The red colour bubbles of Candy Crush burst with a giggle on the cell phone. It brought a smile to the otherwise bored and sleepy face the shopkeeper bore. Except for the squeaks and pings emanating from the device it had been a very quiet afternoon. "Aunty! One Marlboro Red please!" the voice of the young man sliced through the silence and made her look up .Her hand nonchalantly reached for the shelf and caught hold of the cigarette pack in a dexterous move. "Hey Victor! I thought you were serious about quitting. It can cause cancer you know!" she remarked with genuine concern as she handed it over to him. "I need my cheat days aunty! Otherwise I will go crazy" he said and eased himself onto a chair outside the store. He placed the stick in his mouth and lit it with his lighter. That sense of relief! He was lost into oblivion for some moments. Then as if suddenly stuck by awareness, he stubbed the cigarette out and hurried back towards the lift of his block.
He reached his floor and quickly walked towards his apartment. The grill door that was wide ajar filled him with a sense of panic. His walk transformed into a run and he rushed inside. He cursed himself for not having waited for the helper to return from her off day and hurried into the bedroom. He froze at the sight of the empty bed. She was gone!
Pasupathy hang up the call, placed his cell phone into his shirt pocket and rubbed his tired eyes. He hated his rest days - the days he spent most time talking to his family back home. On one side it left a throbbing ache of homesickness that tore at him from inside. On the other side there were the updates that caused him a lot of worry. On the days at the construction site, physical exertion kept him occupied and exhaustion would take charge end of the day. There was no time or room for thought or worry.
Amma had fainted in the kitchen the previous day. The tests had not revealed anything serious; he muttered a small prayer of gratitude to his family deity. But Pasupathy knew that age was taking its toll on her. His parents were still relentlessly fighting against the odds trying to get some produce from an infertile piece of agricultural land. The rains failed them year after year but they persevered clinging on to just one thing - hope!
He let out a sigh and leaned against the park bench. A cute little dog ran past him the lady behind desperately clinging on to the leash. Two little girls in quintessential pink Disney costumes followed closely behind giggling and sharing words of wisdom from their little worlds.
That's when he caught sight of the elderly Chinese lady standing at a distance and staring at him, in fact in a piercing way.
Linda was distraught. Guilt, anger, self-pity, jealousy, frustration and confusion took turns in filling her body with an emotional turmoil. She was sure it was Gopal.
She had fought against odds to marry him. Neither his nor her parents would approve their relationship. “There are too many differences!" she kept hearing! Language, race, culture, religion, money - they left out nothing while trying to talk her out of it. It had been a happy married life - the two of them and their little bundle of joy that was now nearing six years of age. Until yesterday!
Gopal had said that he had some business lunch meetings on Sunday that had been unavoidable. She had never suspected him. Until she saw him - with her.
Maybe it’s a business acquaintance! Maybe it was a second or third cousin she did not know about. Maybe it was a friend from college. No rational explanation could unweed the seeds of doubt she had implanted in her mind. This Sunday he was gone! Again! She was determined to catch him! Red handed!
The old woman walked slowly towards Pasupathy and sat next to him. She was wearing a simple pale blue shirt and cotton pants that clung loosely to her frail body. Her now fully grey hair was dishevelled and a black scrunchie clung desperately onto it.
She turned around to face him, the piercing stare plunging him into absolute puzzlement. She took his hands in hers and said in a feeble voice. “I can never stop loving you. Don't you love me anymore? “And she started sobbing. She placed her head on his shoulder and started crying even louder - wails that seemed to emanate from an abyss in her soul.
Pasupathy was bewildered and even a little frightened but he did what instinct asked him to. He drew her close and held her, gently rubbing her back and saying " azhatheenga"
She calmed down and only small whimpers came out for some time. Her body relaxed in his strong hold and her breathing gracefully descended into a peaceful rhythm and she fell asleep.
Pasupathy looked at the wrinkled hands that held on tightly to his own. He was trying to make sense .Images of his own mother came flooding like a dam had burst inside. He brushed away a tear that silently peeped from the corner of his eye
The park was unusually deserted that day. Not a soul seemed to be around. He took the cell phone from his pocket and proceeded to dial.
Victor Bala stood on the steps leading to the wet market. He had scanned every nook and corner there. There was no sign of her.
He had checked the church, the temple and every other place he could think of.
He banged his fist on the wall in despair. No matter how patiently he took care of her, there were moments when he could not stop himself from venting out his frustration. A raised voice or an irritated tone - at most that's what he demonstrated yet that guilt hung over him like a dark cloud.
Today had been one such morning and remorse churned like a snake in his stomach.
“Health is wealth! Join us every week for a walk in the park “the banner caught his eye.
“Park, the park! Of course the park! How did it slip his mind “he rushed to the parking lot and started his car.
When Victor arrived at the park it was was quite dark. Three men were crowded near a bench two of them police officers. He identified the colours of her clothes near their legs and ran towards them.
She was lying on the bench, her head resting on the lap of a stranger who looked like a foreigner. “Excuse Me, aunty! “an officer gently touched her arm and tried to wake her.
Victor came running near them, stopped for a moment to catch his breath and said "That’s my mother, officer"
"You are?" the officer asked.
"Victor Bala. This is my mother, Linda Ng Bala" he replied
"Mama, mama, It’s me, Victor" Linda woke up with a jerk hearing this.
"Victor!" she looked around trying to gauge where she was and who was with her. "Where are we, Victor?" she asked feebly looking at her son. "Come Mama, let’s get back home!" said Victor and gently helped her to her feet.
Pasupathy slowly walked back from the park. He could relate to Victor's ache. "Dementia!" it was a name he had encountered very often. He looked up at the skies and uttered a silent prayer again. This time for his mother and the mother who had clung to him that evening!