“I want to see the Taj Mahal,” Abu says, sipping his morning tea. He takes off his woolen cap; his silver hair glimmers in the sunlight from the window. The night before, he watched a television program about the discoloration of the mausoleum’s marble, caused by air pollution. “It’s December, Abu. We’ll go when it’s warmer,” I reply. “Call my son, Guddu. Ask what day he’s arriving. Guddu’s Ammi and I will go to the Taj with him,” he says, miffed. “Besides, who will live to see warmer days?” Ammi looks up from her knitting, her eyes warn me to stop arguing and save the morning. These days, Abu’s temper rises quicker than the mercury in June. “Okay, I’ll call Guddu,” I pull my hair into a bun. On my way to work, I call my brother, Guddu, in New York, to tell him about Abu’s desire to see the Taj Mahal. Guddu explains he’d planned to visit us but his work project ended abruptly. Traveling out of the country without a paying job could cause his work visa to be revoked. Abu, at 73, is losing muscle and mind. He talks about death at least once a day. I tell Abu a lie that Guddu is landing in New Delhi next Wednesday; we’d pick him up from there on our way to see the Taj Mahal. Abu believes me, polishes his shoes in preparation for the trip, and prances about the house as excited as a child going on a school trip. Most of the thrill, I know, is for seeing his Guddu.
It’s Wednesday, the day of our travel. When my alarm rings, before dawn, Ammi is offering her namaaz. Abu is already dressed in a gray shirt, a black coat, and matching woolen trousers, but his socks are mismatched. I rummage his cupboard for the right sock partners and keep them in my purse. The cab I’d booked arrives. The driver is a young man, dressed in a clean sweater. He loads the car, an eight-seater Chevrolet Tavera, with our luggage. Ammi gets in the car. Abu clutches his knee as he climbs into the seat beside Ammi. I give him the walking stick, but he refuses, says Guddu will support him, like a son should. I keep the stick in the trunk and sit in a seat behind my parents. Outside, the sky is pink. Milkmen, with metal milk cans tied to their motorcycles with rubber tubes, snake between cars and buses. Tractors with sugarcanes poking out of their trailers trudge along like pregnant women. Paperboys, wearing monkey-caps, with stacks of newspapers on the carriers behind their bicycles, keep to the edge of the road. Nature raises its voice above the din of vehicles. A rooster crows. A dog barks, another answers. A cow moos, asking to be milked or fed. A sparrow flies to join a group congregating on a TV antenna. We stop for tea at a roadside dhaba. Between sips, Abu asks the driver how far we are from Delhi. “About two hours,” the driver replies. I’ve been gleaning courage from every cell of my body to tell Abu that Guddu will not meet us at Delhi, but, now, my tongue is tied. Ammi tells him. His face falls a few inches. “Allah, help us,” Abu says. “Our son has no time for us, Guddu’s Ammi. Turn around, driver, let’s go back home.” “Why do you worry? Our daughter is with us,” Ammi says. “I want to see the Taj, too, before I die.” No one speaks. Emotions rise like steam in the confined space and condense on our eyelashes.
Outside the Taj Mahal, I present the walking stick to Abu. He grabs it without looking at me. As he takes off his shoes, he mutters at his mismatched socks. I give Abu the right sock mate from my purse. He almost looks at me. Abu is enthralled by the white marble marvel. He marches towards it, pausing to admire the rows of fountains. I take a picture of my parents on a bench, with the splendid Taj Mahal looming behind their backs, and send it to Guddu. It’s late for him, but he calls on my phone and asks to speak to Abu. “He promises to come next year,” Abu sighs, handing the phone back to me. “Who will live to see the next year?” Inside, Abu admires the calligraphy and regales Ammi with the story of emperor Shahjahan’s love for his dead wife, Mumtaz, who is buried inside the mausoleum. By evening, we are tired and sit in the courtyard, watching the shimmering river Yamuna that runs beside the monument. “The Taj is beautiful,” Abu says. “I’m glad we didn’t wait for Guddu to visit here.” His face glows in the bronze light of the dying sun. He puts an arm around Ammi’s shoulders and smiles at me. I can’t remember the last time he did that. At the hotel, that night, I notice Abu’s feet are swollen like bread loaves. The road trip has taken its toll on him. I soak his feet in warm salt water; the swelling subsides. Next morning, I pack our bags for the return journey. Abu takes my arm while descending the hotel stairs. “Allah bless you, beta,” he places his palm on my head. Inside the car, he asks me to sit between him and Ammi.
Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar is an Indian American writer. She is a Pushcart and Best of the Net nominee; her work has been published in MoonPark Review, Spelk Fiction, Barren Magazine, and also in print anthologies. She can be reached at Twitter @PunyFingers.