Expression | April 5, 2021
We didn’t say a word to each other, studiously avoiding eye contact, each fixing our gaze just beyond a shoulder or a fraction above a hairline, or just simply staring out of the car window.
It was a long drive to Chaukori. Eventually, I would have to say something to him, even if it was just polite conversation, but for the time being, I allowed myself to go back to the first time I became aware of the existence of Wing Commander Amar Shekhawat.
A February morning, the mist rolling off the tops of the houses in South Delhi and settling onto undulating lawns. I sat outside on the back verandah, drinking my morning tea and making my way through the International section of the Hindustan Times. It was a normal morning by all accounts. I had woken up early and gone for a run with Goonda our German Shepherd, who now lay by my side, panting, recovering.. It was a normal morning, like many others, until the letter arrived.
It was delivered by hand. A simple white envelope addressed to Shanti. I didn’t make it a habit to read Shanti’s mail, but perhaps because it was a slow news day, or because the letter was addressed just to “Shanti”—the absence of her surname obvious—I decided to open it. There was just a single A5 sheet of personal letterhead.
27 January 1993
I think of you often. Always with a smile.
It was innocent enough, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was too familiar.
The heaviness of all that was said. In not saying.
A single line carrying the weight of a shared history. A private moment. It taunted me, made me increasingly aware that time had given me no advantage. Despite years together, I could never guess what was going through Shanti’s mind. I could never get under her skin. She was unknowable to me, unshakeable.
“Do you want more tea?” Mary-amma interrupted, dragging me back from the edge. She started to clear the service away before I could answer, a clear indication of her views on the matter.
“It’s cold today. Colder than yesterday. Your cheeks are pink from the cold. I’ll prepare a warm towel for you. Take a bath first.” The insight and the command were comforting yet annoying in the way maternal instruction usually is. Mary-amma was mother (amma) and confidante, nanny and friend, housekeeper and protector. She had cared for me since I was two and she was 17, learning the ways of my mother’s household. Now, more than 40 years later, she continued to anticipate every need.
A half hour later, I sat in the living room, my face buried in a moist warm towel, my cheeks burning from the heat and bitterness of the eau de cologne that Mary-amma had used as infusion—a trick she’d picked up from my mother. My mind swung back to the letter, hidden behind the towel. I felt free to indulge my insecurity.
“What shall I make for dinner?”
“I’m playing golf today,” I said into the towel, exhaling and feeling a fresh wave of heat sting my cheeks and eyelids.
“You’re not coming home for dinner?” Mary-amma again.
“No, I might eat at Vivek’s.” She seemed satisfied with that answer, and continued clearing up after me.
Could she tell what was going on? I had the feeling she could, but I couldn’t be sure. Mary-amma had an uncanny knack for tracking my emotional highs and lows. She hadn’t taken to Shanti immediately, but had the grace to keep her dispassion buried under painful politeness.
“Will Shanti be home for dinner?” Predictable question.
“Yes, I think so. Her flight arrives at 7 or 8, I think.”
“I’ll ask Mani to cook something for her,” she said. Then silence.
S I L E N C E
The towel was beginning to get cool and the clamminess seeped through my pores, wrapping its long, cold and calloused fingers around my neck. I felt a burn in my nostrils. What if she preferred him to me?
The doorbell rang and I could hear Vivek striding into the atrium, giving Mary-amma a hug. Just a second, and he was serenading Mary-amma, trying to get her to do a twirl. I could practically hear her blush.
“Baba is inside,” I heard her say. They bantered about Vivek’s wife (who Mary-amma had instantly fallen in love with), his kids, dinner plans, as they waited for me.
“How did you and Shanti meet?” Wing Cmdr Shekhawat’s voice came through layers of memory, slowly dragging me back into the present despite my inclinations. I felt the air shift as my memories made a quick retreat. I turned to face him.
His gaze was fixed squarely on me.