The call comes a few hours past twilight. After the sun has descended into the depths of the Arabian Sea, its golden rays setting the curve of the Gateway of India on fire.
Sarita has taken Sanjay to the Taj Mahal hotel, for a kiddies’ birthday party. My little bro is just eight, but already he has a more active social life than me. Its 9.30 pm and they are not home yet. Apparently he is already inculcating the habit of staying out late at night.
Ma is all settled in for the evening, sunk in the cushions of her favourite settee: the Chesterfield Leather Sofa imported from the UK. She’s already got her third G&T of the evening in hand. Fully happy she is just now.
Dad is in the study, the closed door indicating a do-not-disturb-I-am-working-mode.
I wander the corridor: wearing a path in the space between my room, the living room and the kitchen.
A restless ghost.
I suppose I should do my homework… Who cares about algebra anyway?
I could complete the art assignment… Yeesh!
Then there is that essay to write… UGH!
I look to where I can see Ma’s toes, the nails painted a bright coral. Against the dull brown of the sofa, it resembles a pale, slimy, fish with a pouty, pink mouth.
From the dining table, I pick a bunch of grapes from the fruit bowl. Sarita has placed them there on strict instructions from Ma… Its not like she wants me to eat fruit, to stay healthy or anything like that. Oh! No. It’s just that, a cluster of grapes in a wooden bowl, next to shiny, red apples look really good on display. Just like in Good Housekeeping.
I pop a grape into my mouth, breaking the skin so the juice spurts out. It’s sweet and trite at the same time. Taking aim, I pelt one in the direction of Ma’s foot… And miss.
I raise another to my eyes, aligning it in line with her toe. I let it go and am rewarded with a flinch of her foot, nothing more. I need something bigger, a rock perhaps?
There’s no guarantee she will notice me even then.
Instead, I walk into the living room and picking up the remote control, point it in the direction of the TV, switching it on.
The harsh music of a breaking-news program cuts through the calm, followed by a small shriek. “Really Ruby, do you have to scare me like that?” Ma reaches to take the remote from my hands, then stops transfixed.
The screen shows the red blush of the grand dome of the Taj Mahal Hotel. There are gun shots somewhere off screen and in response greyish blue smoke rises in the distance from one of the upper windows of the note.
The images are shaky as if the hands of the person holding the camera are trembling. But there is no mistaking the news scroll:
Breaking News. Series of explosions in the city. Terrorist attack suspected
The news reporter continues: “I am reporting live from the Taj Mahal hotel, where shots have been reported. In at least another two areas of the city shootings are going on. We believe that gunmen went into the Oberoi hotel and the Taj Mahal hotel and opened fire. I can’t confirm any of this at the moment, but at least four people are reported dead…”
A fist slams into my stomach and the hairs on my forearms stand on end as if I have been blasted by an arctic burst of air-conditioned air. At twelve I am old enough to recognise it for it is. Disaster! How strange to see a turning point in my life, play out in front of me. I feel like I am in a dream.
Then, a sound makes me turn. The glass has fallen from Ma’s hands onto the settee, staining it with colourless liquid. The lemon twist bounces on the sofa before falling to the white carpet below.
I flinch awaiting a flurry of angry words at making her spill her drink. She doesn’t move. Doesn’t even notice the leather shrivel under the onslaught of the spilt drink.
She is really, upset… And it’s not at me.
Something makes me walk over.
I really should leave the room now.
I don’t want to feel anything for her.
Why does her pain seem like my own?
Slipping onto the seat next to her, I put my arms around her. Ma hesitates. I sense the turmoil in her; something is shattering inside, squirming to be let loose. Fear!
Her hand creeps around my waist and she pulls me to her… Close enough for the orange-cinnamon of her perfume to waft through me.
We watch wordless at the people running away from the hotel. Shots are fired… Sparks of red in the distance.
Neither of us has voiced the unspoken. Sanjay! He is there. If we don’t say it aloud, it can’t be true right?
A phone rings in the distance, jerking us from the trance the flickering images have flung over us. A door slams and Dad runs into the room. He stops when he sees us cowering in a corner of the sofa. I look up and see the lines on his forehead. His eyes are terrified. He comes to a stop near the door, hovering there, not sure what to do.
I hold out a hand, a plea in my eyes. Help us! He too hesitates. A look I can’t interpret scuttles over his face: Confusion? Anxiety? Distress…? It is gone before I can put a finger to it. Brow still furrowed, he walks towards us, sitting down next to me.
“My baby, my poor baby. God save my little boy…” I have never heard Ma pray as she does that day, or ever evoke the powers above.
After today, she never will again.
Dad embraces both of us: a large, warm hug. The smell of wood smoke-citrus and something else nutty flows over me.
I watch the tragedy unfold on screen.
Enfolded for the first time in living memory between my parents, I am happy.