Monday, October 10, 2005

Short Story - The Alibi (Part IV)

Please read this for background on this series. Thanks.

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The Alibi (contd)...


Suman gulped down the painkillers and walked into the kitchen to see what Kamala Bai had made for dinner. Kamala Bai had been a god send. She had been in charge of the kitchen ever since Ravi’s mother had passed away ten years ago of cancer. She arrived early each morning and cooked that day’s breakfast and lunch, and came again around four in the evening to cook dinner. She originally delivered milk to the Murthys everyday, when Ravi’s mother was still alive. She had started bringing food to Ravi and his father in those first few weeks after her death until all the rituals of the funeral were complete. As Ravi and his father grew comfortable with her, she saw her role being expanded into that of a full-time cook and had stayed on that way even when Ravi got married. Suman loved having not to worry about cooking on top of her job at one of the clothing manufacturers in town.

Suman found chapathis, potato curry, rice, carrot and onion sambhar, and cucumber raitha. On most days, her mouth would have watered at this spread and she would have excitedly called to Ravi and her father-in-law to come to dinner. Today she silently picked up the dishes and took them to the dining table in the adjacent room. She brought the steel thalis and set them out, Chandrashekar’s at the head of the table, and one each for Ravi and Suman on either side. She knew she was forgetting something, but she sat down wearily at her chair.

Ravi came down the stairs and heard a noise in the dining room. He found Suman at her chair, head in her hands.

“Suman…”

“Oh, hi! Sorry, don’t know what I’m doing. Can you call your father, please? Its getting late for dinner.”

“I will… Are you OK?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

Suman turned to look Ravi in the face.

“Ravi, we need to talk. After dinner.”

“What is it? Is everything all right?”

“No, you know its not. But I don’t want to get into this now. Could we please wait until after dinner?”

“OK… Suman…?”

“Please, not now.”

“No, not that. I need to talk to you too.”

Suman looked at Ravi, searching, trying to recognize the expression on his face. She couldn’t.

“Sure, OK.”

Ravi put his head through the doorway connecting the dining room with the verandah and found his father leaning against the mesh, staring out into the garden.

“Appa! Dinner is ready.”

Chandrashekar turned. “I’ll be there in a minute. Did Suman come down?”

“Yes, she did.”

“OK, I’ll be there.”

Chandrashekar pulled himself away from the mesh. He washed his hands and face in the little sink in the hallway and walked into the dining room. Ravi was pouring water into the steel tumblers. Suman brought in the butter milk from the kitchen and sat down at the table.

Chandrashekar looked at his son and daughter-in-law. They seemed to be distraught. Suman looked like she had cried. Her hands shook as she silently served her father-in-law and her husband before sitting down at her plate. Ravi had a faraway look on his face. For the tenth time that day, Chandrashekar wished his wife hadn’t left him alone.

He gave up pretending. He stood suddenly from his chair. His plate was untouched. Before Ravi could open his mouth, he had walked to the sink and washed his hands. “Appa?”

Suman looked at her father-in-law, bewildered. In many ways, Chandrashekar was an orthodox man and true to Hindu tradition, he never let anyone or anything interrupt his meals. Chandrashekar came back to the table, wiping his hands with the towel that was a permanent fixture around his neck. “Ravi, I need to talk to you.”

Ravi got up to wash his hands, as Suman sat frozen, unsure of what she should be doing. Chandrashekar motioned to her to follow him into the verandah. “This is for you too.” He sat down in his easy-chair, seeking comfort in its familiarity.

“I don’t know how I’m going to tell you this.” Chandrashekar’s eyes welled up. He dabbed at the edge of his eyes with his towel as Ravi and Suman exchanged concerned glances. Ravi and Suman sat together in the sofa across from Chandrashekar.

He took a deep breath and turned his face to them. “This is very painful. I had no right to do this to you, especially to you, Suman. But you have to understand, I did not believe a word of it when my father first told me and I don’t believe it now. That’s why I did not say anything to your parents when Ravi and I first came to meet you. Who can believe in a curse? Tell me! I wish your mother were here now. She would know what to do. It’s just like her to leave me and go away. I wish I had died first. Now I feel responsible for the pain you two are suffering…” Chandrashekar got up and started pacing the floor.

“Appa, will you tell me what’s going on? You’re not making any sense. Suman, get him a glass of water. Appa, calm down! Here, sit down and relax.” Ravi held his father by the arm and brought him back to his chair.

Suman rose to go to the water filter in the dining room. She was bewildered. For the moment, her turmoil was forgotten. She was concerned for her father-in-law. She had never seen him like this before.

Chandrashekar gulped down the water gratefully.

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