It was an evening in June. The monsoon had just started. Kalyani Amma sat on an old wooden rocking chair in the verandah of Naluketu, her childhood home. Sipping her evening chai, she listened to the symphony of the rain stifling the chaotic traffic far away. The droplets carried by the wind caressed her face. She watched the trees dancing in the wind, celebrating the arrival of the rains. The scent of the virgin mud filled the air like perfume.
She wore a white cotton saree with a gold colour border. The gold dye in it was fading like her eyesight and her memory. Her silver hair was oiled and gracefully tied into a bun. If she could see herself Kalyani Amma would say, “I look like my grandmother from one of those photographs that hung in the living room” with an accent she had forgotten thirty years ago when she moved to Boston with her husband Gautam Menon.
She was twenty when she married Gautam, who was not much older than her. She didn’t know him until two months before the wedding when he came to see her with a dozen of his relatives. All she knew about him was that he was a philosophy professor at Calicut University. The funny thing is that she was now sitting exactly where they had first seen each other.
Kalyani didn’t find the idea of getting married to a stranger anomalous. Everyone she knew had been married that way – her friends, cousins, even her parents. Gautam on the other hand had agreed to visit her house out of compulsion. He was going to decline the marriage proposal like he did many other times. Unlike many of his friends, his priorities were different and marriage was not one of them. This was until he saw Kalyani walking down the veranda.
“Beauty,” he wrote in his journal, “is in the austerity, in the graciousness of her smile. It is in the subtle tinkles of the chime balls on her silver anklets. Eloquent. I couldn’t believe I was falling into the vortex of it until the very moment I saw her walking towards me. I, for once in my life, believed in love, in life and in marriage – making myself a hypocrite amongst my friend. As cheesy as it sounds, I was praying she would agree to marry me. Beauty is what makes a poet of a cynic.”
They married and moved to Boston where Gautam found a job as a professor at a university. She never realized when they started to love each other. Her mother had predicted, “Love would follow as long as you kept him happy, that is how marriages work.” But Kalyani was nobody’s fool. She knew the difference between love and familiarity. This is why she was surprised when she found love in him. One evening, as they sat on a park bench watching children play, she caught him watching her, and as their eyes met, she felt that tingling feeling deep within that she realized was love.
In two years she gave birth to a baby girl, Priya. When Priya was four years old, they had their second child, Lana. Once the kids started school, Kalyani turned towards writing and found success. She published three books, one of which turned out to be a bestseller.
Gautam was a simple man. He loved simple things in life which he himself summed up as: rain, books and watching the stars. He enjoyed reading as much as he loved playing tennis at the local club
If you asked Kalyani, she had a life and was content. They had a happy life, a good family and a good a marriage, until Gautam, at the age of 54, was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia. It started from the bone marrow and spread to the blood and then slowly crept into the liver. That’s what cancer does. It slowly creeps into your body and then into the lives of everyone close to you and casts a shadow over them.
A week after their twenty eighth wedding anniversary, Gautam lost his fight against cancer. He was cremated in the cemetery in Boston, The ashes were gathered and delivered to the family in an urn When the family and friends had left the house, Lena, Priya and Kalyani sat around the urn. Lana burst into tears and Priya was consoling her, but Kalyani didn’t shed a tear. She wished she could cry like her daughters but it seemed liked she was already prepared for the inevitable. This came as a surprise to herself. She always thought she was sensitive.
After a week, Lana went back to her university, Priya stayed another week week before moving back to Chicago to her family. Kalyani felt all alone in that big house. She tried to move on with her life and act like nothing had happened, but somewhere deep inside a sharp dagger would plunge deeper and would remind her of her loss.
From the dinner table to the Van Gogh replica on the wall to the coffee mugs, everything in that house reminded her of Gautam. She couldn’t sleep, she couldn’t write and neither could she talk to anyone. She stopped answering phone calls. The daughters started to worry and Priya convinced her to go to therapy. Kalyani agreed, but soon stopped going to the counsellor. As time passed she grew more distant from her children. Her life had changed for ever, and she lived in the comforting shade of denial where grief couldn’t reach her.
A year had passed when Gautam’s lawyer, Jeff Brooks, visited Kalyani to discuss Gautam’s will. Jeff had already called up the daughters and asked them to meet him there. He said he had tried calling her, but she didn’t return any of his calls. When the daughters arrived, Brooks opened the wax seal of the envelope and read it out to them. Apart from other formal communication about the properties and stocks, Gautam had asked for his ashes to be scattered in the Kallayi River in Kerala, where he grew up. Brooks also handed out letters to Priya and Lana, and a box wrapped and bow-tied with a pink satin ribbon to Kalyani. He told Kalyani not to open it till she had completed the ritual.
A week later, Kalyani sold her house in Boston and moved back to Calicut. She had been to Kerala several times, but never alone. She moved into the homestead she grew up in. She had inherited the Naluketu. She fixed the house with the help of her niece who happened to be living close by. It took her some time to get used to the change. It had been a long time since she had thought of anything but Gautam.
A few weeks later, Priya and Lana flew in for the ritual. They held hands by the banks of the Kallayi as they emptied the the remains of Gautam, father and husband, into her. They watched the ashes float away and slowly sink, as though the old river was embracing and acknowledging it all. Priya and Lana hugged each other and cried. Kalyani stared the last bubble left behind by the sinking urn, feeling numb.
The daughters left after a few days. Kalyani stayed.
That was two years ago. She had moved on. Time had taken away most of her pain. Her ailing memory helped too. But sometimes, at night, she would stay awake and feel the empty space on the left side of the bed.
That evening, as she sat watching the rain, she remembered the box wrapped in the pink satin ribbon. She had never opened it. She got up from the rocking chair. She felt the chill creep up as she sidled across the red oxide floor of the verandah.
She made her way into the house and checked the cabinet in the living room. She had forgotten where she put it. But she knew it was somewhere safe. She searched shelves and cupboards in every room. It wasn’t there. Finally, when she was about to give up, her eyes fell on the leather suitcases from Boston placed on the top of the wooden almirah. She dragged a chair and with great difficulty managed to get the suitcase down. It was heavier than she remembered. She placed it on the bed and unzipped it. It let out a familiar fragrance of old books and a forgotten past.
She carefully inspected the contents of the case. Her heart sank as she went through them. A hardbound copy of Nietzsche, and a few other books on poetry that Gautam loved, an old shoe box and a small rectangular box wrapped in silver paper tied with a pink satin ribbon. She picked it up and unwrapped the paper around it. She opened the box. She found a note and a pair of silver anklets with twin chime balls, and a note which was written on the hospital stationary, which read:
“Happy twenty seventh anniversary, here is another one.
Kalyani stood there motionless gaping at the note in her hands. She knew something was different but didn’t know what it was until a few drops fell on the paper. She felt them rolling down her cheeks, and the dagger going deeper in her soul. She let out a wail only muffled by the rain that chattered on the window panes as if it knew her pain.
In the shoebox were twenty six other pairs of silver anklets, a set for every year.