Rhea jumped up, rubbing her eyes awake. She pulled out a pair of linen shorts from her suitcase and replaced her aeroplane jeans with them. She smoothed the shorts down, flattening the fabric against her thighs and easing out the creases with her palms. As she left the room, she silently mouthed three syllables over and over again: “An-ja-ni.”
Maya had insisted that Rhea stay with Mrs. Mehta. They had been friends for six years, the first four as roommates in college in the States. They were in different cities now separated by their dreams and a thousand odd miles, but they spoke often, almost every week. Rhea had called Maya instinctively when she realized she’d be spending a night in Delhi, before heading north to her family in Dehradun.
Maya was ecstatic at the prospect of Rhea meeting Mrs. Mehta. “You have to stay with her, there’s no other way,” she said over the phone. “You’ll love her.”
Dried flowers dominated almost every flat surface in the dining room, the smell of dinner barely covering the nauseating sweetness of their artificial aroma. Lamps in different shapes and sizes bathed the room in a warm, mottled light.
Mrs. Mehta was seated at the head of a table big enough for six. Rhea sat down to her right, unfolded the white napkin and put it on her lap, wondering if the other chairs were ever used. The spread in front of her was spectacular. Egg curry, bhindi, dal, palak paneer and raita sat in large paisley patterned china bowls. Rings of onions and tomatoes and slivers of cucumber were assembled on a large platter at the centre of the table, wedges of lemon keeping them company.
“When I was twenty-five I was married. Quite late for the old days,” Mrs. Mehta said suddenly. Her gleaming eyes were fixed on the younger girl. “My life ended with that beginning.”
Rhea’s cheeks coloured as she bit in to a cucumber sliver. She could feel the older woman’s gaze on the side of her face. She stared at the food in front of her.
“I travelled the world with my husband. He was seven years older than me. A doctor, you know. He had a successful private practice, earned well. ‘A perfect boy’ my parents called him. Who had a car back then? A left-hand drive, chocolate-brown Ford sedan. He’d smoke imported cigarettes as he drove around, quite dapper.”
Rhea kept quiet as she ladled the black dal into a bowl. She kept her eyes focused on the darkness of the lentils as she wondered how old her host was. Seventy- five?
The maid came in from the kitchen and placed a hot roti on a plate between Mrs. Mehta and Rhea.
The old lady ignored it and lit a cigarette, blowing out a delicate tendril of smoke. Rhea looked at her and then at the hot, fluffy orb of bread, ready for the taking, not sure of what to do next.
“Put some vegetables on that plate,” Mrs. Mehta snapped suddenly.
Rhea immediately reached out for the bowl of spinach and served herself a modest helping. She took a quick look at her host. Mrs. Mehta’s hazel eyes looked much darker in the light of the lamps.
“He loved taking photos of me. Dr. Mehta. Rajeev. He took all the ones in the corridor. Obsessed. He’s dead now, been gone for more than ten years.”
Rhea smiled weakly and broke off a piece of roti and dunked it in the dal. The air smelled like stale mint.
“He would bring me red roses every Sunday. Twelve buds of blood-red perfection. They’d bloom in a few days, and then by Friday, they’d be dead. All twelve.”
“I love roses,” Rhea said between bites. “I like the white ones most.”
“Don’t be silly! What’s a flower without colour? A flower must be a hue.”
“White’s a colour,” Rhea began, but she forced her attention back to chewing her food.
“Then, four years after our wedding, Anjani was born. A perfect little bud, too. She had button eyes and a mop of black hair, like mine. My husband thought her skin too sallow, her hair too dark. He wanted a boy. Never picked her up; said he was afraid he’d drop her. The roses stopped.”
Rhea looked up and saw Mrs. Mehta staring ahead.
“It feels so good to eat home-cooked food after so long, you know Mrs. Mehta?” Rhea began. “Maya and I craved Indian all the time when we were in college. The restaurants were all right, but their food was nowhere near authentic. She’ll be so jealous to know I’m eating this.”
“Anjani was two when she died.”
Rhea looked down at the shiny centre of her plate where the gravy of her egg curry hadn’t yet reached. The patch was becoming smaller as the liquid spread.
“We buried her at the cemetery near the pir baba shrine on the road to the cantonment railway station. They don’t cremate young children you know, so that later their souls can come back to reclaim their lost lives. Rajeev had to pick her up that day. Her tiny body wrapped in white, just the way it was when they put her in my arms for the first time.”
The maid came in with more rotis, setting them down on the plate before walking out.
“I won’t eat more roti, Mrs Mehta. Can I pass you one?”
“My husband wanted another child very soon after. I think it was a month later when he started off. Bastard.”
Rhea felt her eyes well up. The dal felt thick in her mouth, lining her palette and tongue.
“A brand new boy I had, eleven months after my little baby died. My husband, the doctor, the perfect boy was ecstatic. The day our son was born, he brought red roses for my bedside. Two dozen in a glass vase. Green stems in clear water.”
“Could I have something to drink please, Mrs. Mehta?”
The old lady said nothing. She lifted her slightly bent frame off the chair and walked into the kitchen without saying a word. Rhea closed her eyes and exhaled. Her brain worked furiously trying to remember if Maya had ever mentioned her aunt, or even that name, Anjani. Never.
© Ayesha Sindhu 2013