The house knew when Baba came home. He would turn the key into the lock all the way clockwise and when it wouldn’t yield, he would swear his heart out at that unsuspecting standard Yale, making a huge racket in the process till he finally figured which was the right way round.
Gopu, the house help, would be bursting giggles at this predicament. But Baba never got used to using those keys, Aaie always opened the door for him.
Fernandes kaka, the next door neighbour, with sharp ears and even sharper mouth would never fail to look from his main door grill and shout, “What Man Joshi, can’t open door with a simple key? Always waking me up from my afternoon nap…”
Baba was also always quick to retort, “Freddy, you sleep with eyes open kya? Lazy bugger, it’s almost evening now!” Fernandes kaka would give out a big humph — but keep watching the whole spectacle till Baba went in.
As soon as Baba walked in from waging that war, Gopu would instantly stop chuckling and slyly come rushing in from the kitchen entrance to pick up the two cloth bags full of groceries. Those bags were sewn together by Aaie out of old pillow covers or some such sundry cloths, and were carried around everywhere Baba went — they brought in vegetables, medicines, library books, sometimes even a secretly wrapped bhelpuri in between newspapers for Baba to eat surreptitiously!
“Saheb, why do you trouble yourself? I will open the door for you, just ring the bell…” a giggling Gopu would say.
“The problem is with that damn door, Gopu! How many times I’ve told you to call the locksmith?”
“But Saheb there is nothing wrong with the…”
“Aare! I’m telling you there is!” and that’s how Gopu always got cut off.
“You have made kheer na? Not too sweet, else Prasaad won’t eat. And here, take these Jilbees, too. I got them fresh from Tambe bua. Warm them up again when Prasaad comes, ok?”
“Ho! Saheb, shall I bring you your chaha?”
“Yes! Yes! Get it over to the balcony, make it 2 cups, Leela will want some too, put cinnamon in hers… don’t forget… the one Prasaad brought from Sri Lanka.”
“But Saheb…Malkin bai…”
“No ‘buts’ Gopu! Leela will be up soon, so best to keep it ready. Get it over to the balcony…”
October’s summer temper was best bearable at eventide, when it would finally yield for the day to a peace pact, allowing a calm breeze to cool it down. It also, was the time when Baba would fancy a cup of chai — boiled over and over till it was strong and sweet — not very unlike him. Aaie had brewed that sweetness in him, it was never easy, but she did it.
The lock though, was one exception.
Chai was had about 6pm. Gopu knew it all too well… Baba would be showered and changed into his starched white kurta pyjama and would be pottering about in his study, he would pick up a book from a shelf and then half walking-half reading, magically make his way to the balcony. It was a wonder that he would never stumble as he did so. His study opened up to a large living room — full of bits and bobs and trinkets collected from all over — but the 3 cocktail ottomans and the gorgeous monotone pin-tuck pillows made from Aaie’s old silk sarees were the biggest hazard. Yet, Baba manoeuvred by them like a seasoned driver who just drove without seeing what lay ahead. He knew his way like the back of his hand.
The “great outdoors” is what Baba nicknamed the balcony. Once outside, he would sit himself in the swing, a gorgeous Burma teak with lotus carvings on its arms and legs. It wore a burgundy coloured cotton backrest and matching seat and had a spacious armrest that doubled up as a tea stand. No one really knew how old that swing was — not even Baba. But it seemed to have hosted every season and every reason since his grandfather’s time, but that was only how far his memory went. He was held in his fathers arms and rocked to sleep when he was barely a few months and he did the same with Prasaad when he was a baby. He and his newly wedded wife had sat for many hours — chatting away under the moonlit sky, many a lonely tear too was shed and as many a secret were whispered.
A gentle breeze had just set in motion and as if on cue, lights in the sky began to slowly dim. Baba took his place on the swing, kept the book down for a bit and began to take in the distant Sahyadri’s majesty. At this stage of his journey all he wanted to do was go back to things that never changed, and these mountains, which had seen so much were just that —immutable.
“Who are you reading?”
“Irawati Karve’s Yugant, your favourite! But what took you so long today? Chai is almost lukewarm, shall I ask Gopu…”
“No! No! I’m fine… Karve’s perspectives were so spot on, no? Being is always afraid of not being…”
Baba took a quick sip of the chai and a wistful smile played on his lips, “I’m so happy Prasaad is coming home for Diwali this year. Gopu has prepared his special khichadi too, just like the way you make it, then there is kheer and Jilbees too!”
“Huh? What do you mean khichadi like me? Prasaad likes it the way only I make it! Let’s see whose he prefers tonight…”
Baba gave a chuckle, Aaie still had her competitive thing going!
“But, I’m happy you two will get a chance to bond… It’s not been an easy year for him.”
“Nor for me! You keep forgetting….”
“I know, but he is not as strong as you are… Our boy needs you even more than he has ever needed me.”
“But, I don’t know if I can be like you, Leela.”
“He is no longer looking for me! He is looking for you… and in someways you too are looking for him, no?”
“When he was a kid, I always envied the way he would run to you for everything. I thought I was entitled to a little more share of his love if I got him that train set or that bicycle he so wanted in 10th grade… It didn’t quite work that way, did it?”
“And he would think the best way to be entitled to yours was through great grades! It didn’t work either, right? Does life need to be that complicated?”
Baba looked up at the now night sky, he could suddenly sense the loneliness of the few stars that shone so brightly that it seemed to him that their brilliance was a mere facade in their effort to forget their eternal solitude.
Just at that moment, the doorbell rang. Baba got up from the swing, a wide smile now played on his lips. He took a second to take in the city —it was glowing like silent embers dissipating the haunting darkness of the night. Tomorrow, the lights in his house would go up too, after a year.
He walked up from the balcony and made his way through the living room to the entrance door. He took a deep breath and opened it, and there, right in front of him, stood Prasaad, also nurturing a smile on his face. He immediately touched Baba’s feet:
“How have you been Baba?”
“Well, I’ve been waiting for you…”
Baba and Prasaad hugged each other like two wandering travellers having finally found each other, none wanting to let go. Till they finally did.
“Baba! Wait, let me first say hello to Aaie… She must be waiting.”
Baba nodded with a twinkle in his eye, he knew Aaie was waiting for him.
Prasaad, tucked his bag near the dinner table and rushed into Baba’s study. On a wall opposite to the table was the picture of the happiest and most elegant woman he had ever known… his Aaie.
“Aaie, I’m home… And I’m hungry and tired! Won’t you give me my khichadi?”