He was, locals agreed, the quintessential Kaverinagar retiree. In his wool-silk trousers, navy-blue sweater, and plaid scarf wrapped tight about the ears, C. K. Rajgopal, former Air India pilot, cut a lithe figure as he strode down Eighth Main. On his feet he wore the ergonomic shoes his son had brought him from America. Designed for trekking—or for Indian sidewalks, his son had said—the shoes had, for the past weeks, felt heavy, like stones tied to his ankles. But this morning, strangely, it was no longer so. Perhaps his leg muscles had needed time to adjust to their new load, perhaps he was rejuvenated by the winter air—whatever the reason, as he made his way to Wodeyar Lake, past the provisions store and the barbershop, still shuttered at this early hour, past the temple and the sugarcane juice stall, Mr. Rajgopal experienced a lightness, as if the ground were falling away from him and he were floating, gliding, over the pavement stones and under the gulmohars, through clouds of golden dust churned by the municipal workers’ brooms.
At the lake, he found Murthy, his friend from the Kaverinagar Seniors’ Center, waiting for him on a bench. “Autorickshaws are on strike today,” Murthy said. “So I can’t see my cardiologist.”
“Good,” Mr. Rajgopal said. “You won’t have to waste your time. What will he tell you? That you’re getting old.”
“You have no health problems, C. K., so how can you understand?”
“If you eat laddoos all the time, Murthy, how can you expect your heart not to suffer, eh?”
“If you eat healthily all the time, C. K., then you know what will happen? You will die a healthy man.”
They set off on their daily loop, Murthy laughing at his own joke while Mr. Rajgopal rotated his arms to exercise his shoulder joints, warm in a long-sleeved woolen sweater knitted for him by his late wife. Earlier that morning she’d appeared in a vision, crouched on the floor with her back to him, shelling peas. As he drew nearer, she twisted around, her hair disheveled, her face contorted in rage. Her mouth opened: she began to curse. She pronounced him a demon, a monster, a selfish bastard—names she had never once uttered in their half century of marriage. He opened his eyes and watched the contours of the room swim into view. From the guava tree by the window, a parrot shrieked. He sat up and swung his feet to the floor. By the time he was in the kitchen heating water for his shave, he had dismissed her words. Dreams were little more to him than a sign of fitful sleep—that lifelong condition suffered by all career pilots.
“Slow down, C. K.,” Murthy said, and Mr. Rajgopal slowed his pace. They were approaching the far side of the water, where the occasional lotus bloomed. The two men discussed how the chief minister had done a decent job restoring the city’s parks, and how the rural population, feeling neglected, was going to give him the boot in the next election. They took turns prophesying the country’s future, neither man expressing full agreement with the other, yet not explicitly disagreeing either. By the time they’d returned to their starting point at the bench, both felt a renewed conviction in their views.
“You’re coming to the Center this evening?” Murthy said. “For the astrologer’s talk? I hear he is going to tell us about the origins of the universe.”
“Then he is an astronomer, Murthy.”
“Astronomer, correct. He is also Romila Mukherjee’s nephew, are you aware? He has spent the last fifteen years abroad, at Yale, Stanford, Oxford, et cetera. Now he is back in Bangalore, at the Institute.”
Mr. Rajgopal gazed across the water. The lake was barely a pond, so small that he could distinguish a heron on the other side roosting in a eucalyptus tree. During his flying years, his vision had been perfect. Even now, through his spectacles, he could make out the bird’s serpentine neck and downward-slanting beak.
“I ran into Romila yesterday at the milk booth,” Murthy continued. “She wanted to know if you were coming.”
“What did she say?”
“I just told you, C. K. She asked if you would be there at the talk.”
“Why are you laughing, Murthy?”
“She is your friend, is she not? Your lady friend, to be more precise? A very fine lady, C. K., if you will permit me to say.”
Mr. Rajgopal watched the heron rise into the air, its legs dangling like a single stray branch. “I always come to the lectures,” he said stiffly. “It is how I keep the mind active.”
Murthy clapped him on the back. “You are the most conscientious among us, C. K. And the fittest.”
He took a circuitous route back, past the old cricket stadium and down Tenth Cross, where the rosewood trees were in full bloom. Bees hummed around hanging clusters of flowers; an occasional lorry blared its musical horn. At the end of a shaded lane, beside a newly built apartment building, stood a one-story house covered in ivy. On the porch, a queenly presence in an ivory silk sari and red shawl sat reading a book. Mr. Rajgopal paused at the gate, one hand resting lightly on the latch. He waited several moments, then coughed. Mrs. Mukherjee looked up and smiled. “Good morning, C. K. Come in.”
“Hello, hello,” he said. “Sorry to disturb you. I was just passing by, you see. Such a peaceful morning, is it not? No autorickshaw engines, no kerosene fumes. Just like the old Bangalore days.”
She rose gracefully from her cane chair, her red shawl rippling about her as she adjusted its folds. During talks at the Seniors’ Center, he liked to sit behind Mrs. Mukherjee so he could admire her sloped shoulders and her thick white hair, coiled over the top of her head like a crown.
“I hear your nephew will be enlightening us this afternoon,” he said, closing the gate behind him.
“It was a hasty arrangement. The speaker who was supposed to come backed out at the last minute, so Nalini called me to ask if Alok was free.”
“Murthy thinks Alok is an astrologer,” he said. “He told me, ‘C. K., we have an astrologer coming today to give us a talk. About the planets, the stars, the Milky Way, and so on.’ I said, ‘Murthy, astrologers look at horoscopes. Do you mean astronomer?’ He’s not even seventy-two, Murthy, and already he is getting confused.”
“Alok is a cosmologist, actually.”
“Ah, I see. Not an astronomer.”
“Would you like to come in, C. K.? Or shall I tell Balamma to bring us coffee here?”
“Thank you,” Mr. Rajgopal said. “I am happy here only.”
It wasn’t the first time he had declined her invitation to enter her house. Her late husband had been a celebrated geologist and Padma Bhushan awardee. Mr. Rajgopal pictured long shelves lined with samples of sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic rock; purple quartz bright as cumulus; black mica glinting. He was content to imagine all this, as he was, on the days he passed by her compound, to catch a glimpse of her as she sat reading. Sometimes he would wait for her to look up on her own. If she spotted him, he would not hesitate to join her on the porch; if she didn’t, he would continue on his way, leaving her solitude undisturbed. Today he had broken his own rule by drawing attention.
“I hear your nephew went to Yale,” he said, taking the cane chair beside hers.
“Yes. Then he was a research fellow at Stanford.”
“And now he is back in India. A good example for his generation.”
“The Institute takes good care of him.”
“My son keeps saying he wants to come back. Every year for the past fifteen years he has been saying that.”
Mrs. Mukherjee shook her head sadly. “It is a good thing in some ways that Aditya and I did not have children—we never had to feel disappointed about them living so far from us.”
“Vikram is happy there. So I am happy for him.”
The maidservant returned with two steaming cups of coffee on a tray. Mr. Rajgopal took a sip and said, as he had said before, “I know in Calcutta you drink only tea. But this coffee is perfect.”
In the strip of garden before him, a jasmine bush studded with white blossoms caught the sunlight. Mr. Rajgopal sat back and admired the blooms. At the Seniors’ Center, he would, once the cosmologist had shared his grand theories and departed, escort Mrs. Mukherjee home, as was his custom every Thursday. They would walk side by side as the heat of the day faded and the birds gathered along the electric wires. The previous week, he had entertained her with his account of how, as a youth, he had hang-glided into a tree and dislocated his collarbone; today, he would describe the day he had flown Prime Minister Nehru to Calcutta.
“I forgot to mention something,” he heard her say. “Alok will be bringing the boys with him.”
Mr. Rajgopal started. “Boys?”
“His sons—Pavan and Pramod. He wants to leave them with me afterwards and go attend some reunion with his St. Joseph friends.”
“I see.” Mr. Rajgopal swallowed the last of his coffee. It was lukewarm now, and slightly bitter. He pictured two rambunctious boys, no older than six or seven, chattering like squirrels as they circled Mrs. Mukherjee, pulling at her shawl, her sari, her handbag, preoccupying her completely. She would have to sit with them at the talk, lead them to her house afterwards, her thoughts consumed with what to feed them and how to keep them entertained. “I see,” he repeated.
The older boy, she continued, age eight, had been claiming recently that he wanted to become a pilot. “Maybe you can speak to him, C. K.,” she said brightly. “Tell him about your flying experience.”
He snorted. “What is there to tell? Hundreds of hours of pure boredom. And a few minutes of sheer terror. That’s the life of a commercial airline pilot.”
“What about all your stories? About that bomb threat? Or the time you almost crashed in Srinagar?”
“I can’t stay for very long. In fact, I might have to leave the talk early.”
“Then maybe before the talk begins?”
“I have to run some errands. Go to the tailor’s, the bank.”
“Just five, ten minutes early?”
“I have a very full day ahead of me.” He stood up and made a little bow. “I must take your leave now.”
His wife used to chide him for his impatience. You expect everyone to behave according to your rules, she had told him. As if we’re all crew members, waiting to take orders from you. At the bottom of the porch steps, he looked back at Mrs. Mukherjee. She gazed down at him from her cane chair, laughter on her face.
“Vikram is going to call at eight-thirty,” he said stiffly. “So I have to be home by then.”
“Last time he called I was not at home.”
“Trunk calls are no longer that expensive. But still.” At the gate, he stopped and turned around once again. “I will try,” he said to her. “I will try to come early.”
“Don’t worry about it, C. K. I know you have a very full day.”
An hour later, he was eating his breakfast of Bragg’s, milk, and banana, with The Hindu’s crossword puzzle at his elbow. Usually it took him no more than ten minutes to solve, but today the porridge sat congealing in its bowl as he pondered the clues. The elongated trill of the telephone made him hurry out to his desk, where a black rotary dial sat beside a cluster of framed photographs. “Hello? Hello, Vikram?”
From halfway around the world, his son’s voice came loud and distinct, unmuffled by static, like a radio message on the clearest of flying days. “Hello, Papa. How are you?”
“You’ve all had dinner?”
They had been at a party, Vikram said. A friend of his was celebrating his forty-fifth birthday at a hotel. There had been a Bollywood-themed dance for the adults and a clown hired to entertain the kids. “They want to say hello to you before they go to bed, Papa.”
“Hello, Thatha,” his granddaughters said in unison.
“You enjoyed the party?” Mr. Rajgopal said. “What did the clown do?”
Ten-year-old Maya spoke first: “The clown blew up balloons and made them into animals. I got a butterfly. Tara got a dog.”
“A poodle,” seven-year-old Tara added. “We want a real dog, but Daddy says no.”
“Real dogs need a lot of maintenance,” Mr. Rajgopal said. “Balloon dogs are better.”
“When are you coming to Boston, Thatha?” Maya said.
“Why don’t you come see me in Bangalore? Ask Mummy and Daddy to bring you.”
Vikram came back on the line. “We might make a trip end of June. For a month.”
“Only a month? Come for a year, no? You can take a sabbatical.”
“I was there just two months ago, Papa. Maybe you can meet us in England in November.” He had been invited, he said, to give a talk at the London School of Economics. They were hoping to make a mini vacation of the opportunity, perhaps take a side trip to Scotland to see some castles.
“Edinburgh Castle,” Mr. Rajgopal said. “Your mother and I went there in sixty-one.”
“You went to Scotland? With Amma?”
“It was quite a short holiday. I could not take more than a week’s leave. And the weather was cold and rainy.” They had stayed, he remembered, in a hotel paid for by Air India and run by a Gujarati family, in a dank room that smelled of fried food. Hurrying to catch a bus, his wife twisted her ankle. He insisted they still go walking around the city—they had come all this way, after all. She limped by his side, through the narrow, beautiful cobblestone streets of Old Town. After an hour, she sat on the curb in front of a souvenir shop and refused to walk any farther.
“Are you sure she went with you?” Vikram was saying.
“She never told me.”
“She must have forgotten.”
His wife had cried as she sat there on the curb, her sari spilling into the cobblestones. Think of me for a change, she shouted at him. For once in your life, can’t you think of me?
“You went anywhere else on that trip?” Vikram was saying. “Europe? Ireland?”
“Long-term memory is not a problem for me. But I got stuck on the crossword today. What is a three-letter word for destination—do you know?”
“Ah. In my flying days I never said, ‘We are approaching our final end.’”
“Take care, Papa.”
After a second cup of coffee at eleven, Mr. Rajgopal set out again, this time in his car. On Astoria Road, he parked his Fiat in the shade of an ancient peepal tree and crossed the street to the tailor’s shop he’d visited earlier in the week. At the glass-paneled counter, he handed a yellow slip to a shop assistant, who glanced at the writing and informed him in a casual tone of voice that the work hadn’t yet been done, that it would take another week. Mr. Rajgopal brought his fist down on the countertop. “Useless people, all of you!” he shouted. “A few stitches, that’s all I expected. You said it would be ready by Friday. What bloody nonsense is this?”
The young man retreated, startled. Mr. Rajgopal glared at him the way he used to glare at an incompetent first officer.
A taller, bespectacled man emerged, spread his arms wide, and rested his fingertips on the glass. “Good afternoon, sir,” he said with a slight bow. “Please tell me, how can we help you today?”
“I brought a pair of trousers last week. They had a small tear. This young fellow here—” he pointed at the assistant “—said it would be ready last Friday. Now it is Thursday and you haven’t even started?”
The taller man—the manager, Mr. Rajgopal assumed—whispered something to the assistant, who disappeared through a doorway, reemerged with the torn trousers, and spread them over the glass. With the air of an experienced steward, the manager bent low to examine the tear, sustained the previous week when Mr. Rajgopal had taken a small tumble. He was on his way home from his evening walk, had latched the gate behind him and was retrieving the key to the front door when it slipped from his fingers. The light was getting dim. He squatted on his heels and scanned the ground with his palms. Eventually his fingers closed around the keychain, a plastic Ganesha with his bank’s name etched over the pedestal, but as he stood up, a bout of dizziness overcame him. He collapsed to his knees and, leaning forward, let his head come slowly to rest on the concrete. The blood roared in his ears, then subsided. Only after he had gotten to his feet, climbed the stairs to the front door, and let himself in did he notice the small rip in his trouser leg.
The manager stroked the material as if it were an expensive breed of dog. “Very high quality, sir. Wool-silk blend. Hard to find these days.”
“Impossible to find,” Mr. Rajgopal said. “1966 I bought it. In Chandigarh.”
“We can repair the cut, no problem, sir, but the cloth has become weak. It might tear again.”
“It has never torn before.”
“Other option is to use a patch. Only problem is it will be in a very conspicuous area.”
“Look here, my man,” Mr. Rajgopal said. “I’m retired. I don’t have any interviews or big functions to attend these days. I just want to be able to wear my clothes and go for my daily walk.”
Carefully, the manager folded the trousers lengthwise. “We’ll do it for you now only, sir. But let me show you our ready-made pants. Very comfortable, very durable. In case this one tears, you will have a replacement.”
Mr. Rajgopal allowed himself to be led into the adjoining showroom, a recently built extension with gleaming floor tiles and a smell of fresh paint. The manager stopped beside a faceless mannequin and took down a pair of new trousers hanging from a rod.
“Just touch it, sir,” the manager said. “Gaberdine, it is called. Very light, very soft. On a hot day it will keep you cool; on a cold day it will keep you warm.” He unclipped the garment from the hanger, shook it out, and held it by Mr. Rajgopal’s waist.
“I don’t like the design at all,” Mr. Rajgopal said immediately.
“It’s like what all the youngsters are wearing these days. Tight, tight jeans, with bum pockets and all. I am of a different generation, you have to understand.”
“Sir, on you it will be loose-fitting. You are so slim, after all.”
“It is too long.”
“Length can be altered, sir. Why don’t you try it on and see?”
But the manager pushed the new trousers into his arms and steered him towards the back of the shop. “I insist, sir, just wear and see. You don’t have to buy them unless you are hundred percent satisfied. We will do alterations and repair your old pants for free, promise.”
Mr. Rajgopal found himself in a spacious fitting room, with multiple mirrors arranged to give him a 360-degree view of his body, beneath a constellation of yellow bulbs. He sat on the provided bench, removed his shoes and his pants, and pulled on the gaberdines. He expected the button to be tight, but to his surprise it fastened easily, even with his shirt tucked in. He examined himself. Views of his right and left flanks assailed him. He hadn’t known that his seat stuck out as much as it did, or that the skin on the sides of his neck and chin sagged quite so dramatically. He closed his eyes and reopened them. The lights grew softer; the reflections adjusted themselves. He looked younger now. He breathed deeply and threw back his shoulders, as if he were striding through an airport in his pilot’s uniform, past the lines of passengers whom he would soon be ferrying through the stratosphere, across oceans, deserts, and mountain ranges. He put his hands on his hips. The pants were too informal to be paired with his old blazer and hat hanging in his cupboard at home. But they would go well with the simple linen shirt, also hanging in that cupboard, that he had bought for himself a long time ago, at a bazaar in Singapore.
“Yes, sir?” the manager asked when Mr. Rajgopal stepped out in his old clothes.
“How much are you selling this for?”
The manager told him, and Mr. Rajgopal made a noise like a sneeze. “What nonsense! I can get five pairs of trousers stitched for that price.”
“We’ll give you a discount, sir. Ten percent.”
You’re such a kanjoos, his wife had said in Edinburgh, nursing her foot as he remarked how expensive it would be to take a taxi back to their hotel. So stingy, so selfish. Like you’re a pauper.
I don’t like to waste, he’d replied.
“Ten percent?” he said to the manager. “Not enough.”
“Fifteen percent, sir. And we’ll repair your old pants for free.”
The manager looked thoughtful, then shook his head regretfully. “Sir, six hundred rupees.”
“Five hundred,” Mr. Rajgopal said. “Even then I will be paying too much.”
At half past three, a full thirty minutes before the talk was scheduled to begin, Mr. Rajgopal arrived at the Center and proceeded straight to the shaded courtyard. Mrs. Mukherjee was talking to the director, and beside them stood the cosmologist nephew, a gangly, ponytailed man in jeans and a khadi kurta. Two young boys, the grandnephews, were chasing each other around the papaya tree. Flasks of coffee and tea had been set out, along with a tray of snacks, from which Murthy was already helping himself. Mr. Rajgopal clasped his hands behind his back, in full view of everyone, and gazed up at the fiberglass roof, as if he were simply enjoying the yellow-tinted light filtering through.
“Hello, Mr. Rajgopal,” a staff member said.
He waited for her to exclaim at how elegant he looked, but she went back to arranging plates and cups. Nobody else seemed to have noticed his arrival. He went up to Mrs. Mukherjee, who blinked in mild surprise at the sight of him. “I came early, see?” he said brightly. “This must be Dr. Alok, yes?”
The ponytailed man gave Mr. Rajgopal’s hand a brief squeeze.
“You are a cosmologist,” Mr. Rajgopal continued. “First time in my life I am meeting a cosmologist. Am I correct in saying that a cosmologist studies the history of the universe, whereas an astronomer observes the stars and planets?”
Dr. Alok shrugged. “If you want to be really technical, I’m a cosmogonist.”
“I focus on the origins of the universe. But you can call me a cosmologist.”
“As long as you are not an astrologer.”
Behind them, the two boys had begun a wrestling match. “Very boisterous kids,” Mr. Rajgopal said to Mrs. Mukherjee as the cosmologist went to break up the scuffle. “I will help you manage them later.”
“I thought you said you were busy, C. K.”
“I will stay. I will help you.”
The courtyard was getting crowded. Mrs. Mukherjee moved away to say hello to someone else. Murthy came shuffling towards him. “He looks like a hippie, no, this astrologer? Nothing like his aunty.”
“What do you think of my new shirt, Murthy?”
“It looks like you forgot to iron it.”
“What about my pants? I bought them today, this afternoon in fact. Feel how soft the material is.”
“They look wet, C. K. Like they didn’t dry properly after being washed.”
There was a theory, the cosmologist told the assembled senior citizens, of a Big Crunch, where the universe, all its mass, energy, space, and time, would collapse into a single point, thereby setting the stage for another Big Bang, and the cycle would repeat itself indefinitely.
“Like reincarnation,” someone called from the audience. “Samsara.”
The cosmologist waved a hand in the speaker’s direction. He had made this helpless gesture several times over the course of his talk, in response to every comment directed at him. “The consensus now,” he said, “is that the universe will continue to expand. Forever.”
“Forever,” Murthy muttered to Mr. Rajgopal. “How can the fellow know such a thing?”
They were sitting in the chairs farthest from the podium, at the edge of the last row. Mr. Rajgopal’s attention kept wandering to the back of Mrs. Mukherjee’s head. She had never once turned around. It was as if she had dismissed him forever.
“Imagine you are in an airplane,” he heard the cosmologist say, “flying away from Earth, away from our galaxy, towards the cosmic event horizon. The horizon would keep retreating from you at a faster and faster rate. The closer you got to the edge of the universe, the faster it would elude you.”
Mr. Rajgopal saw the horizon as it used to appear before him in the cockpit. At thirty thousand feet above sea level, he had seen shades of blue and pink he was convinced existed nowhere else. And then there was the precise moment of a sunrise. That pinprick followed by a bright gush, as if the skin of the sky, of space itself, had ruptured.
Beside him, Murthy raised his hand. “Sir, you’re talking about things you yourself said we may never fully understand. Aren’t you more of a philosopher than a scientist?”
“My background is in physics,” the cosmologist said. “And astronomy.”
“Black holes, dark energy,” someone else said. “I feel it is all science fiction. Like Star Trek.”
“It must all be in the Vedas,” another audience member added. “They would have predicted it long ago.”
The cosmologist shook his head, at a loss for what to say. Mr. Rajgopal stood up. “I have a question. Something I have always wondered about.”
He almost never spoke aloud at these talks. Heads were turning towards him; he glimpsed Mrs. Mukherjee frowning. But it was too late to sit back down; a recklessness had overcome him.
“When my son was in high school,” he continued, “physics was his favorite subject. One day he told me, ‘Papa, did you know that if you were to fly away in a rocket ship going close to the speed of light and return after two years, you would find that two hundred years would have passed on Earth?’ Is what he said true?”
The cosmologist’s face relaxed. “Yes,” he said. “A simple Einsteinian problem.”
“How? Can you please explain? In simple terms, mind you.”
“He was so happy you asked him a proper question,” Mrs. Mukherjee said later, as she and Mr. Rajgopal were walking towards the marketplace. The cosmologist had departed with his sons: due to the autorickshaw strike, his St. Joseph’s reunion had been cancelled, and he had given in to their demands to drive them to Fun World.
“Such silly comments he was getting,” Mr. Rajgopal said. “I kept thinking, here is this serious scientist who has gone to the trouble to prepare a talk for us—can’t we at least ask him some proper questions? Science fiction! The Vedas! What is wrong with our people?”
“You don’t think he should have pitched his talk at a slightly lower level?”
“Nonsense,” Mr. Rajgopal said. “He was very clear, very concise. I was interested from beginning to end.”
She turned to him. “Really, C. K.?”
“It was one of the most interesting talks I can remember.”
She sighed and placed a hand on her chest. “Good, then. I feel happy.”
As they threaded their way through the fruit carts on Eighth Main, a surge of wellbeing threatened to overwhelm him. “Why don’t we go have some dessert?” He gestured to one of the new shops across the street, a glass-fronted ice cream parlor, brightly lit.
“You want to go there?” she said. “It’s very expensive, C. K. Dollar-equivalent prices, I’ve heard.”
“Occasionally,” he said, “I like to splurge on something nice.”
“Splurge? I never thought I would hear you say the word splurge, C. K.”
“It is true, I am a thrifty fellow. But once in a while, you know, I allow myself a small treat.”
He led the way to the entrance, swung open the heavy door, and ushered her in. A gust of air conditioning made them both shiver. “We spend so much time,” he said, “complaining about this and that, how Bangalore has become unrecognizable, how everything is so expensive, how the younger generation has no respect for the old, et cetera, et cetera, but in the end, all this moaning and groaning will only make us depressed. Let us enjoy what is available. Splurge a little now and then.”
From behind a refrigerated glass case, two young men in identical blue uniforms looked at them in surprise. “They’re not used to oldies like us,” Mr. Rajgopal said with a laugh. “What will you have, Romila?”
She peered at the colorful flavors, arranged in rows of circles like a children’s paint box. “Strawberry,” she said. “Just a small scoop.”
“Two strawberry ice creams,” he announced. “My treat.”
The bill was handed to him, and he saw that her warning had been correct. Nine hundred fifty rupees—more than his new trousers, even. Such was the current state of the world. Fortunately, he was prepared. From his pocket he retrieved the envelope of money he’d withdrawn earlier from the bank. He had taken out two thousand rupees, thinking that after his visit to the tailor’s he would go to one of the showrooms on Astoria Road and purchase a suitcase, one of those lightweight models, for his next trip to visit his son and granddaughters. But after having spent 550 rupees on his new trousers, he had gone straight home to wear them with his linen shirt. Now he pulled out the second thousand-rupee note. “Keep the change,” he said briskly to the young man, who gaped as if he hadn’t expected this elderly gentleman to pay up without a fuss.
“It reminds me of srikhand,” Mrs. Mukherjee said as they sat with their cups of pink ice cream and blue plastic spoons at a small, round table. “On Independence Day, I remember we came home from school after the flag ceremony, and my mother made srikhand to celebrate.”
“I was in Madras at the time,” he said. “My parents didn’t have a radio, so we went to our neighbors’ house to hear Nehru’s speech.” He lifted his ice cream cup as if it were a glass of whisky. “Fifty-six years ago, no?” He had been a youth of twenty then, unmarried, an engineering student aspiring to be an Indian Air Force pilot. Witnessing the liberation of his people, the birth of his country, he had felt nothing but exhilaration; disappointment lay over the horizon, out of sight.
“Romila,” he said, “I want to ask you something. Please give me your honest answer. Do you think I am a selfish person?”
“Why do you ask?”
“I’m just asking.”
“Did somebody say you were selfish?”
“No, no, nothing like that.” He put a spoonful of ice cream in his mouth and swallowed thoughtfully. “Romila,” he said, “if you will allow me—I hope you will not consider me impertinent—I just want to tell you—I hope you will not take it the wrong way if I tell you—that I very much enjoy your company.”
“It is not impertinent at all, C. K.”
“Are you sure?”
“C. K., is there something you are trying to say?”
“Nothing like that. You don’t consider me a fool, I hope.”
One of the cashiers, who moments earlier had hurried out through the entrance, now bustled back in with something clutched in his palm. He and his colleague conferred briefly by the register, speaking in hushed voices and darting glances over to Mr. Rajgopal, who sat up straighter in his chair and said to Mrs. Mukherjee, “Let us finish our ice creams and try to get home before the mosquitos come out.”
The cashier strode up to him. “Excuse me, sir? Your change. We did not have hundred-rupee notes, so I had to go to the shop next door.”
A sheaf of money came down before Mr. Rajgopal, landing beside his ice cream. He frowned at it. As it dawned on him what had happened, he slapped his hand over the notes and tried to whisk them into his pocket before Mrs. Mukherjee could see. “Mistake,” he muttered. “Silly mistake.” He saw her eyes widen. One thousand, she was about to say. You seriously thought they were charging you 950, C. K.? As if ninety-five is not enough? For two small ice creams?
She made a strange sound, like a bird chirping, then coughed and wiped her face with her handkerchief. “Ice cream,” she said, “always irritates my throat. Shall we go?”
He fingered the thick wad of money in his pocket as they made their way through the market. The sun was directly ahead of them, a blazing disc of orange suspended above the rain trees. Mrs. Mukherjee stumbled. “Take my arm,” he told her. “The pavement is uneven—I don’t want you to trip and fall.”
Head lowered, she made that strange chirping sound again.
“You’re laughing?” he asked her. “You’re laughing at me?”
She insisted, again, that it was her throat giving her trouble.
“I know I am absentminded sometimes,” he said stiffly. “But I am still capable.”
She gave a deep sigh and linked her arm with his. “Thank God we are still capable.”
“Shall I accompany you to your house?”
She turned to him. He expected her to say she was perfectly capable of walking the rest of the way by herself. Her sunglasses hid her eyes. She kept her arm looped through his. He would not refuse, he told himself, to enter her living room if she invited him in for a cup of tea.
Shubha Sunder‘s prose has appeared or is forthcoming in New Letters, Catapult, SLICE, Crazyhorse, Narrative Magazine, and elsewhere. Two of her stories were named as notable in The Best American Short Stories 2016. She was a City of Boston Artist Fellow for the year 2020. Other distinctions include a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship, the Crazyhorse Prize in Fiction, a Narrative “30 Below” prize, and awards from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences and from The Corporation of Yaddo.