He rang the calling bell and stood back beside her. She looked at him and smiled. “The new haircut suits you,” she told him. He acknowledged her compliment with a smile. As there was no response, he rang the bell again. “Coming…” shouted a female voice from inside. He slipped his hand into hers to reassure as she became nervous; she never met his mother before. They heard footsteps approaching the door. “Who is that?” the female asked voice from inside. “Maa, it’s me,” he replied. “Ranjith beta, is that you?” the female voice spoke, with a hint of surprise, and opened the door without waiting for his reply. “Hello maa, how are you?” he stepped forward and hugged her even before the door was completely open. The mother and the son embraced for a moment and he released her after planting a perfunctory kiss on her cheek.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were coming, beta?” she said with a broad smile on her face, looking at him from head to toe as if scanning him to replace his old image. After all, this was their first meeting in seven years. “And who is this beautiful lady?” she asked, feigning innocence. “Maa, this is Radha, my wife,” he said moving back, and Radha stepped in front of him. Vinati, the mother, adjusted her glasses to have a good look at Radha, but couldn’t, as the sun was directly behind Radha. Vinati suddenly realized that she hadn’t invited them in. Cursing herself for being forgetful, she welcomed them in. As they settled down on the sofa in the hall, Vinati enquired, “Beta, your voice is slightly different, are you having a cold?” He replied, “Yes maa. Change of water, probably. But don’t worry about me. How are you?”
“Oh, I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be when I have such an amazing child? Now, let me have a good look at my daughter-in-law.” Vinati examined Radha for a moment and said, “You look beautiful but slightly different from the photos. Ah! Your hairstyle is different. Do you always wear like this?” But she didn’t give Radha a chance to answer and continued, “Kids these days change their appearances so frequently that it’s difficult to keep track of it. Anyway, this bobbed hair frames your face very well.” She turned to Ranjith and said, “So beta, tell me how are you? Have you eaten anything since lunch? You must be hungry, let me get you something. I have your favorite sweet, Gulab Jamun, but not much. You should have told me you were coming.” Vinati rose and rushed into the kitchen. She was so excited and couldn’t contain it. She kept on talking, even from the kitchen.
“Ranjith?! That’s new to me,” Radha whispered to him. “It’s my middle name. Also, there is a Ranjith in the office, so never told anyone to avoid confusion,” he whispered back. Radha felt embarrassed for not knowing the middle name of her husband even though they were married for over a year. “And one more thing, I always wore bobbed hair since I met you. How can you have pics of me in a different hairstyle?” she asked like a lawyer cross-examining a witness. But before he could answer, Vinati returned with a tray and offered a cup to each, asking, “What are you two love birds whispering about?” Vinati saw the surprised look on Radha’s face and smiled and said, “Yes, I know. My Ranjith tells me everything,” and looked proudly at him. Then Radha and Vinati chatted for some time.
He was really surprised by Vinati’s reaction. He expected her to be angry and shut the door on their face, but not this. He couldn’t understand how parents can forgive their child whatever the crime may be. Maybe because he wasn’t a parent yet.
During their chat, he saw Radha glancing at him several times as if trying to confirm whether the person sitting with her was same as the one she was hearing about. He realized she could sense something was wrong. He should have told her the truth; there is nothing he could do about it now. He said out loud, “Maa, when will you make dinner? I am famished.” Vinati rose up saying, “Forgot about the dinner talking to my daughter-in-law. Blame her for being such a charming young lady,” and went into the kitchen. “Get freshened up meanwhile,” shouted Vinati from the kitchen.
As they entered the only bedroom in the house, Radha was about to say something. He interrupted her saying, “She has become rather forgetful and clumsy, recalling memories of my cousins thinking they were about me. Please tolerate her for one more day.” She slapped on his upper arm censuringly, saying “Is that the way you should talk about your mother?”
“Oh, it hasn’t been two hours since you two met and you already changed parties? You are the model daughter-in-law.”
“She is just excited to see you, that’s all. So, do you want to go first?” she asked pointing towards the washroom. “On second thought, why don’t we have a bath together? I heard it’ll be refreshing,” he said smiling and tugging her towards the washroom playfully.
* * *
“Are you leaving already? It’s been only a day,” Vinati exclaimed as he started packing. “I have some urgent work in the office, maa. They called in the morning. I have to go,” he said trying to console her. “Couldn’t you at least let Radha stay for a few more days?” negotiated Vinati. “I already booked the tickets, maa. They cost me a fortune,” he said playing on her weakness, frugality. Radha was uncomfortable with lying, so she kept mum.
Finally, Vinati agreed to let them go. After they packed and were about to leave, Vinati hugged and affectionately lowered him to kiss his forehead. He backed out instantly as if he touched a hot plate. Vinati was taken aback. Even Radha was surprised. After an awkward moment, Vinati hugged Radha tenderly and whispered to her, “He is a good kid. Look after him.”
* * *
Their flight was delayed by one hour. Both of them had been waiting at the airport for quite some time. There was complete silence between them since they got into a cab at the house. Finally, Radha broke the silence.
“So, when are you going to tell me the truth?” she started without beating around the bush. As he maintained silence, she continued, “Look, I know something is wrong. You know me, I will find out. So, better tell me now.”
He spoke after a minute, “She wasn’t my mother.”
“I knew it,” she said with fervor. “And let me guess, Ranjith isn’t your middle name either.”
“No, it’s her son’s name: the same one from the office,” he said dispassionately.
“Oh,” she said, not knowing how to react to this revelation. “So, what happened to him?” she asked after reflecting for a minute.
He continued in the same tone, “He committed suicide.” When she didn’t offer any response, he went on. “He killed a murderer and was sentenced to jail. He committed suicide in there as he couldn’t endure the nightmares of those hapless incidents which led to the murder. He relived them every day. He was a rather sensitive guy. I was the only friend he had when he was in jail.”
She interrupted him and asked, “If he was as sensitive as you say, then why did he kill another person?”
He took out a folded paper from his purse and handed it to her, saying, “This is his last letter to me”. As she read it, tears rolled down her cheeks. She wiped her tears as she handed back the letter. (You too can read the contents of the letter here.) “I understand why you visited your friend’s mother. But why did she call you Ranjith? Doesn’t she know her son is dead?”
He reverted his gaze to her and asked, “Can you imagine how a mother would feel if she couldn’t recognize her child from a group of kids? How would you feel if you couldn’t remember the faces of your loved ones?”
“What does this have to do with Vinati?”
“She is face blind.”
“What? Face blind? What does that even mean?”
“She suffered a severe head injury in a major car accident a few years back and contracted ‘Prosopagnosia’, also called face blindness. It means that she can’t differentiate between faces, that she can’t recognize her own son. She didn’t cope up well initially, so she had to be admitted into an asylum. Shortly after, Ranjith committed the murder. During the trial, he used to visit her and she had time to learn to recognize Ranjith by associating him with his hairstyle, gait, and voice. Doctors advised against telling her about the ongoing trial because of her unstable condition. When he was sentenced, Ranjith told her he got a job abroad. Since both of us have a similar physique, he asked me to impersonate him for her as his dying wish. That’s the reason I changed my hairstyle and voice when we visited her. I couldn’t let her feel my face as she would immediately recognize that I am not her son.”
Radha listened in silence. “I need a few minutes to contemplate this. I am going for a walk,” she said and left before he could stop her.
After some time, he saw her return and sit a few seats away from him. He slowly approached her and said, “There is more, I am the cause of the accident. I was driving the car that hit theirs. I am sorry, Radha, for not disclosing this earlier.” The woman looked baffled and said, “I am sorry, you must have me confused with someone else. My name is Roshni.” He apologized to her, went back to his seat and waited for Radha to come back.