Absence can be heavy; it can weigh you down. It had made Sudhakar’s shoulders droop for over ten years now. His son had walked out on them and there was no way they could find him. ‘Not the police,’ his wife Hemlata had said. She was afraid of the courts and the black-robed ones, whether on the bench or the bar. Her father had been caught in a land dispute with his cousins, in cases and appeals that had gone on for years. Litigation under the law the British had left us with was a sort of a chakravyuha, a roll of barbed wire in which you got entangled for life. ‘He could have come under a truck,’ Sudhakar had suggested to his wife one day, and she had refused to speak to him for a week.
She had been visiting astrologers, believed in sadhus and holy mantras of not-so-holy men. A havan had been organized in the house, wood-fire and ghee and a tonsured pujari with a hoarse voice—and of course, white sheets spread on the floor. A red thread had been sanctified by prayer and then tied round his wrist. That much he had allowed on his wife’s insistence. He had no time for pandit and pujari, had cultivated distaste for saffron and ochre, these supposedly spiritual signposts. But what can you do but humour your wife who has lost her son?
The son Sukhdeo had always been too quiet—speech had landed on the child’s tongue after he had crossed the age of three. Did he have enough friends in college, his parents had kept wondering. He stayed in his room upstairs on the second floor—just his room and the wide windy terrace lined with flower pots. Of course, there was a TV antenna fixed there—even though TV and its Doordarshan avatar were new to the country. They had given him a small set but he never switched it on, or almost never. He had his tape deck though and played his Kishori Amonkars frequently.
Sudhakar avoided going up and prying.
Hemlata would egg him on. ‘See what he’s up to? Can’t you do even that?’
‘Let him have his privacy,’ he would tell her.
‘What privacy! What privacy from father and mother! He should be sitting with us and chatting or going out with friends. I wouldn’t mind if he got drunk somewhere, and beat up someone, or got beaten up. Even a brawl would be better than this clo-cloi—what is the word?’
‘Cloistered living, you wanted to say.’
She would nod. He had a knack of knowing what she wanted to say, rather where she got stuck.
He’d shake his head in disbelief. ‘He is a brooder.’
‘What is that supposed to mean?’ she’d ask, agitated.
‘You say this so matter-of-factly, as if it was the naturalest thing in the world to brood! Wah!’ Her grammar went awry when her temper rose.
He’d just shrug—the best gesture invented to date when faced with angry wives.
He had asked her one day—that was two years after their son disappeared—if what had happened to her father was the only reason why she resisted going to the ‘authorities’.
Yes, it was, she had said.
But he had seen her eyes turn evasive and her lips quiver.
He had persisted.
She eventually came out with it. What if the police confirmed their worst fears? What if they dug out the bones of some buried jackal and said, these are your son’s skeletal remains?
He had tried to allay her fears. She was being paranoid, he had told her, and then couldn’t resist an aside—no one buries jackals.
She had lost her temper. ‘You know damn well what I mean. I don’t mean the police will hand me bones of a jackal or dog or hyena. Even I know that. Some beggar’s bones, some unclaimed dead body lying in the mortuary…’
He didn’t say a thing, though he had felt like telling her they wouldn’t do a thing like that.
She quietened down and then with considerable effort had said, ‘Suppose Sukhdeo is dead and they confront me with that?’
He had no answer. When facts turn brutal, not many people want to face them.
She had hinted at irrefutable proof—clothes and things, the gold chain he always wore, the two strands of that sanctified red thread which were wound around his left wrist also.
Excerpted from Going: Stories of Kinship by Keki N. Daruwalla, published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2022.