“Venkat, don’t forget the laddus*. I have kept them near the clothes in an airtight container.”
“Yes, yes! I have already put them in the suitcase. And you have repeated that same instruction for the tenth time.”
“Well, you forget things easily. And I can’t help it, we are going to see Raghu finally after a year. A year, Venkat! And we know the last year hasn’t been easy.”
Venkat shook his head at that. Raghu, the apple of their eye! And now he was studying in the UK, London to be exact! Who would’ve thought so? But then Raghu was an intelligent boy from the beginning and when the time was right, he had grabbed the opportunity with both hands. And scholarships too. Otherwise, on Venkat’s pension after retirement, they would never have been able to afford it.
At the time when Raghu got his scholarship, Venkat suffered a health scare. While returning from the market, he collapsed on the road and was hospitalized for a while. He suffered from what the doctors called ‘a weak heart.’ As he was recovering, Raghu had to fly to the UK all alone. He managed everything all by himself.
Malamma interrupted his thoughts, “Oh, I forgot this shirt for August! Quick, put this in too.”
Venkat smiled and went back to his thoughts. Raghu called them on a weekly basis, since both Malamma and he were not tech-savvy. Raghu had tried his best to teach them how to use whatsapp; but had failed miserably. Hence, they had to rely on old-fashioned weekly phone calls only. Raghu shared the apartment with an English boy named ‘August’ and Malamma had lovingly picked up a pure linen shirt for him. “It wouldn’t do to meet our son’s friend empty-handed” she said and Venkat agreed completely.
Boarding the flight, their excitement was palpable. They gazed at the fluffy, white clouds, watched movies eating ‘bland’ vegetarian meals as Malamma called them and dozed off for a while. As they landed at Heathrow Airport and picked up their luggage from the conveyor belt, they looked ahead eagerly trying to catch a glimpse of their beloved son.
“Amma*, Appa*!” a voice piped in from behind, before they were both enveloped in a big hug.
Eyes, moist with tears, Malamma looked at her son. Her Raghu. Venkat blinked his eyes furiously, trying to hide his emotions too and slapped Raghu on the back.
“Raghu, it has almost been a year. Oh God, look at you! You are so skinny now. Don’t they feed you well here?” Malamma cried.
Raghu laughingly replied, “Amma, have you forgotten I cook myself? And I am not skinny, I am more fit now. All because you aren’t here, trying to feed me all the time.”
Malamma blushed and counter-reacted, “Well, that’s about to change as I am here now!”
As they headed home in the cab, Venkat asked, “So Raghu, how’s the course? And are you comfortable in your apartment?”
“Yes, Appa. We are almost there. See this is my college campus. And it’s barely a five minutes walking distance to the apartment.”
The cab stopped outside an old, grey brick-stone building with an old elevator that mostly remained out of service and today was no exception. Heaving the heavy suitcases along the stairway, Raghu made it to the front door and fished his key out from his pocket.
They walked into a narrow passage with doors on both sides. Raghu made for the door closest to him and announced, “Welcome to my abode, Amma and Appa. This is the living room and the doors opposite are the two bedrooms.”
“Where is your friend August? We do want to meet him.” Malamma asked eagerly.
“Well, August is out now and should be home anytime. But let me tell you that he…I mean…he” before he could say another word, they heard the doorknob turn and a young, tall, fair skinned woman with blond hair walked in. She was clad in a short skirt with a shirt and a scarf thrown around her neck. High boots adorned her feet and a handbag was slung over her shoulder.
Venkat and Malamma stood with mouths agape. A woman with a key to the apartment! They turned to Raghu in horror.
“Hello, you must be Raghu’s parents. I am Augusta, Raghu’s flat mate. Raghu has told me so much about you and I have been really looking forward to meeting you.”
“Augusta? But Raghu always mentioned August, so we assumed….” Malamma’s voice trailed away.
“Oh, so you assumed that I am a boy? Don’t worry about that. All my close friends call me ‘August’, so I understand your confusion. Raghu, you should’ve told your parents!” she laughed at that.
Raghu shrugged his shoulders at that and opening the door to one of the bedrooms, started lugging the suitcases inside. A thousand questions crowded Malamma’s and Venkat’s minds. It was shocking to know that August was a girl and a pretty one at that. And they were sharing an apartment, a boy and a girl together! Oh God, whatever would people say back at home? They were conservative Brahmins* by birth. And what was Raghu doing here?
“Amma and Appa, this is your room. I mean it’s my room, but now you will stay here.”
“And WHERE will you stay?” questioned Venkat indignantly.
“The other room is August’s. I will camp out on the sofa in the living room,” Raghu replied casually.
Malamma and Venkat looked at each other and Malamma laid a hand on his, indicating to let the matter go for the moment. She didn’t want a fight to erupt as soon as they had arrived.
The rest of the evening passed in a blur. Augusta was genuinely making an effort to make them comfortable. She even ordered food from an Indian restaurant nearby as she wanted Raghu and his parents to spend some quality time together.
Malamma liked the girl and said as much to Venkat at night when they lay down to sleep.
“Listen, you don’t know these English girls. You are too gullible, Malamma. I don’t trust the girl one bit. I am going to have a word with Raghu tomorrow. After all, I am his father,” Venkat replied in an authoritative tone.
“Venkat, they are both grownups. And what if they are just friends?”
“Hmmpph! A boy and girl can never be friends and you know it. I will speak to Raghu and that’s FINAL!”
Malamma decided not to say anything. Venkat could be quite stubborn at times.
Venkat tried to sleep, but it eluded him. Suddenly, he had a thought and jumped out of bed. What if…? Oh god, he dreaded it, yet opened the door of the bedroom as quietly as he could. Padding bare feet on the carpeted floor, he peeked over the back of the couch and saw it was empty. The Scoundrel! he thought to himself.
“Appa” came a noise from behind and he jumped up startled.
“You needed something?” Raghu asked, concern lacing his voice.
“Don’t mind that. Where were YOU?” Venkat asked red-faced.
“I went to the kitchen to get water,” said Raghu holding up the bottle he held in his hands.
Venkat walked away, shaking his head while Raghu looked perplexed.
Venkat kept tossing and turning in bed and got up a couple of times to check on Raghu asleep again on the couch. He would open the door slowly and peep out, not daring to venture into the living room again. As he returned to the bed and lay down, he turned to see Malamma glaring at him.
“Venkat, what is the matter? Why aren’t you asleep? You are disturbing my sleep too. Every now and then, I see you opening the door and looking out.”
Venkat was embarrassed but said it nevertheless, “Well, I am checking if Raghu is actually sleeping in the living room. I mean, what if….?”
Malamma guessed what he was getting at. “Venkat, will you please stop doubting? I mean look at you. I think you should trust Raghu a bit. What if they are just friends? And if they are more than that, they will tell us when they are ready. Just let them be,” she cried in an exasperated tone.
Suitably chastised, Venkat kept quiet and turned over to his side, falling into a restless sleep.
The next morning as Venkat sat at the dining table with a cup of tea, Augusta joined him. She tried doing small talk with him, but he was brusque in his dialogue. As she walked away, the hurt was visible on her face, although she didn’t say anything.
Venkat caught hold of Raghu later and said, “We need to talk.”
“Sure Appa. All okay?”
Venkat not one to mince words said, “Why didn’t you tell us ‘August’ is a girl? And how long has THIS been going on?”
“Appa, there is nothing going on. August is JUST a friend. When I moved to the UK, it was so difficult to find a place to stay. And this was the only one that fitted the budget, close to the campus. Good houses are hard to come by. August was alone here as her previous flat mate had moved out, and she was looking for someone to share the house with. It just made sense.”
“Bah! Just a friend. A guy and a girl can never be ‘just friends’, remember that. Don’t you remember Vishnu and Shanti, your own cousin and that girl? Have you thought what people will say back home if they come to know that you are staying with an English girl? Think about it. I don’t want any blemishes on my otherwise spotless image.”
“Why can’t August and I just be friends? What Vishnu and Shanti did was wrong, but trust me. I don’t care about others, but it surely matters to me what you both think. If you don’t believe me, what can I say about others….” Saying so, Raghu walked away in a huff.
On the surface everything was the same, yet the strain between father and son was visible. Malamma and Augusta were silent witnesses to it yet could do nothing to ease the tension.
Days passed by quickly. Before they knew it, Venkat and Malamma had been in London for two weeks. They were meant to fly back next weekend and things were yet unresolved between Venkat and Raghu.
As Venkat and Malamma sat to eat lunch that afternoon, they heard the key turn in the lock. Raghu and Augusta were both meant to be at the University. As their eyes turned to the door, Augusta hurried in.
“Aunty, Uncle, is Raghu home yet?”
“No. He left with you in the morning for the University. Aren’t you two together?”
“No. He left campus early as we had different lectures. He mentioned something about going towards Westminster to meet someone who was meant to help him with his project. But I just heard news that there has been some terror attack around that area and hence came here to check,” she said in a rush.
Malamma burst into tears and Venkat just froze. Augusta turned on the television and saw the newsflash ‘Attack on Westminster bridge: Over four dead and twenty injured’. The newsreader mentioned that a man had driven a vehicle on the south side of Westminster bridge and details were still pouring in.
The afternoon passed slowly. Venkat was glued to the television, while Malamma was praying to the almighty for Raghu’s wellbeing. Augusta had tried calling multiple times on Raghu’s cell phone, but it seemed to go on voicemail each time. She had even left many messages.
Augusta somehow managed to get Venkat and Malamma to have some coffee, but they refused to eat anything at all. She couldn’t force them, she herself couldn’t touch a morsel. Every time she kept asking herself: Where was Raghu? And why wasn’t he answering the phone?
Towards late evening, just as they were contemplating calling the police or reaching out on the helplines provided in the news, they heard the key turn in the lock.
Raghu walked in smiling and said, “Hey, it’s good to see everyone together.”
Suddenly he noticed Malamma’s teary face and Venkat looking grim.
Augusta caught his hand and asked, “Raghu, where were you? And why haven’t you replied to my messages? I have left so many on your voice mail.”
“Oh, my phone died as soon as I left campus. And I had told you I was going to meet someone to help with my project. Don’t you remember?”
“Of course, I do. You’re such a jerk! Don’t you know about the Westminster attacks?”
It was Raghu’s turn to be surprised. “Westminster attacks? What are you talking about?” And he turned his eyes to the news on the TV screen.
“I was meant to go to Westminster, but the person couldn’t step out. So, I went over to his apartment. And we have been working together since then. And we didn’t know anything about this….” He said pointing to the television.
Malamma got up from her seat and went and hugged Raghu. Raghu said, “Amma, I am okay. You don’t have to worry about every little thing.”
Before Malamma could respond, Augusta interjected angrily, “Raghu, she is your mom. She was obviously worried as I came home and said you were meant to go to Westminster. This is no little thing! Look at them both. They haven’t eaten anything and have just been waiting, praying for your safe return. Stop being such a jerk!”
Hugging his mother, Raghu apologized for his behaviour. He went over to his dad and hugged him too. No words were needed. Augusta and Raghu warmed up the lunch in the kitchen, which was now everyone’s dinner.
The next morning, Venkat was seated as usual at the table with his tea. Malamma and Raghu were asleep. Augusta walked in and she went about her chores quietly.
Suddenly Venkat called out, “Augusta, will you sit with me please for a few minutes?”
Augusta joined him at the table.
Venkat cleared his throat and said, “Augusta, I am sorry for everything. I know I haven’t been exactly warm to you and I realize that. I sincerely apologize for it.”
“Uncle, please don’t say that. I know that you love Raghu and I do too, but only as a friend. I know you keep thinking that there is more between us, but truly there isn’t.”
Venkat was quiet as she said that. He didn’t know what to say to her.
“Uncle, I want to ask you this. Why is it so difficult in your culture to accept that a boy and a girl can be merely friends?”
Venkat replied, “Well, platonic friendship is unheard of where we come from. Since centuries, it’s believed that a man and a woman can only be a couple together or otherwise, brother and sister. Our society does not believe that a man and woman can be purely friends, they mostly hide their love if they say that.”
“Uncle, but isn’t that unfair? Let me tell you when I look at you and Aunty with Raghu, I miss my parents so much. I lost them when I was only ten years old and have been brought up by my uncle and aunt, who love me. But when I see you all together, I imagine my parents looking at me the same way or caring for me as much as you both do about Raghu. Raghu is like second family to me; I don’t deny that. I know that he gives me a patient ear without judging. He is my friend in good and bad, my shoulder to cry on. I can be myself with him without any fear. That is what true friendship is all about, isn’t it? Having someone who cares for you as much as you do.”
Venkat nodded at that. Augusta’s words had got him thinking. She in her own way loved Raghu, but if this love was friendship, so be it. Who was he to decide or judge anyways? With this exchange, he realized that Raghu was lucky to have Augusta too in his life. And if in the future, they decided to be life partners, he knew he would give them both his love and blessings whole heartedly.
The last few days rushed past with shopping, sightseeing and spending as much time together as possible. Before they knew it, their trip was at an end and Raghu and Augusta came to see them off at the airport.
Eyes filled with tears, Malamma hugged them both and bid goodbye. She handed a bag to Augusta saying, “I had brought this as a gift for ‘August’ from India and I don’t know what to do with it.”
August’s eyes were moist with tears too as she pulled the shirt out. “I will surely wear this and send you a picture, Aunty. Thank you.”
Venkat hugged Raghu without saying a word and touched Augusta’s cheek tenderly, showing his fatherly love.
Venkat and Malamma boarded their flight lost in thoughts. They knew they had gained from this experience. The rest they left to destiny.
As Malamma gazed at the album, she smiled. August was smiling into the camera, wearing the shirt that they had gifted her. It had been two years since their trip and August had found love in Ben. As she looked at their picture, she thought they made a wonderful pair together. Raghu had also started working in the UK and recently they had heard the name ‘Anita’ frequently in his conversations. They were also slowly getting used to Whatsapp and Raghu would be visiting soon. Venkat and she were content. Life couldn’t be any better and if someone asked today, if a boy and a girl can be friends, they would unanimously say “Yes, for sure!”
Laddus – An Indian sweet
Amma – Mother
Appa – Father
Brahmin – a member of the highest Hindu Caste, originally that of the priesthood.
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