On Forgetting by Mahesh Natarajan

About six months back, there was a period of close to two or three weeks when I had not called my parents. Unfortunately, their fortieth wedding anniversary fell in that period.

I did not realise my oversight even when I finally did call them. I spoke to my father about filing his tax returns. I think I grumbled over how complicated all the different tax rates, rebates and discounts made things for the average Joe like me and wondered why we couldn't just have a flat 15% for everything from income to sales to services and be done with that.

My father listened patiently, agreeing now and then. When I was done ranting, he chided me gently, 'Taxes bother you so much! It seems like there is nothing else you want to talk about.'

I thought he was just commiserating. 'Damn right, Pa!' I said vehemently. 'The government is just so unwieldy. We desperately need a more efficient government.'

I spoke to Mother very briefly after that – she asked me what I made for dinner (I had grilled fish with a lemon, butter and dill sauce, but told her I had made drumstick sambhar and beans with rice) and she said she had made a payasam with jackfruit. One of my favourite sweets, and my father's absolute favourite.


I did not react and only said, 'That sounds so nice. I wish you wouldn't tell me these things and make my cravings act up. Now I am going to go on a sugar binge just to stave off that craving. No thanks to you,' and we cribbed to each other about how tough it was to keep one's diet in control and discussed the amazing things one can do with jackfruit.

It was about nine in the evening and I was on my second beer with some buddies from work when my sisters texted me one after the other.




The sight of those angry, block letters took away even the slight buzz. I excused myself from the table, went out of the pub, away from the blare of retro rock, and called Ruchika back. Chitra will forget about it when her children wake up and yet another hectic New York day starts.

'Hey – isn't their anniversary in July sometime?' I asked.

'Da – you should know it by now. You have been part of 35 of their 40 wedding anniversaries.'

'Oh,' I said, and then added sulkily, 'You could have reminded me, no?'


'What's wrong with you?' she exploded. 'You think I am some sort of family alarm system? And Appa, Amma – they think I am the family mediator! I am done. Leave me out of it!'

I cracked an untimely joke about how I had always thought she was adopted and got an earful.

By the time she was done with me, my buddies were done with the beer and had left.




That weekend, Ruchika came over with her husband and got him to install an Android application on my phone that keeps track of how long it has been since I called home. It is set to change from a benign leafy green to a deep, angry red if I have not called in over three days. It is right there on my home screen, next to the calendar and clock widgets.

Since then, I have been regular about calling them. There has been no drama either with me or with my sisters on how I have moved away, forgotten them or how there is no place in the world for old people.




Yesterday, I noticed the widget had turned red.

I was busy with the annual budget for my company and the venture capital fund that had put up the round two financing had been breathing down my neck about it. There was a young MBA fellow who they had deputed to 'help establish governance practices' and they insisted on us working with some corporate Guru on teaming and organisation culture.

It was most annoying.

If not for the lovely stock options that were accumulating in my account, I'd have chucked it all and left for a cushy job at one of the IT majors.


I called my parents later in the evening when I was on my way home.

I cribbed to my father about it, how so much money was being wasted in strange 'team building' activities and could not understand the need to spend three million rupees on an Organisation Development consultant.


'All he did is talk to me and present the same things in a power point slide!' I complained. 'And then, he made us all fill in some questionnaires, and as if he were some sort of a spiritual guru, looked at it for ten minutes and started saying all kinds of personal things!'

'Like what?' my father asked.

'Like – he said about Mithila that she hated that everyone assumed she must want to get home early and take it easy just because she has a six-month old baby. That is so much bullshit, Pa!' I said. 'It is so obvious – all of us know it. I mean, she is the only woman in the group and an ambitious one at that. Obviously she will have issues with such things! Such rubbish he says, Pa. And everyone was eating out of his hand! I kept thinking about the thirty lakhs we were paying him. Thirty lakhs! That is ten more than what I get for a whole year of slogging, and he just comes in every other week for a day or two and says all these fluffy things and makes all that money. Makes me mad!'

'What did he say about you?' My father asked.

'Me? Nothing specific, really. Said I have difficulty with letting go. That I avoid confronting because I am afraid of intimacy.'

'What does that mean?'


I laughed bitterly. 'Beats me! How does that work, I asked him. I like people, I work with people all day. I am truly fond of my team. I am quite the people's person, I announced – everybody laughed, Pa, but it is true, no? And I don't think I avoid confronting. Hell – I spend so much of my energy just arguing – I never let anything go. With everybody! Even you, Amma, Chitra and Ruchika. All the time! Even over the phone. Can you remember one day that I spoke with you and didn't argue about something?'

'No' He admitted.

'Exactly, I am always arguing. Afraid of confrontation! Bah!'

My father didn't say anything.


'Yes, yes. I am listening. So he said you tend to avoid confronting and are afraid of intimacy.'



I was silent for a second. 'What do you say, Pa? Do I really...'

'What da, kanna?'


'I mean – do I really avoid confrontation? Do you think I am scared of intimacy?'

I was putting him on a spot, I know. I doubted very much if he would actually say anything, and really I just wanted him to say I was OK.

'I can't say, da. I mean – I suppose he was talking about you at work, right?'


He said, with palpable relief. 'There you go! It is only about your work – don't take it personally. You are also saying he just comes once in a while – some random chap. What would he know? Just because he gets paid so much and is supposed to be an expert or whatever – don't mind it. You know what you are like. You know yourself. Even if you doubt, it is OK. Everyone has self-doubt now and then, even the best of us. It is OK. At such times, you take a break and look around. Or just take a break – a holiday, you know. Come spend time with family. You will feel better. There – if you were afraid of intimacy, would you have so close a family?' He ended triumphantly.


I know he was just trying to make me feel better. That's how he sees his job as a father, and it may have worked if he had not added, 'Of course – it has been months since you came here, and you forget anniversaries, birthdays – it was Ramesh's birthday day before yesterday. Did you wish him?'

Ramesh is Chitra's husband.

'Oh my god, Pa! I can't keep up with all these birthdays and anniversaries! Just some time back it was your anniversary, then Ruchika's birthday, now Ramesh's! Then there are all those nieces and nephews! How much can one remember! It is so easy for you all – you only have to remember my birthday, but me? For each of you it is birthdays. Husband's birthdays, wedding anniversaries, kids' birthdays. Argh! I tell you what – I am going to remember only your birthdays and my sisters' birthdays – none of the rest. Well, maybe your anniversary – but that is it! That is my family. I draw the line there. Everything else that has happened with them since then – not my family! Nope.'

'Why are you saying such things, Abhi? Why do you separate family like that? Your sisters' husbands, their children, your cousins, uncles – they are all family.'

'Whatever.' I did not want to argue. 'I am getting a headache. I will talk to you later? Will you tell Amma that I am not in the mood and will call later?'

'Of course. You don't worry, da. Everything will be OK. You will see. God bless!' He said, reassuring me hurriedly one last time before I hung up.




My driver is a reticent man. He pretends he cannot understand English or Tamil, and insists on speaking with me in Hindi.

We were close to home when I told him to take me to Ajith's place instead.

'Sir! That is in Kammanahalli, right?'

'Yes! Yes!' I said. 'Is that a problem?'

'No, sir. Just want to be sure. We are almost home and it is about 8'o clock...' He let it hang there.

He is supposed to work only till 7 in the evening, and I normally respect that, but I was just feeling so high-strung, I let him have it. 'So? What are you trying to say? So, one day I need you to be around late? I pay you overtime, right? What is your issue? You get so many days off when I travel, you don't have to ferry around kids to schools and things – just work and back, and you have a problem with that. You are just like everybody else! This is why nothing ever gets done here – everyone is lazy! What do you want now? Want to get down and go home? Should I drive myself? Better still, why don't I drop you home? It is on the way, right?'

He did not utter a word in reply. Quietly drove me down to Ajith's place. I glowered all the way.

When we reached there, in a quiet voice he asked, 'Sir! Tomorrow morning, should I come here or home?'


'Of course, here!' I snapped. 'I am here. The car will be here, no? Use your head sometimes, Kumar!'

'Yes, Sir!' He said, snapped into a salute, gave me the car keys and quickly marched off. He didn't even stop to take his overtime payment.

I have tried talking him out of saluting me, but he resolutely does so every time he greets me or takes my leave. I suppose it gives him a certain satisfaction – he can think of himself as a chauffeur and not just a driver. He even wears a white on white uniform too, and is always in a well-polished pair of black shoes. Despite the irritation, the sight of his salute made me smile. He is decent chap, I thought as I walked up the stairs to Ajith's place.




Ajith is my, well – boyfriend, I suppose. We have been dating for a couple of years. I love him. Somehow though, we have never got to living together. Logistics, really. He works for a BPO firm at a tech park close to his place. It would be hell if he were staying in Whitefield with me. I could have moved in with him, I suppose, but I love my house. It was the first place I could truly claim as my own, the first place that I had really invested in – both financially and emotionally, and I was very reluctant to move out. Plus, of course, Whitefield is closer to where I work.

Ajith and I are in a weekend relationship, one could say. We'd catch up a couple of nights during the week, even stay over at either place, but mostly ours is a Friday evening to Monday morning thing.

As I was walking up, I called him to say I was home.

He picked up after the fourth or fifth ring. 'Hey, baby!'


'Hey, love. I am coming to your place today. Just so sick of work and wanted to spend the evening with you. What time will you be back?'

'Oh – you are coming to my place today?'

'Why? Is that a problem?'

'No, no – just that I may not be home today. You have the keys anyway, right?'

'Yes, but where are you? I wanted to be with you, you know – not just sleep in this house.'

'I know, sweetie – I just wish you had called. I am going to Yeshwantpur with Lizzie tonight – Layla's birthday, remember?'

'Today? I thought that was next week.'

'Trust you to forget!' He laughed. 'Don't worry – I knew you'd forget, and I put your name on the card as well.'

I really didn't care much for all that, but Ajith was very particular about it. 'Oh. well. I guess you got to do what you got to do. I do wish you were coming home later.'

'I know, baby – but you know, I will likely have a few drinks, and even if I am not drunk, I just don't want to risk driving – the cops are quite strict now.'

'Yeah, yeah. It is alright. I'll see you on Friday then?'




I hate to be alone in Ajith's place.

The place is beautiful, but it is not home if Ajith is not there.

I made myself a drink, watched a rerun of White Collar for a bit, fantasised about the lead actors and tried to relax, but I just could not.

Around midnight, I went to bed, tossed and turned for about half an hour, thinking how good it would be to just see Ajith smile, hold him, nuzzle in his soft curls. At Lizzie's place, he would have been drinking rum and coke, and I loved how he tasted after that.

I just had to see him.




It was about one in the morning when I reached Lizzie's place. Everything was quiet, the party long over. I felt guilty ringing her bell.

She took a while to open the door.

'Abhi!' She said sleepily. 'What are you doing here at this time of the night?'

'Hey!' I said, sheepishly. 'I know it is really late, and I am really sorry I forgot Layla's birthday, but I thought I might as well come over since Ajith is here anyway.'

'Why would Ajith be here?' She scratched her arms, looked blearily at me, and said, 'Layla's birthday is next week, Abhi! Just like you to forget!'




I am not sure what excuses I made or when I got home. I woke up around nine, when Kumar called.

'Sir! I am at Ajith-sir's place, but the car is not here!'

'I forgot to tell you, Kumar. I came back to Whitefield.'




Mahesh Natarajan's first collection of stories, Pink Sheep, was published in Nov 2010 by Gyaana Books, New Delhi. Mahesh Natarajan is a counsellor with InnerSight, a counselling agency in Bangalore. He also works as a management consultant for a UK-based consulting firm with specific focus on sourcing advisory for India based captive sourcing operations on their organisational development and governance needs.