The Light Through the Fog

Sandhya Iyer

An hour and a half into our drive from Delhi, the fog started rolling in. It was fine at first, pale and translucent, letting through enough light that our driver could still make out highway signs and the cars in front of us. But as quickly as it started, it began to thicken, large cumulus clouds dropping from the sky and settling at eye-level, filled with smog and pollution and the darkness of winter. It accumulated the width of the road so rapidly, that within 15 minutes, our driver, Mahesh, advised us to hold off on the rest of the journey.
“So, are we going back to Delhi?” I ask. “I’ll just have to book another hotel room for tonight.”
“No, ma’am,” Mahesh responds, head shaking gravely. “The fog will be just as bad in the other direction. We’re right by Faridabad now. I suggest finding a hotel and spending the night here.”
“If that’s the best option, we’ll go with it,” my husband, Sunil says. “Alright, Arya?”
I nod. This isn’t ideal. I’m strongly Type A, slightly watered down and more adaptable after marrying Sunil, but I like having things planned out, especially in places I’ve never been, where there’s no one other than my husband I can fully count on. But there isn’t much I can do now.
“To Faridabad, it is, then.” I give Sunil a strained smile. He reaches over and holds my hand.

We’re off the highway in five minutes, driving along slightly bumpier roads, low beams doing their best to pierce through the impenetrable fog.
“The fog is too bad to drive into the actual city,” Mahesh says. “But there are quite a few bed and breakfasts just inside city limits. I’ll take you both to a well-known one.”
“Alright,” Sunil says. “Where will you be staying?”
“Don’t worry about me, sir. I’ll find a place for the night.” We’ve just parked in front of a green, two-story house. The windows, each with their own set of bright yellow shutters, are closed, but the lights are on.
“Nonsense!” Sunil won’t hear of it. “If there’s more than one available room here, you’ll be staying with us.”
Mahesh begins to protest, but Sunil is already out of the car and on his way to the inn. He’s back quickly — of course, a well-known bed and breakfast is completely occupied on a night where fog is forcing drivers and their passengers to take shelter.
We check a few other inns to no avail. Just when I’m about to suggest we sleep in the car, we inch in front of a small place, seated at the edge of darkness. It’s unassuming but painted a
white that seems to glow beneath the night sky. Sunil goes in and comes back with two thumbs up — there are rooms available.
I’m honestly nervous, but try to push away the ugly thoughts that creep into my head — why does this inn have availabilities, unlike the others? Is it something to do with the quality of the rooms? The owners? We would just be staying here for a night — eight hours of sleep and then back on our way to Mathura. I grab my bag from the trunk, swallow hard and walk up a small set of stairs to the inn.
The moment I step inside, all my worries fade away. We’re in a warmly lit room, with a small Ganesha idol on top of the mantle and an old TV sitting in the corner, alternating between static and an Indian soap opera. The eldery owners of the inn stand in front of us, her in a magenta sari, gray hair in a low bun, and him in a white kurta and dhoti. They introduce themselves as Ragini and Satish.
Satish insists on taking our bags to the rooms, and Ragini ushers us into the kitchen, ladling dal and fried okra onto places with two rotis and a scoop of rice apiece. Was this what my grandma had been like? I don’t have time to linger in my thoughts.
“Where are you traveling from?” Ragini asks. I can feel her warm brown eyes on me.
My mouth is full of rice. “Delhi,” Sunil answers. “On our way to Mathura.” He gives me a look.
“Oh! The birthplace of Lord Krishna. What an auspicious place,” she responds, smiling. “What brings you there?”
“Uhm,” I’m unsure of how much to say, but I have a feeling the questions will keep coming. “For my Nani’s 1-year death anniversary. We’ve come from California.”
“Oh?” She’s looking at me expectantly. “All the way from America?” She says it like “Am-ric-a.” I look at Sunil for reassurance. “Yes.” I sit there silently for a moment.
“The food is delicious, Auntie,” Mahesh says, breaking the silence. “Absolutely excellent.”
“Thank you, beta. Shall I serve you some more?” She adds another spoon of okra to his plate without waiting for an answer. And then she looks at me. “What about you, beti?” She starts to ladle some dal on my plate. Her tenderness and care for us, three people she’s never met, catches me off guard. I open my mouth to ask for another helping of rice, and instead, my entire life story spills out.

How I was raised by a single mother, who had been estranged from her own mother and father since she’d gotten pregnant with me. How hard it had been, growing up without knowing any family, having to move around for my mom’s jobs, staying home alone afterschool because noone was there to watch me. How based on old photos and smidges of information I wheedled out of my mom, I knew I was more like my grandma than anyone else. That we had the same sharp nose, same thick eyebrows, same crooked tooth in the same spot and same lilting laughter. That we both loved doing crosswords and reading philosophy and spending time outdoors. I know it always hurt my mother a little when she looked at me because I resembled hers so much.
I always thought I would get time to reconnect with my Nani. But when she passed away suddenly, I felt like I was grasping at thin air trying to learn more about where I came from and this woman who’d inadvertently shaped so much of who I am. I couldn’t make it to the funeral — she was cremated within days of her death, so I promised I would make the journey to India the year after.
“It’s my first time in India,” I say. Everyone at the table is quiet. Ragini is looking at me tenderly, eyes damp. She gently reaches over and places her hand on mine.
“Beti...” she pauses, biting the inside of her mouth, cheeks sucked in slightly. “What was your Nani’s name?”
“Vaidehi,” I say. “Vaidehi Mishra.”
She gasps suddenly, hands flying to her mouth, eyes wide. “I had a feeling right when I saw you,” she says.
“What do you mean?” I exclaim. “Did you know her?”
“Did I know her?” I can hear the affection and nostalgia in the wobble of Ragini’s voice. “She was one of my closest childhood friends.”
It feels like the earth dropped out from under me. I grab onto the sides of my chair so tightly my knuckles feel like they’re about to pop. “You grew up in Mathura?”
“We lived next door to each other for 12 years,” she says. Then at the sight of my flushed face, “Are you okay, beti?”
I don’t even know how to answer that. I couldn’t control much in my childhood, so I’ve tried to control everything from then on. Sunil’s and my trip to India was planned down to the drivers we would hire and the restaurants we’d eat at, and everything was going as planned, until tonight, when the fog kicked in and nudged us off course. So, was there such a thing as fate? Were we meant to stay here tonight and meet Ragini and Satish, so that I actually stood a chance at knowing my grandma before I visited her birthplace?
I’m surprised to find my eyes welling up with tears. “Yeah,” I say, wiping my eyes. “I’m fine.”
“I’m sure there’s so much you want to know,” Ragini says. “Let me make some chai before we start.” She steps into the kitchen and comes back with a tray of steaming mugs of chai, all the cardamom and gingery goodness wafting into the room.
We each grab a cup and move to the sitting area. Ragini, Satish and I are on the small cotton sofa — Mahesh and Sunil on the floor. We’re all staring at her attentively.
“So,” she says, a small smile on her lips. “Where shall I start?”
“From the beginning.” The mug of chai is warm against my palms. My stomach is full and my heart is hopeful. “I want to know everything.”
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First Place Winner in the Adult (18+) Age Category - Winter Short Story Contest 2021 - San Jose Public Library

Sandhya Iyer

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