Better Late Than Never

Amita Basu

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that every human soul must be in want of another. Growing up, Vishrammi had this axiom drummed into her skull and never thought of challenging it. Then came puberty, launching rockets of rebellion.

Her friends lost their wits, mooning over pimple-faced boys, doodling their married signatures inside trigonometry books, sucking in their stomachs at recess before the bathroom mirror. The nuns who ran the school had installed tiny, rust-splotched mirrors, so the girls had to stand all the way back across the bathroom on tiptoes to see their stomachs. Vishrammi, watching, decided that romance was not for her.

It was 1991. The country was high on liberalisation. People were grasping at 100-gramme neon-green packets of Lays chips sweet and salty, 200-millilitre bottles of Pepsi coffee-black and sugar-sweet. Marriage, which had been for millennia God’s will for all mankind, had become a matter between your wallet, your groin and yourself: a matter merely of common sense. When Vishrammi asked her parents whether she’d have to get married someday, they replied, “Everyone needs security.” She heard them correctly: if she could provide for herself, she would free her parents from their duty to get her married off, settled down, dispensed with.

At fourteen, Vishrammi topped her class of eighty. At sixteen, she topped the school district, graduating early. Vishrammi could’ve gone anywhere, become anything. Doctor, lawyer, software engineer. But she enrolled at Delhi University in English Literature. Her parents were devastated by this throwing-away of her future. “If you don’t mend your ways,” they warned, “we’ll have a heart attack.” They gathered the clan to chastise and commiserate, but Vishrammi was impervious. Next year, when she earned D.U.’s gold medal, her parents declared, “She’s the smartest girl, always knew what she was doing. I told you so.”

Vishrammi earned her PhD at twenty-three. Still virginal, already matronly, she settled down to teach students to bisect the Bard’s double entendres and decode Derrida’s deconstruction. Her colleagues were much older, their faces creased with teething troubles and impossible in-laws, their abdomens, under their meticulously draped saris, scarred with childbirthall female, of course: for only men too stupid for science, or women who needn’t be breadwinners, choose the humanities. Every few months one of them squeezed out another baby, and stopped by Vishrammi’s cabin to ask when the prodigy would settle down. 

Vishrammi would smile till they left, fume afterwards, and answer them by squeezing out another paper in an international journal. On Sunday evenings, babies wailing on laps, husbands lounging with the Statesman, heels above head, Vishrammi’s colleagues would shred her latest paper over milk coffee and sugar-studded Nice biscuits. After due deliberation they concurred that the secret of Vishrammi’s prodigious paper productivity was deep dissatisfaction with her personal lifevery deep, very well-concealed, consummate actress as she was. Pity was called for, and flowed freely with the tea.

Every summer vacation, Vishrammi went to the hills. From the guesthouse balcony she watched the fog leak from the lowest mountain’s armpit to blanket the whole range. How peaceful to be among the clouds. The first day or two, coming from Delhi’s circus traffic’s nonstop honking, the resounding silence was irresistibly soporific. She’d awaken with a jolt, ideas for books ricocheting in her skull, her mind stretching and gambolling in the silence like a dog in poop.

The guesthouse caretaker would smile, and bring Vishrammi tea at her paper-strewn desk, even when she forgot to ask. Vishrammi’s brow would unfurrow from her literary labours, and she’d offer the old man a tip. He always refused. His neighbours called him a fool. They knew that Vishrammi was a big-city professor, too odd for an ordinary groom, but saving all her handsome salaryliving on campus, dining at mess. They knew, for she’d told them, for she hid nothing. The old man could’ve had her, but he didn’t want her. He liked her.

Vishrammi hopscotched from success to success, publishing papers in top journals, getting foreigners to review her latest book, publishing her own book reviews into top international dailies, supervising the innovative work of doctoral students: students who hadn’t yet surrendered to the banalities of finances, family, and new fridge; students whom she treated, to her colleagues’ amusement, like her peers. 

Vishrammi never made flesh-and-blood friends. She was content to confide in Little Women’s Jo, A Dubious Battle’s Doc, and Buddenbrooks’s Antonie. Between them, these three understood her rebellions and ambitions, her existential ailments, and the curious yearning that sometimes seized her. But this last generally happened after a day of being sniggered at by her colleagues, so she dismissed it as a socially constructed, therefore artificial yearning. (Vishrammi’s academic work was cutting-edge, but in her personal life, her reasoning was crude: what existed only in words didn’t exist at all, she thought.)

When Vishrammi was thirty-nine, her mother died of a stroke. After the funeral, Vishrammi sat in the empty house with her stunned father. 

“She wanted you to marry,” he mumbled, eventually. “That was her final wish.” Vishrammi didn’t contradict him, didn’t remind him that Mumma had died in her sleep, oddly-placed for handing down final wishes. “Independence is very well, but when you grow oldyou will pine for a companion.” Vishrammi didn’t bother to remind him there were no guarantees in life, that everyone dies alone. 

“Come live with me, Papa,” said Vishrammi. 

Papa offered the decent minimum of resistance, then packed his bags. “Alright, but don’t let me get in your way. You’re old enough, you pick out a man for yourself, however you judge best. I’ll look the other way… Your mother always said it wasn’t too late for you.” Vishrammi, sweet-tempered Vishrammi, who’d been sending money home for years, pursed her lips, dissimulating proper gratitude for Mumma’s high opinion. 

They went to Delhiby flight, at Vishrammi’s insistence. She hoped this new experience at age seventy would uplift Papa’s spirits. But Papa just sat there, staring out the window, oblivious even to the air-hostesses with smooth hair and immaculate makeup.

Decades of de facto celibacy, grief, age, and now transplantation had made Papa a woman. All day he shuffled around Vishrammi’s bungalow on campus, tidying up, mumbling to himself. At mealtimes he’d sit across from her at the table, hesitating womanlike to eat his own meal till the (wo)man of the house had finished hers. When she addressed him, it took his mumbling lips ages to start making sound. “Your mother said,” he kept mumbling, “it wasn’t too late for you.”

Vishrammi hadn’t realised how close her parents had been. She’d never seen them touch, not even a hand to the shoulder: like all Indian parents, they were sexless bar the procreational mandate. Sometimes Vishrammi was gentle with Papa; sometimes she tried tough love, hoping to goad him into recruiting himself. But had he anything left to recruit? She began lying awake at night, staring at her bed’s smooth other half. Perhaps Mumma had lain so, on her side, whispering to Papa, “If I die, you tell Vishruit’s not too late for her.” She’d catch herself, snap out of it, and shut her eyes. 

Papa kept creeping about the house. Vishrammi began staying in bed later and later every morning, just leaving herself time to get dressed and hurry out the door. The Hindu, which she used to read to Papa, at morning tea after her five kilometre jog around campus, she began tucking under her arm, to read over lunch. She longed for someone to confide in, to tell her what to do about Papa. A grandchild running around would snap him awake. But she’d never wanted children. Had she? She was no longer sure. Anyway, it was too late. She was forty-three. Realising that this decision, which all her well-wishers had been thrusting at her, was safely behind her, should’ve produced relief. It produced only that old, curious yearning.

She lunched in her cabin, the tray delivered from the mess, while her colleagues downstairs whiled away an hour or two over deep-fried puri and gobi manchurian. Vishrammi’s mind strayed from The Hindu. One afternoon, on a whim, she visited 

She filled in her profile, guiltily peeking out her cabin window, her fingers on her laptop as antsy as a debutante bank burglar’s. BharatMatrimony’s algorithm presented her with a list of matches. 

She opened the first profile. A man’s face flashed onscreen: passport photo, white background, blue shirt, big limpid eyes. A shadow flickered outside her office. Vishrammi half-jumped from her seat and shut her Chrome, switched off her monitor, and frowned sceptically at her Hindu.

But the big limpid eyes haunted her dreams. They watched her toss and turn on the rumpled half of the bed. They stared up at her from the face of an undergraduate, and she flushed and stammered and turned away to dab with a chalk-stub at the blackboard. This was unacceptable. Not even at twenty-three had she felt attracted to a student. She contacted the Bharat Matrimony man. Amrit Beriwal. They discussed meeting.

Amrit suggested Chandni Chowk. Vishrammi hesitated. Everyone in Delhi knows Chandni Chowk, everyone goes there to shop for cheap sandals, brand-ripoff handbags, lehengas for a cousin’s wedding, saris for their own wedding. Vishrammi had lived in Delhi two decades, but she’d never visited Chandni Chowk. Too noisy. Besides, she never needed anything. Now sitting at her laptop, at her desk facing her wallful of diplomas, her bedroom window opening onto the sleepy garden, she pictured Chandni Chowk. A riot of colours, loudspeakers throbbing with music, the air sweet with spicy, deep-fried dough and pungent with sweat, thick with all the living she had missed. She struggled to breathe. “Okay, Amrit. See you there.”

But Amrit took her to a chic little café overlooking Chandni Chowk. He was about her age, neither obese nor pungent, neither lecherous nor tonguetied. Passable. Vishrammi had bathed twice, changed five times, and tried three hairstyles, all the while shaking her head.

“Forty-three,” Amrit began, “is late to start dating. Will you go first, or shall I?” Vishrammi giggled and tilted her glass of ice tea, the better to stare into it. Was he being forthright or rude? Amrit continued, “My parents have been nagging at me to get married since I got my first job.” 

Vishrammi asked him about his work. Intent on getting the most fun out of this dating thing, she had refrained from looking him up beforehand. 

Ducking his head between his shoulders, he said, “Software engineer. But I’ll try not to be boring! Please don’t walk away.”

“Of course not!” But Vishrammi had in fact drawn back across the table, and her face had fallen. She prided herself on her manners; she recruited her best smile. But really, what could they talk about? Everyone knows software engineers never read, never stargaze, never masticate the imponderables. “Please tell me more.”

He told her about blockchain and cryptocurrency, how it worked, and what he did and how, lucidly. She nodded along eagerly. Something to do with money, she understood that much. Vishrammi knew exactly how much money she had, in what assetsnothing venturesome, all fixed and recurring deposits, and one mutual fund. But in transacting money, moving money around, in money for money’s sake, she had no more interest than a pig in pearls. She beguiled the time by mentally reciting her favourite Shakespeare speeches: the tribune’s tirade against Julius Caesar’s fickle public, deserting Pompey who’d served them well for Caesar who served only himself; Prospero telling Miranda how gullibility had cost him his kingdom; Leontes wondering whether poison can kill you if you don’t know you’ve swallowed it. Amrit finished his narrative. Vishrammi swallowed her yawn, but not before it had squeezed out her tears. Bright-eyed, she said, “That’s fascinating!”

Amrit laughed softly. Vishrammi felt exposed. It was his turn to sit back. He gazed at her: not contemptuously, only assessingly, as she gazed at her most impervious students. “In my defence,” said Amrit, “a whole generation of boys were pushed into software, at least those of us who weren’t hopeless in school. Doesn’t mean we aren’t also trying to be interesting.”

“Of course not.” Vishrammi bit her tongue. 

A fat lot of good a lifetime’s literature had done her, leaving her so closed-minded! She was as bad as her colleagues. The ghost of a smile creased Amrit’s eyes. He was a perfectly-balanced boat, dancing on the sea: no storm of her dunderheaded contempt could rock him. A yearning to earn his esteem seized Vishrammi. Her smile was no ghost, was fullblooded with good intentions.

Amrit worked from home, mostly nights, so Vishrammi began devoting her afternoons and weekends to him. Any guilt she felt on Papa’s behalf she repressed: after all, he’d wanted this for her, and so, apparently, had Mumma. How had she ever imagined she didn’t need a flesh-and-blood friend? Amrit contained a whole new world behind his forehead, whole new perspectives which weren’t spelled out for her leisurely perusal in black and white, which she had to worm out in the half-sense, constantly-edited imperfection of ordinary human speech. Amrit was an adventure. Rope-girdle around waist, nailed boots on her feet, Vishrammi looked up the mountain and realised that she’d never really learned to converse. To her colleagues, literature was merely a livelihood. And her students were too ignorant, too deferential, too easily excited by their brain’s free-range sputterings, to engage her in real conversation. She’d learned to lecture but not to speak. 

Racing to make up for lost time, to learn what she should’ve learned thirty years ago, Vishrammi embarked on Amrit as a full-time project. She too, was finally among the world’s normal people, among the accepted.

Vishrammi had been saving for a flat, for when she retired. Just a small place: in Delhi a closet costs a crore. She’d intended to rent it out at first. Now she talked it over with Amrit, and decided it’d be better to move in now, to move away from campus, which was, like most campuses, insular and gossipy. “We don’t want anyone prying,” said Amrit, and she agreed.

She paid the whole sum down, butover Amrit’s protestsput both their names on the deed. She knew Amrit would pay her back his share, bit by bit. He had recently buried both his parents after long stays in ICU. During the weeks they’d dated, he had once or twice begun speaking of those days, briefly and haltingly. Vishrammi had patted his hand and shushed his lips. She’d felt grateful that Mumma had not suffered, had left behind neither debts nor the nightmare image of herself pale and white-sheeted, plastic tubes wending their way around an antiseptic-stinking room, winding around her throat.

Vishrammi and Amrit met in March, got the flat in May, and set the date for their wedding in July. No need for a long engagement. The traditions of millennia, traditions so outdated, didn’t apply in her case. News of the wedding made Papa perk up with such alacrity that she wondered if his whole malaise hadn’t been put-on. But she was too happy to grudge him his subterfuges. The morning of the wedding she hugged the frail old man till he squealed. “This is all thanks to you, Papa.” His throat was too full of swallowed tears to speak, but his eyes shone with mischief, like when she herself had done something mischievous. Papa had sympathised with her childhood capers, and had only ever scolded her when Mumma approached, only so that Mumma wouldn’t scold him.

Vishrammi was the world’s luckiest woman. Engaged at forty-four, and not one question about whether she was still fertile; not one hint that, once a woman married, it was her husband’s parents she should live with. The wedding was a small Hindu ceremony, only a sister and a cousin representing Amrit’s side. The women made themselves useful, but hadn’t a word to say for themselves. “They’re tonguetied before you, professor,” Amrit whispered. He didn’t seem to regret his family’s absence, so Vishrammi thanked her stars she’d have him to herself. 

Vishrammi, Amrit, and Papa got along well. Papa began sitting up straight, speaking with his former booming voice, and making the young couple wait on him in state. But in a few weeks it became clear this was a prolonged lucid interval, fuelled by excitement now ebbing. His eyes grew cloudy, strayed away from faces, and stared endlessly out the window. His lips began to mumble, wondering when his wife would be home. Vishrammi took him again to the doctor, to get his medications changed again. Nothing helped much. On his excursions away from sanity, it was on Amrit that Papa focussed the distrust and ill-temper of dementia.

“Not just for our sakes,” began Amrit, as Vishrammi sat clasping the mug of chamomile tea he’d made her, gazing at Papa shuffling around, looking for his eyeglasses, which were on his face“but for his, it would be kinder to move him to an institution, under professional care.”

Vishrammi gazed into the garden. March had invoked the flowers of the golden-lantern tree. Amaltash. It was Papa who’d taught her the Hindi names and Latin names of flowers, who’d taught her to name the things of the world. Now all the things, all the world were slipping from him. She sat up and exhaled. “You’re right.”

All month she spent her afternoons looking up places, hunting down honest reviews, comparing facilities. A 200-acre place beyond Gurgaon topped the shortlist. Big single rooms, air-conditioned; one full-time nurse per three patients; gardening and backgammon, and as rainbow a spectrum of activities for the demented as a 21st-century social climber could want for her fame-destined toddler. But on the big Sunday, Vishrammi was in hell with hot flashes, so she sent Papa with Amrit, the car stuffed full of fruit, cosy shoes, and framed photos. 

At the car door, Amrit saluted her goodbye. He had the absurd habit of saluting her, as a sailor might his captain, two fingers to forehead. He interrupted her exhaustive directions. “We’ve got GPS, we’ve got everything we need. Relax! He’ll be fine.”

Vishrammi waited all week to hear from Papa, but when he called next Saturday his voice whined and his words foundered. “What d’you mean they never feed you, Papa?” said Vishrammi. “Even here at home, you kept forgetting you’d just eaten.”

“I’m pinchingmy skin’s hangingthey never feed me, daughter! He brought me to the wrong place. He’s a bad man.”

Vishrammi almost slammed the phone down. It was one thing for Papa to grasp at the scraps of reality, to stare at them, uncomprehendinglybut to shuffle the scraps into an accusation was too much. She counted to ten, then soothed him and promised to visit soon. Afterwards she wandered around the bungalow. Amrit continued lounging over the Financial Times.

“Let’s go see Papa tomorrow,” she said.

“That might be hard,” he drawled. “Amma’s due soon.”

Vishrammi looked confused, then stunned. “What Amma? Both your parents are dead.”

“Oh, you must’ve misunderstood. Amma’s alive and well.”

“I misunderstood?” Vishrammi. “No… She didn’t come to the wedding. Nobody from your side came except your sister and cousin.” Her head whirled. “And you told me you’d lost both your parents, that’s why you couldn’t pay—”

“You must’ve misunderstood. Why would I say that? As for my not being able to pay my half of the flat—” his voice rose, and later she realised he was nervous, that this was his first time telling so big a lie— “did I insist you pay for me, did I insist you put both our names on the deed?” He jumped up and seized Vishrammi’s car-keys from the table. “I’m going to pick them up at the station.”

“Station?” Vishrammi repeated, staring eyes bulging from her skull.

“Well, I didn’t want to ask you for money, for a flight ticket, after everything you shelled out for your Papa.” He giggled, nervous again, then composed himself. “Yes, we’ll go see him sometime… Put on a nice sari and rustle up dinner, would you? They’ll be famished.”

“Who the hell is ‘they’?”

“Amma and my sisters… You remember my youngest sister from the wedding? She’s been dying to meet you again. She’s a big reader, wants to study English literature, or comparative literature, or something. But her marks are a little low. She’ll need coaching to get into D.U.” He waited. She stood leaning on a chairback, arms trembling, staring through the walls. He turned on his heel and strode out, whistling.

Vishrammi recruited her wits, searched through Amrit’s drawers to try to piece together what else he’d been lying about, and met her mother-in-law in frigid silence. The spry old woman shook off her frigidity as an Arctic tern shakes off a snowflake. “I’m here to help,” she chirped, taking Vishrammi’s hands, gazing into her eyes. Vishrammi glimpsed the brain of the operation: the perhaps formerly good woman hardened, by who knows what hell, into Lady Macbeth’s ideal: looking like the flower while being the serpent under it. A fat lot of good a lifetime’s literature had done Vishrammi, leaving her so naïve, scorning the traditions of millennia, traditions so wise.

Vishrammi’s mind was blank but her fingers alert as she stood in the kitchen beside Mother-in-law, chopping tindara for dinner. Come to think of it, this might be nice. Amrit’s sisters hovered in the doorway, studying Vishrammi big-eyed. She relented and invited them in to help.

That night Amrit tearfully explained everything to her. “I’m a gambler, Vishrammi. You’ve married a gambler… I got into online poker four, five years ago. I’d just been laid off from Wipro, you know, during that massive restructuring.” Vishrammi made the smallest possible nod. She’d seen his Wipro ID card, and he’d introduced her in May to an old colleague, and she’d looked that man up today: still at Wipro, same name, same face. “Well, I’d never been fired before. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone. But suddenly I had all this time on my hands. Of course I had to look for work, but, after the first day or two, I realised it’d be nice to take a holiday. I’d never really had a holiday. In school, holidays meant summer workshops and swimming lessons, and later internships and football and coaching… So I took my first proper holiday at thirty-nine. I discovered online poker… Well! The rest is a story you’ve heard often before.” 

Vishrammi hadn’t. She knew no disreputable people whatsoever. But she could not in this crisis lose hand by confessing her ignorance. She merely nodded grimly. 

Amrit continued: “That’s where all my money went… Then I met you. It was my parents who’d made my BharatMatrimony profile for me, years before all this, nagging me to get married. I’d forgotten all about it. But when you pinged me, I was blown away, I couldn’t turn you down. And then I met you, and I told you lie after lie… But I vowed to clean up my act, I vowed to make it all true. I yearned to turn over a new page, and with you beside me I believed I could. That thing about my parents dying, I was soI was at my wits’ end, I didn’t know how else to explain why a forty-three-year-old software engineer didn’t have fifty lakhs… I kept waiting for something to happen, to rescue me. I never expected we’d actually get married.” He cried. 

Vishrammi never cried, so she thought tears a big deal, so she reserved her rebuke. They talked till dawn, or rather he talked. She found she couldn’t quite hate him, this man who had, like herself, been ambushed at an advanced age by the world. “Go to sleep,” she said. “We’ll work things out eventually.”

He told her he loved her. She turned over and went to sleep. 

When she awoke that Sunday afternoon, he was gone, and her phone was beeping with notifications that the funds transfers out of her bank account had been successfully completed. 

Her wits were still reeling from yesterday’s twelve-round boxing-match; it took her a half-hour, and certain secret aids upon which we shan’t intrude, to recruit her wits. She rang her bank’s helpline, listened to canned music for forty-one minutes drip-dripping, drilling into her throbbing skull, navigated a platypus platoon of customer-care executives, who shuttlecocked her back and forth, and finally told her: it was too late. 

By the time the police got involved, all her savings were gone, transferred to multiple accounts, destination accounts all cashed out. Amrit’s accounts were seized, but they showed no suspicious activity. 

Some days later, Amrit returned home to a wife almost hysterical, but to no legal trouble. He had merely gone to Bihar to fetch his elderly father and his two cousins, who made rather a tight fit in the Sundernagar flat. The police listened with unprofessional interest as Amrit explained himself to his wife.

Of course he’d told her he was going. She’s been under a lot of stress lately, officer, you know menopause, and some trouble at work. She’s forgotten I told her. My parents are getting old, naturally they want to live with me and my dear wife, they’ve heard so many good things about her. Vishrammi protested till her throat cracked, till everyone was convinced she was another crazed childless middle-aged woman. The police hemmed, looked away considerately, promised to track down the mysterious cyber-hacker, and shuffled doorwards. Suddenly Vishrammi remembered Amrit had been a software engineer. Had he been a good one? Not good enough to hack his way to poker millions, but clearly too good for the Indian police. She stopped herself midsentence and thanked the police for their time. All fight deserted her, left her suspecting that this is what she deserved.

“I can’t cook for all these people,” Amrit’s mother declared.

Crisis had come to Vishrammi late in life and all in a typhoon. Her mind had taken an extended leave of absence. “We’ll get a maid,” she mumbled.

“Where’s the money for a maid?” Amrit’s mother demanded. “No, you’ll have to do the cooking and cleaning before work, and after work… It’s not good for a woman to spend so many hours poring over books… If only you’d looked around yourself, and learned about people…” She trailed off, smiling. She wasn’t a heartless woman, just adaptable.

Vishrammi rose from the crowded table. “I’m going to see Papa.”

“You’ll need the address.” Amrit scribbled it down for her, and handed it to her, unblinking. Victory, and the company of his cool-as-a-cucumber mother, were doing wonders for him. “Tell him we’d love to have him back, only it’s so crowded, and, you know, he might not get along with my folks.”

Vishrammi found Papa on a shabby bed in a dingy room in an Old Delhi building, a former zero-star hotel, now run by lazy sadists. Rage made her fists clench and the blood pound behind her eyes. Papa looked up, his head nodding in battered acquiescence with the universe’s mad blind logic. 

She knelt before him and took his hands. He looked into her eyes. She glimpsed a human soul still flitting around back there, looking for his cue to shuffle onstageor was it to go offstage? 

She bethought herself of Portia and Viola, Cleopatra and Katherina. She couldn’t decide if she was in a comedy or a tragedy. She beckoned Papa to his feet. He complied, obedient as a child, searching her face for directions. “First let’s get out of here.” Of all the goods she’d sent Papa off with, he had none, and she looked for none. They shuffled into the corridor.

“Where d’you think you’re going?” Vishrammi confronted a coffee-skinned, hazel-eyed man in a tan uniform, arms crossed, biceps bulging. 

“Taking my father home. Checking out.”

“You owe us six months’ fees,” said the meathead.

“He’s only been here a month. And my husband paid.”

“Nobody paid anything for this old fool. And that man you sent here signed our contract, which says

“Let us pass.”

They almost came to blows. But the thug didn’t dare strike them. This woman looked upper-class, spoke good English, spoke familiarly of the police superintendent. They weren’t paid up, couldn’t risk trifling with the wrong party. He stepped aside, growling.

“Where are we going, daughter?” said Papa, as they stood on the pavement, Vishrammi focusing the leftovers of her brain on hailing an autorickshaw.

“Don’t know… Maybe back to the bungalow on campus?” 

She remembered the vine-walled bungalow, her afternoons in her office cabin, the crickets chirping, her mind racing as she poured her thoughts onto paper, sipping her tea watching the warblers quarrel over the ripe bael fruit stinkily splattered across the grass, on the guavas, hard as stones and green as peace, clinging to the boughs. She remembered her old life, with its clock-like routines, from which she had fled as from a life-sentence. She remembered scraps of news from over the decades. ‘Boys burgle house, strangle residents.’ ‘Woman found raped and disembowelled in ditch.’ ‘Son and daughter-in-law turn aged mother out of ancestral house.’ 

She chuckled. “Yes, we can go back to our bungalow. I still have my job, and my health, and you.”

Crisis suited Papa. He awoke from his brain-fog. “Yes, I like our bungalow. Much better than this place where that man brought me… I don’t know who he was, but he wasn’t a good man. I could see that much.” She turned to him, her eyes filling with tears. “But, Vishru, weren’t you going to get married?”

“Yes, Papa, I was.” She settled him carefully in the rickety auto, then got in herself. “Hold tight, Papa.” They hadn’t been in an auto in years: cabs were one of her few luxuries besides her summers in the mountains.

“Good,” said Papa, “good that you’re getting married. You always were my good daughter. And your mother always says, ‘Better late than never.’”

Amita Basu is a Pushcart-nominated writer whose fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in over sixty magazines and anthologies including The Penn ReviewBamboo RidgeJelly Bucket, Funicular, and Gasher. She’s a reader at The Metaworker, sustainability columnist and interviews editor at Mean Pepper Vine, and submissions editor at Fairfield Scribes Microfiction. She lives in Bangalore, uses her cognitive science PhD to work on sustainable behavior at Transitions Research, and blogs at

Artwork: “Wealth in Excess” by Peyton Fultz


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