by Kusum Chopra
A happy sun trilled through the room. Two men descended into the open dining room in a house as whimsical as its owner, with a series of small steps up and down into kitchen, dining room, upstairs bedrooms and downstairs basement.
“I need a break,” declared Sarita mutinously, in and out of the kitchen. Juice and filter coffee fragrances filled the air, to the sound of toasts popped and eggs poached.
“Why?” demanded hubby Shiva.
“Why not? can’t I take a holiday by myself?”
“Sarita, you’ve had a long holiday festering at home for a month, all work at a standstill mourning your bahu. You still need a break? What of your son? His wife committed suicide. He’s been to work every single day after.” Son Sujit’s fingers drummed the table.
“So? Must everyone be in step all the time?” Dangerous ground.
“You had had your break when we went for the immersion. I came just to keep you safe from that deadly current. Did you know that?”
“Wish she’d carried me off!” she muttered.
“The river, stupid,” exasperated. “Better she grab and stifle me than live with idiots.”
“OK, Mom where are you going?”
“In search of sanity in spite of a madman and his son.”
She marched off upstairs. Father and son exchanged worried glances. Then he headed for their bedroom. Sarita was packing. Catching his look, she exasperated,
“Make yourself useful instead of gaping. Check out train timings.”
“North, south, east or west? And why train?”
“Better company than noses in the air.”
“Why are you going? Think of Sujit – no one to turn to, when I go to work.”
“Then don’t go to work. Be with him.”
“But he goes to work.” He sounded helpless.... but not really.
“Then?” meaningful glance.
He tried to pull her into his arms with a pleading smile. “Why go?”
Her baleful glance the only response.
“WHY?? Why do anything? In meetings all day. After hours and before, you’re on the phone, setting up meetings, dictating my research to juniors, stenos for presentation dates, travel for meetings, etc. Your son too? She did too. That’s why No kids.”
Suddenly she pounced, shaking him by his shoulders, shouting angrily, “We all do these things. Tell me Why?” His eyes widened at her fury; his head bent down, his breathing shaky – unable to articulate the reverberating answer ’because that’s how I like it.’
Everyone followed his lead: study motivational books, never fiction; sports only on TV; weekends spreading the good word meant travel to spread light, never mind neighbor’s diyas lighting your home at Diwali; abroad too, they spread light then pinched pennies on a foreign ‘holiday’, instead of luxuriating at home. Seeing realisation hit home, she said,
“Now, can I plan my break? No board meetings, no community meetings, no Net. Just doing nothing, pampering my soul, may be?”
Sulk built on his face, he swept out ordering his son to book her ticket to wherever. Neither father nor son knew when Sarita left, where from airport or station? Neither asked; they just existed, at home and respective work places, stoic expressions in place.
Scrapping burn off his toast, “Pick up that damned phone and call your mother, Sujit. Where is she? Not checked in once.”
“Where do I call her?”
“Mobile. It’ll ring wherever she is. She packed thermals so north somewhere.. some rural or village hideout from the money drawn. Why hasn’t she called?”
“May be no Net connection?”
“Don’t be silly. If the Everest can have it, why not some Kumaoni mountain resort? Here, let me do it. Where the hell is Sarita holed up? She’s never been out of touch before!” She remained stubbornly out of coverage area.
“Hope she’s not broken a bone trying to trek without learning the ropes,” he commented direly.
Two days later came a call from the hills. Police found a body from a river, needed identity confirmation. Suicide or accident? For once, mid-week travel, father and son apprehensive glances shying off each other. When Shiva baulked at the morgue, Sujit rallied “Pa, we don’t know it’s Mom.”
“I can’t look. You go. I’m here.” His lips, set in a frozen face, were trembling. Sujit sat down next to him in the dingy porch, rubbing the cold from his hands. Later, he walked in, to emerge grey to the gills, heaving into a nearby bush.
The details were sketchy. She was in a home stay, wandered in the orchard and walked. Near the river? No-one saw. Shiva berated himself dramatically – ‘attention seeking again,’ thought his son wryly.
“Why did I let her come alone? I should have come with her. Don’t we always do everything together? Why this trip alone?”
“Pa, she came here for a break, probably some rest from you too,” Son rounded on him.
“Son, soul mates don’t go off on their own. They make space for each other alongside. What d’you mean rest from me?”
“You’d be talking about some goddamned business scheme and
making her follow up research leads; been all her life.” Sujit stalked off to mule over his own woes, heading for a little copse adjoining the cottages, where a tiny stream gurgled its way beyond. A child gambolled there with her dog. As he drew closer, he heard her sing a familiar sounding ditty. His stride quickened, listening attentively now. The little girl withdrew at his approach, running swiftly out of sight with her dog.
Sujit pondered ‘Mom’s song ... share with Old Man? Then decided to let it be, taking a circuitous route back to the homestay and made conversation with the owners. Sympathetically they related her morose mood at arrival, improving later with her little friend.
“The one with a doggie?” he asked. “I saw her near the stream.”
“Yes, their favorite place to sing songs and dance together.”
“Mom dancing! I’d never seen that!”
“Oh she was so graceful in her skirt! we clapped to set the rhythm. So beautiful. She told her stories and songs in different languages.” A side of his mother he’d never known. Wondered whether Pa even knew? But hung back at asking.
As word spread in the village about their arrival, the little one fell silent. Her mother saw apprehension on the small face and snuggled her frightened baby, whispering
“Tell Mai?” into troubled eyes and trembling lips.
“She was like you, Mai. A...a secret between her and me. “
“Then now she is not there –I am her. You can tell me?” hesitantly a little secret wormed out: she gave her a book. Relief! A book? May be some stories.
Formalities, funeral and final rites held them in the rural outpost. Days stretched endlessly. Shiva trekked in different directions, while Sujit kept his ear to the ground, listening to whispers -- the little pal, constant nattering and giggling, dog guard and company too.
The little girl wary -- watched Sujit listening. Petrified, she led her mother to the spot under a tree where they dug to unearth a book bound in a thick plastic bag. Snatched out and bundled into a shawl, it was examined at home, with that thingummy (USB) pasted on the inside back cover. Between the pages were beautiful photographs, of the lady and a young woman looking adoringly at her. After much thought, she prised out a picture, folded carefully in her shawl when she approached Sujit.
“Do you know her?” Sujit’s double take was answer.
“Where did you get this from? Who gave it to you?” her upraised hand stalled questions; leading him to the spot, she placed the book in his hands. Back to the tree he read --
not stories. Or perhaps a long story of love gone sour, into something where love had no role. Every success more drudgery; habit overtook life – for the sake of the Son, the Husband, In laws, Society; For someone had to shine upon the world in all his glory; parents and society expected it of his spouse to be the doll that never spoke, cried nor wanted sex ..... Everything that was precious for Her.
Numerous tiny incidents drilled keyholes in the heart, plugged with ‘What will society say.’
‘I'm used to these prickly feelings that take time to process; is it always my fault? God, it’s so tiring fighting with Shiva; it makes the inside of my stomach curl; constantly processing pent-up anger of unspoken needs. Always fight for anything I want?’
Then came a solace, Bahuji.
No dates in the diary; but enchanting descriptions of shared togetherness, bypassing respective spouses: Leaving work early – practically bunking to listen to music at home while baking fruit cakes or dancing together to old forgotten songs, now revived.
Was this pleasure a sin?
They took time off from lunch breaks to linger in trial rooms, trying outrageous dresses in red, bright pink and purple, giggling at the thought of reactions at home. In homeware stores, trying out modern furniture, dreaming of a revamp of their up-and-down home. Even a session flirting in a tearoom with a stranger blushing pink at the randy language of primly dressed mesdames.
Both longed for children. But their world was too ugly for the children they wished to raise. So, perish the thought .............
Sujit slammed the book shut, gasping for breath to absorb what he’d just read –shaken to the core. Mom and his Shonali were deprived of their natural happiness by him and Pa? They only pretended – pretended happiness to not rock the boat? Spreading the good word in so many places was actually selling lies that they were living!
Before the thought went further, another cropped up:
Why Shonali’s suicide, for no logical reason? Was she so stifled by her Life, despite Mom’s company, minus his? And Mom?
Sujit was on the horns of dilemma:
Dare he read more, in case there was more truth somewhere? More indigestible? Mom Dad’s relationship? Will he survive the shock of Ma’s true feelings?
Then came a new chain ... Did it go beyond mother and daughter?!! ***