Lull Before the Storm
“We were expecting you in the morning! Why didn’t you come?” Lakshmi Mani asks me, hugging affectionately as I step in to their new home. I almost gave the evening party a miss too, but I convinced myself that the couple will feel disappointed and dragged myself here. After all, we have become quite attached to each other in the course of my work with them.
I won’t stay for long though, I tell myself. The cyclone is expected to move into the land sometime tonight; the clouds hang heavily overhead. I expect the attendance at the party to be poor as the winds pick up, just as it was very thin at work this morning. Chennai is not meant for rains, and the winds sound ominous as the trees sway dangerously. We almost deserve our water scarcity, I think, as I use the rains as excuse for the morning’s absence. I am surprised to see the large gathering in the well-lit house.
Their son Abhishek jumps up on me and I cuddle him. Lakshmi takes my arm and guides me around, introducing me to her parents, in-laws and relatives, as if I am some wonder-woman, who created a mansion out of dust. I modestly try to wriggle out of the effusiveness and nearly bump into her husband Mani, who is regaling a circle of friends with anecdotes, as is his wont.
“Come, come…how are you? Why didn’t you come in the morning?” he asks me with equal affection.
I again mumble something about rains and winds. “Very sensible of you... I hope it doesn’t worsen any further. So many of my friends couldn’t make it,” he says sweeping his hand around. I raise an eyebrow discreetly, wondering how many more people he had been expecting.
Lakshmi brings me a glass of juice. Someone is at the door. Her face lights up and she exclaims, “Ah, there he is! Abhi, look who is here!”
She goes looking for her son. I look around for Pratap or Madhuri, who were also expected, when I am arrested by Mani calling out, “Welcome, Karthik! I am glad you were able to come… Getting back home will be difficult in this weather. You have such a long way to travel.”
The voice that responds gently is familiar. My heart beating fast, I am about to slip out of the group, when Lakshmi accosts me and tells me, “You remember I once told you how we almost lost Abhishek to the sea? It is because of him that Abhi is here.”
Mani hears this and immediately tells the group, “You must hear this story! Come Kalpana... When was this, Karthik? Nearly four years back? Abhi was not yet a year old.”
I turn to see the man Mani is pointing to and find Karthik staring at me in disbelief. Madhuri materialises and takes his arm. He hardly reacts to her. Instead, he glances at me as he tells Mani, embarrassed, “Really, Mani…it is history. What I did, anyone would have done it in my place.”
But Mani is in the flow. “I think it was August, no Lakshmi? End of the month. It looked menacing like this, or was already terribly cyclonic. No, no…I think it was receding, right Karthik?” Karthik nods imperceptibly as he watches me with embarrassing intensity. I feel relieved when he turns to Mani, but the relief is short-lived as he looks at me again. I focus on Mani but barely hear him, wondering why Karthik is staring at me as if he has never seen me before and what Madhuri makes of it. I steal a glance at her and find her glaring at me, her lips pursed in a thin line.
“We used to live near the beach back then and went for walks regularly. Really foolish of us to go that day too…early days of marriage, you must understand.” We laugh dutifully. “The waves are this high,” he indicates, his hand above his head. Then he laughs and says, “Okay I am exaggerating. It was at hip level, but very strong and windy. Suddenly, we saw Abhi running towards the waves. I don’t know when he had moved away from us, but we noticed because of the sudden huge wave that was making towards him. I thought that was the end. I was paralysed, unable to move. Lakshmi was screaming, but just as rooted. We – at least I – had given up Abhi for good when out of the blue, Karthik rescued Abhi. God,” Mani has his hand to his heart. “Abhi was laughing, thinking it was a game! He wanted a repeat performance. I couldn’t get out fast enough. But since then, Karthik has been family. Of course,” he smiles at Karthik affectionately, his hand on Karthik’s arm, “there are no words to express how we feel. I think the best thing I did was to give him the business he had been chasing me for.” They all laugh.
I join in, wondering if I knew about this. I turn to look at Karthik, and see his puzzled expression. I feel uncomfortable. I look away quickly, not remembering ever being told of this incident or about the Subramaniams.
Mani continues, still holding Karthik, “Abhi loves Karthik and I think I can say it is reciprocated…?” He looks at Karthik, who inclines his head. As if to allay all doubts, the boy comes running and tackles Karthik around his knees. Karthik laughingly picks him up.
I leave them to it and move on. I can see Pratap coming in with Vijay and Madhuri runs to them.
Mani is with them in a second, and warmly welcomes Vijay, hugging him. Friends meeting after a long time, they exchange a few words. Pratap comes to where I am while Vijay and Madhuri go off to meet some other friends from school whom Mani has invited.
“Nice work,” Pratap commends and I nod my thanks with a smile. I take him around, when I see Karthik with Abhi on the floor, keeping the boy engaged in some game. He sees me and comes my way. I am in a fix and introduce Karthik as Madhuri’s friend.
“Ah, yes,” Pratap says and an uncomfortable silence follows.
Pratap excuses himself and I am about to follow him when Karthik stops me by asking, “So how is Shelley?”
Pratap pauses, but seeing Karthik wants to talk, goes away. I would rather be with him than with Karthik, but he lays his hand on the small of my back and guides me to a corner. My skin burns where I feel his touch and I follow silently.
“Uncle! You are leaving the game half-way,” the boy calls out.
Karthik tells him, “Be back in a few minutes…”
I wonder what more is left to discuss.