Three years ago, we moved to Darwin with my husband’s job during the famous build-up season. He had been offered a project manager position with a housing development project for the indigenous community. Since our kids were young, we decided to use the opportunity of living in a small town with warm tropical weather. We were given a company house to live in for the tenure. Aakash joined the work straight away and left me with the responsibility of setting the house and finding the school for our kids.
We did not know anyone in Darwin and I was overjoyed when driving back from the local grocery store. A car followed me and pulled out in our driveway right behind mine. Out came Vasanthi, a tall, slender woman with a long black braid. Accompanying her was her daughter.
“I saw you at the supermarket and called you, but you didn’t see me. Are you new to Darwin?” asked Vasanthi.
Vasanthi lived on the same street. Her daughter Sonali was five years old, a year younger than our daughter Richa and a year older than our son Karan. She invited us for dinner that night and soon our families became inseparable. Her husband, Nilesh, was an accountant. A self-conscious man with distinct South Indian features. Nilesh developed an instant liking for Aakash. They had plenty to talk about from the beginning, even though it was evident that Nilesh was a quiet fellow.
He was very much in awe of his wife’s beauty. Vasanthi was the kind of person in whose presence everyone else dimmed. At five feet eight, she towered above all of us. Dove eyes, long hair reaching to her waist. Her curvaceous body was perfect for the sari. Like Nilesh, she had South Indian features except for the complexion. She was fairer than even north Indian women. She was the kind of woman about whom it is said men want to own her and women want to befriend her.
Vasanthi made friends easily. Half of the town knew her. For the next few months, she became my companion and guide. She showed me where to shop for ethnic vegetables, whom to call for house cleaning, and which playgroups were more tolerant of multicultural children. All this time telling me stories from her life.
“I was barely twenty years old when I got married. I was in the second year of college when my father passed away.”
“Would you like to resume your studies?” I inquired sympathetically.
“Oh, I am. I am finishing my classical dance degree soon.”
“Classical dance degree? Here in Darwin?” I asked incredulously.
“I go to India each year, for three months,” she added in a matter-of-fact tone.
Aakash and I started walking with kids in the soft evening breeze of Darwin beaches. On weekends we took them cycling around the park. When the build-up season came, we joined the crowds to see the lightning on the Nightcliff beach.
Soon my days got filled with the children’s outings and craft get-togethers. Three days a week swimming, two days decoupage, in-between scrapbooking and glass painting.
When school started, I met other mums and with stay with them to help the teachers in the classroom.
Even though we lived in the same street, I didn’t see Vasanthi that much. Whenever I went to her house unannounced, she won’t be home. Nilesh would inform me that she was out, either organizing some fundraising event or helping someone with a wedding or birthday celebration.
On most of these occasions, I would find Nilesh either doing dishes or vacuuming the house. Vasanthi hated the housework. She cooked whenever they were entertaining. For the rest of the days cooking was Nilesh’s responsibility.
It didn’t matter how busy Nilesh was at work. He would never skip taking their daughter to various classes her mother had enrolled her in.
When she was not home late at night he would read her book and put Sonali to sleep. Sonali was always dressed immaculately. Like her mother, she had expensive tastes. Like her father, she was quiet and lacked confidence. For her mother, she was a living doll whom she could dress as she pleased. Every time Vasanthi went to India she brought back dresses worth seeing.
Nilesh and I often met at the park at the end of the street where my kids loved to play. Whenever we got there, Sonali would also come with her father.
“She loves the swing. She has been coming here ever since she was a toddler.” Nilesh would sit patiently on the bench equipped with a water bottle and peanut butter sandwich.
“You must feel lucky to have such a lovely child and such a lovely wife. He blushed. After a bit of hesitation, he shared the story of their marriage. “When her parents brought her proposal to my mother, I couldn’t believe my luck. She could have married anyone. I mean, I used to watch her in the college, from a distance. Every boy wanted to be her friend. Wanted to marry her. Boys much more handsome than me. Much richer than me. I indeed am lucky.”
Each year, when Vasanthi went to India to continue with her classical dance degree, she would take Sonali with her. Nilesh would be by himself. We often invited him to have dinner with us. Aakash and Nilesh would watch footy over beer, while I would cook Indian meals while keeping an eye on kids playing in the backyard.
Occasionally, Aakash will offer to do BBQ to give me a break from cooking. Two men will go to the local shops to get fresh fish, marinate it in lemon, ginger, and garlic, wrap it up in aluminum foil and cook it on the charcoal grill. I would heat frozen chips in the oven, and we would eat outside along with garden-fresh salads and relishes.
This year we went to Bali for a holiday. When we came back, I reminded Aakash to ring Nilesh and invite him over for dinner. But he got busy, catching up with work and I with unpacking and bringing the house back in order.
It was almost the end of February. On a Saturday morning, Aakash was buried in the newspaper. I was thinking about what to cook when I realized we hadn’t had BBQ this year.
“Aakash, how about inviting Nilesh and Vasanthi for BBQ tonight. Vasanthi must be back from India. Kids can play together while we can catch up.”
“That reminds me.” Aakash looked up from the paper, “I saw Nilesh at the shops the other day. He looked… disheveled.” He paused before continuing, “When I shook hand with him, he looked the other way. He had a brooding expression on his face. As if he was trying to avoid me.”
“Did you ask him to come for dinner?”
“No,” Aakash got buried in the newspaper again, “It didn’t feel right.”
“Maybe you should ring him, just to find out if he is OK.”
“I guess I should,” Aakash mumbled from his paper. I got busy mopping the floors and cooking. The suitcases from the holiday were still needed to be put away. I got Aakash to put them on the top shelf of the wardrobe.
A couple of days later, Aakash mentioned that he rang Nilesh a couple of times, but there was no response.
Weekends passed and so did the weekdays. Children’s school was going to start on Monday and after the Saturday morning cleaning regime, we took kids shopping for school supplies.
A few hours later, we headed towards the car park with a trolley full of bags from Big W and K-Mart promising kids dinner at Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Rather than eating at the crowded shopping center, we drove to the one by the lake. At the car park of the fast-food restaurant, Aakash spotted Nilesh’s car. Like us, he might have also brought his family to the fast-food joint to mark the end of the holiday.
I got excited at the prospect of catching up with Vasanthi after her trip from India. We always had a lot to discuss when she came back from India, starting from the well-being of the family members to the latest fashion and shopping spree she would have had.
We didn’t find Nilesh inside the restaurant. We ordered the food and waited in line for our food to be ready. There was still no sign of Nilesh. We picked up our tray and sat down near the window overlooking the lake when Aakash spotted Nilesh. He was sitting on a bench in the park overlooking the lake. He was alone. Kids ate their meal while Aakash went to say hello to him. I watched from the window. Aakash was right. I had never seen Nilesh so disarrayed. Hunched at the shoulders, he had the posture of an older man.
Aakash tapped him on the shoulder from behind and offered his hand, which he shook, sitting down. I watched Aakash sitting next to him and put his arm around his shoulder. They talked for a while, or rather, Aakash talked and Nilesh nodded.
“Mum, she is eating my chips,” Karan whined.
Richa made a face mimicked Karan.
Children’s bickering brought my attention back to the room. I separated their chips. A sickening feeling arose from the bottom of my stomach. Something was not right. When I looked up Aakash was back. I raised an eyebrow and he nodded. ‘He will come tonight.’
At home, I prepared a simple meal while Aakash helps the kids prepare their school bags. We decided to feed the kids early so that they could sleep early. By half-past eight, both of them were in bed with their neatly ironed school uniform hanging from the wardrobe handle.
The doorbell rang faintly and only once. Aakash opened the door and brought Nilesh in. I greeted him. He nodded. Aakash handed him a glass of whisky when he slumped in the lounge. Both men sat down and I went to the kitchen to heat the food.
His hair was long and badly needed a cut. His face was unshaved at least for a week. It seemed like he had been sleeping in the same clothes he was wearing now.
He stayed silent and so was Aakash. The only sound in the room was of me putting the food on the table. I wanted to announce that the dinner is ready when I caught Aakash’s eye. He indicated I come and sit with them.
I sat on the lounge in front and waited. As if it was the cue Nilesh was waiting for. He hadn’t touched his drink. Rolling the glass between his hands, he leaned forward and said in a faint voice, ‘I did everything. Everything I could.’
We both remained silent.
‘Even when I couldn’t, I did whatever I could. But I should have known. She was too good for me. I didn’t deserve her. She was meant to have a better life. A life I could never give her.’
I couldn’t stop myself and asked, “What happened, Nilesh?”
“She is gone. She is gone,’ he looked straight at me with his red eyes, ‘apparently, he was waiting for her since high school. Never married because of her. And now he is a millionaire in America. Owns a hotel chain there.”
Aakash put his glass on the side table and reached forward to place his hand on Nilesh’s back.
‘She took Sonali with her too.’ And he broke down crying. His body shook with the violent sobs which came from deep within where it hurt the most.
© Neera Mahajan, November 2015