images to witness their tears.
âShall I bring oil for your massage?â It is all I have to offer.
âNot today, Amma. My chest is hurting.â
When Kiran breaks a glass bangle, Balvir buys her a new gold one, saying, âYou mustnât bring bad luck to me by breaking bangles.â I begin to notice the disappearance of things familiar. Fine vases have found their way to âtheirâ room, a china rose that Mem-saab brought back from abroad is no longer in the sideboard. A set of silver candlesticks vanishes. A mirror with a golden frame is replaced by a cheap Rajasthani silk painting smelling of the street-hawkerâs bundle. An ivory miniature departs in gift paper for Kiranâs mother.
When I tell Mem-saab, she says it must be Khansama, stealing again. Then she turns her head away so she cannot read my answer.
âGo away, Amma,â she says. âI am going to write to Jai.â
Once, I rejoiced with Mem-saab when Balvir called from Bombay to tell us heâd had a son. At Manuâs naming, I took him in my arms and I showed him proudly through the gates, to my Shiv. I had expected Mem-saab to send me to Bombay so I could massage his baby limbs or feed him gripe water, but Kiran was too modern for that.
Visiting Mem-saab, he fell once â as children do â and Iâd swabbed Dettol on his wound. Direct from the bottle, just as I always had for his father and Jai. Kiran confronted me, bottle in hand, scolding that I would kill him with pain, and didnât I know Dettol must be diluted with water? How would I have known â the directions were written on the white label in English. Sheâd taken Manu from me to sit before the TV.
And here the boy sits as though heâd never moved, just grown,so a sky-blue turban bobs above the sun-bleached gold silk sofa. A strange boy, still beardless, who needs video-boxes from the market to tell him stories of men and women pale as the Embassy-walla downstairs.
He does not rise as she enters her own drawing-room.
âManu,â she says. âGo tell the driver to bring my car.â
He shouts, facing her so she reads him, âAmma, tell Driver to bring the car.â
Mem-saab says gently, âNo, Manu, dear. You go and tell the driver to bring my car. The video can wait.â
The boy turns his head, but he does not move.
âYou canât order me around. Daddy says youâre nobody.â
Offspring of a snake! I stand silent with shock.
Mem-saab looks at me, âWhatâ¦ what did he say?â
I turn to her and speak the words slowly, just as the boy said them.
She comes around to face Manu. A small hand grips his arm above the elbow.
âI said, go and tell the driver to bring my car. Amma has to prepare to go with me.â
The boy shakes off her hand, but he goes.
In the car Mem-saab says, âAmma, we are going to meet a lady-lawyer.â
The lady-lawyer has an office in the one-car garage attached to her home. She wears a starched white tie dangling lopsided on a soiled string above the plunge of her sari-blouse neckline. Her skin would spring to the touch, like my Leelaâs â she seems too young to have read all the maroon books that line the walls of the garage.
The lady-lawyer listens to Mem-saab with weary though gentle respect; too many women must have cried before her. I siton the floor while they sit in chairs, and I massage Mem-saabâs leg through her salwar as she speaks so she will know there is someone who cares.
Mem-saab speaks in Punjabi, as she always does when there are private matters to be said. She ignores my usual signal to lower the strength of her voice and her outrage assaults us, drowning the rattle of the straining air conditioner. I content myself with interjecting a word or two in Hindi occasionally for the lady-lawyer.
Though I am still her ears, Mem-saab has seen much that I â and maybe Balvir, too â had thought she denied.