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Saturday, May 1, 2010

A song long forgotten

Every Thursday, Ambika set out four cups of tea and a plate of Britannia Marie biscuits on the little cane stool. Madhavan helped her by dragging four cane chairs and setting it around the table. Up until a few years ago, she did that too by herself. But now lifting the tray of tea cups itself had become a little tiring.
It had rained today, after the sweltering heat of a cruel early summer. She had loved it. so had her little flowers in their little pots. She tucked her saree up to her ankles and walked around her tiny garden, peering over her back frequently to check mud splotches on her mist green chikan work saree. She couldn’t afford to look dirty when they came.

Thursdays hadn’t been fixed on purpose. It had just happened. It was the only day where he did not see patients at home. He used to come over for a cup of tea if he saw that his wife was out. (She made horrible tea anyway. Without ginger and with lots of water.) Sometimes his friend Hari used to come over with him and hang around for the tea and conversation. Latha too used to join if she was in the mood. And then Sachi and Bala and Bhama and Dyuthi. Ambika was never the one for talking. But she did make good tea.

She had known him before. Much before the little chai times. Much before he was engaged to Latha, much before he had become a doctor. It was sheer chance that had brought her to this home. She had quit to take up writing seriously, and was looking for a small and affordable home to stay somewhere near the city. She hadn’t understood why anyone had to go settle in a village to write better. Here there was no river in the background, nor were the sounds of the city muffled. There were trees yes, enough to scatter her little front yard with so much of leaves that sometimes she let it become a carpet of sorts. There were birds and crickets, but so there were also rumbling of trucks on the road, incessant beeping of the scooters and the honking of those mad red buses. She had loved the home even as she read the ad in the Mathrubhoomi, and had promptly moved in.

She first saw Latha or rather heard her singing a Bengali song that she’d forgotten from her college days from her kitchen. Latha was happy to have Ambika in her kitchen. Would she help her make aviyal?
It was only three days later that she actually saw him. Even when Latha had mentioned his  name, and spoken of his profession, she still didn’t for a second imagine him to be him. Meeting him was a surprise. She might have looked away when he looked, and he might have hung his head when she looked.  Nothing would have given away that they had known each other, in a past that still was making up its mind if it were a dream.
People did ask why she was never married. But once they came to know she was a writer, with actual published works, people took it as a given that she couldn’t be married. And no more questions were asked. They did not meet in secrecy, and met only on Thursdays, with at least three other people sitting around drinking chai. Once or twice, she had seen him look at her strangely and hang around for a few seconds after everyone left, only to walk away just as naturally.

When her 6th published short story collection was suddenly being discussed as a masterpiece, she heard him playing the flute at his home. The same song.

32 years had passed since she’d moved in. The chai party frequently had new visitors. And once she had become and “author” from a “writer”, there was often a demand for membership to the chai club. But the visitors never lasted.

Today there were four chairs around the table. It had been four for the past three years. For Latha, Bhama, Sachi and her. Of all the people she missed most, she missed him who would never again come on Thursdays. The song lost its tune. And she forgot its lyrics.