The Empty House
By Murali Kamma
That day, shortly after reading Salim?s e-mail, Ashok turned on the TV in the living room and lowered the volume. The murmuring sounds ? accompanied by the rapidly changing images on the screen ? became a comforting presence in the house, although he seldom glanced at the TV. Then, feeling restless, he went for a long walk in the park close by. When Ashok returned to the empty-looking house, which was plunged in darkness except for the flickering blue light of the TV, he suddenly felt tired. Walking over to the sofa, he flopped down and switched off the TV. It was a few minutes before eight.
They first met almost four years ago, soon after Ashok arrived in the U.S. from India to pursue his graduate studies. After spending a day in Atlanta with a distant relative, Ashok boarded a bus and left for his university in Athens, Georgia. Being exhausted from jet lag, he slept peacefully, with his head resting on the window, until the bus arrived in Athens. He collected his baggage and entered the bus station. A few passengers were milling about, but it was only when he walked up to a vending machine that he noticed the South Asian standing nearby.
?Hi,? said the man, smiling. ?Do you need some change?? He was slender, with pleasant features, and there was a maroon backpack slung over his shoulder.
?Yes,? Ashok replied, a little sheepishly. ?I?m short by twenty cents.? He was hesitating to get a soda since he only had large bills.
?Here, please take it.? The man offered Ashok a quarter. His genial manner was so disarming that Ashok felt it would be rude not to accept the change.
?Thank you very much,? he said. ?I?m Ashok.?
?You?re welcome, Ashok. I?m Salim. I saw you on the bus earlier. Are you going to the university??
?Yes. I?m starting my graduate studies there.?
?So am I.?
They shook hands delightedly when they found out that they were enrolled in the same program. ?So, Salim, where are you from? I?m from Hyderabad.?
?So am I,? he said again.
Stunned by the coincidence, Ashok looked at him intently. ?You?re not pulling my leg, are you??
?No, Ashok, I?m not.? Salim grinned. ?But I?m from Hyderabad in Pakistan. You must be from India.?
Salim and Ashok laughed again, with delight, startling a passenger who was trying to sleep. They decided to share a cab to the university. Ashok had been feeling homesick and a little anxious in this new country, but now he felt his spirits lift.
Salim had arrived in the U.S. six months earlier to study at another university, and was now transferring to UGA in Athens for financial reasons. So, in a way, he became Ashok?s mentor for the first few weeks, guiding him in practical matters and helping him as he adjusted to the life on campus. They became roommates, and once the semester started, quickly fell into a comfortable routine. Since Ashok and Salim were doing the same program, they also spent long hours together in the library, where they studied and worked on their assignments. As roommates, there was rarely any discord between them, and this only deepened their friendship.
Salim graduated first and, after some searching, found a job in Atlanta. Even though he was happy for his friend, Ashok was a little sad to see him leave; but then, as luck would have it, he also ended up in Atlanta after receiving his degree. Salim had called to tell him about a good opportunity at another firm, and when Ashok got the job, they were both pleased. So, once again, Salim and Ashok began living together, although this time they shared a house rather than a small apartment.
Months passed. Ashok and Salim reestablished the old, familiar rhythm of their lives. One day, over dinner at their favorite Thai restaurant, Salim mentioned that his younger sister, Laila, and their aunt would be coming from Pakistan for a visit. Ashok had seen Salim?s family photos, but those had been taken some years ago when Laila was still in school. Now she had just graduated from college with flying colors and was eager to come to the U.S. ? like her brother ? and continue her studies. Her parents, however, being rather conservative, did not want Laila to come here to study as an unmarried woman. Instead, as a graduation gift, they were now sending her to the U.S. for a visit, with the aunt acting as a chaperone. Salim?s father was too ill to travel and his mother did not wish to come without her husband.
When Ashok offered to move out temporarily in order to give them more room and privacy, Salim would not hear of it. ?Everybody knows about you, Ashok,? he said. ?You?re practically a part of the family.?
Their flight was delayed on the day of arrival, but when Ashok finally met them, he was immediately struck by the transformation he noticed in Laila. In the photos he had seen, she?d come across as an attractive and innocent girl; now she had blossomed into a very striking young woman. Her long black hair hung loose and her dark lustrous eyes, which were prominent, seemed to light up her delicate and nicely chiseled face. Laila looked tired, but was obviously thrilled to see her brother again after a long absence. She greeted Ashok shyly, with a warm smile, and said that she was glad to finally meet him since she had heard so much about him.
For the first few days, Ashok kept a low profile so that they could relax and spend some time with Salim. But slowly, on Salim?s prompting, he became more involved in their activities. He chatted with them, ate with them, and watched movies with them. When Salim could not take time off from work, Ashok was the one who showed them around. Alas, the weeks went by too quickly, and before long, it was time for them to pack up and return to Pakistan. By then Ashok and Laila had formed an affectionate relationship, which involved frequent joking and teasing, although there remained a slight awkwardness when they were alone together.
Paradoxically, it was only after Laila went back to Hyderabad that they became closer. Their frequent e-mail exchanges, casual at first, soon became more serious and meaningful. The Internet acted as a reassuring shield, helping to break down their inhibitions and strengthen the emotional bond between them. Then, one weekend, Salim announced that he would be going to Pakistan to visit his family and attend a cousin?s wedding. That evening, over dinner at an Indian restaurant, Ashok told him how he felt about Laila. They were drinking chilled mango juice while waiting for their food.
?I hope you?re not shocked,? Ashok said, smiling nervously.
?Shocked? No, not at all! I?m not even surprised since I had an inkling all along.? Salim chuckled and raised his glass. ?Well, Ashok, this calls for a celebration. I?m delighted and hope for the best.?
Upon reaching Hyderabd, Salim called briefly to say that he would be in touch again after speaking to Laila and his parents. The next few days dragged by as Ashok waited impatiently, and then, less than a week later, he received an e-mail message from Salim.
First, the good news. Laila of course was thrilled and happy to get the message, and you will be pleased to know that she feels the same way about you. When it comes to my parents, however, it?s a little more complicated. Although they like you and think highly of you, my parents wish to inform you that they have already found a suitable match for Laila. But before they go any further, they want the two of you to sort it out. Please call Laila after 8 pm (your time). You will be able to talk to her privately. Good luck!
Ashok sat still for a while, reading the message several times, until it became a jumble of words that swam meaninglessly on the screen. Finally, he switched off the computer and went to the living room.
Shortly after eight that evening, Ashok reaches for the cordless. His hand trembles slightly as he dials the number in Hyderabad. Laila picks up the phone on the second ring.
?Hello, Ashok? How are you doing?? Her mellow voice is so distinct that he feels as if she?s there with him in the room. The house no longer seems empty.
?Hello, Laila. I?m okay. It?s nice to hear your voice again. I hope you?re fine.?
?I?m fine. But I miss talking to you. Ashok, I?m so sorry about . . .?
?Don?t worry about it, Laila. I?m sure things will work out.? Ashok pauses. ?I do love you,? he says.
Laila sobs. ?I know,? she says. ?So do I.?
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