Sudha dipped her index finger in the pot and licked the kheer.
“Perfect,” she thought. Wiping her hand with the end of her dupatta she turned to look at the wall clock.
“Eight…pretty late by his standard time…once again.” She walked up to Amma’s room.
‘Would you care for some kheer, Amma?’
‘Is Raghu home?’ Amma asked.
‘Not as yet.’
‘Maybe I’ll have the kheer later.’ Amma chose to speak from her bed. She strained her ears to listen to the gate creak open but, there was no sound. Amma sat up at first and then began to pace up and down the length of her room. This wasn’t the first time that her heart had been pounding. The oppressed air around the house hadn’t been unfamiliar. She had often spent her nights trying hard to listen to the sounds in the dark, the sounds that would announce the arrival of her son, Raghu. She now knew that Sudha had joined her in the wait. The ripples of her daughter-in-law’s palpitating heart would often reach her from the adjoining room.
The two women never dared to broach the subject. They just asked subtle questions about Raghu from each other, discussed the events of a daily soap with the television playing in the background and when the wait became seemingly long, they retired to their rooms without a word between them.
Sometimes, Amma heard sobs in the dark of the night, interspersed with deep snores. In those times, she lay awake in her bed, only to tell herself a little later that it was just the imagination of her mind.
Mornings were always kind. They never gave away the story of the heavily-laden nights. The picture would be rosy. And Amma would like to believe it. But as evening set in, undercurrents of fear filled the house inhabited by the two women.
Amma was lost in these thoughts, when she finally heard the gate open. She looked at the clock in the light of her mobile. Twelve. From the adjoining room, came sounds of ruffling, as if the room was hurrying up for something. Sudha, had been lying awake, on that side of the wall.
Sudha had heard the noise at the gate as well. She quickly got up and turned off the light of her room. Not being able to see certain things always made them slightly easy. She fumbled with her slippers in the dark and rushed to pick up her dupatta. She had barely stepped out of the room, when Amma appeared from nowhere. Before she could react, Amma pulled Sudha inside her room and pushed her to the bed, shutting the door behind them.
Sudha was still wondering at what was going on.
‘Shhh…not a word,’ whispered the old woman.
There was a loud bang on the door. An inebriated Raghu, was lashing at it wildly.
‘Raghu…Raghu…what is wrong with you?’ Amma shouted from inside.
‘I can’t find Sudha. She is nowhere in the house,’ he couldn’t help the quiver in his voice.
‘Sudha has gone off to sleep. She is with me.’
Raghu wasn’t prepared for this.
‘I am hungry Amma.’
‘The kitchen is open. Go, fend for yourself. Who is going to be up at this hour, cooking?’ Amma didn’t remember herself this firm ever before.
For a while, there was shuffling outside. Doors opened and closed. Lights were turned on and off. And then another door shut with a loud bang.
Sudha heard every single sound with rapt attention. In her mind, ran images of Raghu in his Bata chappals and kurta pajama, moving in and out of their room. Amma lay next to her, equally attentive. After about an hour when the sounds from outside died, and a deep snore echoed in the corridor, Amma moved out of her room.
The corridor smelt terribly wrong. She quietly made her way to the kitchen and soon returned with two bowls of kheer. Closing the door behind her, she handed over one to Sudha.
‘Amma…’ Sudha struggled to say something just as her eyes welled up.
Amma wiped off the tears from her cheeks.
‘Don’t bother with words Sudha. There is enough that already flows between us.’
As the two women savoured the kheer in silence, pages of a book fluttered in the cool October wind, and rested on the words most potent in that hour,
“For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands.”