The house smelled of menthol cigarettes and musty carpets. It was deathly quiet. Rhea’s armpits felt damp in Delhi’s mid-summer heat.
The cream-coloured wall behind the chaise lounge was covered in blue pottery plates; a few looked like they might be from Russia. Rhea sat down in an armchair upholstered in orange fabric placed in the corner of the room. She got up immediately to face it. It felt like she’d sat in the imprint of another human body.
“That was my husband’s,” a voice said from behind her.
She whipped around to meet the speaker: her college roommate Maya’s grandmother. She stood in an arc of yellow light, her skin looking like the fawn of Rhea’s mother’s deerskin coin pouch. Her hazel brown eyes peered out of a face lined with age. She was a dignified pretty.
“Hello, Mrs. Mehta, it’s so nice to finally meet you,” Rhea said, taking a step forward. “Maya talks about you all the time. Thank you for letting me stay with you tonight.” She smiled, unsure of what to say next.
“It’s very nice to meet you too, Rhea. You’ve had a long flight, would you like to freshen up before dinner? The bathroom’s just down the hall, to the right.” The old lady’s tone was reserved, yet, her eyes were bright, her smile eager.
“Yes, please, that’ll be great,” Rhea responded, heading in the direction Mrs. Mehta pointed to with a slender finger.
“There are some lovely photographs lining that corridor, of when I was younger…”
Rhea tried to hide her smile as she hurried out of the room, passing the wall of photographs swiftly. The bathroom door was shut. She turned the knob and stepped in. She breathed in sharply; the smell was nauseating.
There were dried roses on almost every flat surface of the bathroom, in small vases next to the soap dispenser on the granite sink, on either sides of the mirror and on the towel rack. Long stalks of dead flowers hung upside down, strung neatly on the rod of the shower curtain, the thorns useless and brittle. They smelled sickly sweet, like stale perfume.
Rhea looked at herself in the mirror; there were shriveled flowers all around her in the reflection. She rubbed her hands together under the stream of cold water coming out of the shiny tap, splashing her face a few times before running them over her clean skin. She wiped her face on the fluffy, white towel, her lip-gloss leaving a hurried red streak on one side. She turned the towel around and hung it back carefully, making sure the little stain was hidden.
Once back in the hallway, she stopped to look at the wall of photographs. There were around twenty frames of different sizes and shades lining the wall in uneven rows. There were a few colour photographs of who Rhea imagined was Maya’s father as a strapping young boy, playing football, grinning at the camera, gaps in his teeth.
The rest were mainly framed pictures of Mrs. Mehta, many of only her. “Well, if that’s not vain,” Rhea muttered as she looked them over one by one. Most of them had been taken at exotic locations, with stunning views in the background. Rolling hills, sand dunes and camels, monsoon showers, and in front of each of these backdrops stood the slender frame of a younger Mrs. Mehta. They were black and white images of a carefree young woman, her dark, flowing hair framing the alabaster of her skin. The colour of the boy’s childhood seemed almost tacky next to the monochrome of his mother’s youth.
“I’m just looking at these photographs. Is that Maya’s dad?”
There was silence for a moment. Mrs. Mehta appeared at the mouth of the passage.
“In this black and white one,” Rhea pointed to a picture in a plain ochre frame. “You’re holding a baby in your arms.”
“No, that’s my daughter, Anjani,” she said, her voice suddenly steely. Rhea turned slowly to look at her. “Enough with the photos, let me show you your room now. Dinner will be ready soon.” The thin skin on the old lady’s neck was quivering. She walked past Rhea slowly, her off-white cotton sari’s orange border swishing as it stroked the mosaic floor. She opened a door further down the passage and walked in. Rhea followed her wondering why Maya had never spoken of an aunt.
“I hope you’ll be comfortable here,” Mrs. Mehta smiled, her voice warm again. “I’ve put out fresh towels for you but this room doesn’t have an attached bathroom. You’ll have to use the one in the hallway. I’ll ask the maid to bring your bags in,” she added as she started to walk out.
She turned around suddenly and looked Rhea straight in the eye. “It’s nice to have a girl in here again.”
© Ayesha Sindhu 2013