I read this item in the newspaper for the umpteenth time. It was boxed in black like an obituary notice, and I struggled to hold back my tears at the hypocrisy of it all.“Darling Tara, please hurry home. Dad very ill. All is forgiven. Mama”“All is forgiven?” I was not the one who needed forgiveness. She had ripped my heart to pieces with her cruel remarks, and driven me away. I guess Dad didn’t know all the mean games she played behind his back.
For as long as I can remember we were an ideal family. I thrived on the love of my parents. The security they gave me made me a confident person. Discipline was always consistent. Common courtesies and respect for others were inculcated from childhood. I thought my mother was the most beautiful person in the world. Her fair skin and light eyes were typical of the coastal Konkanis. Her long black hair reached up to her knees. She would coil it up in a bun, and deck it with a strand of jasmine. It was my job to run to the gate every morning, and buy it from a flower seller who came with her basket of flowers.“Jasmine only,” Mother would say, “I don’t like the orange or yellow flowers.”
Mother and I bonded well together. She was a cheerful person, and the tinkle of her laughter would echo through the house, leaving no room for unhappiness of any kind. Sometimes we would gang up against Dad, and play mischievous pranks on him. He would pretend to be very angry.“You two women are thorns in my flesh,” he would grumble. “Can’t a man have some peace in his own house?”But he loved us both dearly and couldn’t stay angry for long.
Then something suddenly changed when I was sixteen. Mother turned from a happy, laughing person into a morose, suspicious woman. She who had never uttered a word in anger, now made many hurtful remarks. Somehow, I became the butt end of her jibes.“You’re plain lazy. Can’t you do anything for yourself? Look at the mess in your room. How do you live in the middle of such clutter?”I’d look around the room to see what was out of place, and couldn’t find any disorder. Sometimes, she’d pass nasty remarks at the table.“You’re hardly out of your nappies, and have already started to act like Jennifer Lopez. Come on, eat up all that food. People around the world are dying of starvation and you’re not even grateful for the full table that we have.”Dad was as perplexed as I was, at this sudden change in behaviour.“What’s got into you these days Radha? You seem to be nit-picking all the time.”
Birthdays were always something of a celebration in our house. There would be all kinds of surprises for the celebrant. I looked forward to my sixteenth birthday with great anticipation. After all “Sweet Sixteen” was an important milestone. I hurried home from school expecting all kinds of surprises. But the house was unusually quiet.“Where’s Mother?” I asked the maid.“She’s asleep. She has a splitting headache and doesn’t want to be disturbed. Your cake is on the dining table, and she wants you and your Dad to enjoy yourselves.”“On no!” I sighed, “Not on my birthday. She’s never done this before.”My voice was choking with sobs which I tried to stifle. I sat motionless at the dining table.
Then I heard Dad’s booming voice.“Happy Birthday to you…… Where’s the birthday girl? Come on, bring on the party.”He saw my crestfallen face as I sat staring at the solitary cake on the table.“Where’s Mum?”“Asleep with a headache.”Now the sobs refused to be stifled anymore. I cried like a baby, and Dad’s protective arms held me close.“Doesn’t matter Dear,” he said, “Come out. Don’t you want to see your birthday gift?”He dragged me out, and there just delivered to our doorstep was a beautiful two-wheeler in electric blue.“Like it?” asked Dad.“Oh Dad, I just love it,” I said, giving him a hug. “How did you know I was longing to possess one like this? Did I inadvertently mention it sometime?”“You little scamp!” he said, “I’ve been receiving subtle hints all through the year. If you’re ready, you can have your first lesson today.”
He drove to a public playground where I had my first lesson on my scooter. When I was sufficiently exhausted he said, “As your mother isn’t feeling well, let’s have a party on our own. We’ll go to the beach.”
Though it was late evening, the crowds had still not dispersed. We headed straight for the bhelpuri stall.“Dad, this man is using his dirty fingers to serve us,” I grumbled, “I’m sure we’ll end up with a tummy upset tomorrow.”“You’re even more finicky than your mother. Come on, eat up. Nothing is going to happen to us. That man’s fingers have been sterilized by onion juices. But don’t you dare tell Mum that we’ve eaten here.”
We went home in a happy mood. For a while I had forgotten all my sadness and the solitary cake on the dining table. Mother’s headache had surprisingly disappeared. Instead, she was in a mood to quarrel.“You seem to have a wonderful time together. No concern at all for my headache. I’m always the odd one out these days. I could as well be a piece of furniture,” she said, tears in her eyes.
I went off to my room and let Dad deal with her. Later that night I heard Mother berate Dad.“You’re spoiling her silly. What was the need for a scooter? Can’t she use the bus like the other girls in her class? She always has to be different – always special!”There was so much resentment in her voice.“She’s our daughter and I’ll give her what she wants but within reasonable limits. What’s got into you anyway? Has she suddenly become your enemy?”I didn’t wait to hear anymore. I tucked my head under my pillow to blot out their voices.
When I returned from school next evening, I was hungry. I thought I’d have a thick slice of my birthday cake which had remained untouched the previous day. But half of the cake had vanished.“Good Gracious! Who has eaten all that cake?”“Pammy Madam visited today, and your mother gave her half of the cake, as she wouldn’t take her eyes off it,” said the maid.“Aunty Pammy? Since when have they become friends? I thought Mum was not too fond of her.”“Things have changed since the last few months. Pammy Madam is now a regular visitor.”“Funny that Mummy has never mentioned her visits,” I thought.
Aunty Pammy lived two blocks away. No one knew if she was a spinster or a widow. She had no children and lived alone. She had been Mother’s college mate years ago. Mum kept her at arm’s length because she was supposed to be a spiteful creature and an inveterate gossip too. So this sudden friendship between them came as a surprise.
There was a semblance of peace in the house for a few months. I got busy preparing for my twelfth standard exams. It gave me an excuse to stay out of Mother’s way. But the gnawing pain inside me wouldn’t stop. How could two people who loved each other behave like strangers?“What have I done to upset her?” I wondered. “Why doesn’t she tell me what’s bothering her?”I even asked Dad if he knew the reason.“Oh you women and your mood swings! Blame it on your hormones,” he said.“But how long is it going to last?”“I don’t know for sure - sometimes months, sometimes years. But you don’t have to worry. She loves you as she always did. Just give her some leeway.”
Then I heard another conversation between them. Our rooms were side by side, and the walls were pretty porous.“Tara will be finishing her twelfth standard soon. I think we should send her off to a residential college in some other city. She must learn to be independent and not behave like an immature baby.”“Nonsense,” said Dad, “Why must we send her away when we’ve got some of the best colleges in this city? What’s got into you Radha? I think you need to see a shrink. You’re acting like a jealous wife.”“Why shouldn’t I be? You pay more attention to her than to me. It’s Tara this and Tara that, as if the whole world revolves around her. When have you last taken me out for dinner? When have we been to a movie by ourselves?”“Once we were a happy family. We enjoyed doing things together. You’ve destroyed that ‘oneness’ with your behaviour. You don’t even realize how miserable Tara is. She’s fretting inside because she’s lost that closeness with you. Are you so blind that you cannot see? Or so insensitive that you cannot feel her pain?”
There they were quarrelling over me again. I couldn’t think straight I was confused. How could she think that I would stand between them?