The Ground Slips
I visit the house the tenants have vacated. I don’t know what to call it – my father’s house? My house? I feel a strange sense of detachment, surprising since I have lived here before marriage.
I stand outside the door for a second, trying to evoke the old familiar feeling of coming home, but I feel nothing. I regret not taking Shelley up on her offer to accompany me. Karthik must have planted that idea in her head. How well he knows me! Going in alone, expecting to see a bare house disturbs me.
I wish I could ask Karthik to come over. As if masochistically, I have picked up my father’s anniversary to visit this place. I stand hesitatingly, when the door behind opens and the neighbour steps out.
“Oh! Is that… Kalpana? It’s been ages since I saw you last! Not since your father passed away! The tenant told me you had come once. But you left without visiting us!”
I smile at her apologetically.
“Where is your husband?” she asks, looking around. I shake my head, mumble something about work.
“Have you gone in yet?” she asks. I shake my head again, feeling dumb. She encourages me, “Go on, finish your work there. I will keep some coffee ready for you.”
I nod, and under her watchful eyes, open the door.
I step in and almost bang the door shut behind me. In less than 10 days, the house has collected too much dust already. I sincerely wish Shelley were with me. But I dread her wanting to discuss Karthik and me. I feel a seething rage at his silence. Why didn’t he call to tell me about the tenants vacating, why hadn’t he offered to come with me? Why use a proxy?
I shake my head. These thoughts distract me from my feelings, but induce other unwanted emotions. I don’t know which one of these evils is worse.
I stand with my back to the door for a while, uncertain of how I feel. The musty smell fills my nose. I am scared to leave footprints on the floor.
My cell phone rings, throwing me off balance. Someone from work on some query. I respond and move forward, glad of some company. I look in and around, but exit quickly. I will get someone to clean up the house before deciding on what to do next.
I come out, and the lady promptly opens the door. I want to leave, giving work as excuse. But she entices me with a coffee. It seems bad manners to leave. I need company, reassurance.
I sit as if on hot coals as she piles questions on me about me, my husband and if I have any children. I feel no obligation to tell her the truth, so prevaricate with élan, angry at her probing.
“It was such a shock, about your father. Three days, he didn’t come out and no one noticed! You were not in town then…right? Pondichery? Or, you would have called and realised something was wrong… Only because I saw the milk lying outside did I suspect that things were not okay… I don’t know how you bore all that!”
I feel my heart stop, my body going cold.
The lady expects me to know all this, has clearly repeated this story several times and says with practiced drama, “I thought you would break down completely. The body was getting into such a state!”
I spill coffee on my dress and go in to wash. I ask her about her family and leave.
Shaken, I find riding to work difficult. If I didn’t break down then, why now! But stupid tears interfere.
I walk up to my place and sit with a thud.
I shriek as a figure emerges from under the table. “Vijay! What are you doing here?”
“Spying on you!” he jokes. I get up abruptly and go to the rest room to wash my tears.
I return and realise that I am alone again. I switch my system on. I open my personal mail, and there is a mail from Vedant, sharing in my grief with two lines: Thinking of uncle. Why don’t you visit me one of these days?
I close my eyes and turn to work. Something from the Subramanians, something from Vijay.
He is back, standing behind me. “Net working?”
I nod mechanically.
“Phew, finally! The whole office has been up in arms because net was down. Didn’t see you earlier? Strolling in late after a date?” he asked and laughed.
I don’t turn to him. He continues, “If any of the other software hadn’t been working, no one would have bothered. But no net, and personal life comes to a standstill! Friends come first.”
I look at him, sufficiently calmed, and smile bleakly before turning to my system and opening some files randomly.
“My, my! We are very talkative today! Which side of the bed did you get out from?” he continues as he comes around to my side and leans over my bay’s wall.
I lean back, close my eyes and say, “It doesn’t matter. Either side would have been equally bad.”
He cackles. “Don’t tell me! Your old man giving you trouble?” What else would he think?
I nod – in a way, he is right too. Why did dad have to die that way? Why did I go on a trip to Pondy? Three days! The thought rattles me. Did he know he was dying? Was it instantaneous? Does the soul pause for someone to come and take over the body?
I feel tears stinging my eyes and swivel my chair abruptly, turning my back to Vijay.
“Hey, sorry! That was in poor taste!” Vijay apologises immediately. “I seem to have upset you.”
I shake my head and head for the cooler to get some water to drink. I ask the office boy for tea. I come back and try to lighten up as I ask Vijay, “What are you doing here at this hour? I thought your day begins in the afternoon?”
He nods, “Yeah, that’s normal. But now dad is here…so it cannot be done. And, trust me, I am all clogged up there now,” he says pointing to his head.
“But why here? Don’t you have work of your own?”
“This is work! Pratap pays me to keep his system running and up. He can’t do a thing if there is a breakdown…and he doesn’t know a thing,” he says conspiringly.
“Can I get on with my work now?” I ask.
He shrugs. “I thought I could tempt you with a cup of good coffee. Madhuri and Pratap are out.”
I am tempted. But I retort, “It is your work that I am about to do!”
“Oh then!” he starts and I smile mockingly, but he finishes, “it can wait.”
What would I achieve sitting here, staring at the screen in any case? I follow him out, not even concerned that I have come in late and not touched work.
We go to a nearby restaurant. He orders tea. I ask him on impulse, “If I want to get in touch with an old friend, how do I do it?”
When we return, he shows me how to search in Google. I am fascinated at how the Internet has progressed! His amused look makes me feel even more of a country bumpkin. With just a name and a surname, I don’t find any matches.
He then takes me to a couple of school alumni sites. I register and am relieved to see Kavitha registered.
“That’s the girl?” he asks. I nod dumbly. “So, send a message to her.”
I do because he is watching, though having found her, I am in two minds about reviving contact. What will I tell her? How will I answer all her questions about myself?
He leaves on seeing Pratap come in. After struggling with non-starters, I finally decide to call it a day. I have a meeting with the Manis (Subramanians), but put them off. I peep into Pratap’s office to get permission to leave.
“Ah, Kalpana, just the person I was looking for. Madhuri and I went to this exhibition this morning. Quite a lot of stuff there. I was wondering if you would want to check it out for the Manis. Maybe you too,” he says, turning to Vijay.
He shrugs. “Whatever my designer says.”
I nod. “I will go tomorrow or day after. I want to go home now. Not feeling well.”
Pratap looks concerned. “What happened!”
“She has been looking like this since she came in – very down. I even tried to cheer her up over a cup of tea, but even my company didn’t seem to work its usual wonders!” Vijay intervenes.
“I have told you not to go near my girls! Even Madhuri is grouchy because of you! I am going to ban your entry into the office,” Pratap retorts.
“What did I do! First your Net was down, now your girls! I am only trying to help!”
“Net is all that you understand. Girls, you leave to me…now what could be wrong with her?”
They both start discussing what could be wrong with me while I wait impatiently. Finally I interrupt and say, “Sorry, gentlemen, but if you have quite decided on what is wrong with me, can I leave?”
They both stop, mercifully. Pratap asks me to come in and sit. “What happened? Queasy? Cold? Something else?”
“How will you go? Not on that scooter! If you are not well, take my car. The driver will drop you. You want any medicines? Doctor? Who is there at home?”
I remind him I am an adult and just need to sleep off a bit. Headache, that is all.
But I decide to take an auto instead of ride my scooter back. I don’t think I can concentrate on the road today.