Father had called him in the morning but their conversation had been awkward and stilted. Abhay hadn’t know what to say to him and father hadn’t known what to say either and Abhay had quickly put down the phone with the excuse of his roommate’s early morning excursions.
He supposed he should be angry, should have screamed and shouted at him for ruining everything they had built together as a family. However, if Abhay was being truthful with himself, and he so rarely was, they had not been much of a family to begin with.
“Is everything alright?” His roommate shouted at him from where he was battling evil under lords, equipped with only a game console.
“I guess—” Abhay rubbed the back of his head, still not sure what he was supposed to feel, “I guess I have to go back home.”
“Ah, you’re back,” The kindly, old face of the man who had been both mother and father to him split into a wide smile, “Have you been studying hard?”
“You know I can’t concentrate when there’s so much more to do, kaka,” Abhay murmured as he gathered up the old man into his arms and squeezed, “I’ve missed you.”
“Now, now,” Hari kaka patted his back soothingly, “You’ve just come back from Pune, you must be tired and hungry. Go wash up and I’ll fix you up with something nice, maybe your favourite prantha.”
“No, I—,” Abhay pulled back, uncertainty once again surrounding him, “I’m not really hungry. I…I just…where is she?”
Hari kaka’s face smoothened in understanding, “She’s in her room.”
Abhay stared down at his feet, “Is she…okay?”
Hari kaka shrugged, “As good as can be expected.”
When Abhay didn’t say anything, Hari kaka threw him a sharp look, “Your mother is stronger than she looks, babu. Give her some credit.”
Abhay wondered how he could stand a head above this slight, frail old man and still be made to feel like he was only three feet and caught red handed with his hand inside the cookie jar.
Abhay tried to smile but it came out more like a grimace.
He had never liked his childhood home. It was big and cold and the way his voice echoed in the hallway sometimes reminded him of ghosts and loneliness.
Big and broken as it was, it was still home.
He pushed the door to his parent’s bedroom open and was immediately assaulted by darkness.
“Mother?” He called out hesitantly as he stepped inside and almost stumbled against a wayward chair, “Mother, are you here?”
“Abhay?” The raspy, surprised voice of his mother rang in the silent room, “You’re back?”
Abhay spread his hands in the air and blindly groped around the wall for a light switch, “Yes, I wanted to see you, see if everything was—”
Light flooded the room and Abhay saw that the room that had once been was so neat and pristine was now a mess of clothes and saris. The curtains were shut tightly against the window and a fine layer of dust had settled on all the pieces of furniture. His mother lay on the crumpled bed sheet, eyeing him with a face that was splotched and matted with make-up that hadn’t been washed for days, hands clasped tightly around something.
“—alright,” Abhay finished lamely, averting his eyes to the floor. His mother had always been the picture of elegance and beauty, hair coiffed to perfection, pearl necklace glittering against a silk sari that was never seen twice. Now, looking at her pulling her dressing gown and the last shreds of her dignity to her thin body, Abhay felt uneasy and wronged.
“Oh, I’m fine!” His mother replied in a cheerful voice that was almost painful to hear, “It’s been quite a shocking few days, that’s all. Enough about me. How are you studies? Kaka told me you that you were having trouble with chemistry, do you want me to appoint a home tutor—”
Abhay didn’t know what came over him at that moment.
“Your husband has left you,” He bit out venomously, hands clenched to his sides in anger, “So you can stop pretending. There’s no one here except me so just…please…stop.”
His mother stared at him in shock and betrayal and Abhay wondered what she must be thinking. Her marriage was breaking apart and her quiet, shy child was suddenly speaking out and confronting her. The world, as she knew it, was changing.
“Please stop,” Abhay repeated, closing his eyes.
They stood in silence, facing each other, for what felt like years. Finally, his mother said in a quiet, thoughtful tone, “I’ve forgotten what jalebi tastes like.”
Abhay whipped his head up, startled, “What?”
His mother threw him a quick, nervous look and Abhay had the sudden realisation that though they had been mother and son for all his life, they might as well be strangers, “You…you told me to be honest. That was all I could think of.”
“You’ve forgotten what jalebi tastes like?” Abhay asked incredulously.
His mother shrugged, “I remember that it was thick and syrupy and sugary…” Her voice faltered,”….I’ve even forgotten what sugar tastes like.”
She looked at him and he saw that her eyes were filled with tears, “Isn’t it funny?”
Abhay didn’t say anything.
“I have tried…”His mother took in a deep breath and began talking, “I have tried to be the perfect wife and the perfect mother. I’ve made sure that Rohit never had to be embarrassed by anything that I ever said or did. I made sure that you got the best education and facilities possible and that nobody out there,” His mother pointed viciously to the window, “Could call me anything less than perfect. I…I even tried to be p-pretty.”
Tears dropped down her cheeks silently, blackened with mascara and regret, “But in this bid to be perfect and just right, I forgot…I forgot,” His mother let out a heartbreaking sob, “to be a g-good wife and mother.”
“You are a good mother,” Abhay protested feebly. His father had been distant, more of a name than a person but his mother, his mother had tried.
She smiled at him through her tears, “Thank you.” Tottering forward a few steps, she reached out a hand and brushed a trembling hand against his cheek, “You’ve become really big and mature, haven’t you? Mommy didn’t even notice.”
Abhay did the only thing he could. He bent down and hugged his mother for the first time in years.
She stiffened in his arms, unused to physical affection of any kind. Soon, however, she relaxed and bony hands reached around his waist to clutch at his back hesitantly. Abhay looked down to what she had been holding so tightly in her hand and saw that it was her visiting card, Mrs. Mehta embellished on it with a cursive, gold script.
Abhay stifled the sudden, hysterical urge to laugh.
“I’m so confused,” His mother said in a tired, exhausted voice after a while, “What do I do now? Where do I even…begin?”
“It begins—” Abhay said as he broke apart from her and fished around in the pockets of his pants, “when you stop trying to be Mrs. Mehta or the mother of Abhay Mehta and just try to be Meera instead.”
He held out a half eaten piece of chocolate to her, edges gnawed on and silver wrapping torn into little pieces.