She sent the house key through a boy who came running behind my car. I saw her at the far end of the field as I drove into the village.
When I got a phone call from her about my father a week ago, I did not promise to visit the village. He had disappeared many times before, gone away for long periods of time, but returned as if he had gone just to the forest at the edge of our village, to gather fire wood.
It was early evening when she came in from the field. She wiped her face with her old cotton sari as she sat beside me on the seat by the door, sniffed, and made a scene about the smell of my cigarette.
‘You should go beyond the village pond to smoke, not here in the agraharam.’
‘Ma, give me a glass of hot coffee. I have not eaten anything since morning.’
‘How long are you staying? It is threshing time and I will be busy through the day. Twenty men have come from the next village and I will have to finish threshing ullundu before next week.’
‘I thought you wanted me to come.’
She shook her head, ‘I only wanted to keep you informed.’
‘Why is no one at home? Where is Ponni?’
‘She has gone to her village.’
‘Where is that? She was born here, in this house, in the backyard.’
She sat stony-faced.
‘Where is Thai, Ponni’s mother?’ I asked.
‘She died ten days back.’
Shocked, I said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me? Is that the reason why he left?’
‘No. You think he cared anything for a servant who milks our cows and makes dung cakes.’
That was true.
She continued, ‘He had been speaking of going to Varanasi.’
‘So, that’s it. It is better than the previous times when he just disappeared without telling anything.’
‘He said he wanted to go by walk to Varanasi.’
‘What? But, why?’
She shrugged. ‘Pada yatra, journey by foot - the way his grandmother went to Varanasi. You know that story, don’t you?’
‘About your great grandmother, she went by foot to Varanasi, about 10 times.’
‘But those days there were no trains.’
‘And every time she went, no one knew when she would return, if she would return at all. You know why anyone wants to go to Varanasi, right?’
‘No, I don’t know and do not care to know Ma. I am hungry. Cook me a hot and spicy meal.’
She continued as though she did not hear me.
‘One goes to Varanasi to die. Straight moksha, journey to heaven,’ she said, collapsing in laughter.
‘Moksha and your father!’ She stood up shaking her head.
I heard her in the kitchen dragging the wooden crate where she stored potatoes. After smoking the last of the cigarette I stepped inside to help her. I took the potatoes that she had soaked in the water to wash, peeled and cut them for her on the table. She filled the bottom of the kadai with oil, let mustard seeds sputter before she threw in the cut potatoes to roast them.
published 13 August 2014