Fiction | ‘Leela Forever’ by Minal Vachali | CreativeWritingW-TBR

Leela woke up in the  dark. It wasn’t morning yet though that made no difference to the wooden shutters on the windows in this room –  it was always pitch dark in here. She realised what woke her up; the silence, the absence of Ravi’s snoring, and she remembered why. There wouldn’t be any snoring anymore; Ravi was cremated that morning. She was, as her son had put it in the papers, ‘recently bereaved’. Leela lay in bed awake, staring into the darkness. She could hear the trees rustling outside the windows. Those windows that she kept shuttered at night no matter how hot it got. Mosquitoes, she told everyone. That was only partly true; she was afraid of sleeping in the dark near the open window. What if a kallan put his hands inside at night, she would ask them. However dark it got, Ravi’s snoring was a comfortable presence; like the sea waves trashing the shore in the distance, white noise. And now it wasn’t there, as if the sea had been turned off, the waves pushed back.

They slept in separate, adjoining rooms. Beds placed so they could see each other through the open door in between. He, in his father’s room and she in his mother’s. She didn’t remember why they slept that way after returning to Tellicherry. She hadn’t been particularly keen on moving back in the first place. The house had been locked up for years, his parents had long gone. Wasn’t Tellicherry home? He had suggested the move after retiring from work. So thirty years after leaving Tellicherry, they upped anchor and returned. And now, fifty years after getting married to him, fifty years after she first moved for him, he had gone away for good. 

The day before he died, she knew something bad was about to happen. A Nedulan bird, the kind which she last saw as a child just days before her father died, was sitting on the tree in front of the house. Hooting in the dusk on the guava tree that they had planted together after returning from Hyderabad. She remembered the shock of finding Ravi on the diwan, lying motionless, empty eyes staring into nothing. She had howled and tried to shake him wildly, as if willing him into life. Then, the howling stopped, Leela called the neighbours and everything was a haze after that. She had barely slept the last two nights. Was she grieving?  

Now here she lay, the loud chimes of the living room clock her only comfort. They had loved that clock, hearing its progress through the night in the inky, black silence of the old house, was a solace that their adult children never understood when they came visiting. She got up and went to the living room and turned on the TV. She stared at it for some time and then turned it off, sitting there in the dark. This was where they sat everyday watching TV together. He staring at it, not really registering much, lost in the mists of Alzheimer’s over the last two years. It had begun innocently enough with the annoyingly repeated questions. Then he began to fade progressively, rapidly. His son’s birthdays, the first casualty of his decline, then the name of his grandchild, then the fact of his grandchild, and so on, until he was enveloped in a cloak of vagueness, reducing him into a diminished version of himself. A man-child who stared blankly at the TV as she explained what was on it. She knew that he wouldn’t forget her. Why? She just knew. 

Leela sighed. She saw his glasses on the shelf next to the TV. Picking them up she went into his room and put them in his cupboard, before locking it up. That was that. Fifty years went pfft

Wasn’t Tellicherry home, Leela thought. Was it? Twenty years since they returned to the place and she wasn’t sure what to make of it. She was born here and left the place only when she married Ravi. When they moved back after all those years away, the place that she had once known as home felt foreign, a strange land with strange people. It took a while to reclaim it as her own but she kept at it, working hard to unlearn old habits like stopping herself from speaking in Hindi with others. With time she managed to chip away at the foreignness in her own way; riding the local buses, exploring the shops and – her favourite pastime – exploring the temples in and around town. She managed to refashion the place into something familiar, something she could call home

The house was a different matter though. Ravi’s childhood home, his tharavadu, Leela had always felt like an outsider there. Time didn’t change that; no amount of chipping away could change that. She was here because he was there; and now he wasn’t.

The door banging upstairs brought her back. It was six in the morning. She hadn’t noticed the daylight creeping into the living room. Her sons were upstairs with their wives. They had managed to reach Tellicherry late that night. She was glad they were here, wishing they were always here.

***

The coming days brought with them astrologers, temples and rituals. The paraphernalia of a Hindu death. Rituals that required her to step back, step aside, make way for ‘The Son’ to carry them out. Leela conceded, of course. They were together for fifty years, in the last two of which Ravi was reduced to depend on her to clean up after he pooped and pee’d; but if it required her to step aside to ensure his safe passage to the other side then so be it. 

Through all of it, the rain beat down day after day. She had missed the monsoon all those years outside Kerala. She was grateful that it began raining after the cremation but she didn’t want it to end. Sitting on her bed and looking out the window as the rains washed the earth all around, Leela didn’t want the rituals to end either. They gave her meaning; so what if she wasn’t up front and center? She was still needed, telling her sons what to do. Here she was, the Master Of The Ceremonies, guiding the rituals. Very much in control and wishing for this to go on forever.

The end came soon enough; the dead were sent off on their way and the living remained to ponder over what came next. Her children planned on leaving in a few days. Back to Bangalore, to their jobs, their lives, their homes. Rahul – the older son – dropped the bombshell. 

“Amma, come with us, to Bangalore. Some time away from this place will be good for you,” he said, looking tired. The scars of an endless longing for a child of his own; until the longing dried out, leaving behind the husk of what once was full of life. 

Rohan, the younger son, Ravi’s favourite, chimed in, “We booked tickets. Friday morning flight from Kannur. You haven’t seen the new airport, right?” 

There it was, the fait accompli. Leela wanted to ask them to stay longer, for as long as possible. Forever. Here, in their father’s house, their tharavadu

Instead she nodded. 

“You can spend time with Chiku, too. He’ll enjoy playing with his Achamma,” Rohan added. Chiku, his toddler son, who was, at the moment, running around in circles in the living room. She didn’t say anything. They need an Ayah? Wasn’t his mother-in-law already there with them?

Leela didn’t pack much, she wasn’t going away for long she kept reminding herself. A few saris, a woolen shawl – because Bangalore can get cold, and a photo album. Pink, laminated with soft padding, the words ‘Sweet Memories’ written on it in yellow and decorated with glitter all over. She wanted something simpler but the others seemed tackier, so she picked this up. It was small, just large enough to put one postcard size photograph on each side of the twenty sheets within, but small enough to fit into her purse. She bought it when Ravi was still alive; when she realized that he wouldn’t be around for long. She then carefully filled it up with a selection of old photographs – of Ravi, the children and herself: both of them looking glamorous on their wedding day in Tellicherry, at her childhood friend Geeta’s wedding reception in Madras (when it was still Madras), at the Taj Mahal with a four year old Rahul and a baby Rohan who cried on every day of that trip, at Kalahasti when it was still sublime and not overrun by shops, and a whole bunch of other pictures where they were all smiling, young and beautiful. Pictures from other times, other places; collected and curated, by her and for her. As if she knew the day would come when she would need a photo album to remember him, to remember those days. 

Leela arranged her purse (with her prized album in it) and her bags in her room, all set to leave the next morning. She was to accompany Rohan and his family. The cab picked them up early in the morning. Riding along the winding, deserted, monsoon scrubbed roads towards Kannur airport, she was glad of one thing: at least the rains had not stopped.

***

Bangalore was cold, gloomy. The flight was cold too. The drive from the airport to Rahul and Rohan’s apartment complex in JP Nagar, was cold. That was a while ago. Bangalore is still cold, still gloomy. It rained occasionally, tentatively. Leela had been to Bangalore before, with Ravi, for a few days at a time before fleeing back to Tellicherry. Over the years with Ravi, she had been to many places but now, sitting alone at Rahul’s place when he and his wife went to work, this didn’t feel much like any place at all.

Leela had wanted to return to Tellicherry in a week, but she knew by now that she was going to be here for longer. She didn’t have a choice – she needed someone to take her back and stay with her. She felt uprooted, sitting in the apartment all day. The morning was mostly rushed; Rahul and his wife would wake up, buzz around the flat with their morning routine, and push off to work. Then there was silence – no trees rustling outside, no waves trashing the shore in the distance, and no neighbours enquiring about Ravi uncle and Leela aunty. When she looked out the window, in Tellicherry she would have seen that giant tamarind tree, its leafy canopy unbelievably green in the monsoon, but out here all she saw were other flats. 

In the evenings, she went to Rohan’s flat to spend time with Chiku. She was careful however to wait until Rohan was back from work before heading over. His mother-in-law stayed with them and she didn’t want to spend too much time alone with the lady. She was surprisingly annoyed by Chiku’s easy affection for his maternal grandmother, his Ammama (whom he called Amma Amma.) Leela would return an hour later to find Rahul and his wife lost in their laptops, in their lives. Come the weekend, her sons would take her out in turns. Chaperoned outings that usually involved going to a mall – any mall, they all looked the same – eating outside, before returning home. After which they went back to their laptops and she went back to the TV.

Everyday as soon as Leela woke up in the morning, she would reach out for her photo album – now placed discreetly on the bed stand, along with her glasses, her pocket sized Bhagavad Gita copy, and a torch (a Tellicherry habit) – and peruse it. Looking at the photos of Ravi and her children when they were young. Enjoying them, just for one more day. Everyday.

It took some more time before Leela managed to build up the courage to explore the city. She knew Tellicherry and Hyderabad like the back of her hand. How difficult could Bangalore be? One morning, after Rahul and his wife left the flat, she set off. Standing in front of the building, she hailed an auto. She had seen this temple in Jayanagar which she was very keen on visiting. She asked the auto driver to take her to the Balaji temple. In Malayalam. His blank stare reminded her where she was and she repeated the question in Hindi. It was clear pretty soon that he didn’t know the temple and probably didn’t have the heart to say no. They went to three different temples in Jayanagar before the driver realized that she had meant JP Nagar and took her to the temple she wanted to go to. By the time they reached, she had managed to extract from the driver his name, the names of his children, where and what they were studying and the year when he had first come to Bangalore. 

Back home she felt pleased with herself and when Rahul returned, she poured out her adventure to him. He was surprised, pleasantly she believed, and was listening to her when his phone rang. Leaving her suspended mid-sentence; back in the queue for his attention – below his calls, below his emails, below his colleagues in America, way below where it didn’t matter anymore. She wasn’t bothered though; one day in and she already felt invincible. She stayed up all night planning the next day’s adventure. In the days to come, Leela would temple hop every morning – JP Nagar one day, Malleshwaram the next. She would break for lunch at the nearest Darshini before making her way back to the apartment. On some days she would skip the temple and go shopping instead, either Commercial Street or – more often – the Jayanagar BDA Complex. Slowly Bangalore took form before her as had other places in the past.

The year end brought good tidings – Rohan’s mother-in-law was returning to Kerala. Leela could now spend time with Chiku without having to share him with someone else. On her outings, she had a new spring in her step as she looked forward to the departure and in a few days, Chiku’s Amma Amma finally left. Leela made the most of this new development. Back from her outing,  she rushed over to Rohan’s place, waiting for Chiku to return from his play school. She then spent the rest of the evening with him, bathing him, feeding him, playing with him and reading to him until it was his bed time and she kissed him good night. 

Bangalore was beautiful now, bright and sunny and yet much colder than Tellicherry ever was, but she didn’t mind. On some days, after her temple run, Leela would wind her way to the Park View Cafe – a darshini that an auto driver told her about, near what she thought was rather quaintly called the Mini Forest – really a park – in JP Nagar. 

She had grown fond of the place and its view of the park. Coffee in hand – which she always managed to get promptly irrespective of the crowd – sitting at a table facing the park and it’s hordes of squealing children, she would savour both the coffee and the view. During those moments, she didn’t register the traffic or the pot-holed roads or the pollution. None of that mattered. 

Leela missed Ravi of course; she would still reach out for her photo album every morning and wistfully browse through the pictures. The album anchored her even as guilt gnawed inside of her – was she enjoying this a little too much; if only Ravi was still around.

***

The end of winter crashed into her idyll. Leela was playing with Chiku one evening when Rohan spoke to her. 

“Amma is coming over. She’ll be here on March 30th.” 

Leela always knew that Rohan’s mother-in-law would return; she just didn’t expect it to be so soon. 

Achamma throw the ball!” 

Chiku’s shout brought her back. She dreaded the prospect; she knew her time with Chiku would be rationed once his Amma Amma arrived. She skipped her temple run the next morning and instead made her way straight to the Park View Cafe. That’s when she realized something had changed – unusually few customers; even the traffic on her way to the place, seemed somehow lesser than normal. On the way back to the apartment in the auto, her driver was wearing a mask. She asked him about it. 

“Amma, it’s there in the papers. Corona. Old people are dying because of it.” 

When they reached, as she was getting down, he added: “Amma, you be careful. Don’t go outside. It’s dangerous.” 

In the evening, Rahul told her about this new disease spreading around the world and asked her to stop going on her outings for sometime. 

Things got worse. In a week since that last outing, the country had shut down. Lockdown, is what they were calling it. Leela had not seen anything like this before: shops were shut, Darshinis, cinemas, everything. She worried about what would happen to the auto drivers; and the boys at the Park View Cafe who always rushed through the crowds to her table, with her coffee.

There was a silver lining though – the trains were shut down; Rohan’s mother-in-law couldn’t come over for a long while.

Even Chiku’s play school was closed: that was something to look forward to, Leela thought. She could now spend the entire day with him. As soon as he heard the doorbell, he would scream, 

Achamma, Chiku is coming.” 

The day would be spent babysitting him. He was okay with not being allowed to play outside. He knew – he had seen it on the TV – that Corona was a large ball like monster with thorns sticking out all over its body, who preferred to eat little children and old ladies. He certainly didn’t want to go out. Neither did he want his dear Achamma to go out. 

Every night as Leela prepared to return to Rahul’s flat, he would implore,  “Achamma, stay with Chiku. Please.” 

Playing with Chiku would tire Leela. There would be days when she would be too tired to continue with his games. 

“Chiku, I am going to sleep for sometime. I’m old, no? I’m not feeling well.” 

He would immediately fetch his Doctor Set and start to ‘treat her’, even pressing her head as she lay on the bed from which he cleared off his toys for her. Leela didn’t mind the tiring routine every day, she looked forward to it. 

And at the end of the day, when Chiku kissed her goodbye saying, “Achamma, Achamma is Chiku’s favouritest Amma!”, Leela wished this never ended, that this would go on forever.

***

This is a The Bombay Review Creative Writing Workshop piece.

 

Minal Vachali is a technology professional based out of Bangalore. He sees writing as liberating and is drawn to themes around loss and longing, home and away. He writes at Banker Nivas and can also be found on Medium. This is his first attempt at short fiction.

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