New Voices: “Tennis Court” by Devanshi Khetarpal

April 29, 2024

When her father dies, the narrator of Devanshi Khetarpal’s “Tennis Court” returns home to Bhopal to help her mother mourn a man neither cared much for. As she and her mother watch the uncles play their Sunday tennis tournaments at her father’s revered social club, traumatic and uncomfortable memories surface. “Until I found myself staring at that photograph, I did not realize that my husband, Nirendra, bore a resemblance to my father—a knowledge which arrived like a knife slowly entering my body,” the narrator confesses in the opening. “Tennis Court” by Devanshi Khetarpal is a story that will linger with you long after you’ve read it.


I never understood my mother. I wanted to stay inside the car, parked in my father’s old spot, facing the field strewn with cigarettes, dogs, and ashen leaves. But she suggested we sit by the tennis courts and watch the uncles play their Sunday tournaments. My father used to call some of them friends. Before I could agree, however, I caught my mother’s silhouette in the rearview mirror, rushing across the parking lot in that mottled light. I got out slowly, studied the septic bluntness of the building for a while. I’d not been to Arera Club since 2013, when I saw my father walking across the foyer with his arms in Randhawa’s, laughing riotously. I had landed in Bhopal only a few days ago, boarding the first flight from New Jersey after my mother called to say that father had died in his sleep. She had hurriedly arranged the cremation and, reportedly, done it well despite her indifference. Since my arrival then, I had been reeling around drowsily, helping her entertain one mourning guest after another at home, all of whom reminded us of how little we cared about my father, a man whose photograph now hung in our living room, surrounded by a garland of fresh flowers.

Until I found myself staring at that photograph, I did not realize that my husband, Nirendra, bore a resemblance to my father—a knowledge which arrived like a knife slowly entering my body. I was relieved Nirendra had not yet landed in Bhopal. I didn’t want him around during that period. He had to be in MIT to deliver a job talk although he had wanted, very badly—in his own words—to pay his respects. He was the only one among us who got along with my father. During our summer trips to Bhopal, he’d sneak out to Arera to play a game of tennis with him, or to take him out for a boys’ night of drinking and dining at Jehan Numa. I’d always been suspicious that Nirendra relished the kind of attention my father gave him, but I had no desire to shock him with my misshapen feelings towards the man.

My father had become a member of Arera Club early on and with great enthusiasm when he was still a young sub-divisional officer working under Randhawa uncle, who had pulled many strings for my father so he could enter Arera Club, among other places. I’d been taught by my father, as a young girl, that I’d have much in my own life to thank Randhawa for. Arera didn’t issue memberships easily, especially not in those days, and certainly not to young bureaucrats straight out of the academy without substantial family connections. But it was on the tennis court, my father always said, that he impressed upon Randhawa the fact that he, of all men, was worth the trouble. And after those tennis matches, it was with Randhawa that my father started going out to Bhojpur Club for his weekly dose of whiskey on the rocks, and dinner parties every second Thursday at Motel Shiraz.

* * *

As I followed my mother to the tennis courts, I saw the walls of Arera plastered that same indecent white, the spaces still spare but only doubtfully spotless. The café had been renovated under the new management although its outer walls were already moss-covered in parts, the granite floor still fleeced with shoeprints. But some things, like Abraham D’Souza, never changed in Bhopal. He had been the manager since I was at least four years old, and I found him sitting on that same broken chair at the vestibule. He must have seen my mother enter because he greeted me with a lack of surprise. Since I last saw him ten years ago, he had lost a ton of weight, and his skin had aged, assuming the texture of wet stone. His uniform—cheap cotton shirts and bruised pants from Bombay Dyeing—had not changed, and he wore it with the sincerity of a schoolboy. When I was a young girl, he only referred to me with casual honorifics—always didi, ma’am, madam—always bending a little to speak, as if he were a servant at my disposal. It used to amuse me like a sad, sad joke.

“Namaste, madam. After so many years,” he said, rising slowly from his chair.

I smiled widely and bowed my head, suddenly remembering it had only been five days since my father’s cremation, and I was already dressed in vibrant colors, with a full face of makeup on. Nothing about me—I was certain—exuded any sense of grief or mourning.

“And, madam ji, everything fine at home? I felt bad after hearing about Sandeep Sir. May his soul rest in peace. My condolences,” D’Souza said.

“Thank you, yes, it’s all fine,” I said. “We just came here because we were thinking of how much he loved this place, you know… And how are your wife and kids? Your youngest is in college now?”

“Yes, madam,” D’Souza said, excitedly. “Alan is finishing his B.Tech from Oriental. And my eldest, Joshua—you remember him? He’s working in Bengaluru, for Infosys.”

“That’s impressive, D’Souza ji. Please convey my regards to your sons.”

“Yes, madam, thank you. Is Nirendra Sir coming? How is he?”

“He will arrive this evening. I’ll bring him here at some point so you can see him again.”

“Okay, madam. I liked practicing my English with him. He became a regular here after you stopped coming,” D’Souza said, smiling gently as he stifled a yawn. “Ma’am must be waiting for you there.”

He pointed in the other direction. I understood—the staff always had long, laborious hours, especially that time of the year. A few steps past the canteen, where the darkness of the archways opened onto the lawn, my mother’s brown kurta inched into view. A waiter was walking across the lawn with small Bisleri bottles on a plastic tray. She had already made herself comfortable under the shade of an ancient mango tree. Two men were playing that morning—Khanna uncle and Gupta ji—and they turned to glance in our direction between serves. They were both wearing grey t-shirts with black trackpants that were a size too large for them. They looked ridiculous. Their game was not one of shuffling movements and sporadic groans, but of long, architectural strokes, the ball hitting the bats and the turf with an ambient reverberation. Khanna, I observed, was a careful and elegant player, in stark contrast to his demeanor outside the court. He had retired as the Chief Secretary. Given his strong links with the central and state government, he had managed to clear my father’s name from the Vyapam case. Gupta ji, on the other hand, was nearly fifteen years younger, and was always between transfers from one district to the other. Khanna had been of use to Gupta. In fact, he had been useful to nearly everyone who frequented the club; he was the most powerful of the club’s patrons after Randhawa. And nothing at Arera ever shied from revealing such hierarchies: these ranks colored matches on the courts, card games in the smoke lounge, discussions by the water cooler, even the treatment of the staff towards the patrons. In the absence of Randhawa, it was always Khanna who could claim the best court for his games—and, too, the better side of it—where the sun spread itself in perfect congruence, never hitting his face. I was trying to keep score of the game, until I saw Khanna, with an understated flick of his palm, signal to Gupta ji to pause their game. The pair began walking in our direction and my mother mumbled something, looking away from me. She wore a look on her face, as if she had realized, that the people she’d decided to watch were abhorrent even from such a benevolent distance.

“Namaste, Bhabhi, beta. How are you doing?” Khanna uncle asked, towering such that his frame cast a dark shadow on me.

“Namaste. We’re managing, uncle. How are you and aunty?” I said.

“We’re fine. So sorry to hear about Sandeep, beta. If you need anything at all, let us know. And please, please come home anytime you want. Consider us family.”

“Thank you, uncle. We’ll keep that in mind.”

“And how’s Nirendra? You’re still up in Princeton?”

“Yes, uncle. He’s fine—he’ll be landing here today.”

“Oh, achcha then. I’ll introduce you to my niece who’s going to start at Princeton. Maybe you can guide her.”

“Sure, uncle. You have my number.”

This made Khanna uncle happy, and I understood why he had come to talk to us. Nirendra’s name had that effect on people in Bhopal. Everyone thought he was more respectable than I. After all, he was born in New York to a couple who had expanded their startup into one of America’s booming tech companies. And I, on the other hand, had struggled modestly, had simply married right to make it there. Besides, I shared the same, sullen origins as the uncles and taught an elusive subject like modern literature, whereas Nirendra taught a more serious discipline like biochemistry. We used to think our family had nothing to worry about, but our complacency revealed itself when Nirendra entered my life and made it impossible for us to exert any superiority of class or creed. I felt responsible, and all the more miserable for it.

* * *

As the men continued their game, I imagined that death was scheduled programming for these uncles, perhaps akin to a sarkari file opened and shut after a long but suitable settlement. My mother detested those babus—as she called them—and how they stole my father for nights of gambling, for debating “politics” and negotiating over cigarettes and Kingfishers. She detested them for atoning for their vices by suggesting kitty parties or picnics on the weekends with the children, fun family activities for which their fat wives had to spend whole afternoons in the kitchens, working. At some point, I began to understand and share my mother’s feelings, but my disdain and frustration towards my father seemed unaccustomed to itself, especially next to hers. She had amassed her resentment over decades, assembling each detail with care, symmetry. I could see, already, that my mother had begun to take pleasure in her loneliness, in the departure of her husband and the end of his ugly, inelegant maneuvers.

* * *

“How long do you want to stay here?” I asked her.

“Let us order some chai and nashta, at least. We’ll leave once we’ve eaten,” she said, gesturing to the waiter.

I was growing exasperated, but observed my mother, more closely than I had in some time, while the game sounded in the air with an unusual regularity. My mother’s eyes had turned to glass—thin and tempered, reflecting everything they saw, and indistinguishable from the steel almirah in their old Char Imli house. Ten years ago, I found those papers exactly where I saw my father put them as a child. I brought them to my mother, while my father was away for some meeting at Khanna’s, probably to deal with the whole scandal. I was not moved out of a need to tell my mother the truth, out of the love I had for her. Instead, I wanted to surrender the memories I shared with my father, to dispose the parts of him that my mother saw in me with hurting clarity. I had grown up hearing that I had my father’s long nose, his impeccably round eyes, the curvature of his lips. He and I were inseparable when I was too young to really know him—he brought me to the swimming pool at Arera on the weekends while he played tennis, and we went shopping in 5 No. together every other week, and he treated me to chaat from Manohar on Sunday evenings. Back then, I didn’t know my father as a man with serious faults. I had few words to describe him.

The waiter brought steaming chai, along with two plates of poha-jalebi, and my mother kept insisting I eat something even though I had been complaining about feeling nauseous in the mornings.

“You won’t get this food in America. Just eat it, for my sake,” she said.

It is true my revelation about the papers brought us closer, but I did not feel capable of doing anything for mother anymore. I was ten years old when I had caught my father putting away those papers. He was upstairs in the bedroom, where he sat at this desk during the weekend afternoons, reading or writing. We were going on a school trip to Kanha fun city later that month, and I needed his signature on a form and some money for a few rides and snacks. I never liked going into their bedroom. It had always been a strange place for me: the sheets emanated a criminal and discomforting dampness, the colors of the walls and the fabrics were too imposing, and the furniture let off the musty scent of my mother’s large, sweaty body. When I reached upstairs, a sound had barely left my mouth before I saw my father bundling some papers thin and stealthily stuffing them into the darkness of the small gap between the shelf and the back of the almirah. He was bent on one knee and floated his palms around the papers awhile as if he wanted them to remain immovable, quiet. I slid away from the door before my father could turn and catch me, and asked my mother for the money that evening when she came home instead. She, unlike my father, always handed me more than I could ever imagine asking for.

I was certain my mother must have been thinking of my father’s dealings as she watched Khanna and Gupta, sweating and squinting under the sunlight. As much as my father sickened her, my mother liked how his slew of side-businesses gave us little to worry about. On paper, his salary was rather modest. There were other benefits to being an IAS officer of his rank, of course, but that ghastly, fashionable life of ours should have been out of our means. As time went on, I knew better about the things my father had done, the bribes he’d taken, the people he’d betrayed, and my mother, too, became less inclined to keep such matters secret. I began to understand who had visited our home, and why. I began to understand the secret language and gestures of my father.

“Where are the other babus, I wonder,” my mother said, interrupting my thoughts.

“I don’t know. You want to leave?” I asked.

“Let’s just watch them play one more game, see if your father taught them one of his tricks.”

It seemed to me as if she was waiting for some cruel but pleasurable discovery. She had finished her poha-jalebi already and snatched half of the jalebi off mine. “You can have the rest,” she said, innocently. My mother seemed so absorbed in that match that I thought she’d erased the world around her, had even forgotten about the men playing it. I could see the game—its pure and simple form—reflected in her eyes. I watched the fluorescent ball leaping from one side to the other, the sunlight bouncing off it and illuminating the colors of every small thing around us like a glistening wound.

After a while, I began to feel terribly nauseous and excused myself to walk around the premises. I headed south, passing by the indoor badminton courts, then took a right turn towards the renovated area by the swimming pool. I walked inside the empty restaurant near the shallow end, by the deck chair where my father used to wait for me, watching me as I comfortably submerged into the water. I felt that not even a single thing had changed. I could tell the temperature of the water, its singing iciness. I didn’t even have to look in the direction of the dressing rooms to see they were still there, with the same paint and flooring, the same cracks. But it felt strange—how my aged memories surfaced when I carefully leaned in to notice the unchanged depth of the pool. I was so young when I used to swim there, so awkward in the grammar of my body.

On the cerulean water, an image of my father began to form—he was with Randhawa uncle that night, drunk and laughing. They had been the last to exit Arera after a Rotary Club dinner party ten summers ago. His name had just been cleared from the Vyapam scandal, and we felt, as a family, suddenly freed from the embarrassment. I had agreed to pick up my father that night. I waited in the lobby for twenty minutes, making small talk with D’Souza every now and then. It was my first visit home without Nirendra since we got married and settled down in New Jersey. And I was no longer used to the indignity of my father’s tardiness. But that night, when I looked up to see my father shouting across the foyer, “Beta! Look who’s here to see you,” I saw only his arms entwined around the man who had touched me, who had put it between my legs when I was a teenager. I remembered how cold the water was. Wasn’t it my father who walked in on us by the showers? Had he not seen Randhawa hurriedly zipping his pants? Randhawa had nervously brushed past him, I remember, leaving me against the wall with my swimsuit awry. My father gently pushed the shower curtain. The shower wasn’t turned on, and my father, without looking at me, twisted the knob for me, started speaking firmly but gently over the vehement sound of the running water, asking me to take care, take my time.

“I will see you in the car, beta, and we can talk,” he had said. “And I am sorry. I will not speak to him again,” he turned to say, a few moments after.

My father and I shared a sense of embarrassment. I was stunned that night, as I slowly got into the car. I wanted everything that had happened at Arera to remain a matter between the two of us, and for years, a part of me held on to those tentative feelings of secrecy and disaster, the unpredictability of cutting into something so delicate. Even the bluntest force seemed sharp, abysmal to those memories. I thought our helplessness would continue to foster a closeness between my father and I. But when I saw my father with Randhawa that night, I broke when I saw a familiar lexicon between their bodies, as if they had remained as thick as the thieves they were all those years ago. The car began to smell of cheap beer as soon as he walked in. Driving, my imagination was intruded by an image of the two of them swimming together, Randhawa uncle reaching out his hand from the water to pull my cheek and say, “How beautiful you’ve become, gudiya.” But I was still at the swimming pool, still looking at the water when another image formed—the weight and outline of his body, as if Randhawa had imprinted himself on it. I stepped away from the pool, but I felt split—and that’s when a part of me could not stop looking, just as a part of me could not keep looking. There was no word for it all.

For most of the drive home that night, I could not bring myself to talk to my father. My mother had always exhibited a coldness towards him, she had never entertained him and had only tolerated him for the better part of my life. That night, I understood my mother and saw the man she’d known my father to be. Everything about the color of Main Road 1, the desolation of the half-finished highways and the new developments near the TT Nagar stadium, seemed to speak Randhawa’s language, flashing the sharp edges of his tongue towards me. My eyes welled up with tears, but my father was too drunk to pay any attention. Every now and then, he’d pull down the windows of the car and let the breeze whistle into his face, chuckling or breaking into some old ghazal. I grew angrier and finally, once I pulled into our driveway, said, “How could you laugh with him?” My father slurred something like, “Let bygones be bygones.” And I imagined the sounds the papers made, crumpling and rubbing against each other, as soon as we reached home.

* * *

The next day, I remember, I opened that old steel almirah, looking down the bedroom window every now and then to ensure my father’s car was not in the garage. Ma was downstairs in the kitchen. The almirah’s doors banged with a depth and I bent to check the lower shelf. They were there: the papers had not moved from that spot, they were hidden from view unless one knew where to look, treading fine balance between guise and obviousness. At first, I doubted if those papers were as significant as I believed them to be. When I pulled them out, I examined them quickly but preciously, feeling I was about to put my mother through something disproportionately difficult. I knew I was about to do something that would make me loathe myself. I carried the papers carelessly downstairs, as if I were planning to fling them casually. I considered calling Nirendra first, telling him about my discovery, conferring with him before making such a disclosure. But I decided against it—it was already nighttime for him back in Princeton. Besides, he was not the kind of man given to excavating the messiness of the past. He liked neatness, he thought I came from it, from a small fortune and minor privileges, from the easiness of a city like Bhopal. So I descended the stairs, feeling terribly alone, and decided to call out to my mother in a tone punctuated with urgency and puzzlement. She came rushing out of the kitchen.

“What happened?” she asked. “Why are you shouting?” She smelled of the kitchen.

I handed her those papers, and she caught them between her little finger and thumb, careful not to rub them with the yellow tinge of turmeric and mustard oil on her fingers. They were notarized documents with my mother’s signature at the bottom that declared the sale of two properties—a farmhouse and the empty plot next to it—in Hoshangabad that formed a sizeable portion of my mother’s assets. My mother had always spoken about that place in the future tense, always as the perfect retirement home, a place where she and my father could do some farming or raise animals, where I could visit with my own husband and children one day. It had bewildered me at first to see the papers about the sale, to see my mother’s signature on them from all those years ago, but I couldn’t ascertain if it was something my parents had agreed upon, like any other matter that adults quietly decide behind closed doors. Perhaps, I thought, my parents had sold the Hoshangabad properties to secure funds for Stanford, for my life in America, my wedding. Perhaps they’d made a profit and planned to buy something more lucrative elsewhere. Perhaps this constituted one of my father’s “deals.” For a minute, I considered those possibilities while I watched my mother bite her lips and trail her eyes again and again through the text.

“Are you okay, ma?” I asked her.

She only pushed me away to grab the phone and call my father. “Come home right now! What the fuck is this, Sandeep?” she shouted.

* * *

Their fights were endless from then on. Every night, I lay in bed and heard the volley of their voices. They started to sleep in separate bedrooms. My father migrated to the living room to sleep on the couch, cooking and eating his own meals as quietly as he could on his dirty desk in the storeroom. My mother told me, in a rather happy tone, on the phone that he was barely ever at home, always slipping out to Arera Club, or to Palash for humble dinners with his friends. He only ever called me if it was necessary. My father must have had some sense that I had done this to him, that I was to blame for this newfound distress. It was hard to tell if my father felt truly guilty, or angry towards me. But his iciness kept me from asking him questions: why he sold my mother’s properties without telling her, why he forged her signature on the papers, where he put the money and what he did with it. Although I had enough ideas of my own.

My mother’s hatred towards my father was enough to make me feel avenged. Standing by the swimming pool, I could hear every movement of the men’s games, even the clear whoosh of the ball in the air. I returned to fetch my mother, and remembered something she told me on my wedding day. We’d rented the back garden at Jehan Numa for all the ceremonies. Nirendra’s family had paid for the guest rooms and somehow, my parents had managed to put up an act of marital harmony and love for a respectable family like his. As I put on my bridal trousseau, my cousins and friends around me, my mother whispered in my ear, “Never trust a man with everything you have.” I looked at myself in the mirror, in the jewelry that embellished all the emptiness of my body. I wanted my luck, my conjugal ease, to devastate my mother.

* * *

I had to leave; besides, looking at the water in the swimming pool was making me feel dizzy. I made my way back to the tennis court where Khanna and Gupta uncle continued to glance at us between serves and strokes, while we persisted in ignoring them. They could understand that my mother and I were observing their game, that we held them responsible for things, that we were trying to make them sense the spite we harbored towards my father.

“When are you going to pick up Nirendra from the airport?” my mother said.

“In a few hours,” I replied.

“He didn’t have to come all the way, you know.”

“Ma, you forget he and dad actually got along,” I giggled.

“We behaved. But thank God they didn’t play tennis together,” she said, smiling.

She thumped the table as she got up. My mother didn’t seem any different than when we’d arrived, but she had assumed a resilience as though she were a player on that court, humbled and sobered by her opponents. It felt easier to leave with her, than it did to arrive. The sound of our feet dragging must have woken up D’Souza, who suddenly swiveled in his chair. We walked past the vestibule, until my mother touched my arm and gestured to turn back. She walked to the reception to ask D’Souza, “When does Mr. Randhawa usually come?”

D’Souza said something I could not hear. I had never heard Randhawa’s name from my mother’s mouth before. She said it as though it was a name that had been living in her mouth, that was familiar with its dimensions.

“He comes in the evenings usually, madam,” I heard D’Souza say.

“Perhaps we’ll bring Nirendra here for dinner in the evening then, when Mr. Randhawa is around,” my mother said, looking at me.

I said nothing and continued to walk out, watching my feet glide from one tile to the next. My mother followed me into the parking lot. The pack of dogs in the distance were lying down. Before I unlocked the car doors, I asked my mother, with her hands pressed on the door handle, “Ma, why did you ask about Randhawa uncle?”

My mother looked at me, amused at first, and then solemnly, with understanding. “I know, it’s strange. I don’t talk much about him. But he helped me cope after I told him about the Hoshangabad properties. He’s been a good friend to me, you know, through these years. He’s helped me understand everything your father did, and he always asks about you. He knew your father very well, he knew the kind of man I was with,” she said.

I did not look up, but I noticed while my mother was speaking, that I was standing on a puddle. It had muddied the soles of my new shoes. Why did I decide to wear my new, white shoes when it had rained all night? Why did I make that choice?

“Is everything all right?” my mother asked me. Perhaps I had been quiet. She had to repeat her question.

“Are you all right, beta?” she asked me.

I shook my head. I could only imagine how I must have appeared in that moment, my gaze fixed on the ground. I must have looked like my mother did, watching the uncles.

Devanshi Khetarpal is a Truman Capote and Sonny Mehta fellow in Fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of
Inklette Magazine. She holds a Master’s in Comparative Literature from New York University, and her work has received support from the Juniper Writing Institute at UMass Amherst, Yale Writers’ Workshop, and the Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in Indiana Review, Pleiades, Suspect, Public Books, Poetry at Sangam, and The Bombay Literary Magazine, among others. Devanshi was longlisted for the 2023 Toto Award for Creative Writing in English and received a Honorable Mention for the 2024 Prufer Poetry Prize. She is from Bhopal, India. Website:

Headshot by: Ian Gittler

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