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Lounge Fiction Special: ‘Just friends’ by Shastri Akella

Prashant finds that secrets shared over dessert are always special

Prashant's grandmother comes to live with his family, and will be sharing a room with him. Will he like his new roommate? (Illustration by Satwik Gade)

By Shastri Akella

LAST PUBLISHED 07.01.2024  |  01:00 PM IST

Prashant learned, over lunch, that Ammamma would soon be living with them. The assisted facility, her home for six years, was closing until the lockdown ended.

He’d be sharing his room with her. Which meant no more privacy with his boyfriend.

Amma said, “Better if your friend stops visiting."

Naana said, “Why take chances with this Chinese virus?"

“Stop calling it that," Prashant exclaimed. “You both hate Kartik, now proper reason you have to ban him."

Amma said, “Hate aa? We allowed him to spend time in our house, no?"

Kartik had visited Prashant on Ugadi. When he leaned forward to touch Amma’s feet, she curled her toes. He touched the floor instead and stood up straight. Prashant noticed the hurt his face fleetingly flickered with before he broke into a polite smile.

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Prashant walked behind Kartik, separated from him by the length of the shopping cart that he pushed in front of him. They stopped at the produce aisle. Prashant gave Kartik the news about Ammamma as he dropped four bags of carrots into his cart.

“Welcome to my life," Kartik said. He’d always shared his room with his grandmother.

After adding more produce to their carts, they moved to the fruit aisle and then the sale aisle where Kartik picked up a bag of apples that were starting to brown. The fridge stocked with dairy products was empty, all the milk gone.

“It’s a sign," Kartik joked. “Time you went vegan too."

Prashant pictured the smile under Kartik’s mask that covered his most beautiful features: his jawline, dotted with stubble, his strong chin, his upper lip, shaped like a bow.

Vuda Park, where their favourite bench was surrounded by crotons, was closed. The beaches of Vizag, where they would go on walks, passing a roasted bhutta back and forth, were now furiously patrolled: pedestrians violating the 24x7 curfew had to either prove that their doctor recommended a daily constitutional or pay a bribe or a fine.

Prashant looked around. No shopper or employee was approaching the empty fridges. He leaned forward, lowered Kartik’s mask, and raised his phone. The picture Prashant clicked captured Kartik’s striking jawline, his unquestionable affection for Prashant. He set it as his phone’s home screen background, visible only when his phone was unlocked.

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“These many carrots?" Amma asked, as she refrigerated the groceries.

Prashant’s father had been furloughed; his mother’s salary was halved until her office resumed in-person attendance. And now Ammamma would live with them as well. Prashant felt guilty about his thoughtless choice. Amma noticed. She said, ruffling his hair, “Don’t worry."


Prashant was attending a Zoom lecture in his room with the door closed. He heard the front door open, followed by excited conversations.

Ammamma was here. What if she came into his room?

A few weeks back, when Prof. Chary saw Kartik’s grandmother pottering in the background, he’d demanded, “Kartik, take your class in a private place so you can focus!"

Kartik replied, “I don’t have a private place. I am focusing but if her presence bothers you, I’ll turn my camera off."

Recollecting Kartik’s response calmed Prashant.

When class ended, he shut his laptop screen, texted Kartik, informing him of his grandmother’s arrival, and went and greeted Ammamma, touching her feet. She kissed his forehead. As always, she wore a white sari and had her hair wrapped in a bun at the back of her head. He picked up Ammamma’s shoulder bag and she followed him into his room.

“What’s your preference?" Ammamma said, looking from one bed, by the window, to the other, by the wall.

Pointing to the bed by the wall, Prashant replied, “That. I’m not a morning person."

“Ha," she said, walking to his desk. “Put up your class schedule, no? So I know when to leave the room?"

His phone chimed. Ammamma and he looked at it. His phone-screen, unlocked, had Kartik’s picture. Prashant gulped and locked his phone.

“Just a friend," Prashant lied.

“Why do people say ‘just’ a friend re?" Ammamma asked, sitting on the bed by the window. “My friends from the facility know me better than anyone else."

Prashant set her bag down. “Better than your husband of 42 years?"

“Sometimes, with family, you’re just a wife, a mother, a daughter. Friends see you for who you are."

This authentic conversation, Prashant thought, is better than the platitudes he fielded from his extended family. “You’ve gotten dark, so fair you were as a boy": that was especially cringe.

Prashant liked his new roommate.

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He woke up the next morning to a distinct smell: sweet, with a hint of spice to it. Rubbing his eyes, he got up and went to the kitchen where he saw his grandmother stirring a pan of grated carrots.

Gajar halwa?" he asked, excited. “For breakfast?"

“Why not?"

Prashant showered and got back to his room. There was a steel dabba next to his laptop. Ammamma was taking clothes out of her bag and putting them in the cupboard; Prashant had emptied two shelves for her.

She said, “‘Just friend’ has a name?"


“That dabba," she said, closing the cupboard door, “is for him. Gajar halwa."

Prashant blushed. “He’s vegan."

“So is the halwa," Ammamma said, “During my last few weeks at the facility, the doodhwala stopped showing up. So Arun taught me how to make oat milk."

Prashant said, “Arun’s your friend?"

“He and Subhadra," she replied.

“Just a friend?" Prashant asked, grinning.

“Join me for a walk this evening and I’ll tell."

As she was leaving the room, Prashant asked, “Kartik can join us?"

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Ammamma took her sandals off. She smiled when her feet met the cold, grainy beach sand. Prashant followed her lead.

“Subhadra was at the retirement home by the time I joined," Ammamma said as they walked.

“I was in the dining hall—I’d just sat down with my food—when she came in. You know, sometimes you see a stranger and feel like you’ve known them?"


“We spoke for hours about our favourite singers, our pet peeves. We met again for breakfast. That was when we spoke about our families. We’d both lost our spouses. Subhadra used ‘she’ when referring to her spouse. I foolishly thought it was a mistake. Until she named her spouse. Aarti."

Prashant turned and met Ammamma’s gaze.

Ammamma continued, “I was taken aback but I was loving our conversation—what we had."

“You got to know her before you knew about her," Prashant said.

Ammamma nodded. “Subhadra once said her love for Aarti slowly became a placid companionship, something she mistook at first for a loss of love. That’s the experience I had with your grandfather too." She placed a hand on Prashant’s shoulder. “It’s the most beautiful thing, to recognise yourself in someone else."

Prashant felt a wave of relief. He’d never felt so seen by a family member. How to hold this unexpected gift? He blinked his tears away. “And Arun?"

Laughing, she said, “Arun joined us four years back, and yes, my little gossip-monger, he’s a special friend. Obviously, this stays between us."

“Our meeting with Kartik also stays between us," Prashant said. “He’s a Madiga. My parents don’t like him."

She said, “Maybe it’s the easier of the two issues to name."

So they knew Kartik wasn’t just a friend but they didn’t want to acknowledge it by naming it so they, instead, aired caste-based objections? How sad, Prashant thought, that it’s easier to talk about an age-old prejudice than a healthy relationship between two consenting teenagers.

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Once, when Kartik was in Prashant’s room, Prashant reached for the glass tumbler that Kartik was served water in—not the steel tumblers that Prashant and his parents drank water from.

Kartik snapped, “You needn’t prove anything to me."

Prashant recognised the source of Kartik’s defensiveness. He resisted the urge to hug Kartik.

“I want your backwash," Prashant said.

Kartik smiled, picked the glass up, held it out to Prashant.


Ammamma and Prashant sat at a bench across RK apartments. Behind them was the unchanging rhythm of the waves. The sidewalk, once thick with pedestrians and hawkers of muri-mixture, balloons and bhuttas, was empty.

“Do you miss your friends?" Prashant asked.

“We WhatsApp daily. They’re both with their children in Bengaluru."

“Maybe you could visit? After this pandemic ends."

“Better still, we could go back to our facility. His children may not understand. My daughter definitely won’t. She won’t say that of course. Instead, she’ll mention his caste."

Prashant squeezed Ammamma’s arm. “That’s why you didn’t introduce him to us when we visited."

“Nor Subhadra," Ammamma said. “Your parents will say she’s too ‘forward’. She doesn’t deserve their judgement."

When Kartik joined them, he had his mask on. After the introductions, Ammamma said, “Take off your mask if you want. You’re part of Prashu’s covid bubble, no?"

“Prashu told you about me?" Kartik asked, taking his mask off.

“About you and both of you," she replied, holding out the dabba.

Kartik’s eyes widened as he took the dabba. A police jeep coasted down the road. Ammamma took out her doctor’s letter which mandated a daily constitutional for respiratory reasons. The jeep just drove past them.

Pointing to her white hair, Ammamma said, “This has some advantages I guess." The boys laughed. Ammamma added, “Kartik, I heard your grandmother lives with you too. Would she like to join me on a walk?"

“I’ll ask," Kartik said. “I met your daughter and, no offence, I thought the tree wouldn’t be far from the apple."

“Fair enough," Ammamma said.

“I was wrong," Kartik admitted.

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Kartik texted Prashant a picture of the gajar halwa emptied on to a plate. It retained the dabba’s shape.

—Looks like vegan carrot cake, Kartik wrote. She should sell them on Zomato!

Wanting to tell Ammamma, when Prashant went into the kitchen, he saw her sitting with his parents at the dining table, their faces grim.

Amma asked Prashant, “You gave Kartik our halwa?"

“She asked me why there was less," Ammamma explained apologetically.

“Just little bit I gave!" Prashant protested.

“In my dabba," Ammamma chimed.

“Every morsel counts," Naana said. “I don’t have a job."

Prashant retorted, “You’re bringing up your job because I gave Kartik one dabba of halwa—you really want me to believe it’s about money?"

“You see how he talks to us?" Amma said, looking at Ammamma.

“You see how you deflect?"

“This is what happens—behaviour like this—when you have friends like Kartik," Naana said.

Prashant left the kitchen. He knew he’d regret anything he said in a fit of anger.


They ate their dinner in silence. He declined the halwa for dessert.

Later, in their room, Prashant shared Kartik’s suggestion with Ammamma.


“It’s a food delivery service."

Ammamma said, “I like Kartik’s idea. Now listen to mine."


Prashant opened the door and let Kartik in, Naana said, still looking at the TV, “Prashu, you didn’t tell your friend that Ammamma lives with us now?"

Amma, who was in her room, talking to someone over Zoom, went quiet.

“I called him," Ammamma said, emerging from the kitchen. “You got everything? Come."

Kartik took his shoes off. He and Prashant followed her into the kitchen. Kartik left the shopping bag on the kitchen table and washed his hands at the sink. He fished out a bottle of disinfectant from his pocket and sprayed it on the plastic bag. After clocking one minute on his phone, he opened it. Naana, standing at the kitchen door, looked impressed.

Ammamma extracted a round baking tray from the plastic bag. With a cloth, she picked up a copper vessel and turned it upside down over the tray. A steaming oval of gajar halwa landed on the tray. She used panakam—thickened sugar—for the halwa to retain its shape and sustain the illusion that it’s a cake.

“Aunty," Naana hesitantly said.

“Don’t worry, son," Ammamma said. “This is from my pension cheque."

Naana turned and left. Amma slammed her door shut. Ammamma winced comically. Kartik made a seller profile on Zomato. He took pictures of the cake and described it as homemade, vegan and nut-free.

Kartik said, pointing to the five vacant stars next to Ammamma’s profile, “Once someone rates it, things will move quickly."

“Thank you, babu," Ammamma said. “Is your grandma joining me for a walk?" Kartik nodded. “Prashu can give you company at your place when we’re away."

At once, Naana hollered, “Aunty!" and Amma hollered, “Amma!"


About three hours later, Prashant got a text from Kartik.


—Already? Prashant replied.

—I posted the link on my apartment’s WhatsApp. Many youngsters here love vegan+homemade. One of them bought it.

When they met for the walk that evening, Ammamma handed Kartik the cake. He took it into his apartment complex, came back out with his grandmother, and said, “I told them to rate your shop. You should order cake trays and boxes in bulk. You’ll need them!"

“I will," Ammamma said. She curled a hand around Kartik’s grandmother. “Now off you two go so I get to know my new friend."


Ammamma sold 18 cakes in six days. She transferred the money to her daughter’s account.

Ammamma said, over dinner one night, “If you want me to continue–"

“I do," Amma said.

“Then Kartik gets to hang out with Prashu here."

That night, after they retired to their beds, Kartik said, “How is Amma less progressive than her previous generation?"

Ammamma said, “I was hard on your mother, Prashu. When she was your age."

Kartik said, “You changed. They won’t."

“That’s what you would’ve said if you knew me then."

“So I have to hope that someday my parents may treat Kartik with dignity?"


When Kartik came over the next day, Ammamma put on her slippers. “Is your grandma downstairs?" she asked. “We’re trying a new route today."

Kartik followed Prashant into his room. They heard the front door close after Prashant closed the door to his room.

Shastri Akella’s debut novel, The Sea Elephants, is out in India and the US. Originally from Andhra Pradesh, he’s now a professor of creative writing at Michigan State University.