Coherence or not, I need to write this.
She could not say my name, her own language was less demanding and did not insist on placing half syllables next to each other. So she called me Sweety.
Bald from illness, toothless from age, soft and wide from indulgence. She arrived in Bangalore each winter, sat by the window and knitted violently coloured socks for her twin grandchildren who never wore them. She made mochar ghanto for me, pleased that I liked something the rest of her family would not touch.
She liked to talk. Although we did not share a tongue, we managed, punctuating conversations with smiles when words and actions failed us. We smiled at each other a lot, actually. In these broken exchanges, I gathered that she had once read widely. She was thrilled to see my copy of The Idiot, a book she had read in translation decades ago. She tried to tell me something about it, an incident from the past, involving a man, perhaps her husband, but excitement made her forget the few words she knew in English, and I was left smiling and nodding uncomprehendingly.
In Calcutta a few summers ago, en route the mountains, I visited her. Of course I knew my protestations would be in vain – a sumptuous lunch was cooked and served, despite arthritic knees and knuckles. And dutifully demolished.
I wandered around her crumbling mansion, a cup of sweet and perfect tea in hand and discovered dusty photographs on the peeling walls. She had never been beautiful; her toothless grin was perhaps far more endearing than the heavily kohl-lined eyes and piled-high hairstyle of four decades earlier. But the vulnerability was still there. An appeal to be listened to and, yes, loved.
I also discovered a picture taken with a tall, white-bearded man. I took it off the wall (breaking the rusted hook in the process) and wiped the glass. And studied it carefully. No doubt. It was him. Curious and thus bolder, I put the framed picture on a table nearby and let myself into what appeared to be a study.
Hundreds of books lined the walls. I could barely read the titles. Aa-ro-n-no-k was as far as I got, before I gave up. Just the presence of the books said enough, I didn’t need to know what they were.
An old armchair stood by the window. I sat down. And idly picked up a book on the sill. Distractedly, my mind began slowly putting the letters on the cover together. All the while, I was thinking about the journey back to where I was staying, viewing the travel with the mildly irritated inertia that always follows a good meal.
A word formed on my lips. I said it again. It sounded familiar. All in a rush I knew what it was – I looked down at the book, knowing what I would see.
There it was on the cover – her name. Hot with excitement, I opened the book and saw neatly printed verses. Ninety-two pages of them. Written by a woman I associated with kitchens and knitting. Shame flooded the prejudiced contours of my mind.
I stole the book. I did not have the backbone to ask her for it – my face would have given away every one of my now-shattered assumptions. Of course she would have been gentle and good-humoured about it. Just the way she was with those unused socks.
It still sits at the bottom of my bookshelf. Waiting for the day I will learn her language and read her poems. Secretly, I had hoped to gather the courage to admit my misdeeds and ask her to read them to me.
But I have postponed the atonement too long and now it will never be.