LAST NIGHT I DREAMT of Teresa again.

My dreams are realistic. When I’m worried about money, I dream about money. When I need to pee, I dream of going to the bathroom. Teresa. Who will tell me why I dream of Teresa?

I’ve only seen her alive for a few minutes. Never told anyone that I have.

Across the street I saw her, beautiful Teresa. I recognised her from Ajay’s parents’ photo frames. I stepped off the dirty beach at Juhu Chowpatty, with wet and sandy feet, and saw her.

I’ve slouched my five feet eight inches all my life but there was Teresa—nearly six feet tall and coming out of that pasta place, striding like a movie star. Three men were following her in formation like extras, all their heads turned towards her. They were laughing as she pretended to hitch up her plain black sari. She lifted her clouds of curls into a twist. She twirled a big, imaginary moustache like a child in an Annual Day folk dance. They laughed and I stared.

At work the day after I saw Teresa, I was unhappy. Nothing seemed right. All week I was listless. The next week my boyfriend, the only one I’ve ever had, broke up with me. He didn’t make eye contact much but when he did, he seemed angry. He seemed angrier when he realised I wasn’t going to ask for any explanation. I already knew how lonely I was going to be.

“I am tired,” I typed into Google. The first link led to an empty, white web page. My heart slowed down as I glimpsed the single line of text on the page. At the very bottom, tiny letters asked, “Tired? Tell us why”. That was all.

A few days later, Teresa drowned in a swimming pool. It was in all the papers and in all the blogs of many people who had never written about death before and were struggling to find eloquent words for it. For her. Teresa had a very popular design blog that a friend in America took over in her memory. Hundreds of people sent art, writing and memories to the blog, tributes to their friend Teresa.

FOUR YEARS LATER, I met Ajay. I was 29, working in a bank’s IT department and beginning to find lunch conversations physically painful when they inevitably turned to my 24-year-old colleagues’ wedding plans.
Though Ajay and I had both lived in Bombay for years, we met in Kerala. He was visiting his son Vinu. His parents had been taking care of the kid since Teresa died. I was visiting my parents’ best friends, who lived next door to Ajay’s family. They were the closest things to parents that I had. After a lifetime in the Gulf they had moved to Ranni and I visited them as often as I could without getting on their nerves.

Ranni was somehow both jungle-green and cement grey and I hated it. But it had become my fake hometown since my parents had died. I had gone to boarding school in Kottayam when I was six, seeing my parents for a couple of months every year in the summer when they came home from Qatar. When I was 15 my parents came home without warning and hung themselves in their Cochin flat. They didn’t leave a note. My parents’ friends took turns to be my local guardians, to help me finish school and get into engineering college in Bombay. Years later, it occurred to me that perhaps my father and mother had had AIDS. I had heard about other families in Kerala who had been deported from the Gulf because of it. And then I understood the hints from the people in Ranni who had thought it important to let me know. Just in case I hadn’t wondered why my parents had left me behind.

Ajay’s parents lived next door. Next door meant up the slope in our hilly neighbourhood. Ajay’s father had been a jet-setting minor diplomat in his day but they had decided to come back to Ranni when they retired. I had heard a lot about Ajay and Teresa from them but had never met either. Everyone still talked about Teresa in Ranni. They talked about how fair she was, her figure, how “bold” she was, how “simple” she was. When I was in Ranni I tried to hide behind electric poles and trees. Teresa had driven around on a scooter, never tried to speak a word of Malayalam, hung out with the rubber tappers and left each time with gifts of new saris and old furniture. Ajay was the youngest editor-in-chief any Bombay newspaper had ever had but Teresa had obviously been the more glamorous one to folks in Ranni. Except to perhaps Vinu. But that was because she had died when he was barely a year old and he did not remember his mother.

All Vinu knew were his placid grandparents from whom he had learnt his elaborate, old-fashioned Malayalam. And he knew his father who appeared in Ranni once a month from Bombay. Was Ajay glamorous to Vinu? I never thought so. At five, Vinu preferred people like me—who were dazzled by the unspooling of his small-boy thoughts in his old-man language.

That summer I watched him playing in the deep, rocky, rain-drenched lane beside the house with a child his age. After half an hour the other child began crying in irritation. Vinu never understood why but we who were watching were sympathetic to his playmate. Vinu was incapable of saying, “Put the ball down.” He would say, “Kindly deposit the toy”. He tried to distract other children from his hopeless lack of athleticism and his long, flailing skinny limbs with his flights of verbosity. “I told my grandmother I don’t want to bathe under a raincloud anymore,” he said to me. He meant he didn’t like the shower, I think. I didn’t ask. Vinu liked me because, like his grandparents, I did not interrupt his long conversations. In any case, I wasn’t much of a talker. An exception in Ranni where everyone was full of long, wild, gossipy anecdotes.

For the first time, Ajay and I were both in Ranni at the same time. From the kitchen door where I sat drinking tea one afternoon, I saw Vinu walking down the slope, loosey-goosey, hanging on to his father’s hand. I remember feeling surprised at how small and wiry Ajay was. At how handsome his face was. Women loved him, I knew this instinctively.

That fortnight, I saw the hard, middle-aged women in the neighbourhood squeeze his arm, pat his head and feed him. Around him I saw them sinking into dreamy silences. Later, I learnt that things were no different in Bombay. I am sure women loved him before Teresa died, but now there was the added lustre of his tragedy.

I’d have liked Ajay just for not asking me stupid questions. It was disorienting to have someone from Bombay appearing in Ranni. It was as if a time-traveller had arrived from the future. I could see everyone around us suddenly pretending to be blasé—about my height, my silence, my unmarried status—to match Ajay’s cool standards. They were unnaturally tactful about the little friendship that developed between Ajay and me that holiday. But after all, he was the small widower with a five-year-old liability. And I was the orphan giant.

After my break, when I was back in Bombay, Ajay called and asked me to lunch. Not at whichever was the most fashionable new café, a choice I understood soon, when I understood Ajay’s attraction to me. We met at his beautiful Bandra apartment, the interiors of which I had seen in more than one magazine when Teresa was alive. Ajay chatted. About his occasional TV appearances, I think, and the impossible acrobatics of trying to sound intelligent on TV. About Vinu. About his continued astonishment that his parents wanted to live in Ranni. The Bihari cook looked grim. I looked around.

In one corner of the living room, crooked on the ceiling, was a burnished replica of a big beehive made of hundreds and hundreds of tiny bells from dancers’ anklets. I stared at it through the afternoon. A few months later, when we were married, I continued to discover strange and beautiful things around the house. When I opened the drawers of the bed with the extra sheets and pillows I found the smooth, wooden insides covered in Japanese cartoons of a pink-haired boy having sex with a tigress with long eyelashes.

First published here.