I knew I would not sleep that night. But I couldnít sleep for many nights that followed. As I thought about Mukundan and Nalini ó particularly naked ó I wandered about the house to smother my thoughts.
One night, with a consciousness that a sleeping pill could not extinguish, I went into the kitchen, opened the cupboard and took down a green Glenfiddich bottle from the collection of whiskeys that Mukundan had left behind. I opened and poured the whiskey into a glass full of ice cubes, unmindful of the quantity. I went into the darkened drawing room and sat watching the flickering of light on the TV screen. As I drank from the cold, moisture-beaded glass, I became aware of Amma behind me.
"Pavam ," she said caressing my hair. I jumped up, shaking off her hand, went to the bedroom and banged the door shut. I began to throw the pillows at the wall, one by one. Amma stood on the other side of the door, not daring to knock.
The second time I met Nalini was at the coffee shop in Kanishka Hotel. She rang me up that morning and invited me. I had gone out after quite a long time. Amma and the children reminded me to bring Mukundanís photograph. From where we sat in the coffee shop, we could see the blue swimming pool right across us on the other side of the glass panes. The pool held a few of the bodies that had landed in various countries when the Soviet Union disintegrated. A handsome golden-haired muscled body (Kazhaki? Uzbeki?) rose slowly out of the water. Nalini stared at it. I suppressed a smile.
"Why did you say you wanted to see me?"
"I thought you should know it. I felt that for the first time in his life Mukundan showed cowardice in not telling you about us. I wanted to correct it."
"Repaying a debt, are you? To whom? To your occasional lover?" "Mukundan was always with me. Maybe even now." Her eyes began to fill.
"The first time I acted in a play Mukundan took me to India Gate and made me walk on the grass to overcome my stage fright."
"ThenÖ so many things. When I didnít cook Mukundan would get roomali roti and meat curry from Karimís in Jama Masjid."
"And when you were unwell? How was Mukundan then?"
"He bought broken rice from INA market and made gruel for me."
"He sat beside you day and night, holding your hand?"
"Yes. He would press a wet handkerchief on my forehead."
"And when you were well again he drove off, leaving you alone for several weeks?"
"No, when the fever broke he took me to Mcleodganj in Dharamsala to recuperate. There, he took photographs of the Tibetan refugees I pointed out to him."
For the first time in my life I hated Mukundan. Anger darkened my surroundingÖ anger is the throbbing nerve between the eyebrows, in the middle of the forehead; I closed my eyes, my groping handÖ grasped the first object at hand, the heavy, silver-plated sugar bowl on the tea-tray. I picked it up and threw it at the glass wall between the coffee shop and the swimming pool. The sugar scattered like snow. The yet untanned autumn faces of the foreigners grew paler as they heard glass shattering. I put my head down on the table and cried. The hotel staff gathered around us. I donít remember what passed between Nalini and them. Nalini helped me up, put her arm around me and led me to the car.
When I reached home both the children were at the front door. "HuhÖ Huhchanís photo?" Narayanan stammered.
"Achchanís photo?" Dori asked.
"Mukundanís photo?" Amma also asked.
"I didnít bring it," I shouted. Then I went into the bedroom and locked the door.
Five or six days later Nalini rang up. "Can you please come? Itís important."
"I donít want to see anyone."
"I have no one but you. You have to come." Her voice broke.
Her room was in disorder. Plates with half-eaten food, ants crawling on them, stood on the table with the cactus and Nalini and Mukundanís photograph. Her soiled nightgowns lay on the bed. A cup stood on the floor, a thin layer of fungus spread like cataract on the half-finished tea in it.
"Iím pregnant," Nalini said.
After thinking it over four or five times I finally asked: "What do you intend to doÖ kill it or keep it?"
Based on my memory of the photograph of the six-month-old Mukundan on the bedroom wall, on my memory of Narayananís childhood, I visualised an infant with Mukundanís brownish eyes and long nose. Since Mukundan did not have a moustache, it was not difficult to visualise him as a child.
Nalini went in to change her clothes. When she returned she asked me: "Can you come with me to the clinic?"
"I should come for that too?"
"Who else can I tell this to?"
When we got out I realised that I would not be able to drive. My hands were trembling. We took an auto-rickshaw and went to the clinic. We sat apart, each immersed in her own silence, until Nalini was called in.
As we returned in a taxi Nalini, who smelt of antiseptics, pressed close to me. All of a sudden, she put her head on my shoulders and started to cry loudly. "My mother died when I was a child," she said. I ran my fingers through her unwashed, tangled hair.
The next Saturday I rang up Nalini. "Can you come for lunch? Iíve made raw mango and prawn curry for the children."
"Iíll come. I can see the children too."
"On your way, can you pick up Mukundanís photograph from Rama Studio in Bengali Market?"
It was Dori who opened the package. The children placed the photograph against every wall of the house to see where it would look best. Finally, Nalini convinced them that Mukundan would have liked the privacy of the bedroom best.
In the kitchen, I hurriedly prepared Mukundanís favourite dishes. Cabbage thoran with coconut scrapings, tomato rasam, rajma curry, fried ladyís finger in curd, raw mango and prawn curry and a caramel custard for dessert.
Nalini played in the childrenís room like another child. In the meantime, Amma gleaned from her details of her family and her native town in Kerala.
After lunch Dori asked Nalini, "Auntie, can you tell a story?"
"A story," Narayanan seconded.
"Okay." Nalini made the children sit on the carpet in the drawing room. "You are the audience in the first
row." She looked at me.
"Chechi  and Amma sit at the back in the chairs. Thatís the balcony." Nalini stood with her back to us.
Then she turned to face us. She ran her fingers through her hair like Mukundan. Her left eye closed slightly, her nostrils flared, she made her eyes smile as Mukundan could. With arms spread out, relishing the taste of every letter, Mukundan said: "Now Iíll tell you a story."
Translated from the Malayalam story Sishu by Catherine Thankamma
Sanskrit invocation to the goddess Durga: "The goddess who resides
everywhere is established as memory."
N.S. Madhavan is an award-winning writer of Malayalam. A senior civil servant, he lives in Patna