He was a tall, white-haired man who looked like he still had a lot of strength in his old body despite the number of years he’d lived. She was a short, plump woman with black, curly hair always tied up in a well-oiled bun. The discernible dissimilarities ended here. All you would notice about them was their smile. It never left their lips, no matter the temptation. And it always traveled from deep within where only love can live. I know, because I felt it every time I met them.
He was my mother’s mother’s cousin. My grand uncle. Our relationship was distant, interactions sporadic, for they were tested by the trials of complicated lives and time-chasing. But the memories have left a mark, like a cairn, flagging the trail towards meadows with daisies and candyfloss clouds. A place where you know that love, in the deepest sense, outsmarts rain and hail and sleet.
She was twenty years younger than him, her husband. He took care of her almost with the earnestness of an indulgent father. Her hearing aid, I suspected, was just a contraption to send some meagre sound waves as a consolation to her very deaf years. Her ears, mere accessories on her encouraging, warm face, were only a platter to display her preference for large gold stud earrings. She positioned the ringlets on the ear in an attempt to hide the hearing aid, I think. She fascinated me, just as much as her loving husband left me in a sense of awe.
I was fifteen then — a gawky, plump, occasionally animated teenager. Brought up in places that were far from the usual benefits and demands of an extended Indian family, my brother and I resisted all attempts to meet with our relatives, who happened to live close to this town we’d come to because of the latest posting of our father’s.
They lived in this town; and that’s how we met him, and his wife.
Their house was an ambitious replica of the sprawling Indian homes with courtyards in their centre. Ambitious, because it was in the middle of an inelegant, dirty residential colony, and didn’t have much space to accommodate the expanses of such houses. But it did duplicate the essence. There was a tiny courtyard in the centre, with a basil plant in its centre. The courtyard invited birds. But was more remarkable because of the numerous food-things drying out in the sun there — pickles, papads, baris. It was like visiting an ancient memento, still alive. On my first reluctant visit, I remember bracing myself up for another session of indulgent conversation, oily food, and too-sweet desserts. I didn’t have to worry. There wasn’t much conversation. The few words exchanged dripped with unsheathed care, understanding and interest.
And she cooked like she was here to serve the gods.
Every single part of the meal that came to us from her kitchen was made with love. Have you ever tasted love? I can proudly say I have. Her kind.
Love is a balancing element. There is no possible way it can make your life askew, if it really is love. The spices and the salt; the sugar and the butter; the cooking and the rawness. She knew it just right. She sent out the food through her surly children, all three in various stages of their twenties, who in turn gave the food to her husband. He took over with his beatific smile, and served us with an honest sincerity I’ve seen matched only by his wife.
I never refused going to their place again.
The times I visited, however, were very few in the three years we lived in that town. But every time I did, I came back sated with this immensely overwhelming embrace of guileless kindness. And a question. How could the children not be a part of this? What ailed them? What went wrong? The daughter, the youngest of the three, I’d mostly find sitting at the courtyard’s ledge, looking into the tunnels to places I could not see. I could see, however, the shape of her recently pubescent breasts and nipples through her sheer kurta. She never wore a bra. It bothered me for reasons I still do not understand, but it did make me feel sorry for her parents. The second son was a disgruntled youth, unable to get a job because of the all-pervading reservation (for the “lower” castes) system. He sat with us, a complete opposite of his parents, talking of ambition, greed, frustration. The eldest was fighting his own battle. Released from the army for medical reasons, he found it difficult to get a job. He wanted to start his own business — which he eventually did — but his parents weren’t letting him. Brahmins don’t earn money through businesses, they thought.
The humanness of this couple made them all the more appealing to the always-observing, always-accepting person in me. He came to us sometimes, never empty-handed. She would always pack a box of something — puris or pickles or mathris. She came sometimes, too. He said she hardly ever visited anyone because she could barely speak for the lack of practice, and could not hear anyway. But she somehow took to us. We were grateful. I am, I know.
Sometimes, love is enough.
I left the town to pursue college, and then to move on to professional studies. I thought of them occasionally. A few years later, I heard from my mother that they were both found dead one morning on their beds. They were perfectly healthy the previous day, but were no more the next. There was an empty bottle somewhere close to him. It is suspected that they took their own lives with its contents.
Diabetes had taken hold of his body, and he didn’t have very long to live. People mentioned that he’d been talking of his misgivings about her fate after him. The children were all married and gone, careless.
Love also has many ways to balance out life. If it could use them, it would. I am sure.