The first we hear of our mother’s affair is from her sister. We are drinking tea and I’m sitting on one of the wooden chairs with uncomfortably straight backs in our aunt’s house, rocking it mechanically to alarm her. She doesn’t like how I tilt the chair back, back, and back a little more, holding her deep blue mug around its rim. I usually do it to watch her watching me, waiting for the chair to fall, and the mug to break. My sister Nina is sitting uncomfortably on another wooden chair next to me with an old copy of Wuthering Heights.
I don’t think my aunt intended to tell us about our mother’s affair. She didn’t even call it an affair. She bit her lip and tried to ask me about my new job soon after she mentioned his name, even though she wishes I had gone to Bombay and lived in her little flat in Chuim village instead.
My aunt had decided I would live in Chuim when I was still in school. She had also decided that I would write a book about living there, with its smell of sea and bombil, and heavy air that made my hair stand in wisps of hawa mithai. I would become best friends with Alister who ran the garage down the road and smelt of paint, and our neighbour, Mrs Deesa, would send her son home every evening, so that I could teach him enough biology to pass his board exams. In the mornings I would take the local train to work in Dadar, standing comfortably in the middle of the crowd of school girls and women in white shirts with gende ke phool in their hair. My aunt even found me a job, but I knew before I heard its details that didn’t really want it. Alister bought her house last week and said he would rent it out to models.
Nina squinted into her phone on our way home. I don’t know how she sits behind me when I’m riding and looks into her phone without feeling like she will fall off. I was thinking of my mother and this patient she was having an affair with — a balding man with a heart problem, and an artist with no money — imagining Mama standing before him in his hospital room on one of her late nights, slowly removing her doctor’s coat and dropping it to the floor.
We are sitting down to have dinner on the day Mama gets her first delivery of jasmine flowers. Papa has made baby potatoes, and there is dal from the night before. Nina is sitting next to him as usual, and I sit opposite her. When the doorbell rings, our mother is tying her hair up into a bun like she does before every dinner.
Nina goes to the door. She brings in jasmine flowers and leaves them on the table next to Mama.
When our father asks who brought them, our mother doesn’t answer. Nina says it was our watchman. He said they’re from the garden, she says.
Mama looks at her, surprised.
Nina and I go out for a walk after dinner. We walk past the small shop selling Ambur biryani that used to be a Burrito King which used to be a Canara Bank, and we sit on the steps to the park we used to play in when I was five and Nina was three. She once pushed a boy because he told me I had boochis in my hair. She tells me that the man who delivered the jasmine flowers was the receptionist at Mama’s hospital. I light a cigarette.
On a night when Mama tells us she isn’t coming home, I ask Nina if she thinks she is in the Artist’s room. Then I ask her to guess how many times she’d kiss him that night. I was thinking of her bending down to kiss him, not swiftly grazing his cheek, but slowly, on his dry lips that taste of hospital and sterilised steel. Then she’d nip at the corner of his lower lip when she let him go.
Our mother always kissed Papa’s cheek. She rarely lingered there.
But Nina says she’s sure that on the nights Mama stays at the hospital, she sits on a chair next to the Artist’s bed and eats hospital food. When the Artist falls asleep to the sound of Mama shuffling Uno cards for their next game, Mama will run her hand through his thinning hair a few times, before going to sleep on the examination bed in her room.
I tell Nina this is too tame.
When we’re on our way to Select to buy new books for ourselves, Nina looks out of the Metro and watches the rest of the train turning. We try to imagine how our mother told her sister about the Artist. Our aunt wouldn’t approve of him, or of the affair she didn’t call an affair. We imagine Mama telling her about the Artist breathlessly, in the way that she gets when she is nervous with happiness. She’d tell her that he was the first man to know how much she loved jasmine flowers, and that at night he would tell her stories until his throat was as dry as his lips. Nina says our aunt would have responded in familiar, easily ignorable grunts of discomfort, and even though she never asked Mama what stories the Artist told her, Mama would tell her anyway.
At this point Nina and I disagree again. I’m certain that the Artist would talk to Mama about poetry, and the precise colour of gulmohar leaves in the sun at two in the afternoon. He would tell her that this is the closest he has come to being in love with a woman — such a strong, beautiful woman — ever since the girl he had loved in college had stopped loving him. Then Mama would tell him that she had met Papa when they were seventeen, and that they had stayed in love, while her friends met new men in new pubs every week. She sounds wistful.
Nina rolls eyes when I say this. She tells me to give our mother more credit — she’d never fall in love with such a dramatic man, she tells me — Mama could only love quiet men who had something thoughtful to say about Doris Lessing, and didn’t talk more than they needed to. Remember what Mama had said when you cried that your old boyfriend wanted to follow you to college, she tells me. Falling in love with Papa had been easy because it hadn’t sucked them into each other. It was an intellectual engagement.
Our mother had once told us that when they were in school, she and Papa would sit at opposite ends of the class — Papa at the first desk in the first row, and Mama at the first desk in the last. He would take notes in every class — Mama only took frantic notes when they were reading Satyajit Ray — and she would pass him chits scribbled on paper torn out of notebooks. Our father never replied. When Nina asked her what she wrote in these chits, Mama refused to tell us. I think they were lines of poetry, and Nina thinks they were sketches of the back of Papa’s head, with different hairstyles. Papa has always hated both poetry and long hair.
And then their seventeen years together had acquired a grit-filled graininess. It had a rasping quality when you tried to put a finger on it, or gather it up in words.
Nina made the Artist sound like the boys that she wishes she has met, because the men she has known are like the man that I imagine the Artist to be. Nina has always fallen out of love quickly — because it’s not really love, she insists, and I’ve always fallen in love too quickly and wasted my time.
Then Nina and I smile when we think of the tip of our aunt’s nose turning red at this conversation with our mother. She would tell Mama that she disliked all artists, especially men who painted women, even if the women were fully clothed. Our aunt would say to herself that her sister was making us all suffer in her selfishness.
And then yesterday our aunt left the house when she saw the jasmine in Mama’s hair.
At dinner, I sat next to Mama, Mama sat opposite Papa, and Nina sat next to him, like always. I was serving myself rice when Papa said he wanted an air gun to shoot the wretched pigeons around our house, and then told our mother about a student who recorded his sociology class and put it on YouTube. He smiled, but he also tried to frown, because these days, he said, people were doing strange things that he didn’t understand.
Our mother laughed loudly, and Papa smiled.
Mama kissed Papa’s cheek before she left for work this morning. Nina and I watched her linger at his neck, and we saw Papa smile.
Mama has just come home. Papa is already asleep Nina and I can smell the jasmine in her hair when she walks past our room with her doctor’s coat on her arm.