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.
Mrs. Mehta walked back into the room and set a bottle of refrigerated water down on the table. Light brown freckles covered the backs of her hands, the raised green veins visible under her thin skin.
“What time is your train tomorrow?”
“At nine in the morning, I’ve already booked a cab for seven so I get to the station well in time, you never know with Delhi traffic,” Rhea babbled, relieved at the turn in conversation. “That’s quite early in the morning so I’ll see myself out; you don’t have to worry.”
Mrs. Mehta finally began eating her dinner. The clock on the wall near the kitchen door was running a few minutes late. They ate in silence, Rhea’s stomach was full but she kept spooning dal and spinach into her mouth periodically to keep from speaking. She thought of her friend’s grandmother, the one Maya loved, the one who told fascinating stories. She looked up and met Mrs. Mehta’s gaze.
“I got some ice cream put in the freezer for you,” she said, her voice softer now. “My Maya loves ice cream. I’ve dismissed the maid for the night. Go get it from the kitchen.”
It was a hot night. The air was swelling with pre-monsoon humidity. The bottle of water had been sweating profusely, leaving a circular stain of moistness on the table-cloth. Rhea was only too glad to leave the room. She was thankful for the tub of chocolate-chip ice cream.
She sat down at the dining table and began peeling off the lid. A few big scoops of the quickly softening ice cream made their way into the glass bowl in front of her. Rhea stuck a spoonful of it in her mouth, letting the cold blob melt inside.
“The night before I was to leave the hospital, I switched babies.”
The stainless steel in Rhea’s mouth turned sour.
“Rajeev spent his whole life doting on that boy; till the day he died. His pride and joy, no less. He sat for hours in that orange armchair, rocking the baby in his lap, soothing colic, humming rhymes and what-not. Cricket on Sundays, math theorems for school, driving stick-shifts; he taught that boy all of it.”
The fan creaked above their heads, the hot air churning under its blades.
“Did you ever tell him?” Rhea startled herself with her question.
“I’d wait for him to fall asleep and then I’d whisper it in his ear. Every night.”
© Ayesha Sindhu 2013