Excerpts - The Wages of Life

On July 2, 2001, Ravi Malhotra, a computer engineer with Microsoft, returned from work to his apartment building in Seattle to find a blue aerogramme in his mailbox.  He didn’t have to turn it over to read the sender’s name and address.  From the handwriting on the front, he knew it was a letter from his father in Delhi.

He tucked it away with the rest of his mail in his trousers pockets and pressed the button for the elevator.  He lived alone in a two-bedroom apartment on the second floor of the building.  As he waited for the elevator, two boys, shrieking with laughter, burst through the front door of the building and headed straight for the stairs.  A third followed close behind.  Ravi listened to the three of them running up the stairs and wished he had just a bit of their energy.  As it was, at the end of the day, he found it hard to drag himself up even one flight of stairs to his apartment.  With a shake of the head, he contemplated his waist, where the shirt bulged noticeably, thanks to the beginnings of a paunch.
He was thirty-two years old.  Close to six feet tall, he was cleanshaven with skin the color of cardboard.  He had short black hair, a sloping forehead, bushy eyebrows, black eyes and a long, pointed nose.  His lips were invariably pursed.  What had begun as a conscious effort to compensate for a thin upper lip had, over the years, hardened into a habit.  In the past year, the strain of staring at computer screens had also caught up with him, forcing him to wear glasses.  Like many people new to wearing glasses, he chose to take his off whenever he could.  Right now they rested in his trousers pockets.  He was dressed in a pair of dark trousers, a long-sleeved blue shirt and brown leather shoes.  The tie he had taken off soon after leaving his office.  It now lay in the briefcase he carried in his right hand. 
He rode the elevator up and then emerged to make his way down a long corridor to his apartment.  His apartment was at the end of the corridor.  Presently, he reached the front door.  He unlocked it and went in.  Once he was inside, he placed his briefcase on a side table and settled in the living room sofa.  Then he put on his glasses and began to read his father’s letter.
He read it once.  Then he started over to read it again.  Even then, when he was finished, he sat still for several minutes, unable to believe what he had just read.
Six months ago, he had gone to Delhi with the express purpose of bringing his father back with him.  His mother had just died.  With her gone and him being an only child, there was no way he could leave his father in Delhi.  His father was in his seventies.  Actually, he was almost eighty.  At that age, surely he couldn’t stay on his own.
To his surprise, his father dismissed the idea of going to America overnight.  In no uncertain terms, he told Ravi he had no intention of moving to a foreign country.  Ravi pressed him.  But the old man simply refused to budge.  Finally, Ravi tried emotional blackmail, asking his father to think of his mother.  Wouldn’t she have wanted them to be together once she was gone?  To which his father replied, as far as he was concerned, Ravi was welcome to come home any time he wanted.
Even after returning to the U.S., Ravi raised the issue in his letters to his father.  His father, however, chose to ignore it completely.  With the result, ultimately Ravi gave up on the idea.

But now right out of the blue...
Ravi sprang to his feet.  His mind was racing.  First thing tomorrow, he’d talk to his boss and put in a leave application.  Then he needed to call the travel agent.  He figured he could leave in a week to ten days, which gave him just enough time to do up the apartment for his father.  Thankfully, it had two other bedrooms.  The first thing he needed to get for the other bedroom was a bed.  Then, maybe a desk.  Yes, definitely a desk.  His father had been a journalist all his life.  Even though he had given up his editorial position after his mother’s death, he still wrote a weekly column for his newspaper.  Furthermore, he read extensively.  Come to think of it, an ashtray wouldn’t be out of place with the desk.  For, unlike him, his father was a smoker and a pretty heavy one at that.
Then he wondered if it was a good idea to get too many things before he actually got his father.  After all, he had to spend some time in India.  With his father coming to live in the U.S., there would be plenty of things to take care of. 

Whatever it was, he’d figure it out.  The important thing was that his father was coming.
Whistling, he started to go to his bedroom to change into a pair of slippers.  On the way, he passed his mother’s picture hanging on the living room wall.  He paused.
As per tradition, the picture wore the marigold garland of the deceased.  It was seven years old, taken right after he was hired by Microsoft.  In it his mother looked radiant, her face lit by the promise of a bright future for her son.  These days, however, he ran into a completely different woman in his thoughts.  A woman dying from tuberculosis that had eaten away her cheeks, sunk her eyes deep in their sockets and peeled so much flesh from her body that all that was left was bone.\
His eyes grew misty and a lump entered his throat.  For over a month before she had succumbed to the disease, it had been an effort for her to speak.  When they talked on the phone, she was often out of breath after a few words.  And each time they spoke, the first thing she wanted to know was when he was coming home.  Soon, he assured her, soon.  Any day now his green card would be approved.  His lawyer was confident.  And then he’d be on his way to her.  She only had to wait a little longer. 

A long silence greeted his answer the last time they spoke.  Then, in a cracked voice, she said she didn’t think she had much time left.
Those were the last words she would ever say to him.  The next day, he received the news of her death.  As it turned out, he’d didn’t even make it to her funeral.  It was two days before his approval arrived and he could go to India.
Now, more than six months later, tears stung his eyes at the memory.  He gazed at his father’s letter that he still held in his hand.  He had been unable to do anything for his mother in her old age.  But now, at least, he had a chance with his father.

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