Sometimes you miss some things you’ve left behind. When I read a friend’s view about a photograph I’d posted on my Facebook page under an album named Us and the lives around us, I realised just how much a part of me that setting in that picture had become.
It is only disappointment. Alas, it dessicates the life in your spirit. If you let it, that is.
Thankfully, like many frustrating things, disappointment comes with a choice. You either let it devour you, or force it to lift you up on its shoulder and let you climb on to the other side of the seemingly insurmountable wall. Easy? Hardly. Continue reading Only disappointment
It is only disappointment. Alas, it dessicates the life in your spirit. If you let it, that is.
Thankfully, like many frustrating things, disappointments come with a choice. You either let it devour you, or force it to lift you up on its shoulder and let you climb on to the other side of the seemingly insurmountable wall. Easy? Hardly. Continue reading Only disappointment
My parents came over to visit us for a week and a little more. During my occasional walks with them, I remembered I’d been wanting to take pictures of the numerous birds that inhabit our neighbourhood and show them to you. The desire is like that of a child saying, “Look, I can see that! Can you?”
A few days back, I did take the camera, but was able to manage only a few pictures that are postable here. Perhaps I’ll ‘win’ some more in the subsequent days and post them, too.
A family living close to us has placed these earthen vessels on their wall for the birds to feed and drink water from. Mornings and evenings, a huge flock of parrots comes and satiates itself. This picture is only of one of their kind, but you get the picture!
Right next to this parrot haunt, there’s a silver oak tree (it looks horrifically chopped because people chop off the tops in winter — it helps the tree, and provides firewood for homes). This big guy was looking down right at us, we thought. My mother told me to take a picture of him, too. I had my doubts that it’d come. Backlit setting and all. But she insisted, I took the picture and lo, we can even see his eyes!
Ready to move on, I saw this dried vine with its gourd-fruits. We use the dried up innards as loofah. Do you? I thought it’d be interesting to show you. My current loofah is about to say adieu, but then I have a spare one, otherwise I’d have been aching to climb up the electricity pole and get a couple of them. Climbing is such fun, I’d have done it without any fruit at the top. But then, sensible people would stop me. For all of these reasons, I took a picture instead.
This bird has been intriguing me for two years now. My internet search tells me it’s a magpie robin, but his call doesn’t match the recorded calls I downloaded. Whatever the bird, this one is elusive.
Isn’t it amazing how the most incongruous of things can flourish together? This never ceases to amaze me. Of course they don’t always succeed in coexisting, but whenever they do, it is nothing short of a miracle of effort, I feel.
I itch to know names of things. Animals, birds, people, flowers, plants, even microbes. I look at these blossoms and remember I don’t know what they will turn into. Pears? Plums? Peaches? Apricots? And then I remind myself that it doesn’t really matter.
As long as I can continue to look at their glory, and enjoy it, it probably doesn’t matter.
Especially when I go closer to the tree to take a close-up, and the family’s dog fails to feel welcoming.
Or these beautiful finches. They’re finches, I think. But then, what’s in a name? My father kept whispering “look at these pink ones here! Look! No here, on the hibiscus bush.” They were so far away and so difficult to see, I’d have missed them.
Some associations remain for life. Like this woodpecker. We’ve learnt to call him Woody Woodpecker because of the story my father used to tell us when we were children. Whenever we see this bird, it’s always, “Woody!”
Not just parrots, but a whole colony of them. Chattering, preening, jibing. These are a different variety. They have rosy heads. But they talk the same language. At least I think they do.
The sun was getting ready to set. But it would take at least an hour before it did. Thankfully, its light lit up the tree and the parrots just right to give us a beautiful picture.
Now that they have left, and I look back on those ‘walks’ I’ve walked with them, I feel grateful for all of those sights they’ve shown me. It is uncanny how parents have the power to show in the most tacit of ways. As I prepare for a little one of my own soon, I realise the baton is getting passed on. Or duplicated. For parents never really stop giving, do they?
There are some things you experience in life which enrich you beyond your understanding. That feed your soul even when you think it is hungry and parched, only for you to of a sudden realise that you were only being forgetful — help is at hand. Even if you’ll have to search real hard for it.
Dadiji and Dadaji (my father’s parents) are a couple of such people, who coloured my life in ways it is difficult to put in words. Memories can be narrated, but what they do to ones heart and mind, and how, is a thread that gets fogged with every attempt at an explanation. But I am going to try it.
They had seven grandsons from their five sons before Dadiji became desperate for a Dubey granddaughter — a girl to carry on her family’s name. She prayed for a girl throughout my mother’s pregnancy. Her prayers were answered. When I was born, needless to say, she rejoiced. And showed a figurative tongue to my mother, who was certain it’d be a boy. That is, however, where her overt expression of a wish fulfilled ended. Never again did she show through her actions or words any preference for any of her grandchildren. Not so my Dadaji. He very clearly showed his love for my brother, Shonu. A man of meagre requirements and a strict routine, he didn’t quite agree with celebrations and parties, but he did insist for a big third birthday party for Shonu. How people behave and change, how their expressions differ from time to time is such a mystery, is it not?
Our meetings with them were fixed for at least once a year, when we went to Jabalpur for summer or winter holidays. We’d first go to Rajnandgaon, where my Nanaji and Naniji (mother’s parents) lived and then go for a longer stay at Jabalpur. Dadaji decided to shift to Jabalpur in a huff. Though his roots were from Raipur, he vowed never to return to it because of the strange ways of the people there. He was one of the first from his community, perhaps the first, to go out of the country and spend time in England. The people around him weren’t interested in his achievements, but in the fact that he’d gone and maligned the sanctity of their society. Perhaps eaten meat. Even touched a white person. Perhaps he drank alcohol and smoked foreign cigarettes as well? Blasphemy! So they sort of ostracised him, sure that he’d come and apologise to the powers that be. Dadaji didn’t think such a people worth his time and life, so he decided to remain in Jabalpur after he retired.
The decision was the most trying for Dadiji. Even though she’s spent most of her married life outside of Raipur, she’d looked forward to returning back to her people. She loved gatherings, gaiety, food, fun. Well, Jabalpur wasn’t going to stop her from enjoying all of that! She had friends in Jabalpur, too. Dadaji didn’t have any money to make a house, though. A well-feared collector, he often neglected the fact that he would need a place to go to after his retirement. Spending money on property was just not his game. No, he wasn’t a miser. Only a little impractical. But Dadiji came to his (and her own) rescue. She got a house built with the jewellery she had. It got completed just in time to welcome them after Dadaji retired. This house is where many of my childhood memories wander.
She had diabetes ever since I can remember. Though it made her life a little less than comfortable, I don’t remember her complaining. What I do remember is her grumbling that everyone took the doctors too seriously and denied her her two favourites — mango pickle and rice. She got her way with rice somehow (that’s a different story for a different time), but the pickle was never much of a hit with her sons and daughters-in-law, who continued to prohibit her from eating it. But little did they know, she had a comrade-in-arms. Me. I’d sneak in after lunch or dinner to the pantry, fish out a few pieces from the huge pickle jar, wrap it in layers of paper after sufficiently removing the oil, and hand it over to her. I knew how she felt, because it was my favourite, too. What’s more, she was alert enough to remove the evidence from under her pillow before someone discovered it. I can still remember her cataracted eyes twinkling with joy whenever I succeeded in getting her the loot.
My reward was more time with her skin. Wasted muscles and vanished fat had left her with bags of skin in her upper arms. I could spend hours touching, squeezing, caressing the soft folds. And then moving my hand down to hers. Such a difference between the two! Hers was gnarled with time and hard labour. The skin pushed into the skeleton, embossing the green-blue veins. And yes, I could spend hours tracing the veins, trying to straighten her unrelenting fingers with my young, keen ones. Is there always a need for a reason for one to be fascinated with uncommon things? I don’t know, but I was fascinated without ever waiting to find out why. For years, I couldn’t bear to straighten my fingers as the hands joined for the school prayer. “But didi can’t do it, so how can I?” So mulish was I, raps from the PT master’s cane didn’t budge me, and the fingers promptly went back to being bent.
Dadiji wanted to marry me off soon as I turned thirteen. “But I won’t survive until when she grows of age! Get her married. I want to see her as a bride!” She’d try to reason with my parents. She knew she’d not have her way, but she tried. If my dreams of when I was thirteen were to be analysed, it’d become clear that I’d have supported her wish if anyone had bothered to ask me. I wanted to get married, dress up in beautiful sarees, wear vermilion. Like her, I didn’t think of the added baggage — a husband. “But you can always do the gauna (a child bride stays with parents until she becomes mature, then is sent to her husband — the event is called gauna) when she’s done her college!” Such wisdom. Or so I’d have thought then.
College was a time when I was busy wondering what I was doing anyway. Confused about future, boys, career, pimples and cellulite, I didn’t have time for anything less important. So, my letters to Dadaji became less frequent. He’d been alone for almost 4 years after Dadiji’s death, and had become more insistent about getting his letters. He still wrote back. He was nearing 96, his words on the paper were like determined prints by a magpie with inked feet. It took us minutes to decipher them, but we eventually did. This was a welcome project we were given at least thrice a month.
That day, he asked me on phone whether I’d written to him. I mumbled a guilty no and promised I’d write that day. He laughed. And said, “What’s the use now?” He died the next morning. His housekeeper said that that morning, he went out for his walk after weeks, came back and demanded a glass of milk. Joked with him the housekeeper and told him to make paranthas for breakfast. Paranthas? He’d not eaten them in years! But then there’s always some room for change, he said. Sated, he went to his room, lay down, and must’ve gone and met his Ram sometime in late morning.
I don’t remember how Dadiji died, and I am not interested in asking anyone. Was it at home, or in the hospital? Did she suffer? I don’t remember. What I do remember is that I immediately thought of how she would miss my wedding.
There are so many memories of them, so many ways they make me feel warm and cared for — even today. I suppose this is what you call enrichment.
I wish for an awareness of beings in people. I wish we noticed life more. How I wish I am able to write letters to my grandchildren when I am 96 without my written words turning into magpie footprints more than they already have with lack of use forced by a weak will and a stiffness caused by endless hours at the computer. How I wish my children and grandchildren are better than me in being patient with the limitations of age, that ill-mannered slurping of Bournvita milk because the lips are losing their grip, that frightening smell of old age. That they know the value of that glint of an eye, that slap on the thigh with sheer amusement, the love.
The picture on top is Dadiji, Dadaji with one of their great grandsons.
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.
This post is the fruit of our combined efforts, my friend Charles’ and mine. The only two things we’d decided were — a rough plot, and that I would begin the story, whereas he’d finish it. The rest came and evolved on its own. His writing is in blue, while mine is in black. You can find the story here on his blog Mostly Bright Ideas as well.
I hope that you will enjoy reading it as much as we did writing it. And that you will let us know, too.
The list seemed determined to disappear beyond where Jade’s fingers could reach, or her eyes could see.Where had she put it now? The heat and fatigue had been taking their toll on her, and the weary fan above, dripping air like it was doing the room a favor, was no help. She needed that slip of paper because it identified the things that were finished. And those that were still pending.
Spent with frustration, Jade looked around the room, now filled with strips of late evening light. The week had gone in a flash. She hadn’t given herself a chance to see the house, to allow its being to enter her weary heart and pluck at its strings. She didn’t have time for all that. But this room called to her as she plopped on the beige sofa. She looked at the yellowed wallpaper with the white roses. Her lips curled at the memory of her six-year-old fingers trying to pick them out, but never quite managing to. The net door was keen to sway with the elusive breeze; the mosquitoes were raring to come hunting with the setting sun. Her eyes moved to the painting hung next to her father’s antique binoculars. It was older than she was, a rushed watercolor impression of a distant sea, with words calligraphed on the left side of the canvas:
Before the birds
Hasten to distant skies
Her mother had painted it long before she was born. She had never come to know whose words they were, but they had always reassured her. They seemed to be keen to make amends, to quickly heal wounds, to avoid losing some treasure.
The last month hadn’t been easy. Jade’s career as a graphic designer in a ruthlessly competitive city was promising to reach giddy heights, when it became clear that she couldn’t avoid going to her parents to help them move. They were both fifty by the time she, a child conceived as an afterthought, was born. Nancy and Blake were eighty-two now, and much as Jade liked to deny it, they needed her help in leaving this house, battered by time.
Jade spotted the list on top of the bookcase. She must have placed it there while trying to open the window, hoping to inject some spirit into the lifeless draft. She grabbed a chair and slid it across the room. It was a timid piece of furniture, made when people required less support. Not sure it would carry her weight, Jade put one foot into the center of the seat and pressed down with a gradual effort, rising into the warmer air near the ceiling. Careful to avoid the fan’s rotating blades, she reached for the list resting in a dusty nest on the top shelf of the bookcase. It was only then that she noticed the slim volume lying on its side, so nearly covered with forgotten years that its title was all but invisible. With the list in her left hand, she reached for the neglected book and turned it over, blowing the dust away.
“If Only A Second Chance.”
It was an odd moment, an unseen push from the side that almost knocked Jade off the chair. She had read the book’s title in her head, but the words had been spoken by her mother’s voice. Turning to the right, she saw Nancy standing in the doorway, her tiny figure looking even smaller from the height of the chair.
Jade lowered herself to the floor.
“How did you know the title? It looks as though it’s been up there for years.”
“More than thirty,” said Nancy. “Look at the author’s name.”
Jade lowered herself to the floor.
Jade turned the book around to read its spine, because much of the cover had surrendered to mildew. She inhaled deeply to make up for the skipped heartbeat. And then, she read it again. This time slowly and out loud, “Sandra Kitchener.”
She placed the book on the tall side table, her anger evident only when she swatted at the palm fronds caressing the table top.
“Will she never go away?”
Jade really did want this question answered. It was high time. Sandra Kitchener had taken a lot away from her parents, and from her.
Nancy turned from Jade and chose to look at the lint on the sofa, picking at it with her trembling fingers. It wasn’t an easy question to answer.
“Well, I tried, didn’t I? Put the book up there, where we couldn’t see her name,” said Nancy, still unable to look at her daughter. “If only a second chance, indeed.”
“I suppose you did your best,” said Jade. “And he remembers nothing?”
“He didn’t. We don’t talk about it anymore. Haven’t. It’s been years.”
Jade sat on the old chair and stared at this collapsed core of a woman, this person who had given her life, and whose own life had once been so expansive. Almost all of her mother’s connections were severed, shriveled, lost, or forgotten. Her world had shrunk, so that it barely extended beyond the boundary of her tired body. She was like a stove, once pulsing with heat. These days, you had to put your hand almost right up to her skin in order to feel any warmth. She had told Jade the story, once, and answered a few questions on several occasions after that. But always, she cut the conversation short.
“He used to say that he never would have done it. That wasn’t him. Especially for a poet. He hated poetry. Always had.”
“Then where was he going that day?” asked Jade. “Where does he say he was going?”
“It was all erased. When he regained consciousness in the hospital, he had no idea where he was or how he’d gotten there.”
“What about the car? How did he explain that?”
“He didn’t explain it. He thought I’d been driving, that I was the one who’d hit the tree.”
“But he was going to find her. That’s what you said.”
“He read that book. Every page. He’d put it back on the shelf each time, but I’d check, and the slip of paper was always in a different place.”
“This hater of poetry.”
Nancy looked hard out the window. Even now, thirty years later, she seemed bewildered by the entire incident. “Turning fifty did something to him. Scared him. He said he was afraid he was running out of time. That he’d wasted his life.”
“But that isn’t the father I know.”
“No. In a funny way, the accident changed him. Made him more aware of himself. More sensitive. By the time you came along, he was a different person.”
“But the damage had been done.”
“He was going to leave me, Jade. He was going to find this woman he’d never met. A woman he said touched his soul with her words.”
“It does have a way of getting inside the hardest of hearts. With time. And your father had a soft heart to begin with. You know that.”
Jade hadn’t come here to rake up old earth. She wanted her mother to know that she understood, but without trying too hard. The dam had burst, let out the emotions it had stored, and was ready to get back to work.
“I’m eighty-one now,” Nancy said. “Nothing much stays inside when you’re that age.” She had put her frail fingers on Jade’s arm, hoping that her daughter didn’t feel like she was out in the cold.
“I know,” said Jade. “Yet, a lot does. And you’re eighty-two.”
Jade looked her mother in the eye, and smiled. Then she said, “Come on, we have an old man to feed.”
They made cottage cheese pâtés and cherry tomato salad. Blake would be shuffling in any time now. He’d gone to the general store just across the road to get batteries for his flashlight, and some orange juice.
As if on cue, Blake stepped into the kitchen. “Hey, love,” he said, surprised, when Jade gave him a spontaneous hug. Nancy looked at the two of them and pretended not to see. She was setting the table. The blue-and-white striped tablecloth smelled of a distant sun. Blake poured juice for everyone. It had always been his little girl’s favorite with dinner. The glasses clinked, the cutlery felt safe and familiar. Everything was all right.
Jade rose earlier than usual the next morning to make sure she had done most of the work before Nancy woke up. She decided to begin with the huge tool wall Blake had maintained for years.
On a shelf nearest to the stairway, she found an old carton held together with twine. Inside was an envelope bearing their home address, and a postmark dated September 21, 1980. The sender was a J. Gilbert from Summer Wings Publishers.
“Dear Ms. Kitchener,” the letter began.
Later, while Blake fiddled with something in another room, Jade confronted her mother.
“I don’t even know where to start,” she said, holding the letter at arm’s length. “What’s this about?”
“It’s about poetry,” said Nancy. “That’s all. Something I once did. Something I was proud of, but at the same time, had to hide behind.”
“You never told anyone?”
“How could you stand it? That nobody knew?”
“I knew,” said Nancy.
“But this woman. Sandra Kitchener. You allowed me to despise her. And it was you all along?”
“I’ve accomplished three worthy goals in my life, Jade. I published a book of poetry. I raised a magnificent daughter. And I salvaged something that seemed intent on destroying itself. As far as I’m concerned, everything else is just details.”
Jade moved to put her arms around her mother, when Blake appeared in the doorway. He was holding the watercolor painting of the sea.
“Would you like to keep this, Jade?” he said. “It has that poem scrawled on it, which I’ve never quite understood. But the picture is nice. We picked it up many years ago, at a flea market, I think.”
Blake set the painting on the floor. Then he looked around for a vase in which to place the white roses he had just picked for his wife.
The poem in this story is called an Elfchen. It is a pedagogic trick to make learners of German practise using the words to make interesting poetry. The words in it are always eleven — hence the name (The Little Eleven), and are always written in this layout — 1-2-3-4-1. The first line is supposed to be the prompt from which the poetry will originate. The last word will sum the conclusion of the poetry.
If allowed to, disappointments break much more than hearts. They are like those invisible elements that invade our existence these days — the ones that float with the air we breathe, seep into the earth that mothers the food we eat, and mingle with the water that quenches our thirst. The days begin like any other, the nights break like any other. The house stands just the way it did yesterday, its foundation swaying with the hollowness. But everything threatens to buckle under the stress of ether fumigated with deliberate cause and deliberate effect.
Take for instance the choices of Niyati and Achal, the heroes of our story. A married couple that could quail their surroundings with their mutual wrath. Or blossom flowers with just a glance of their combined goodness. Such was the strength of these two people, joined together in holy matrimony. Or so the pandit at the marriage ceremony declared thirty-three years back. Niyati was twenty-one, and Achal was thirty when they vowed to take care of each other in front of the ever-consuming fire of the havan kund. Niyati, a sweet-smiled waif; Achal a dark charmer. Their strengths, however, failed to transport them beyond their weakness — ego.
Chapter 1 — The Two Aspirants
Niyati grew up with six siblings. Her parents, Ma and Babuji for the children, were indulgent without allowing the girls and boys too much. The mansion made up for the restraint the parents imposed. Niyati and her brothers and sisters managed to sneak out to the mango grove to play endless games focused around the trees. Hot afternoons or humid ones, they knew no stopping. These games were an escape for the children, after all. It might sound like fantastic fun, but there was something slightly amiss. None of Niyati’s siblings was of her age-group, and none of them shared her outlook. The oldest sisters and brother were too brash in their play. The youngest sister and brothers were too frivolous. There was an intimate association between the two age-groups, and she longed to be part of that despite her differences with both of them. She did try, but couldn’t succeed much — sometimes because of their in-acceptance of her different ways, sometimes because of her impatience with theirs. She danced a different dance than all of the others.
When Niyati was old enough to know that her life’s train would soon change tracks with an arranged marriage, she began to dream of a man who loved her, supported her, possibly even climbed mango trees with her. She dreamed of finally finding a friend, an intimate confidant who’d accompany her to stupendous spans of love, respect, fun and most importantly, propriety. A man, who gave his everything to her, like she would give all of her to him. It was essential, really, for both to be virginally committed to each other — otherwise, it would be half a pleasure.
Achal was a loner of a different breed. He spent time with people, charmed them, but he was mostly alone in his world and never let anyone in. He had four siblings, all of them much older than him, all of them busy with their own individuality. Their parents, Ma and Pitaji for the children, were loving, but distant. If individualism were made the prerequisite for survival, the members of this family would be among the few prosperous ones. Achal went on jeep drives, tiger hunts, picnics around waterfalls, jaunts with beautiful girls — he allowed the world to embrace him. But never allowed it to feel his heart.
He did fall in love with a girl, though. They dreamt of marrying and doing things all those in love dream of doing. He fought a lot with his mother when she put her foot down against this marriage — she didn’t like the girl. Yes, he did fight for his love, but his mother won. The fact that his girlfriend’s mother didn’t support their marriage either did not help much. Achal had no choice but to look forward to a different life with a different woman. It did not weigh on his well being for long. A love, in a way unrequited, was something he was willing to leave behind. He wanted to look ahead. His mother sought another girl for him after his girlfriend got married. Yes, it was going to be arranged, his marriage. His mother was keen to find a soft, gentle girl for her emotional boy.
She found Niyati.
Chapter 2 — The Ever After
“I know exactly what you are!”
“The hell you do! I haven’t forgotten her after all these years because of just one reason — you. You do not let her go, damn it!”
They had been whispering shouts for the last half an hour, having started off their occasional after-a-party argument right after the last guest had left. Their two children, now 10 and 7, were trying to remember to forget this pounding rage coming from the other room before they drifted to sleep.
In the morning, things would be just the way they were in the mornings. Niyati and Achal would transform into doting parents, forgetting — or pretending to forget — that they were disappointed spouses.
This tiny world they had created with love — yes, they did find love in each other, and for their children — gasped for fresh air, and ached for some respite from shrunken hearts. From the outside, it seemed an ideal world. The children’s friends envied the obvious love they received and Niyati and Achal’s friends saw them as a decent couple working through the minor disagreements all married people with dignity have the right to have.
It was different behind the closed doors, now, wasn’t it?
Sometimes Achal wondered whether he really should have been honest with Niyati and told her about the girlfriend who was not to be; and right after their marriage, too. Sometimes he admitted that Niyati first needed to have been given a chance to believe him when he said that his future with her was important to him now.
Niyati did not like the necessity of having to use the now. Its implication — that there had been a then — irked her.
As a consequence, everything they had done in the last eleven years of their marriage shouted out at Niyati’s latent fear of not being good enough, forcing it to come out. And it culled her much-aspired-for hope to find a man who thought she was, in fact, much more than good enough. She couldn’t help overlooking the love in his eyes when their fingers brushed against each other accidentally in a party, or when someone praised the flower arrangement at the coffee table in the centre of the drawing room she so meticulously beautified. Or when he implored her to follow her dream of learning English, just because. She slapped off his unsure hand that was extended with love, hope and a desire to build something good.
Why did she do so when all she wanted was just that? She wanted his companionship and support. She wanted his confidence. Achal misunderstood her changing needs, though. He did not comprehend that she sometimes needed to be led, sometimes needed to be walked with. So he invariably swapped the two — tried to lead her when she wanted a companion, and tried to become an onlooker when she wanted to be led. Achal began to lose interest in his frustrated attempts. Niyati began to believe her dream was now never to be realised; Achal thought she would never get beyond her complaints.
However, Niyati and Achal occasionally surprised themselves, each other and everyone else who’d seen enough of their impatient sparring. They demonstrated supreme compatibility and enviable comfort with each other sometimes. It was so overwhelming, that their children stopped time in their minds to savour this rare treat. As years approached and they accepted their lives with each other, the two also began to look at their own faults from time to time. Niyati told herself that she had indeed been foolish to begrudge Achal his girlfriend, because she was, after all, no one significant in their lives. Achal had withstood all of her moody complaints, and kept his intention of seeing his future with her as the only life he wanted to consider. He did deserve trust in return. Meanwhile, Achal had learnt to appreciate her unique ability of being a great housewife, a caring mother, and a witty companion.
But these acknowledgements were rare. The magnitude of their disapproval was far greater than that of their appreciation. Years got added to the eleven they had already collected. Life went on, disappointments piled up, until appreciation and respect got buried beyond memory.
Chapter 3 — After the Ever After
It was dawn, and the sunlight had found its way in. A white water lily nodded to the gentle winter breeze. Achal and Niyati had spent the night sitting on the couch, looking at the softly lit courtyard outside. They had not slept at all, and talked a little. Just a little about their boy. It had been a year since he had gone away, promising never to come back. He would be thirty-two today. How indefatigable is life! Their first born was gone, but they still lived — life wouldn’t let go of them.
“I’ll make us some chai,” Niyati said as she began to get up.
“No, wait. Sit a while more first.” She sat down again. Her dainty, wrinkled fingers fiddled with a part of her saree’s long edge.
Achal was looking at the distant redness of the rising sun, his forefinger writing invisible words in the air. “Do you remember the first time he cried?”
“Of course I do. He was in your arms, just born.”
“No, not that. First time as a young man.”
“It was the only time.”
“Yes. His sister was about to get married, everything was perfect — until we found it necessary to argue right there at the mandap.”
“We could never do them enough justice, could we?” Niyati shifted a little for no apparent reason, and gazed at nothing in particular.
“I hope we did.”
The birds were coming home to feed their young. Parrots chattered their throats out, as if today was the only day to talk. The day was breaking. Niyati heard the distant ring-ring of the milkman’s bicycle and got up to go and fetch the patila.
“Don’t make chai just yet. Come back,” Achal repeated his wish, and got up to check on the newspaper. It hadn’t arrived. He kept standing at the doorstep, looking out at the plants he’d nurtured lovingly. The garden was full of asters, his son’s favourite. He had never understood why he chose asters over so many others. Perhaps because of his interest in astronomy? He sighed at another unanswered question.
Niyati made to get out of the door to get the milk. The milkman was almost at the gate.
“Ramjanam, aaj do kilo chahiye.”
“Ji, memsahib. Kuch khaas?”
“Haan, bhaiya ka janmadin hai. Aaj kheer banaoongi.”
Ramjanam poured out the milk from the measuring cup he dipped into one of his three huge canisters. He gave her a little more than the two kilos she had asked for.
Achal didn’t say it, but he understood Niyati’s heavy heart. If a mother had to take extra milk to prepare her son’s favourite dessert even if he would never come, it was almost like watering a plant that had long succumbed to the withering rays of the sun. He wanted to reach out and hug her till both their hearts wept out years. The last one in particular.
Her eyes fell on the carved wooden nameplate her son had made for them — Niyati & Achal’s Home, it said. She looked down at the patila instantly, and concentrated on bringing it inside without spilling any milk.
She put the milk on the stove to boil, and came and sat down on the couch.
“Do you want some puris? With the kheer?”
“It’s been years since I’ve had kheer with puri. Yes. Make some today,” said Achal, putting the newspaper away. He wasn’t reading it anyway. “Should I make tea today? It’s been a long time since I made tea for you.”
“It’s been a long time, indeed.”
Achal took her hands in his, and said, “We’ll live beyond all of this. Do you see that?”
“I don’t know how, Achal,” tears streamed down her eyes, as she looked into the old eyes that once mirrored their owner’s hesitant love. They still showed love, this time determined.
“I don’t know how either.”
Niyati felt her usual rage rising from deep inside her again. But she just pulled her hands out of his gently, and looked away. How could he give her hope and then take it back again? She wanted to punish him with her usual vitriol, but didn’t; she was too tired to fight.
“I see nothing beyond. What are we left with?”
Achal straightened his back against the couch back and stretched his arm on its edge, “We have us, broken as we are, and we have our daughter. What about her? Have you thought of what this means to her?”
“She has her family. And I have no energy to think of what she is going through.”
“Are you really that hard-hearted?” Achal began to see his usual disbelief at her attitude resurfacing.
“Have I ever had a choice?” Niyati’s frown was reappearing. She had been trying lately to at least keep her irritation with life in general out of her face.
Achal tried to take one of her hands again; she resisted. He tugged gently at it as tears began to drop down on her saree.
He put his arms around her and rocked her back and forth gently, in turn rocking himself. And he cried with her.
Unfamiliar words and pronunciations
Pandit – Puhn-Dit – Hindu priest
Havan kund – Huh-Vuhn Ku-n-d – the square pit used to light fire in auspicious ceremonies.
Mandap – Muhn-Duhp – the usually square area in which the marriage ceremony takes place.
Patila – Puh-Teela – A deep vessel usually used to store milk
Ramjanam, aaj do kilo chahiye. – “Ramjanam, (I) want two kilos today.”
Ji, memsahib. Kuch khaas? – Yes, memsahib. Is there anything special today?
Haan, bhaiya ka janmadin hai. Aaj kheer banaoongi. – Yes, it is bhaiya’s (older brother) birthday. I’ll make some kheer today.
Puri – Pooree – Flat, deep fried bread made of whole wheat flour.
Kheer – Kheer – A rice pudding made by cooking rice in milk until most water in the milk evaporates and gives a divinely creamy, thick consistency to the pudding.
Niyati – Nih-yuh-Tee – Fate
Achal – Uh-chUhl – The Unmovable One, Steady
“Papa, can you drive this car with one hand?”
“Yes, of course. I can even steer it with just my little finger. Here. See.”
“Priya, you’re taking out the candies again.”
“No I am not.”
“Yes you are.”
“No I am not, Mummy! I just came in to keep this comb back.” (Priya thinks: “How could she tell I was stealing them? She’s not even in the room.”)
There were many such instances that deepened my belief that they, my parents, were super-humans. That my father had unexplainable motor abilities and my mother apparently had X-ray vision brought them quite high up on my esteem. Even when I grew up from my child-like fantasies, they continued to be invincible for me. Even when I realised they are, in fact, not super-humans (She came to know of my candy stealing because she could hear the rustling wrappers from the other room. And she knew me well. It dawned upon me much later in life. About the driving, well, you know.), I continued to see them as such. A pity. Because that’s expecting too much from humans without the proverbial ‘super’. But, somehow, they’ve rarely disappointed.
Like everyone else’s, most of my childhood experiences have some relation or the other to my parents. Out of those who have either influenced my mould or impressed me enough to remember them, my parents remain the ones with the most remarkable impact. What made it possible is perhaps they’ve been the ones who’ve had tremendous faith in me. Always. Mummy and Papa, as I call them, are people who have given me immense sense of fulfilment, warmth, intense misery and anxiety. That completes the picture of a normal human being, I suppose.
Let’s begin from the now.
After having lost their son when he was just 27, my parents have continued to live. Some things, however, have influences over lives that are simply so decisive, that they change the course of everything. Arun and Neerja, my parents, are people who have bravely faced setbacks and lived on. Relentlessly. Much like the names their parents gave them. Arun means the Redness of the Rising Sun. He, my father is the warmth that engulfs you after a long, dark night. Neerja is a synonym for Lotus, the flower that blossoms in slushy mud. Ever fresh, ever pure.
Grief has a certain strange quality to it. It either makes you walk into a closet and shut the door, or, if you choose to sit in the drawing room and laugh over friendly jokes, it makes your deepest weaknesses surface like never before. Ten years along the path of living as grieving parents, they have succumbed to their weaknesses, which were formerly just an addition to their very normal being. That’s where my misery and anxiety surfaces, just in case you were wondering in one of the paragraphs above. My undying faith in their super-humanness began to wobble a little, when nothing I said or did made them like they used to be.
But, when I think of those countless memories of a child much in awe of her parents, I feel a sense of wonderment at their immense patience with my failings. How could I feel exasperated with them, then?
I was a flighty child with flighty moods and convictions. While my mother was the firm hand, my father provided me the much-needed warmth. When I faltered and suffered, they held my hand like I could never expect from any other individual. And all this without ever saying ‘I told you so.’
My mother had been regularly warning me about my latest infatuation. Voicing her misgivings. Like I always do, I followed my heart. On the Day My Heart Broke Like It Never Will Again, I came back home and sneaked into my room, sobbing to my pillow. My mother came in, lay down with me and cradled me until I fell asleep. There were no questions asked, none answered. I woke up a few times in the night, and was vaguely aware of her form still hugging me. She must’ve begun her share of crying when she had made sure I was asleep. I don’t think she slept that night.
There have been many Days My Heart Broke Like It Never Will Again. I just had to remember that night to know she, my mother, would never let me suffer alone.
No, it wasn’t all love and hugs between us. I hated my mother deeply when I was an ‘independent individual’ during my teenage years. I hated her. I am glad, in a way, that I did, too. Because when I stumbled through the stones I’d created for myself, everything she had said that I had thought would undermine my independent, free spirit came back to me in a rush. I needed that.
It was different with me and Papa. I always loved him. Always thought of him as my best friend. When I flunked maths, when I wanted to know what ‘fuck’ meant, when I wanted to back-bite my mother. Unlike my mother, he does not question my failures. Like her, he has never made me feel insufficient. But he did and still does demand that extra from me. When my brother’s body had arrived, we decided to cremate him in the clothes he had been wearing. But they needed to be washed. “It’s your brother’s blood, Priya. If you won’t, who else should?”
Papa has made sure that I got everything, but taught me to never demand what is not rightful. He has been trying to teach me the value of being assertive, but has failed miserably. Not a super-human after all, eh?! My loveliest memory (or one of the many) with him is as a six/seven year old. After dinner and some moments of this and that, I’d pretend to sleep on the couch. He’d pick me up to take me to my bed and tuck me in. When he’d picked me up, I’d open my eyes and stick my tongue out at my mother and brother, happy. I suspect he always knew I wasn’t asleep, but played along.
My parents created the mould for me, but deliberately kept it pliable and supple, so that I could make my own choices.
After all, they have always been game for ‘Up, Up, and Away’ towards here the moment they hear an S.O.S. from this end.
And it is only right that I end this post by telling you the meaning of my name as well. Priya means the Loved One. What else does one need?