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I pressed the door bell twice. It wasn’t ringing. There probably was a power cut.  I knocked on the door, softly at first, then firmly. No response. The coir mat at the door had ‘Welcome‘ written on it in dark green. Taking it at face value, I removed my footwear and stepped in, after carefully wiping my feet on the mat.

Inside, it was cool and dark. When my eyes adjusted, I found that everything looked exactly the same in the tiny room. The table set against the wall to one side with all of Mr K’s books and stuff, knickknacks arranged tastefully in  a glass-fronted cupboard set in the wall facing the door, the saggy sofa set with a a now faded flowery cover and two mismatched chairs on either side with cushions, the covers made of the same cloth as the sofa cover.  Even the calendar on the wall looked the same, except that it now showed the year 2019. 

There was not a speck of dust anywhere.  That was hardly surprising considering how particular Mrs K was about cleanliness.

As an eleven year old, I had once walked into her house to deliver a message from my mom. The floor had just been mopped and still had water marks on it, but I was oblivious to it all. Mrs K who had been in the kitchen cooking, lovely smells were emanating from it, walked out when she heard me. Her eyes, on seeing me, had gone straight to the shoes on my feet which I had been too lazy to remove at the front door. You see, we never did that sort of thing in our own home and so it somehow had seemed unnecessary. In a hurry to join my friends, I quickly blurted out my mom’s message and turned to leave when I heard her say,

“Oh, by the way, Lila…”

I looked at her expectantly. Mrs K looked pretty in her printed white cotton sari and red blouse. She had a huge kumkum bindi of red on her forehead and the light glinted off her nose-ring.

“Lila, you must always remove your shoes before stepping into a house. Otherwise you’ll carry the dirt and germs in too. And I have only just mopped the floor!”

There was a smile on her kind face. In spite, I had felt small, as small as a germ I probably carried inside into her clean house.

“Yes, Aunt K” I had replied before running out to grab the school bag I had dropped outside her front door and running off to join my friends and school.

Two decades and more have passed since that day and much happened in between. Hostel and studies, work, and then committing the unpardonable crime of marrying the man of my choice, that too someone from outside the community, had all kept me away from my hometown. But finally, here I am.  

I kept the fruit-basket and other things I had brought for Mrs K, on the table. When I looked up, there she was, standing at the door to the tiny kitchen as usual.  She looked so frail. There no longer was a bindi adorning her forehead. Mrs K was not only particular about cleanliness, she also followed traditions and rituals to the letter. Mr K was long gone and she on her part had given up the trappings of a married woman as demanded by her religion. Only the nose ring shone, glinting off the light coming through the doorway.

“You have come.”

It was a statement. There was no smile on her face. It was as if she was too tired to smile. After all, I had taken away from her what was most important. Her only son. How could I have known that the man I fell in love with on shores far away would turn out to be the only son of Mr and Mrs K, the son they had sent off to the city at a young age to study in a better school? How could I have known I was shattering the dreams of a couple who pinned their hopes on him returning and marrying a woman of their choice, from their own community, bringing with her a hefty dowry as well? Not just that, between us, her son and I, had created tension in our small town when we finally went ahead and married that my parents had to move, and we ourselves were forced to stay away.

Two decades, and here I was, at her request. The town was no longer bothered or cared about us or our relationship. Life had moved on. So had her son. All we had left now between us was each other and the young teenager who walked in through the front door as if on cue, dragging a suitcase. Mrs K’s eyes glinted brighter than her diamond nose-ring on seeing her granddaughter.

©Shail Mohan 2019