He found Karan outside, on the bit of sandy plot behind the house that had never really took to a garden. Karan was slouched into the little swing set the kids used in what had to be a painful posture, spine curved as he bent his neck to read The Hobbit, Nisha’s reading light clipped to the pages. After a moment of hesitation, Danny lowered himself gingerly into the swing next to him. They couldn’t have done with just one swing, after all.
“Oh, hey,” Karan looked up at him in very unconvincing surprise. It was quiet in their corner of the street at that time of the night, and the waves could be heard in a distant brush and scrape. Karan’s swing creaked a little as he shifted on the plank, and then it was silent in the garden again.
“So,” Danny started, because someone had to. “How many times have you read that?”
Karan wouldn’t even look up. “Not counting.” The swing creaked again.
Danny had really wanted to be patient, because it was a shock for Karan, but this was surprisingly juvenile, even for Karan, who was in his thirties. He struggled to keep the righteous anger down. “Can’t we just talk about this?”
“Yeah, we can talk,” Karan shrugged and looked at him finally. “What about?”
“Our dinner guest.” Karan quirked an eyebrow at him. “Okay. Shernaz.”
“You called her Sherri.”
“Yes, I did.” Danny couldn’t help his voice rising at that. But the immature words from his son had only made it easier to simplify the explanation, justify his anger and pour forth the speech he’d been rehearsing for this moment. “It’s her nickname, and – and she’s very special to me, so I – ”
“That’s okay, Dad.” Karan stopped him, gently. “It’s okay. It’s fine.”
“You’re not fine,” he spoke, after a long pause. The air felt strangely dry around them. “You better tell me.”
Karan laughed, unexpectedly and said in that same quiet, faraway voice. “Do you realize, that’s exactly what Mom used to say?”
The words hit him like a wallop to the chest. It must have showed on his face, because Karan explained, “No, I just. I didn’t mean it like that. She said that every time I came home with bruises – you remember? And I just had to tell her everything-” he broke off and shook his head, and Danny had no idea what to reply to that.
“Did she love you?”
“What?” The words came out more sharply than he intended, but they didn’t cut Karan off.
“Did she love you? As much as you love her, I mean… it was just so long ago, and I like to think it was perfect, you know, my childhood, all my memories are all happy and perfect.” Karan sighed, a dry rasp that sounded like the distant crash of a wave.
“But I never knew her, you know; only you did… Was she that great a person? She was an amazing mom, but – I don’t know, Dad. I wish I could, I wish I knew her like you did and, and – Shernaz did. I wish – oh God -” he held up The Hobbit and shook it a little, its dog-eared pages fluttering in the air. “Why would she give me a book like this to read when I was eight? I mean, what was she thinking?!” he broke off with a laugh.
Danny knew that feeling of unreal ness, of waking up in the morning thinking maybe it had been just a dream and convincing himself that the aching void was just fanciful thinking, a phantom hangover from some pain that should have passed long ago.
All of a sudden, he became aware of the discomfort he was in. The cramped little hard plastic plank was slowly killing off sensation in his back, and his arms strained from being hooked around the rails. Breath came only in choking gulps, and an entire month of cold stares from him, the silent reproaches, the uncomfortable meet-dad’s-new-friend dinner that night, everything seemed to contract into this single point. Of course. Danny had taken too long to let Renu go from their lives, and he should have known, should have seen this – Karan just hadn’t.
“I – don’t know what to say.”
Karan shook his head, and cleared his throat before he spoke again. “I’m sorry about tonight. She’s nice. I just -” he waved the book in the space between them, the old, worn out staple of his bedtimes, by way of explanation.
Sometimes Danny wondered how they read each other so easily whenever they talked about his mother. Their relationship was based on bluntness, a first-name no-bullshit basis, and never showed such sensitivity otherwise. Maybe it was because they’d both felt the wholeness in their lives that she had brought, by making them part of a whole.
“She did.” Danny said out loud. “She took the bad with the worse, and if that’s not love, I don’t know what is.” Karan huffed out an understanding laugh, and leaned his forehead on his swing’s rails, looking at him. Renu hadn’t left them; still, she bound them together with their love for each other. “She was a brilliant person. I wish you’d known her too.”
For a while, they fell silent. Then he heard Karan’s breath hitch sharply, and knew before he said, “Leave me alone for a bit?”
Danny silently got off the swing, cursing his back muscles and the miserable, dull weight in his chest. “Karan -” it came out as a croak, and Karan looked up, seemed to acknowledge the entirety of his sorrow. Danny hoped it helped him rub at his own residual grief; make it a little more bearable.
His eyes shone wetly in the harsh glow of the reading light, carefully blinking away from him. “Listen, I’m fine… just. Yeah. I’m okay, Danny. I’ll come inside in a – bit.”
Nisha looked over his shoulder as he came in, and gave him a worried look. “What’s he up to?”
Danny smiled at her, skin stretching tight over his mouth. “He stole your reading light.”
“Uff, he’s so stupid sometimes.” She stepped up to him, and wrapped her arms around him warmly. “Most of the time,” she murmured into his shoulder. “I’m sorry.”
“Oh, you. Shut up. That’s my son you’re calling stupid,” Danny disengaged her arms and stood away. Nisha still looked worried and sad, but she hadn’t known Renu. She hadn’t been loved by her; she didn’t know how they felt.
Danny looked around and saw her everywhere – in the battered wooden windchimes that still hung at their living room window, the faded Manipur wall hanging, the vaguely yellow spot that his eyes imposed on the kitchen wall from the pancake accident. He saw her in the lines of his son’s laughter, in the colour of his grandson’s eyes.
Geetu stumbled into the living room, sleepily rubbing her eyes and holding out her arms to Danny to be hoisted up. He couldn’t help be struck again by Nisha’s gesture, repeated by someone one-sixth her size.
“Grandypa,” her sweet voice chimed, and for someone who was entirely her mother’s replica, he saw Renu in the scrunching of Geetu’s nose as she yawned. “Are we getting a Grandyma?”
Danny sighed and hugged her tight, waving Nisha away as she came forward with a scolding on her lips. “You already have a grandyma, you know? Her name was Renuka.”
“Oh? Is she Daddy’s mamma? The one who went away?”