While his wife lived, neither would leave the village. When she died and the land was sold, he moved in with his eldest son- a Doctor in West Delhi. His health improved. He began going out by himself. He became accustomed to riding the Metro. But he had become secretive and miserly.
We didn't speak much on the taxi ride back to his house. My fear was, this old man, who had fainted in the saree shop, was somehow disreputable. Every month he came and bought a green saree- each time a different shade of green. The young Bihari Seth, who owned the shop, had whispered to me this salacious detail.
'Okay,' I thought to myself, 'So the old man has a mistress. Still, he is South Indian and virtually my father's age. I'd better see him home even if the daughter-in-law mistakes me for some species of pimp or middle aged roue and gives me an earful.'
Nothing of the sort happened. The grandson of the house opened the door. He was preparing for his IIT entrance. A pahadi servant helped me get the old man up to his room. I sat down with him for a while. We had already established that though he could understand my language, I couldn't understand his. He didn't seem to care. I suppose he spoke some Kannadiga dialect. I think the family belonged to the Gowda caste.
The servant brought nimbu panee. He asked me if I wanted 'peg'. Perhaps the old man's son was a retired Army doctor now in private practice. I felt more at home, sociologically speaking. I graciously accepted the effusion of some Gin in the lime juice and turned to the old man in friendlier fashion.
These were hospitable people. Clearly rescuing the grand-father entitled me to a re-fill. Before leaving, I attempted a roguish reference to the old man's love life. As per village protocol, the old man responded valiantly- I couldn't make out what he was saying but simulated shock and awe at his filthy revelations.
Then, with shaking hands, he went and unlocked the rusty old steel almirah. It was half filled with silk sarees- different shades of green imperceptibly ripening to bridal gold. The old man slowly took his latest and palest purchase out of its package. He started to hang it up but his strength failed. I helped him back to his bed. For a few moments he looked at the sarees in the almirah. He said something to me. He wanted me to look at them as well. My eyes teared up. I took off my glasses. There in the almirah was the green ghost of a woman. His woman. I didn't hear the servant upon the stair. He did. He gestured to me to quickly lock up the almirah and return him the key. I wasn't quite quick enough. The servant saw that I had locked the almirah. Had I also stolen something from it?
I had to go. I was running late already.
But, having been alerted by the servant to what had happened, the family couldn't let me leave. I guessed they wanted to know what was in the almirah.
First, the daughter-in-law spoke to me- a decent enough woman, probably from an Army family- it was she who mentioned the old man's secretiveness. I smiled blandly and she departed defeated but without any real rancor.
Then, more shyly, or slyly- I couldn't make out which- I was spoken to by the old man's son. I didn't like him. Though superficially amiable, I could see he'd make a nasty drunk. He must have been in his late fifties but he treated me as a coeval, which I didn't find at all flattering. There was a sort of whine to his voice which reached a crescendo when he accused his old father of having become miserly.
'You're a Doctor,' I said bluntly, 'Certificate is not difficult to get. He's an old man. No one knows him here in Delhi. Anyway, especially if there is land involved, why risk?'
'No,' he said quickly, 'nothing like that. Land was sold and he divided the money himself not retaining a share. We provide lodgings and my younger brother in America sends money every month.'
I was satisfied. Still, having drunk too much gin, I had to persist in my persona as a crude and shrewd sort of fellow.
To put his mind at rest without revealing the old man's secret, I began uttering sentimental banalities- women are resilient like water- but without wife what is life?- Old widowers live on the memories of their brides.'
'Hated her.' the son said, draining his glass.'We all did. Greedy grasping bitch. It was she who managed the land. It was the only thing she loved. By God, we were glad to sell.'
So I had been wrong.
There was no ghost in the almirah because there had never been love.
That collection of sarees- each a different shade of green- what was it?
In all the Dravidian languages, it is the rice crop ripening.
I have wasted my life.