache and I expect him to pet it thoughtfully but instead, he points directly at me.
‘Rare for a stroke to be fatal. I wonder if there were other complications. Head injury perhaps?’ he asks, almost accusingly.
I explain the fall, how gentle it was.
Dr Venugopal grunts, though not in an unpleasant manner. ‘Humph. Still, that cement. So hard.’
‘He fell into my hands,’ I almost say. But I stop myself. It feels like a confession I should not make.
A waiter dressed in white comes around with spicy red dal. The Venugopals and Sharmas allow him to ladle some into the small, stainless bowls on their plates. I put my hand over mine to indicate that I do not want any.
‘Such a genuinely nice couple they were,’ Mrs Sharma says. ‘Imagine losing your husband like that.’
She looks at me, a soloist between two couples and says, ‘What I meant to say was, so suddenly.’
Such comments don’t upset me these days.
‘It is lonely, but life goes on,’ I say, smiling.
Mrs Sharma nods enthusiastically, relieved. The curls in her coiffed bob nod with her. Out of consideration, I change the subject.
‘You look nice this evening,’ I say to Mrs Venugopal. She is wearing a sleeveless, block print salwar kameez.
‘Come shopping with me,’ she says. ‘I bought the material at Badshah. And I have a fabulous tailor.’
I know she does not mean it. She sees how I dress. I wear ordinary clothes, and rarely buy new things. In any case, I would not spend my money at a place like Badshah.
‘Better for the younger generation. Kamala might like to go,’ I say. ‘Though I suppose she isn’t so young anymore.’
The polite thing would be for Mrs Venugopal to say that her daughter, Padmini, is also not so young, but she keeps silent and I feel like I have betrayed my child.
‘Fantastic chicken korma today,’ Mrs Sharma says, as she mixes it with her rice. She looks at the Fitbit on my wrist. ‘New gadget?’
‘A present from my daughter,’ I say. ‘It counts your steps. Kamala says I must aim for eight thousand a day.’
‘We golf,’ Mrs Sharma says. ‘We get plenty of exercise from that. No need to track it.’
‘Yes,’ I say.
In old age, status is tied to health, what you can do with your body and what you can’t. Or sometimes, what you say you can do.
‘Padmini bought Fitbits for us also. They want us to live long lives, don’t they?’ Mrs Venugopal says.
‘For what, I want to ask,’ Dr Venugopal says, leaning forward. ‘For them?’
‘Our son only visits every other year from California,’ Mrs Sharma says.
‘Padmini hardly comes,’ Dr Venugopal says. His eyes catch mine and I see something childlike in them, something sorrowful. ‘I need another drink,’ he says.
‘She is so busy,’ Mrs Venugopal says. ‘This year she was promoted to director.’
‘But you know,’ Dr Venugopal says, his voice a hush. ‘Renuka is moving.’ His eyes search my face. ‘Did you know?’
‘No,’ I say, but immediately, I understand. It happened often to widows and widowers. She was moving abroad to join her children.
‘Where to?’ I ask. ‘Germany with her daughter, or Australia with her son?’
The worst would be if she had to split her time, I think to myself. A permanent, temporary resident in two places.
‘Neither,’ he says, his voice still quiet. ‘She is moving back to Chennai. Her son and daughter are returning, with their families, purchasing three side-by-side flats.’
‘But there are grandchildren?’
‘Enrolling in our Indian schools.’
Dr Venugopal seems pleased that he has this information, that he is the one who is delivering it to me, Renuka’s friend and witness to Mr Swaminathan’s death.
I have finished my food, and do not wish to stay through a second round of drinks.
‘I am expecting a call from Kamala,’ I say, excusing myself.
Dr Venugopal gives me a salute. ‘Best not to miss their calls. Otherwise, we may never catch them. Give her our regards.’
I stand up and walk away. I hear Mrs Venugopal say that Kamala lives in Alpharetta, and that Padmini lives in Buckhead.
‘Thirty minute drive,’ she says. ‘If there is no traffic.’
When I get back to my flat, I call Kamala. It’s already Saturday morning there, one of the rare windows of times when I can usually reach her.
‘I had dinner with the Venugopals today.’
‘Lovely. I’m so glad you have friends there.’
‘I found out about a nice clothing store. We will go, you and me.’
There is a pause, and then she says, ‘I may need to delay my trip.’
‘Work. What else?’
‘We have a good Net connection. Come here and work.’
‘I’m sorry,’ she says.
‘Forget about you,’ I say, unable to hide my frustration. ‘Did you ever truly plan to bring Veena here? Or will she always be too busy? She has not been to India in five years.’
‘Of course she will come to see you. Just not right now.’
‘Bring her to my funeral.’
‘Amma!’ Kamala says.
I wish to hang up, but I think of my husband, and his palm on mine. I soften my tone.
‘How is Veena?’ I ask.
‘Still trying to sort out her life. She has a temporary job at the Georgia Aquarium.’
‘Doing science work?’
‘No,’ Kamala says. ‘She cuts up the food for the animals.’
Kamala goes on talking, but I stop listening.
I imagine my daughter’s daughter as a butcher, chopping dead fish with bulging eyes for living fish with bulging eyes. I nearly comment that I know why Veena is so lost, how she needed her mother, she still needs her mother. But once again, I remember my husband, the way he’d gently warn me to stop. I keep my mouth shut.
After Kamala, I could not have more children. My body tipped into menopause a decade earlier than expected, otherwise we would have given her siblings. But for Kamala, it was a choice. A second child would have been impractical, with her career. The one to suffer was Veena, who spent all those hours in childcare, and then came home to that large, silent house, with all the toys and nobody to play with.
Now that I do not visit Alpharetta anymore – I find the journey far too draining – I must recall the house in my memory. The way the front hallway leads to the kitchen with the black and white granite counter, where, every day, I tried to make something tasty for Veena. How the family room is two carpeted steps down from the kitchen. How Kamala was always fearful that I would trip on those steps. Halfway up the staircase to the upper level, there is a small landing, where Veena liked to launch marbles, to watch them roll and putter down the stairs.
When I close my eyes after hanging up the phone, I can hear the sound of Kamala’s dishwasher, gushing and moaning late into the night, and her dryer, tossing clothes around and around.
For Mr Swaminathan’s kariyam, I wear a light orange Mysore silk sari. Subdued and traditional is best, based on what I know about Renuka. Still, I made sure to go for something colourful. It is a celebration after all. The kariyam marks the fourteenth day after Mr Swaminathan’s death, the official end of the mourning period. Though, the mourning never really stops. Not for a spouse. I finished knitting the sweater for Renuka, but I do not take it with me. What use will it be to her in Chennai, a city where the sun is glaring even on the coldest day of the year?
Mr Swaminathan’s kariyam is an efficient, in-and-out kind of affair, held not in their flat but in the Malliga Homes common lounge. Their flat is one of the more modest one-bedrooms, and would not have held the crowd. I arrive on time, but the priest has already finished the puja.
‘Oh, we finished early,’ Renuka’s daughter says breezily. ‘No need to make everyone sit through it. We wanted everyone to just enjoy food with us.’ She is a pretty woman in her thirties, with the same light green eyes as her mother. She is wearing an emerald choker around her neck and a peacock blue silk sari that she keeps adjusting. Children these days don’t know how to wear Indian clothes well, I have noticed. Too much time spent in slacks and skirts.
‘I heard you are moving back,’ I say.
‘We are,’ she says.
I do not ask her questions. She has many people to visit with, and no idea who I am. I wash my hands and take a seat in the eating area, in front of an empty banana leaf, right next to Mrs Sharma.
‘Did you hear about the Bhatia scandal?’ she asks me. ‘Didn’t your husband work for them?’
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘But I have not heard.’
‘Mrs Bhatia is suing her own son, Brij, for two-hundred crores. And her daughter Cherry for one-hundred.’ She shakes her head. ‘Rich people. They have so much and they fight like this.’
‘I met her once,’ I say. ‘My husband worked for Bhatia Electricals. She seemed like a nice woman.’
‘Nice to everyone but her own,’ Mrs Sharma says.
Men holding stainless steel buckets of food come by to serve us. I mix my sambar and rice together with my hands. Simple food, but such a pleasure to eat something different than what the dining hall cooks prepare.
I speak with Renuka only once, on my way out. She is wearing a plain, cotton sari. She has wiped off her bottu, taken off her earrings, bangles and toe rings. She looks naked, and vulnerable. That is what happens. You wear these things for so many years that they become your permanent clothing.
‘I am so sorry,’ I say.
‘Thank you for coming,’ she says, a phrase she must have said many times already.
For the first time, I notice how many wrinkles she has on her face. All over, even across the bridge of her nose. Nevertheless, her eyes are as striking as ever, penetrating and thoughtful.
‘He asked for you at the end,’ I say.
‘I am glad you were there,’ she says softly.
A few days after Mr Swaminathan’s kariyam, I go Veg for dinner. They are serving dry, salted herring on the Non-Veg side. I simply cannot tolerate the smell these days, though I once loved it. I sit alone at a table for four in the back of the Veg hall. I survey the room, and the sadness of it all hits me. All of us old people, eating in this canteen, abandoned by our children. It is pathetic. Uncivilized, one might even say.
The old should be with the young, the young with the old. That was how it was for generations: babies sleeping in the armpits of their grandmothers, children sitting atop the shoulders of their grandfathers. Everyone in the same, crowded home.
Nobody comes to sit with me today and I am glad for it. I might say something morose and develop a bad reputation. I finish my chapatti and bean kottu as quickly as possible and rinse my hands at the tap.
My Fitbit says I need six thousand more steps before it gets dark. I do not walk my usual route. Instead, I walk to the side of Malliga Homes where the smaller flats are. Where Renuka’s flat is. When I get there, I see that her gauzy yellow curtains are open. I look inside.
She must have been so anxious to leave. I turn the doorknob and find it unlocked.
I hear someone behind me, and turn around to see Renuka.
‘I was just looking for you,’ I say. I quickly step out of her flat and shut the door, feeling guilty for the intrusion. ‘You must be leaving soon.’
I watch her remove a piece of a green bean lodged between two teeth with her tongue. For a second, I wonder if her children have changed their minds. They would remain abroad, and she would stay with us, alone.
‘I made you a sweater for Australia, but it will be of no use to you anymore.’
‘It all happened so fast,’ she says.
‘My daughter is visiting next month,’ I say. ‘She plans to remodel our old flat and live there one day. Perhaps we can walk on Elliot’s Beach together.’
‘Oh!’ Renuka says. She hugs me. ‘Children these days are so willing.’
I am shocked by her hug, and by my lie. I try to correct what I’ve said.
‘You misunderstood,’ I say. ‘She is doing well in America. She just plans to visit often.’
‘I came to lock up,’ Renuka says, pleasantly. ‘We need to sell this place so we can afford the new flats in Chennai.’
‘I will give you the sweater before you leave,’ I say. ‘Maybe you can use it if you walk on the beach in the evenings.’
‘How I’ve missed it,’ she says. ‘That sea breeze.’
I walk all around Malliga Homes until I reach eight thousand steps. I do not know why I lied to Renuka. Renuka, who lived in the smallest flat that Malliga Homes offers. Renuka, whose son is an ordinary movie theatre manager. I imagine repeating it. To the Venugopals. To the Sharmas. To the chap who presses our clothes.
For some reason, I am reminded of my own father, who spent his final days in our flat in Chennai when Kamala was just a child. Toothless, he would sip his bland rice porridge and mutter an old Tamil proverb. ‘This is stranger than that, and that is stranger than this,’ he would say, as bits of the porridge dribbled down his chin.
It is dusk now at Malliga Homes. In that darkest part of twilight, that ungraspable moment before day turns fully to night, I pause to admire the oleander shrubs. Their white flowers glowing at their dusty, light yellow centers. The thick bougainvillea vines, in brilliant, deep magenta, are creeping over the Malliga Homes compound wall. Some of the flowers are stuck on one side while others, by sheer luck, fall to the other.
Image © Mauro Halpern