Nikhil had dozed off while reading an article in the newspaper. He held it spread open with both his hands as if shielding his tired eyes from the slanting rays of the afternoon sun. Meera was sitting on the chair next to him, humming a tune in a low voice. The somewhat dissonant tune had sounded familiar to him, but he soon dismissed the idea of finding any sense in it, and he trailed off into the warm arms of afternoon slumber. The droning melody eventually dwindled and he started awake as the sudden silence gripped his heart with a sense of impending doom. He felt her heated gaze turn towards him. “Nikhil, could you tell me where Nikhil has gone?” she demanded, her eyes wide with earnest concern. The bizarre dichotomy of the sentence was long lost on her, and the heart-wrenching urgency in her voice demanded an answer. “You don’t know what you are saying.” his reply was sharp, in the desperate hope that the curt answer would serve as a levee to the floods of her confused imaginations. “But you don’t understand, he was supposed to take me home!” He had tried and exhausted every answer he could give to that question. Had he tried reminding her that she was talking to Nikhil himself, she would’ve jeeringly insinuated that he was the one descending into senility. On the other hand, if he just lied through his teeth to assure that ‘Nikhil’ was just on his way home, she would simply dismiss him in disbelief. In fact the ‘Nikhil’ within the quotations, was the object of his nightmares. Nevertheless, he was aware that he needed to tread lightly because Nalini, the woman who usually took care of his wife, was on a holiday. He decided to let the air, heavy with her stinging question and his leaden silence, settle down on his shoulders. And somewhere within him, he hoped that she would forget about the silence too as she had forgotten about most everything else. Nikhil had spent fifty years with her. In those years, he never had the chance to witness her round eyes buzzing with curiosity. He had once brought home a second-hand computer because he wanted his wife to use the device for writing stories and maintain her daily logs-something to keep her busy. But far from utilising it, she gave up on the fancy gadget merely days after. The device had since occupied a corner in their bedroom, quietly sitting under a thin film of dust. It had now become the mammoth monster of the room, riddling her mind in the middle of long, dreadful nights. No, she never had a lot of curiosity. In his mind, she would always be content with the clickety clack of the weary old typewriter, and the loud whirring of the ancient sewing machine. Yet here he was years later, grappling with the consequences of her unquenchable, gut-wrenching curiosity that now questioned his identity. “But where did Nikhil go? He was supposed to be here with me!” She insisted, her rising pitch echoing from the drawing-room walls. There was nothing he could say to make her believe that he was long past the point of playing hide-and-seek. He had always been aware of the fact that she was dependent on his protection. Perhaps that was the reason her eyes were accustomed to search for him. Amongst them, there was an unspoken rule that she would be the one taking care of the house, and he would be the provider. The hand-drawn line had never been challenged by anyone in fifty years. She had weaved herself into a cocoon of solitude- brewing tea, washing utensils, and keeping the house clean. In return for the neatly starched shirt every morning, and the fish curried to perfection, he diligently sat behind his computer all day at the office and crunched numbers to bring home a wad of cash at the end of each month. That was the only thing he remembered doing in his youth. Except, once in a while, he would take off to the hillside, or the beaches, and she would reluctantly accompany him. He once asked her where she wanted to go, and she simply shrugged in reply. But one thing he had figured out about her was that she preferred the deep ocean to the hills. Perhaps she had always been scared of scaling heights. He could tell because every time they packed their suitcases, she always chose her favourite saris when they were going to the beach. The hills only ever got to witness her in grey and beige. She had spent fifty years adjusting to his wishes and whims. Not even for a moment had she wanted to become independent- financially, or otherwise. He always wondered how she could be okay with the idea of being wholly dependant on someone else, but even with all his zestful curiosity, he never attempted to ask. He could hear the curses she muttered under her breath. She was currently livid that Nikhil had left without telling her, and she was desperate to go home. Home— The home they had resided in for half a century, was painted in a bright shade of yellow and the curtains drawn over the windows were moss green, a shade that had reminded Meera of the curtains in her father’s hospital chamber. The armchairs in the living room were dressed in garments she had crocheted, and there used to be a giant vase standing in the corner that was hand-painted by her. The tall shelf standing against the wall was stacked with books that reminded her of the fields in Bangladesh, a few crystal showpieces, and a doll that crashed cymbals when someone wound the key. Now the walls were tarnished, and the vase had broken. The floors were unkempt and most of the books had been destroyed by termites. He wondered if that was the reason that it had stopped being ‘home’. If he even dared to ask where ‘home’ to her is today, she would fumble like there was gravel cutting against her tongue. Yet, she wanted to go home. He feared that she would wander off into the streets alone searching for ‘home’, and then she would never be able to find her way back without him. “I would like some tea” she announced after a while clearing her throat. The sudden calm in her voice made him jump out of his reverie. He folded the newspaper that he had been futilely holding open, and just for a moment, he sat still trying to ascertain that the calm wasn’t a hoax. “I would like some tea,” she repeated, “Can you even hear me?” In an instant he braced himself to call out for Nalini. The responsibility of brewing the tea had shifted to yet another woman now, no questions asked. A moment passed before he realised that he was the one responsible today. Making tea wasn’t rocket science, he repeated in his mind. The small, poorly lit kitchen had always been Meera’s turf. It was as if the aroma of coconut oil braided in her hair, was incorporated into its walls. The steel containers of Masala were lined up in a way that it felt like he was steering through a maze- a labyrinth he could never fully decode. He never understood how she had spent most of her life enclosed within this box. But every time her odd experiments of mixing and matching condiments yielded something delicious, her eyes used to light up as if she hadn’t been enclosed at all. As if, she was the most curious being on the planet. But just a few months back while she was frying fish, the shawl draped on her had caught on fire. She would not let go of the shawl, no matter how hot it was outside, or how much he pleaded with her. Nikhil vowed to himself to never let her near the flames again. It had almost taken physical force to keep her away from the kitchen. But with time perhaps the disease had taken away her memories of the kitchen as well, just like one day, it will take away her memory of her own reflection in the mirror. He fumbled to look for the saucepan in the small cabinet beneath the sink. A large heap of utensils tumbled down, crashing on the floor. He scuffled to put them back together and ended up breaking the plastic handle of the pressure cooker. In midst of all the hullabaloo, he almost missed the sounds of shuffling feet that rushed towards the scene of this ludicrous misadventure. She stood there, arms akimbo, utterly confused at witnessing the old man wrestling with a pile of stainless steel. “Err, I was just trying to make tea,” he mumbled without looking at her, “Hopeless, I am!” A light of understanding spread over her face, and it almost felt like a distant dream. “We keep the saucepan outside, you know,” she said pointing towards the utensil kept upturned on the granite slab. The present tense that she used in her sentence, rang in his ear like an oddity, and he almost wished that it had been true. “Seems like you never managed to teach me anything after all, Meera,” a small smile crept on his lips. “It’s not my fault, Nikhil”, she muttered under her breath, “You were always quite dependant on me.” She helped him gather the cinnamon, milk, and tea leaves, and gently explained the process as if she were teaching a child. And Nikhil carefully clung to every word she uttered. After all, it might have even been the last time he could depend on her. Just one last time, he told himself, and then he would be her ‘home’. She stood leaning against the doorframe, quietly looking as he poured milk in the tea. And suddenly, it struck her— “But Nikhil, where did Nikhil go?”
Sumedha Sengupta (She/Her) is a student and writer residing in New Delhi, India. She was the only Asian writer to be shortlisted for the Margaret and Reg Turnill Short Story Prize, 2021. Her work has appeared and is forthcoming in Twist&Twain, The Livewire, Ayaskala, and more. On a good day, she can be found obsessing over chemical reactions, painting contorted faces, or listening to classical music. One day, she hopes to discover something extraordinary!