Standing at the gates of Mango Grove, Koti Rao admired the acres of trees. With profits from his silk shop, Koti's father had bought the Grove in 1945, envisioning cultivation as his next venture. As children, Koti and his siblings played beneath the oldest tree, feasting on its ripened fruits. Often, their father would unwind alongside them, newspaper in one hand and a mango in the other, a vice that contributed to his diabetes. Heart failure had claimed him early, but mangoes undoubtedly hastened his demise. Now, with the elder Rao gone, the Grove symbolized the family's fragile prosperity.
"Where were you?" asked Mohan, Koti's elder brother, when Koti returned to the bungalow.
"Remembering our days in the Grove," Koti replied.
Mohan sighed, "We might need to let go of the Grove, Koti. The business isn't doing well."
Mohan insisted their father's ambition had surpassed his actual success. He always bought on credit, and his untimely death had created panic among his creditors. Each demanded immediate payment, but the debts far exceeded the shop's assets. While some had agreed to negotiate down, others refused.
"But why the Grove?" Koti pressed. "Isn't there another way?"
"I have already sold everything of value," said Mohan. "The Grove is the only thing left."
In the days after, Koti found himself in Mr. Muppana's living room, searching for support. He'd been hesitant about borrowing from his father's friends, but desperation to find a lender before Mohan found a buyer left him little choice. All his father's friends—except Mr. Muppana, the wealthiest man in the village—had politely declined.
"Ah, Koti!" called Mr. Muppana.
Koti bowed, touching the elder's feet as a sign of respect.
"How have you been, babu?" asked Mr. Muppana.
Koti hesitated, "Sir, it's been challenging since my father passed. You know, the business was not doing well when my father was ill. He had many debts that Mohan could not cover. We are still struggling to pay them off."
Mr. Muppana's smile faded. "I've seen changes in the industry. Big manufacturers are seducing our young weavers away from the handlooms, away from their families and their villages, to oversee power looms in Chennai and Bangalore factories. The quality of their fabrics is going down, yet somehow, their prices are going up. Even 20 years ago, I could see where our business was going. I got my family out altogether. Babu, while I empathize, I cannot invest in a sinking venture. My advice to you is to find someone who will buy the shop now, while it is still worth something."
Koti's gaze dropped, disappointment evident in his eyes. Mr. Muppana leaned in to put a hand on his shoulder before giving it a squeeze.
Mr. Muppana had been Koti's last hope. In a frantic act, he reviewed all of his father's ledgers again at the bungalow. When his search turned up nothing, he returned them to the shelf, where he noticed a ledger, tucked in the back, that he'd missed.
As he examined its pages, he noticed a name carefully printed on one of the lines. He'd never seen it in writing before. He squinted to confirm he'd read the characters correctly. As he flipped through the rest of the ledger, he saw her name again and again: Nagaratnama. Over the years, countless promissory notes had been made out to her; her loans were one of the few that had been paid in full at the time of his father's death.
As Koti thought of Nagaratnama, memories from his childhood flooded back. When Koti was a boy, his father would often disappear for hours. One day, when he was 12 years old, Koti decided to follow his father, traversing a set of narrow, unfamiliar passageways until his father emerged from the shadows and crossed toward a row of thatched homes. A slender woman with striking black eyes and tiny pink lips emerged from the only bungalow on the dilapidated row. Koti's eyes grew wide as she coiled around his father, took his chin in her hands, and maneuvered his head toward Koti.
He expected his father to be cross. Instead, he grinned and beckoned Koti over to the woman. She leaned down and greeted him with a pinch on his cheek that made his eyes water. Koti looked at his father, expecting an explanation. However, his father released his shoulder and handed a folded sheet of paper from his pocket to Nagaratnama, who unfolded the paper as the pair walked toward the bungalow.
Koti began to pace from one end of the row to the other, debating whether he ought to return home. Before he could decide, his father emerged with a stack of crisp rupees in his hand and the faintest hint of pink on his lips. He and Koti walked back wordlessly through the alleys, Koti anticipating a beating that never came.
Koti touched his cheek now. He wondered if she lived in the same place. Driven by a mix of hope and desperation, Koti retraced his steps through the alleyway, leading to the same row of houses. Most of the thatched homes were gone—now replaced by compact, but solid, bungalows. Despite his reservations, he found himself continuing onward toward Nagaratnama's home. He felt his stomach flip as he knocked on the front door, and it swung open.
The woman on the other side of the door resembled the woman he had met all those years before, but now she was gray and thin as a wafer. While she still painted her lips, the color extended beyond her lip line as if she had painted them in the dark, perhaps without the benefit of perfect vision. She squinted her beady eyes at him, suggesting the latter, before finally speaking.
"Koti!" she said in a sickly-sweet way that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up, and she beckoned him inside.
Nagaratnama sat down on a silk-cushioned divan. Although there was an armchair right next to her, Nagaratnama gestured for Koti to join her on the divan. Koti obliged, and she edged closer to him.
"How have you been feeling?" she asked. "The last time I saw your father was at least one year back. I trust he was strong in the end?"
"Good, is there anything I can do to help, babu?"
Koti shifted uneasily until the small of his back was pressed against the divan's armrest.
"Yes, that's why I am here," he said. "You see, my father, he left us with a lot of debts. More debts than we can ever pay. My older brother wants to sell Mango Grove, but we cannot do that. There must be another way, I have been telling him. I know you have given money to my father before, and I was wondering..."
Nagaratnama pursed her lips for several moments before asking how much was needed. When Koti told her, it was her turn to lean back in the divan. Her lips were still pursed as she weighed his proposal, leaving the outcome a mystery to Koti until she finally leaned forward toward him.
"I cared for your father, and I want to help. But I would only give you that kind of money if you can give me something. Perhaps, you can give me the silk shop in exchange for the loan. It is a tile shed that is barely worth anything, but I have given your father so much to keep it going over the years. I feel very invested in it."
Koti raised his eyebrows. He had been so sure that Nagaratnama would turn down his request outright that he had not bothered to anticipate a counteroffer. He gulped, knowing he had no other options to save the Grove. He extended his hand in agreement.
Without warning, she leaned in to pinch his cheek, and he winced.
"You're a good son," she said. "Looking out for your family, just as your father did."