Four, five, six, seve–
A crow, perched on the lemon tree outside her window, caws, and for a moment Promila Borthakur’s mind goes blank.
What comes after seven?
She looks at the tiny shapes in her shrivelled palm – pink, blue, white, multi-coloured, oval, round, flat – and they wink back at her mutely. What are these? she begins to wonder, slipping into that sensation which has lately been creeping up on her, unannounced. It is comfortable, this feeling of not remembering; like a room with white walls or a child with a perfect future ahead, endless possibilities of starting anew. She can get used to it. But it doesn’t last long. Her memory kick-starts and drags her back to the present. ‘Medicines for Anku,’ she affirms aloud. As she begins counting the pills once again, a stray thought assails her – how many times has she done this already? Three, four, five, six–
The intrusion startles her, and the pills spill from her hands. They scatter across the table – like sea creatures on the ocean bed – slipping into the safety of shadows. She picks up whatever she can find and turns to the voice.
‘What is it?’ she says sharply.
‘There’s no water.’
The man standing in the doorway is bare-chested, a worn brown towel wrapped tightly around his waist. A cigarette burns in his left hand, which he tries to conceal behind his back.
Promila’s glazed eyes clear. Ah. Anku – her son. She takes in his grey dishevelled hair, his sunken stomach, and the white curls on his chest, and thinks, how old he seems.
‘Yes,’ she snaps out of her thought.
‘There’s no water…’ Anku scratches his hair with his free hand.
‘Switch on the pump then?’
‘Didi is outside…’ He gestures to the towel wrapped around his waist.
Promila sighs. She goes to the other room, where Reena, her day help and cook, is wringing a dirty rag into a bucket of slopping brown water, and turns on the pump.
Back in her bedroom, Anku is where she left him. She goes to him and palms the pills into his hand. ‘Here,’ she says, ‘and don’t be late. We’re expected at eleven o’clock.’
As he dry swallows the pills, his Adam’s apple bobbing like a buoy, Promila tries to brush away the guilt that is snapping at her. Did she give him the right medicines? Counting them out correctly is proving harder each time. The doctor upped his dosage to three – or was it four? – times a day, and since Anku cannot be relied upon to take his medicines, she has to do it. The doctor was firm about this. Or you can hire a nurse to come in, Mrs Borthakur, he had said. Nurse? She had laughed. They barely had money to eat at the end of the month.
She’s muddled his dosage before. And every time she does, Anku brings back something from the market. Last week it was three loaves of bread, even though there was a fresh one at home. Another time, a whole fish. Last month, he’d brought home a dozen eggs. Neither she nor he have ever eaten an egg.
But it’s not just Anku. She too has started bringing home things they don’t need. The maid told her so. ‘Sugar? Again, aita? You already have plenty.’
At least he’s not bringing back stories, Promila thinks as she absently dusts talcum powder on her face. Their visit to the hospital in Bangalore put an end to that a few years ago. But today, of all days, she should have got it right. Anku’s future is at stake. If everything goes well today, she can finally breathe easy.
The thought itself makes her nervous. Anku’s future. She feels her breath thin out, and goes to sit on her bed. Her bed is too high, her legs dangle a few inches above the floor, numbing her feet. She slips her hand under the pillow and pulls out her pump. She takes a few strangled breaths before positioning the pump in front of her mouth. Just as she’s about to take a greedy burst of air, she catches her reflection in the faded mirror of her dresser.
A woman with hollowed cheeks, a bent spine, sparse white hair tied into a small bun looks back at her. She recoils in horror.
In the auto, Promila notices that Anku is wearing his best shirt – the one his uncle from London had given him when he visited a few years ago. It is an ordinary blue and white checked shirt. But he wears it only on special occasions. Like Bihu or Puja.
In the weeks leading up to this, she’d never once thought about how he’d feel about meeting a woman. One that he might end up marrying. She’d only been concerned with finding someone to care for him once she was gone. Anku can’t be left alone to fend for himself, the doctor had clearly said.
I don’t know about a wife, Mrs Borthakur, but he definitely needs someone to take care of him.
When she’d found a match, a twenty-seven-year-old divorcee, her sister advised her against it. ‘Will you tell them about his condition?’ she had asked.
Promila thought for a moment. ‘No.’
‘It’s not right, Paro, you’ll be lying to them.’
‘But Anku’s a good man.’
‘Yes, but it’s not fair to not tell them. She will have to give him his medicines. Then what?’
‘It’s just a few times a day…. Our family name still has some weight….’ Her sister snorted.
‘Think what you want, they’re not even the same caste. This match is beneficial to them.’
‘You’ll ruin a girl’s life,’ her sister had said curtly.
It is a lemon-bright morning. Anku’s grey hair has turned hot silver in this light. ‘Don’t be nervous,’ she tells him. ‘She’s a good girl, from a good family.’
Anku smiles at her thinly, and then looks away into the traffic.
Mr Gohain is at the gate, ready to receive the guests. After they say their hellos, Mr Gohain asks Promila in a deep rumbling voice, ‘And Anku will be joining us soon?’
‘This is Anku,’ Promila says, pulling her son by the elbow.
Anku folds his hands into a Namaste and mutters an inaudible hello.
Promila notices the surprise in Mr Gohain’s eyes and says, ‘He doesn’t like to dye his hair.’
Mr Gohain is embarrassed by the statement and ushers them down his garden path. At six feet, he towers over his small built guests. Inside the small, neat living room, walls painted a sickly pista green, the rest of the family is gathered with tea, biscuits, fish cutlets, and samosas. Greetings are exchanged and tea is served by Mrs Gohain and her daughter, Maina. They settle down with steaming cups in their hand, and an awkward spluttering conversation begins.
‘It’s getting warmer now,’ says Mrs Gohain. She’s a short, full woman with a ready smile. Maina is like her mother; her clear bright eyes take in Anku and Promila without hesitation. Her plump cheeks have the shine of cold cream and a healthy appetite. In contrast, the Borthakurs look weathered and ancient. ‘Yes,’ Promila agrees, ‘much better for my asthma.’
‘You have asthma?’ Mrs Gohain’s face is twisted in sympathy. She, on the other hand, looks like she never falls ill. Promila backtracks. ‘Very mild.’
‘Maina, I hear you’re a very good cook?’ she beams at Maina. ‘I like cooking, you can say,’ she smiles. ‘It’s because of Maina we’re all so fat,’ Mrs Gohain laughs. ‘Anku will suffer the same fate very soon,’ she adds cheerily.
Everyone manages an awkward laugh, except Mr Gohain, who is sitting with his arms crossed, a frown rippling his forehead.
Anku shifts in his chair. For the first time since they’ve got here, Promila looks at her son. His face is scrunched up in tension, his fingers are restless, picking up a samosa, putting it down, scratching his chin, his hair, then back to the samosa. She wishes he would stay still for just a bit.
‘He’s shy…’ Promila says looking from her son to Mrs Gohain.
‘Perhaps he and Maina would like to talk alone?’ Mr Gohain suddenly growls at them.
After a bit of cajoling, Anku agrees. He follows Maina out to the garden.
The instant they are out of earshot, Mr Gohain turns to Promila. ‘I am going to say this plainly, Mrs Borthakur.’ He pauses. ‘How old is Anku … really?’
Promila is about to shoot off a reply when her mind goes blank. How old is Anku?
‘Mrs Borthakur?’ The baritone interrupts.
‘Yes?’ Promila’s glazed eyes look at no one in particular.
‘How old is your son, Promila?’
Perhaps it’s because he’s used her name, but Promila is wrenched back to the living room with green walls.
‘Thirty-three,’ she says.
A heavy silence hangs in the air. Mrs Gohain is about to say something when her husband holds out his hand, silencing her. ‘To tell you the truth, Mrs Borthakur, I don’t think he is. And I don’t think he’s all there too.’ He indicates his head. ‘If there’s anything you need to tell us it’s best to be open about it. We told you about Maina’s divorce. I could have kept it a secret but these things come out one day or the other. If they marry, they will have to live together … and to begin a relationship with secrets, in my opinion, doesn’t bode well.’
Promila’s hands tremble, which in turn makes the cup clatter against the saucer. She puts the cup down on the table. ‘I’m not lying, Mr Gohain,’ she says in a steady voice, this time she looks him in the eye, ‘You have my word.’
Mr Borthakur stares hard at her, then he gets up. ‘I leave this to you,’ he says sharply to his wife and leaves the room.
After sitting in silence for a good fifteen minutes, Maina gets up. ‘Why don’t we go for a walk by the river?’ she suggests.
Anku follows her without a word.
They sit in silence, watching the river, the kids playing cricket, the ferries leaving the harbour.
‘This is the only river with a masculine name. Did you know that?’ she says, turning to look at Anku’s profile.
Anku hasn’t come to the river in years. It doesn’t fall on his way to work. He used to when he was a child, for picnics and boat rides, and every time they visited, it was a thrilling experience. But he senses its presence every day – in the cool winds it blows inland, in the hoot of its engines, in the promise of its escape. He doesn’t come here anymore because he had been asked not to. Too much space, too many variables – the mind can get carried away.
Up ahead he notices a figure emerge from the river. A fisherman hauling in his nets. His taut body glistens in the afternoon sun.
‘It must be nice working in the library…’
Anku doesn’t reply. His eyes are fixed on the man, growing larger with every step, sure-footed in the sand.
‘You must read a lot…’
The sun is overhead, the river gleams like a silver snake. Perhaps it is the brightness that burns his eyes or the fact that there’s a woman sitting next to him, a stranger who is looking at him with expectation, but he begins to feel it surging inside him. His fingers tingle, his bones turn to water. The fisherman closes the distance between them. He stops in front of Anku, towering, blocking out the sun. Anku is relieved, he can see better in the shade. The fisherman begins to tell him the story. The one about the river, and the city underneath it. His words are garbled but it doesn’t matter. Anku’s already heard this one before – more times than is good for him.
When the story fills his frame, Anku turns to Maina. His pupils are enlarged, his face contorted in pain.
She gasps, instinctively shrinking away from him.
‘I don’t read much,’ he says finally, ‘but I can tell you a story. Would you like to hear it?’
Trisha Bora studied Literature at Miranda House, and started a career in publishing soon after. She has worked as editor at Random House India, Rupa, and Dorling Kindersley – and is currently editor at Juggernaut Books. Her short stories have been published in literary journals, including Out of Print. Her debut novel is being published by HarperCollins India in 2017.