Home Tags Posts tagged with "Gaurav Bhalla short story"

Gaurav Bhalla short story

The Angels Are Leaving, The Angels Are Leaving

by Gaurav Bhalla

“Wish we didn’t have to leave home,” the mother said, placing a pouch of keys on the antique entryway table. 

“Home will live in our hearts,” the father whispered, wrapping her in a heavy pashmina shawl; the place where they were headed was further than the furthest clouds.

“I’m afraid,” she said, shivering in her shawl.           

Single malt in hand, the son paced the marble foyer of his condo—five paces forward, three back … a stutter step … an unplanned meander to the left pinching the bridge of his nose to subdue a stubborn migraine, then a distracted pause leaning against the archway to the family room, then a halting amble to the French doors opening on the terrace, gazing vacantly at the ashen dusk. Here he stood for several minutes watching the city and street scenes below.

Gurgaon, India’s newest happening city, was advertising itself, wearing its brand of chaos like a badge of honor—cars zig-zagging battling for space, horns blaring, brakes screeching, heads popping out of car windows cursing and hollering, passing pedestrians taking sides, joining the fray; swarms of people spreading in all directions; people returning home from work, others coming from home to work; eager shoppers going into neon-drenched malls, excited shoppers exiting malls balancing shopping bags; ice-cream parlors, street-food vendors, and liquor stores doing brisk business; bars and restaurants filling up; sounds of people laughing, joking, living it up; children playing gully cricket, roaring at the fall of every wicket, wildly cheering every boundary; a sing-song electronic voice rising above the din announcing the arrival and departure of metro trains: Unabashed Gurgaon was awash in chaos.

But eleven floors above the frenzy, in the condo, there was stillness and solitude. The son retreated from the terrace to this welcoming calm. Sinking into the sofa, he swirled his single malt, took a slow meditative sip, and recalled a verse he had composed earlier in the day:

It all begins with family …

But does it also all end with family?

What vexing issues he was trying to lift into the light, only a soothsayer could tell.  

The condo was his, a valued possession, an upscale address in a gated community with fountains and Mughal-style gardens, and easy access to golf and tennis, and to friends he had known since elementary school, several for more than fifty years. It had all the totems and hieroglyphs middle class folk use to show the world they are doing well … actually, better than well … very well, thank you. But to make the brick-box a warm-blooded home he needed help, so he invited his parents to live there. Fulfilling filial attachments was important to them; they moved in and nurtured the condo as they had their own two children.

The choreographed comings and goings of daily life kept the condo chubby and chirping for the seventeen years the parents called it home. Here is where they celebrated their sixty-third marriage anniversary, a quiet candlelight dinner with another silver-haired couple. And here is where they departed within hours of each other, a few weeks into their sixty-fourth year when their fates shifted. In two short weeks a warm-blooded home lost its pulse, everything now was dyed by their absence. And as frequently happens when tightly crocheted lives unravel, a new and emergent fate began rescripting existing kinships—erasing privileged and spacious relationships—with things and events the parents once enjoyed.

The son too felt the chill of change. His parents’ passing placed him face-to-face with questions he occasionally had thought about, but was unprepared to confront; the most pressing being the fate of the condo: Keep it or sell it? Sell it? The question always corkscrewed his stomach as though life was demanding he amputate a vital limb. He could keep it only if he moved back from the US. He knew people who had, mainly couples, but they all had family—parents, uncles, aunts, siblings, cousins—tohelp ease the move back. Since he didn’t have any family, selling the condo seemed the more practical and sensible option. But the sell decision came with its own nettles of guilt and doubts, many sounding like accusations. Was he being a good Indian son? Was he being too hasty? Maybe he should wait a bit longer, the ink was still drying on his parents’ death certificates.

After several days of dodging and weaving, and two-handed evaluations … on the one hand thison the other hand that … he buckled and threw in the towel.

The condo was listed on a Sunday; it sold the following Monday; the son had three weeks to hand-over the keys. The thought that soon his home will be someone else’s made him dizzy. He reached for his tranquilizer and glugged the remaining single malt in one go; considered pouring another but decided against it and lay down. In less than a minute, his snoring, sounding like a tuba in F-flat, began echoing through the condo.  

“Soon someone else will move into our home,” the mother said, dabbing her eyes.

“Want to go back for a pilgrimage?” the father asked.

Pilgrimage? What a wonderful idea. “You still read me like an open book,” the mother said, resting her head on her husband’s chest.

Hand in hand, they stood a few feet from where their son lay asleep. “Just like you,” the mother said. The father nodded, remembering the many nights, a book yawning in his lap, his mind wandering, fingering a rosary of regrets—missteps, lost time, and missed opportunities—he had fallen asleep. The mother wanted to hug her son, but the father held her back. “We don’t want to wake him.” She made a moue but didn’t insist. No, they didn’t want to wake him.

They tiptoed from room to room, caravans of memories in tow, so many friends waiting to say hello—photos, rockers, low sunken chairs with woven jute backs and seats; silk shawls and Jaipur quilts; terracotta pottery figurines and brass statues of gods and goddesses; marble inlay jewelry boxes. And jewelry—bazaars of bangles, earrings, necklaces, chokers, bracelets, and rings. Pointing, lifting, opening drawers and cupboards, they traveled as far back as their friends wanted to take them. “Everything still in place,” she observed, with a wide sweep of her arms. “We haven’t been gone that long, darling.” No, they hadn’t been gone that long. The walls were still damp, weeping.  

In the annex of the bedroom she stood before her dresser, turned one way, then the other. “Looking for something?” “I thought I left it here.” “Left what?” he asked. She shrugged, “Alzheimer’s.”

“Look hubby … ,” she said, pointing to the white marble jewelry box on the dresser. Hubby is what she had called her husband, from the moment Pandit ji had sealed their marriage by sprinkling holy water and a mixture of rice, jaggery and cumin on their heads. “Yes, your favorite garnet and pearl necklace.” “A birthday gift from you. Fiftieth.” Sixtieth, in fact, but the husband didn’t correct her. Must memories be accurate to enjoy?

Now in the bedroom. “Here, we slept … ,” she said. “And took naps,” he added. “Yes,” she said, but only to keep the conversation alive; napping was not on her mind. This room was their haven to which they retreated when tectonic shifts tremored their lives. A hideaway, hers more than his, when she needed a healing cry; when her parents were killed by a drunk truck driver speeding on the wrong side of the highway; when her only daughter, a jokester, collapsed on stage. One minute she had the audience in splits, next minute she was gone; she wasn’t even forty. How cruel, how wrong, so-so wrong. This one wound time didn’t heal.

“Did you remember what you were looking for?” he asked to pull her back; a dark brooding had engulfed her like a hijab. “Me? I wasn’t looking for anything, you were.”

She eased herself into the rocker in the corner, her favorite spot for lazing in the winter sun. The condo was blessed. Morning sun in the family room and kitchen, afternoon sun in the bedrooms. And on nights when the moon claimed the sky, shimmering beams of moonlight dropped in to visit and waltz. “We always had our bed tea here,” the father said. “Yes, two cups each … with hot milk and two sugars,” she replied, rising from the rocker and linking her arm in his.

“I don’t understand,” she said as they shuffled toward the bedroom door. “What?” “Why he doesn’t take milk and sugar with his tea.” “Maybe that’s how they drink tea in America.” Even after thirty-three years, she had difficulty accepting some of her son’s Americanisms. For the father it was not the traits, not the habits, it was what he yearned for most but never experienced—a living breathing friendship with his son—cricket, Urdu poetry, Sunday golf, politics, and their mutual distaste for institutionalized religion. So much of his son was foreign to him. He didn’t know his son’s stories, the stories his son told those closest to him. What he most feared he had become, a mere biological father. Perhaps this is the inexorable destiny of parenthood—losing your children, losing their stories, becoming strangers to each other’s dreams and fears, even more so once they fly the nest.

The foyer. On his writing desk, a lacquered box containing fountain pens—blue, blue-black, black, red inks. He lifted the box to dust the pens and nearly dropped the whole lot. “Shh, careful, we don’t want to wake him,” she reminded him.

No, they didn’t want to wake him.

On the way from the foyer to the drawing room she veered off to look in on her son; she couldn’t hear him snoring. She was worried. Exactly how she used to worry when he was a toddler, when she couldn’t hear him breathing in his crib. Could he be awake?

“Sleeping soundly,” she reported after rejoining her husband.

The drawing room. The drawing room was rich with curios and souvenirs from their numerous domestic and overseas trips—porcelain and crystal vases from Bohemia and China; Dutch tin-glazed earthenware; a motley mix of Indian and Spanish pottery bowls, pitchers, and trays; a trio of cheery Matryoshka dolls; miniature models of the Taj and the Alhambra Palace; wall hangings, framed miniature Kangra paintings, and weathered oils.

“How sweet that man was?” she said admiring the three Kakejiku—hanging silk scrolls—they had bought in Kyoto. “Nishioka san, I even remember his name.” “Easy,” the father teased, pointing to the name painted at the bottom of each scroll. Pulling a pretend pout, she elbowed his ribs, “Smarty-pants.”

After tiptoeing through every doorway, after visiting and paying their respects to all the remaining rooms—guest bedrooms, all neat and tidy; the storage room, their well-traveled, heavily stickered bags needed dusting; his study, papers all over his desk, his third novel, unfinished, and sadly now abandoned; the kitchen, where she lingered the longest … why was the fridge so empty?—the couple returned to the family room, where they had begun their pilgrimage, and where their son was still snoring on the sofa.

The family room. Here they had spent most of their waking hours; watching Bollywood movies and serials; reading books and magazines, popular rags and literary ones; balancing the check book; consuming their daily dose of local, national, and global news. And eating—apples, almonds, and walnuts; breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The chairs, rugs, curtains, and everything on the dining table remembered fondly how the mother would attempt to make each meal an event; how even a simple staple, scrambled eggs on toast, she would elevate to a treat—a sprinkling of chives, dollops of bitter marmalade … and thick cream … and cubed melon—enough for the mother to say, “You know how much a five-star hotel would charge for this?” And he would respond with his pet repartee, “I’m glad I married the chef.” For them, the condo was more than a five-star hotel, it was what a five-star hotel could never be.

Outside. Their vigil complete, sleepy stars had begun pulling down their shades. And on the ageless peepul tree, amid frenzied cawing, a territorial tussle was raging between the resident crows and a marauding murder of treeless branch grabbers, each faction fanatical about their claims and entitlements.  

“It will be light soon,” the father said. “Did we accomplish everything we came for?” she asked. Only she could answer that question. Every photo, every picture, every millimeter of wooden and marble floor, the beds, the chairs … she didn’t think she’d missed anything … not the curtains, not the bedspreads, not the cushions … she hoped she hadn’t hurt anyone’s feelings … even more, she hoped she’d expressed her deep love and heartfelt thanks to all.

During the pilgrimage, despite their stopped lives, despite broken links with their yesterdays, despite empty chairs and deserted rooms, she had not shed a single tear; crying was for later. Our deepest sorrows spring from the absence of our greatest joys, she murmured to herself. “Sorry, did you say something?” the father asked. “The crows are cawing, we should get going,” she answered. She wanted to hug her son, but …. “I wish he would marry,” she said. “He’ll be fine,” the husband assured her, looking away to hide his pain; in the areas of relationships and marriage his son’s dreams and desires were foreign to him.

Hand in hand the old couple shuffled toward the front door, lugging the deadweight of their regrets, doubts, and maybes—Did we lead a good life? Were we good parents? Could we have done more for our children? Maybe we should have ….

A lone sentry, the owl-shaped candle perched on the antique entryway table, spotted the couple tiptoeing out and hooted an alarm, “The Angels are leaving, The Angels are leaving.” As the alarm echoed and re-echoed throughout the condo, a great migration began. All things that could move—Maasai warriors carrying spears and shields, sandal wood and ivory elephants, wood and clay camels, three see-do-speak-no-evil bronze monkeys, terracotta Bankura horses, the brass dancing Nataraja, the marble statue of Lord Ganesh—filled the foyer. Several smaller things—a porcelain mermaid, wooden baby-dolls, and a Faberge-inspired egg that played Für Elise—hitched a ride on the backs of elephants, camels, and horses. Things too old, too elaborate, unused to roving—replicas of the Taj and Alhambra, wall hangings, oils, and Kakejikus—waved and bid farewell from their assigned stations. The owl-shaped candle hooted again, “The Angels are leaving, The Angels are leaving.” In unison, all things in the condo chanted, “The Angels are leaving, The Angels are leaving.”

Then the entire condo fell silent.  

But outside on the peepul tree, there was no silence, only anarchy. Having vanquished the trespassing marauders, the resident crows were celebrating with raucous glee. Their boisterous cawing thrummed the son’s ears vandalizing his sleep. Muttering, he rose to a glare shining his eyes—sunlight bouncing off the stainless-steel saltshaker (his mother had tidied the dining table before leaving). A light breeze on its morning stroll through the condo playfully flicked a paper off the table, landing it on the Rajasthani dhurrie near where the son, still rubbing unburnt sleep and rheum-crust from his eyes, was standing, feeling for his leather chappals with his feet. He picked up the paper, it was a list, a list of things he needed to order from Abdul’s, the resident Kirana store. The fridge was empty.

Eggs, Bread,  Butter, Jam/Honey, Cheese

Apples, Papaya/Melon, Pomegranate, Fruit Juices

Sweet and Salty Snacks—Monaco biscuits, Walnut-Date cake, Amul chocolate bars

… … … … …

But whose handwriting … wasn’t his … wasn’t the maid’s … looked like … NO … couldn’t be. NO. How could it …? Sorry. Later. Nature was calling.


Gaurav Bhalla is an author, educator, and former global, C-suite executive. Published in both business and literature (books, articles, essays, short stories, poems, novel, screenplays), he writes with a distinctly cross-cultural voice to enrich and diversify people’s perspectives concerning their relationships with themselves, with others, and with the worlds they live in. His short stories have been published in India, UK, and USA. Recently, his short stories have appeared in Jimson Weed and Defenestrationism.net. He can be reached at gaurav@gbkahanee.com.