For Lalitha, there was hardly every any time for an uninterrupted cup of hot chai in recluse. One would think that for a woman of over fifty who lived alone in her self-imposed exile, it shouldn't be such an ordeal to find alone-time. Surrounded with lush mango trees and mogra bushes in blooming white and yellow clusters, she rarely found an urge to leave her idyllic environs. Everything from dairy to vegetables to expensive silks and rare-blue china found its way to her doorstep. Lalitha was an avid buyer with an eye for details. She had learned early on in life the art of buying from her mother, a shrewd, poker-faced lady who never let an emotion surface while haggling with hawkers. It was this heirloom quality that had served Lalitha more than anything in the world - the ability to keep a calm exterior in the presence of the most turbulent tempests.
But while her power of negotiation helped her pluck the choicest of material possessions by merely a stretch of a hand, it came to no avail in relationships. After her husband passed away prematurely to malaria, she had provided all of the hands in raising her son, Viraj, who was at a tender age of nine when they were struck by the blow of death. Perhaps, it was this callous shadow cast by an early loss of a life partner that made her distant to the family that lived on. Slowly, she had moved away from her husband's family as well as her own to find sanctity in the house she had built lovingly with her husband. But to her son, Viraj, she clung on. He was the last relic holding her close to her husband, the memories of whom were waning, as if he had never existed in her life, not even in her large bed.
Eventually, Viraj too moved on to pursue his higher studies abroad. He fell in love and married, slipping away little by little to the prolific milestones and ambitions of life. Lalitha, even though embittered by the prospect of loneliness at first, took the blow of it in a stride. Viraj urged his mother to follow saying that a new life awaited her with open arms.
"I may be getting too old for you to understand me, Veer. But for me, life stands where I am. Right here, right now."
With those words, they had drifted apart, to meet every year with nostalgic warmth and presents on Christmas holidays. Every year, she knitted for Viraj a red sweater, for his wife a tasteful crocheted blouse, and with a new addition to the family, her grandson, she had gone far and beyond to include blankets, shoes, socks and everything that she could get her ageing eyes to carve out for her only remaining flesh and blood.
She had made some close friends in the neighbourhood, all of whom, flooded her house on the weekends for an extended sangeet sandhya, her signature freshly-made buns and butter chicken , and house-sangria smelling of a gorgeous blend of citrusy, jasmine hints. Her house to her friends was a welcome haven. Even though bare of the sound of the hustle-bustle of family or the noisy chuckles of kids, her house had this impeccably clean, non-judgemental sort of aura and the only foul odours that would cross you were those that came from her pets.
"Ramshankar, you're really not yourself today. Work with me, will you? Veer is on his way from Nashik. He should be here in the next half-hour." Lalitha's voice boomed across the vacant two-story edifice that was looming with a touch of ghostliness as the podgy neighbourhood set about quietly to retire for an early afternoon siesta.
"Yes bhabhi. You don't worry now. Sit here and relax a bit."
Ramshankar, Lalitha's loyal man-servant and overseer of things, lightly held her hand and escorted her to her armchair resting by the white wooden porch that ran all the way across the entrance to her house. This arm-chair was Lalitha's favourite spot in the entire house. In the day, it was awash with combed sunlight that also delicately dazzled a small pond set right across the front yard of Lalitha's bungalow. The trees, with its leaves touched golden, swayed erotically to the light breeze that made this sultry part of the day bearable. Lalitha reluctantly sat down to catch her breath and dry her dark, wavy hair with red tints where it should be grey. Her hair was glorious when it was drying so she never fussed about it that much.
She made an attempt to awaken to the cause for celebration that was evident in the lavish fare that she'd been slaving to prepare for her son since dawn. She'd taken care to tone down the spices, keeping in mind Veer's metamorphosed palate that could neither handle a generous hand of spices nor her favourite herb, coriander.
It was perhaps the intoxication of the predictability of solitary life, that made her miss Viraj less than she cared to admit. Moreover, as the years went by, she realized she couldn't permeate through the profound barriers set since Viraj's resisting adolescence days. She accepted the gulf between them as fate and let him go, replacing his slipping youth with friends, plants and pets.
Lalitha heard the sound of tyres on gravel before she saw the taxi come to a dwindling halt at her doorstep. Her first instinct was to run to her son, bare-footed and expectant. But a sinister feeling of being a victim of fate took over and she continued to sit. With palpable breathing, she craned her head to see Viraj. She could see, even from a distance, his lion-like, slanted eyes, blazing with fire in the sun. His thin lips set into a wide smile as he waved to his mother. She couldn't help but blush as she found herself staring directly at a ghost from the past - her husband. Just as he ran towards her, the kheer that had been simmering in the kitchen, sent a loving whiff of sweet cardamoms to usher him in her memories. In that moment, her hostility faded away a little at a time, forever. She was unsuspectingly sailing towards the long-abandoned shores of the past.
Veer was seven years old. It was a Sunday. Her husband and Veer sat by the family table, manipulated to be directly in front of the TV. Mahabharata was showing the episode where Bheem was going to wolf down an entire vessel of kheer made by Kunti. Just as Bheem wiped the vessel clean, Viraj would also sit with his cauldron of kheer. She watched in disbelief, cheering violently, as her son emptied the contents of a family portion of kheer in less than five minutes. He emerged from inside the vessel, bathed in milk and cardamoms, with a victorious smile.
She didn't know how long she sat in the gleaning arms of the past for when she pried her misty eyes open, she saw Viraj, kneeling before her, holding her hand tightly, never wanting to let go of her again.
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