The Girl Who Read a lot of Books

A Story for my daughter…

*****

This is a story that happened a long time ago. so long that no one really remembers where this story happened, or who told it for the first time, or if this is a story or something that really happened.

 

In a small town, by a small lake, next to a tiny hill and a very large valley, there used to live a little girl called Anaya. Anaya, loved reading books. Really, she was so fond of reading books that sometimes she would forget to eat, sleep, bathe or play when she had a story to finish. Everyone would call out, “Anaya hurry up, you will miss the school bus!”, or they would shout, “Anaya hurry up and eat, your food is getting cold”, or “Anaya come outside and play, we are all waiting for you in the garden”…. But Anaya would barely hear them. She would find a quiet corner in house and read. Sometimes she read under the stair-case, sometimes she read on her parent’s bed, sometimes she read in her grandfather’s room and sometimes she would just sit on a chair in the balcony and read.

 

Everyone thought that she was a bit crazy. Which kid would rather read a book than watch TV? Or play? Or Eat? But Anaya did not care what others thought. She was the happiest when she was left alone with a book. Sometimes she would read books that had pictures in them. Colourful pictures that were smooth and cold to touch and when you opened the book for the first time, they smelt nice. Sometimes she would read the story books that she and her mom got from the library. These books were old, their pages usually had pencil marks and words circled by those who had read them before… and the pages, they were not so smooth but were soft and pale. It did not matter if the books were new or old, if they had a story to tell, Anaya had to give them a chance to tell it !

 

So Anaya and her books, happily spent time together. She would spend time in the ‘Enchanted Woods’, catch criminals with the ‘Famous Five’, train animals at “Mr. Galliano’s Circus” and travel all over the place in her “Wishing Chair”. It was a busy day for her everyday doing all this ! Yet everyone used to think that Anaya is just doing one thing ! Reading books !

 

Anaya did not understand what they were saying. Did they not understand how much work one has to do when you read a story? Anaya first had to imagine what the characters of the story looked like, she had to imagine how they spoke, what they wore and what they smelt like. Sometimes she decided that she did not really like a character at all. But then, she still had to imagine everything about the character before she could decide that. However, her friends really thought reading books was a boring affair and if Anaya really liked her books so much, she might as well be with them by herself.

 

One day, Anaya was invited to a birthday party. She was not very keen to go as she wanted to stay home and read a book. She asked her mother,” Mom is it ok if I don’t go to Navya’s birthday party?”. Her mother said, “No Anaya, Navya would really like it if you went to her party, after-all, she is younger than you and treats you like her elder sister.”.

 

“OK Mom, I will go. Can I at least take a book with me to read in case I get bored?”

 

Her mom rolled her eyes and sighed, “Yes, I guess you can take a book to read”.

 

So Anaya wore her favourite dress, took a story book and went to the birthday party. She did not know many of the kids there so she found a chair in the corner and started to read. A little while later, Navya’s mother gathered everyone around and said, we will now play some party games. Everyone cheered; Anaya was a bit bored. She had never been in a quiz before and just wanted to read her book.

 

“We will now play a quiz”, explained Navya’s Mom. “ I will ask a question, and the kid who knows the right answer gets a lollipop!”

 

“So here is the first question; What is a Big Top?”

 

Everyone was quiet in the room. Suddenly a voice said from the back of the room “It is a large tent where the circus performs”.

 

Everyone turned to see who said it, and Anaya was standing there, a bit surprised that she knew the answer. She had just read about it in the circus stories.

 

“It is the right answer ! Here is your Lollipop!”; everyone cheered for Anaya.

 

“OK, here is the next question: Peru lies in which continent?”

 

“ South America “ Said Anaya before anyone else could respond. How could she not, after all Paddington the bear was from Peru.

 

“Very good Anaya !”

 

And so it went on, Anaya answered many of the questions in the quiz correctly and everyone thought she was a very good quizzer. All she was really doing was she was recalling answers from the stories she had read! Everyone asked her,” Do you study a lot? Do you prepare for quizzes all the time?”; little Anaya just shrugged and said, “I don’t know, I just read books !”

 

 

A Sunflower in a Coriander patch…( A story)

I found my way to the verandah and sat on the footsteps leading into the house. The sun was bright and sunny, the warmth of the sunshine embraced me as I emerged from the shady interiors of our house. Three bedrooms, one kitchen, one hall and a verandah…all wrapped together by a piece of land we called our garden … vegetables planted in the back and flowers grown out front.

Sometimes, Sunflower seedlings would sprout amongst the coriander sprigs at the back…

“They are shy” Amma used to say,” They do not like to be seen by everyone but only the family, if you take good care of them, water them everyday, they will flower soon”

And believing her I would take special care to water the shy ones, the ones who were resplendent in private, whose beauty was known to only those who were allowed to walk over all the way to the back of the house…who managed to get past the hall filled with heavy wooden furniture, the living quarters strewn with rumpled bed sheets and text books covered with brown paper and a kitchen fragrant with spices of a meal in the offing…

A sunflower in a coriander patch… how incongruous, how endearing…

“Can you come back to Kanpur tomorrow? Beta, mummy is not well. Beta, just come”, said my father before breaking down over the phone…
I had to call my uncle to get the sordid details… an internal infection, a high fever, a sudden failure of the body organs, and suddenly, my home seemed so far away from Mumbai….

A frantic search for available flights and a flurry of calls later, I found myself aboard a 3.5 hour long flight back to Kanpur…

How many times have you said goodbye to your mother?

Each day, each morning, she would drop whatever she was doing to see me to the door as I left for school. I waved back too… am sure I did. Or did I? A thousand inconsequential farewells…

And then there was the day I left for my engineering college… my parents dropped me at the college and helped me complete the mountains of paperwork colleges in India demand before you are given a room in a hostel and a roll number for the next 4 years. I was scared as my parents waited for the cab to take them back to the railway station. She turned and gave me a big hug and held me till I squirmed with embarrassment. Her face covered in tears she went away, waving from the window…

I missed my family terribly for the first few months at college, writing long winding letters and making anxious call home each weekend… I cannot really pin-point when was it that I moved on from being home sick to falling in love with my college life.

“Can’t you get a job in Delhi, its closer to Kanpur? Why Mumbai?” She had asked, just once. I was too filled with pride at my newly acquired job to notice the hint of sadness in her question. I packed away my stuff making sure that I carried some of my favorite books along. She helped me clear up my book cases, absent mindedly flipping the pages of some books that she had bought with me together over the years.

They waved as I entered the airport… standing next to our old family car… and I waved goodbye never to look back.

The flight was now circling over Kanpur… I could see the blue crescent of the Yamuna river as it sliced the city into two…

“This is where I come from” I thought to myself, “And this is where they remained”

The cab ride to the hospital was a blur… The entrance to her private room was crowded with friends and family…

“Your father is inside, they just brought her from the ICU” Someone said between hugs and greetings and somber smiles…

I found him sitting by his side. My burly father seemed even larger sitting by her tiny frame. She seemed asleep, and he was talking to her, in a voice so filled with love that I nearly cried. He turned towards me and looked at me with eyes rimmed with tears. My own eyes stung as I bent down to touch his feet, and in a voice not completely my own I said

“Don’t worry Papa, everything will be fine”

We sat by her side through the night… the medical equipment blinked and beeped and her breath rattled in her chest as it strained its way through her tired body. The needles and tubes running in her body, her matted hair against the pillow, and eyes slightly clenched as she slept. In the morning, after a spell of disturbed breathing, she passed away.

The next few days were a blur of ceremonies and rituals… all I remember are snatches of conversations, grieving faces, all of us pouring a blend of ingredients into a holy fire. Amongst all of this, I found myself tearing up each time I saw her picture laden with garlands.

That picture, is now hanging in the hall. Next to the oil painting she painted years ago… facing the window. “This is a good location for hanging my paintings” She used to say, “The sun light makes everything in the picture glow”

I lit up a cigarette and breathed in the smoke, and smiled wryly as I remembered how much she hated my smoking. Well, some things are hard to let go of I guess. I walked all the way round to the back of the house… our vegetable garden needed to be weeded. I could almost see her bent over the rows of plants, using tools improvised with kitchen utensils to hoe the soil, uproot the weeds and trim the dry branches…making space for the fruits to grow… making sure that the fallen leaves, did not hold back the young saplings.

I treaded carefully amongst the rows of plants, trying not to get too much mud on my leather loafers… and then I saw it, nestled amongst the sprigs of coriander, a tiny sunflower seedling.

“What is that?”, I turned to find my six year old nephew standing beside me…

I pointed a finger and said, “That’s a sunflower plant”

“But it does not have any flowers !”

“It will flower if you water them”, I smiled as I stubbed my cigarette..

“Trust me….they always flower. ”

A job more important….. (a rather short story)

“Do you know what I did for a living?”

Papa asked in his somewhat annoyingly pompous way, his eyebrows arched as he peered at me over the rim of his glasses.

“Of course I do Dad ! I mean, what do you mean whether I know what you did for a living”

“No really, do you really know what I did for a living?”

“Oh come on Dad what do you mean?” I snapped..

It had been one of those beastly Mondays at work… the early morning conference call turned out to be useless since most of the key people invited decided not to join in. The mid-day review meeting was a disaster with each of the project parameters being in the red, and the end of the day was capped with an excruciatingly drawn out 2 hour long commute to cover a distance less than 15 kms.

And on top of that, she has not been taking my calls since our argument on Sunday night. I mean I know I was the one who missed out on our date, but what do you do when your boss tells you to deliver something like, Now? But yeah, she does not want to understand. She is hurt, she says, and well, I am not going to call again.

Women…

So I come back to my apartment and joined my father for a drink… hoping for a much needed respite from my day. And he asks me with a drink in hand, if I knew what he did for a living !

“Sheesh Dad, you were a banker. That’s what you did for a living. Everyone and their uncle knows that !”

“Right. So I am sure you remember the award for best employee I was given in 1977 when I was posted at the Jaisalmer branch?” Asked my father, in the still slightly patronizing way I so detested…

“Dad, I was not even born then, how could I remember that?”

“Fair enough… then what about the time when I was so stressed out at work that I was working late nights for a promotion that did not work out so well… this would have been at Aurangabad… you would have been 16 then”

“You seemed to work late nights pretty much all the time Papa, Mama used to make us go to bed even before you returned home on most days”

“Aaah, right. You were asleep most of the times when I came back from work.”

“Do you remember Mr Kapoor, my colleague?”

“Kapoor Uncle? Sure, he worked with you at the Mumbai office”

“You remember how he kept me in the dark about the training at New York and booked a spot for himself?”

“How would I know what happened at your office Dad? In any case these things happened more than a decade ago!”

“And yet you say; that you know what I did for a living”

I remained quiet… not really sure what my father was driving at.

“Am sure you did not know who were the guys I competed with, compared myself with. Or whether I was a good employee, or a bad one at that. Or whether my appraisals were glowing testimonials to my efficiency or the complete opposite of that!”

I shook my head and shrugged…

“When a son does not bother what his father really did at work, do you think anyone else really gives a damn? I see you come home each night consumed by something or the other that happened at work. You compare and contrast and think of nothing else but how dissatisfied you are with your job.”

“I am selling my spirit for money you say !” Exclaimed my father raising his glass.

“Ten years down the line no one will care what you accomplished on the job today… not even you. Do you even remember what your great grandfather did for a living? He was a very successful lawyer just so you know. Do you think that mattered to you ? Ever ?”

“We spend our whole lives building careers that no one really cares for except us. And then we convince ourselves that we do it for others? That our success makes us better for our family, for our kids… Really?”

“I may have been a banker or a politician, but at the end of it you would still not have cared… and we would still be drinking together at the end of a long tiring day”

“Had you been a politician, we would have definitely been drinking better stuff than this rum Dad”

My father smiled as he got up…

“Think about it…Do you need a refill?”

“Sure” I said as I scrambled to get up from the bean bag , “I just need to call someone before that.”

“Work?” He asked me, with that famous arching of the eyebrows again.

“No” I smiled as I dialled her number, “Something more important that”

A few dusty books…. (a story)

HIM

He stopped the car… “ I need to take a break, my back is sore”

“Shall I drive?” She asked…

He shook his head and got out of the car. He stood there looking at the vast expanse of the dusty Sahayadris. The hills seemed barren, devoid of life, vestiges of vegetation burnt by an unforgiving summer sun.

“This place could do with some rain”, he thought, “Something to cool things down a little. Heck, we all could do with something to cool things down a bit”

He got back into the car and revved the ignition as he stared straight down the road. Dive Agar was still a good 2 hours drive away.

He still could not believe that he had agreed to this trip.

It was insane. She had been unusually silent for the last few days. She did not say much anymore anyways. They were both well into their thirties and the marriage had lasted a decade… A house and two kids, great careers… they were living the Indian middle class dream….

Not that the dreams amounted to much these days…

Three days ago she came to him as he watched TV after dinner and said, “ I want to go to Dive Agar this weekend. With you. Just you. We can leave the kids with my parents. If you are ok, I will check at the Prasad Homestay if they have any rooms available.”

“Dive Agar? Prasad Homestay? Are you crazy?” he retorted ,“That place probably closed down years ago. And do you really want to go there? Let’s go to Goa instead, if I am going to drive for half the day I would rather have a beer at the end of it !”

She looked at him, her eyes on the verge of tears, “Please….. lets go.”

He began to say something, but stopped short as he saw the look of longing on her face…

He knew that look… and thought he knew why it had to be Dive Agar…

“Ok, if that’s what you want.” He shrugged as he went back to watching the news.

They had left Bombay early in the morning and headed to Dive Agar. A sleepy coastal town in the Konkan, 6 hours away by road. A silent journey except for the incessant music on the radio…

“How did we come to this?” She thought to herself.

HER

She remembered her wedding, in all of its excruciating detail. Her trousseau, all red and gold and silks… the lavish wedding feasts, his crinkly silk kurta and the moment her hands were placed into his, covered with betel leaves and showered with grains of rice.

She hardly knew him then… even though they had been brought up in pretty much the same neighborhood all their lives. Their fathers had been friends, and decided that marrying off their offspring was the logical thing to do.

They did get a chance to meet before the wedding was finalized. He had arrived at her home with a troop of relatives, who had then left the two of them alone in a room to talk.

She smiled at the memory. The two had sat in silence for ages, before he asked her, “So what else are you interested in?”

“Nothing much” , she had replied, “ What about you?”

“I like reading, and I like writing too, but I have a bad handwriting”

They had both laughed. More with relief at having something to laugh about rather than anything else…

Her father had seemed immensely satisfied when his family called up in the evening to confirm the match. Her mother congratulated her, beaming with pride at the fate that awaited her daughter.

She had gone back to her room trying to understand what she had committed herself to. A fifteen minute chat with a stranger had lead to a commitment for life. Her mother usually spent more time browsing through saris before deciding not to buy any.

Was marriage so easy, so inconsequential, so trivial?

HIM

My father had decided even before we went to her place that the two of us were going to be married. And as usual, my father got what he wanted. I had just started working at Bombay then, my training with the bank had been over but a month ago. The days would rush by filling up inane forms and tallying up numbers, the evenings would leave me wandering alone on the streets of Bombay.. wondering what happened to my dreams of becoming a writer, publishing books and articles and chain-smoking my way through the day. Now my life seemed submerged in processing loan applications and in a two hour commute on the Bombay suburban train…

At least I still had the fucking cigarettes…

And then, my father decided that my mother needed a daughter-in-law. I tried to reason, but my father went into one of his interminable silences… till the time I agreed to get married. And before I knew it, I was set to be married to a girl from my town, a girl I barely knew.

I hated it all. The ostentatious wedding, the unnecessary relatives, the relay race of photographs at the wedding reception. After a whirlwind of a week, I found myself headed to Prasad Lodge at Dive Agar dreading the thought of spending 10 days with a person I barely knew.

HER

It had been a long dusty journey to Dive Agar. His father had loaned us his green Ambassador for the journey. He drove so well. I kept sneaking peeks at him sitting next to him. It took us four hours before the Prasad Lodge came into site. It was a single floored wooden structure. Green coconut palms and betel nut trees huddled around the house in an intimate embrace whispering secrets to the gentle breeze. The wind carried a promise of rains and the evening was punctuated by the low roar of the waves on the nearby seashore.

Prasad Anna, the proprietor showed us to our room. A large airy room with a teak wood bed and a sprawling desk facing a window. The window opened into the orchard outside.

“There is not much to do at Dive Agar”, said Prasad Anna, clearly amused that someone should have chosen to spend their honey moon at his lodge.
“The beach is beautiful but it gets too warm to stay out in the day”, ..”You can go to the Ganesha Temple, but how many times will you go there? Unless you are religious like my neighbor who goes there twice a day I don’t know why !”
“You must tell me in case you are not planning to eat here, otherwise the food will go waste… and be careful in the evening, there may be snakes in the orchard. They don’t come inside usually, but you never know.”

“And yes, If you really don’t find anything to do, take the keys of the library from the chaukidar. He has them. Just be careful with the books please…”

I started to unpack our luggage while he lay back on the bed exhausted. Before I knew it, he was fast asleep.
It was barely lunch time, and I could see the play of lights among the leaves from the window. The orchard looked cool and inviting. I stepped out for a look.

It was so quiet. The birds seemed to be subdued by the afternoon heat and warbled quietly in the shade. The sound of a slumbering sea was ever present.
The grass was cool under my bare feet, a warm fragrance of ripe jackfruit wafted in the air. She walked all around the old building… examining the low verandah that surrounded it. She sat on the steps to the verandah and savored her first true moments alone since the madness of the wedding carried her away.

“Am I selfish to cherish my time alone when I have been married to him for barely a week?” “Or perhaps, getting married had been the easy way out. Everyone is happy about the match. Who knows, we will figure out a way to be happy too”

I walked over to the small door where a wooden plaque stated ‘Library’ rather grandly. The door was open and I stepped inside.

The room was strewn with books. Some on the ground, some on the wooden ledge running along the wall, a few on the chairs and then some piled on to the shelves. The corners of the library were fighting a losing battle with cobwebs and a patina of dust overlay everything. In the center of the room, Prasad Anna sat engrossed in a book, immersed in a languid pool of yellow light underneath a green lamp shade hanging from the ceiling.

She bent down and picked up a book lying next to the doorstep… “Pride and Prejudice”… its cover torn and dusty, the pages falling apart.

“Jane Austen”, Prasad Anna exclaimed as if the two words were answer enough for any questions she might have asked. “ I have all her books, I am just not sure where they are”.

“Are all these books yours?” She asked, somehow a treasure trove of English classic literature seemed incongruous inside a rural Konkan cottage.

“Yes, they are mine.” Said Prasad Anna as he walked over to take the book from her and opened a page and read aloud…

“Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other or ever so similar beforehand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always continue to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation; and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.”

“Funny, Jane Austen might just have been talking to me…” she thought. “ Anna, can I ask you something?”

“Sure”

“Do you mind if I clean up your library a bit? This is such a wonderful collection and it will be a shame if I don’t help you sort them”

Prasad Anna seemed a bit taken aback, and then gradually looked around and said… “Well this place can do with a bit of cleaning up I think… strange, now that you say it, I should have kept it cleaner myself. I really am getting old ! “

“Wait, I will get the brooms” he said as he scampered away.

For the next 2 hours she swept and cleaned the small room. Gathered the books in piles and placed them in the center of the room. She made a list of supplies… brown paper, glue, labels, needles and twine and sent Prasad Anna to the small market to fetch them before the shops closed at sundown.

HIM

He woke up to the sounds of flocks of birds returning to their nests…hundreds of them, chirping noisily as they raced each other back.

“Well all of us have a noisy commute”

She was not in the room. He thought he should go looking for her, but hesitated. “What will we talk about even if I do find her? Accha hai.. at least I have some time to myself finally”

He walked across the orchard to the main house… it was a structure made of brick and wood.

“Not a bad place to retire at… away from the teeming masses of Bombay, just like Prasad Anna”. He knew Prasad Anna had sold off a family business in Bombay before settling down here.
“No family, no liabilities… some people have it all figured out!”

He walked purposefully to the library he knew so well. Having spent hours there during his earlier visits.

The door was ajar and the room inside was dimly lit.

She sat hunched over a book, her legs drawn up on the chair. Wisps of her hair set ablaze by the overhead lamp, a eye brows knit together in utter concentration… she barely noticed as he walked up to her and peered over her shoulder to see what she was reading…

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

“You are reading Pride and Prejudice !” He exclaimed, surprised to find her reading Jane Austen.

“Yes” She said, delighted that he could recognize her favorite book.

“Elizabeth is perhaps my favorite literary character… don’t you think that strong women are so much more interesting to read about? I mean look at Lady Macbeth” He asked

“Look like the innocent flower, But be the serpent under it..” She said with a with a wicked smile.

Prasad Anna walked back to the cottage with bags in hand. He stopped short at the library listening to sounds of laughter and animated conversation.

He smiled to himself, his eyes gazing at a distant memory as he turned back and returned to his room.

THEM

They spent hours together over the next 10 days, browsing through the books. Selecting favorite passages to read aloud, cataloguing the books, lining the shelves with paper. They glued back the torn pages, covered and labeled them. He crafted the labels while she wrote the titles in a cursive hand…
Book by dusty book, the library came together again. The books were arranged simply and neatly, the floors clean, the walls white-washed and the room lit up with new bulbs.

Finally they stood back, and admired their first endeavor together.

On the 11th day, as they were ready to make the long journey back to Bombay, Prasad Anna gave them a bundle of books.
“Your wedding gift… sometimes , the real gifts take a bit of waiting for.

HIM

“Damn these roads !” He exclaimed as he clutched the steering. “Well we are almost there”

The gates came into view rather abruptly as they rounded a bend in the road.

“It still looks just the same!”

The new caretaker came to greet them as he parked his car. Prasad Anna had passed away 3 years ago and his caretaker now had the run of the place.

Their bags were taken to their rooms. And he went to take a shower.

She was gone when he returned to the room. And he had a feeling that he knew where she was.

He found her sitting in the library, her hands in her laps, her eyes glistening with tears. The library was in disrepair, termites covered many books, cobwebs darkened the corners and the glass windows were so covered with soot that they barely let in any light.

Ignored, uncared for, unloved, the library was dying… much like their own marriage.

The books were the same, a bit tattered maybe but they can always be fixed… the room was dirty, but that could always be cleaned up, and then there were the two of us. Could we somehow ‘fix’ us also? Burnish our memories so that they shone again with memories of happier times ? Wash away the tiredness and frustrations of bringing up a brood of kids, managing a career and preserving your own sense of self? Or maybe, just paste a new label on a shining cover and turn the page to embark on a fresh adventure together.

He looked at her again. She was staring straight at him, the tears in her eyes made him wonder how they had fettered it all away. The money was important, so was taking care of family.. the business trips that kept him away for months.. they were important too.

Or were they?

He pick up a book off the floor and dusted it with his handkerchief. He held out the book to her and smiled, “Come on now, we have a job to do…”

The Slamming Door….

The slamming of the door had never been  so welcome before…

The concrete pavement outside was hot, burning in the afternoon sun… a stray dog registering the banging door with a twitch of its tail…

The auto veered towards her in a drunken lurch, the driver taken by surprise by her appearance, its not usual for a woman in a cocktail dress to be wandering the streets of Pune.

Her nails were still edgy from their trail across the walls, long red talons, chipped and cracked at the edges, plaster still clinging underneath, like an unwanted memory… painful, gritty and hard to ignore…

The hot wind blew circles of dirt on the road, swirling in their own crazy dance of abandonment… her black dress streaked with creases of dirt…  the auto driver staring repeatedly at the rear view mirror, craning a lecherous eye for a better angle…
It had been a special day, 2 years back, the day when they, classmates at college, got engaged… no. Not the exchange of rings… it was the day he promised her his heart, his life and so much more… and in a swirl of flower petals and scented candles, she promised him all she had and ever would… with no witnesses and staid ‘I dos’ they had agreed to live their life as one…

Months later, the families got involved… and the rules and procedueres of the game were firmly established… it was us and them, as her parents said. ‘We’ need to make sure that ‘They’ do not take us for granted, you can never be too sure about such things… and she solemnly nodded her head, firmly ignoring the little voice that piped up inside her head… taken for granted? Him, and me? Yet she nodded her head, more vigorously the second time, attempting to be on the good side of her parents… to help them see the match in a better light. Didn’t he say, it is important that our parents agree to the match.. after all, we are all they have…

So a date was fixed and the caterers booked, invitation cards distributed and curious questions warded off…’Love Marriage hai kya?’… arrre, it is ok now… whatever had to happen has to happen.. times have changed’…

A precarious minefield of rituals… a crossword of traditions…’Us’ and ‘Them’…

The wedding went by in a series of ceremonies and camera flashes… till the two of them went away to the mountains… leaving the increasingly complex mechanisms of relatives and rituals behind…

It could only get better from this point on… they thought, happily ensconsed in the comfort of the other’s presence… comfortable in the safety of plans far enough in the future to seem possible…

She was working then… happy and successful at her work..a combination so rare it made her an anomaly in their circle of friends…

She went numb the day he asked her to quit her job. It was for the better he said… we need at least one of us to manage the house… the parents, the kids to be… me

She thought, and believed and in her immense trust in her relationship, she quit her job. Her colleagues were surprised…and then understanding. We will remain in touch, for sure.

After the first couple of months, when the trickle of phone calls from her ex-colleagues altogether stopped, she was scared to sleep alone at night.

He kept going away on work… to different places… Its hard for me too..he said… i too miss being at home.

She was sure he was right… ignoring her urge to say that she wanted to get out of the very place he missed when he was away…

So she stood guard over the symbols of their relationship…. a hall and two bedrooms… and a bathroom with tiles grown dull with age and chipped at places …like her own self image…

She paid the bills and ate solitary meals… and looked after relatives when they came around… ‘He is at London right now’, yes it is a 3 month assignment, yes he is doing very well in his company, got promoted this year.

He, defined her.
Yesterday night, her friends invited her for a girl’s night out… Just like old times… You, me and Manisha.. lets paint the town red babes….

So they all dressed in their best, she wore her cocktail dress, the only one that still fitted her, with a slit up her thigh scandalous enough for him to raise his eyebrows…well he was not expected back till today morning… and she really wanted to let her hair down this one time…

They went to the same old college hangout their cirle of friends frequented when they were at college.. the bartender recognized them… and offered a drink on the house…and they still played ABBA on the dance floor….

Before she knew it, she was drunk and grooving away to ‘Dancing Queen’… and when the waiter took the last order she realized she was too drunk to drive back home

In the morning her friend’s husband dropped her home on his way to office, she smiled when he saw his car parked in the driveway….

She got into the house calling out his name, and stopped short when she saw the menace in his eyes…

He silently took in her dress and the sound of a car revving off their driveway…

‘you bitch, So this is what you do when I am away?, guess I should I have known it all along…you spend nights with other men while I slog it away to feed you !’

She stared at him, suddenly too tired to really care if words really mattered at all… if all the nights spent alone on an empty bed really had any meaning…or if the promises she had made for a lifetime could help her tolerate the man in front even for the next second…

She slapped him and left, her nails dragging along the walls of the lobby… the door banging in her wake…
The slamming of the door had never been  so welcome before…
 

Just a story…

Have you noticed how different a string of electric lights on a misty cold evening can be? If you are with a crowd its …its probably a party, if its just the two of you, the lights form a pool of sleepy stars, slow, languorous and undulating

And if ,like me, you found yourself sitting alone on a balcony in an empty house, with the railing edged with electric wire and yellow lights, it can also bring memories that sting your eyes.

The table in front of me is filmed with dust, the glass makes a scraping sound as put it back on the table , the moisture down its sides trickles to form a circle round the base.

There is now a wet pattern of circles on the table, some intersecting, and some alone, and some so close to each other that its hard to tell them apart, their boundaries smudged with intimacy.

A few hours ago they carried the last of the Ganpati’s away. I watched them all pass by, one by one. Standing in my balcony, I saw them all being led away, tamely to their watery end, surrounded by dancing teenage boys high on religious fervor, or maybe something else as well.

She used to love watching the processions go by. Every year, through the night, she would sit at this very balcony and wait for her favorites to pass. “ Why should I visit all the Ganesh Panadals? The Ganpati come to my doorstep !”. 

I would normally sit inside, annoyed with the noise that invaded my street annually, trying to convince her to close the door to the balcony and come inside. After all, all this revelry really did not fit in with my scheme of things. So much of money wasted, burnt and squandered. Every Pandal set to outdo each other, the devotees bent on redeeming their sins with a shower of bank notes. No, such a gaudy festival was definitely not mine.

While she would sit in this very balcony, eagerly awaiting the next procession to go by, the interludes interspersed with steaming pakoras shared enthusiastically with the neighbors who would gather in our second story flat to watch the processions, crowding me out as I sat in the hall, unhappy with the ruckus, and angry with her for putting me through this year after year.

She would call me, again and again, “ Come Now, it’s the Shankarshet Ganapati !” “ At least see the Tulshibag Ganapti, its made of real Sandalwood”

I would pretend not to listen, and glare at her silently, ensuring that everyone around was aware of my disapproval and her scant disregard for my wishes.

Each year, as I lay next to her at night, hours after the last of the procession had long gone, and the last of the pakora eating guests wished away to their houses… she would sullenly complain, “ You could have come at least once, I called you so many times. Mr Sharma even took his kids to the roadside, you should have seen how Krishna was laughing with him”

And I would listen to her, searching for my cold victory in her sadness. My pride somewhat mollified for having taken away at least some of her enthusiasm… I had proved that I was stronger willed than her.

And last winter, she died. Suddenly and without warning. They placed her in the hall on slabs of ice. Trails of water streamed across the hall as the ice melted, and found their way into the balcony where they collected in a puddle. Her forehead was red, smeared with Sindoor, and she seemed more beautiful than I ever remembered her to be.

I sat next to her, for an entire night, trying to fathom her face for a million answers. In the morning, they covered her face with a lotus bloom and we carried her off down the road to the riverside.

They handed me a staff to break her skull as she burnt at the pyre. That was when I cried.

Its been six months, and I have become used to having an empty house to return to from office. Every evening as I unlock the door, the silence greets me with an unsettling familiarity.

I still find long strands of hair when the maid moves the furniture for cleaning, or swabs of cotton with her perfume in the almirah….bits of cloth in a bag sorted away to make a quilt for the next winter, or an unfinished embroidery.

This year, I sat in the balcony, alone. Not too many people visit me these days.

They have decorated the society with strings of yellow lights, which blink with sudden brightness in an unforgiving pulse.

I watched the Ganpati’s go by, all seventeen of them. I gazed at the lights and breathed in the incensed air. Tried hard to detect some familiar sensation, or a smithereen of memory being carried away down the road.

The crowds have dispersed now. The street seems unusually wide in its emptiness. I rose to go back into the house.

They should switch off these lights now…