I knew I was getting late and I wondered how could I been so stupid as to lose my car keys. Neel would be furious, I thought to myself as I rushed towards the bus stop. I could see the 9:45 rattling its way to the stop and I quickened my steps. I heard the loud honk as the bus slowed down to a screeching halt. Running as if my life depended on it, I somehow managed to grab hold of the handle of the door —which was closed. I banged on the door furiously but the driver gave another loud honk and started picking up speed – and pretty fast too. Horrified, I shouted “Wait!” but nobody heard me. How could they, when the driver kept honking and hooting the horn continuously? I ran, and ran, and ran some more, but surprisingly found myself going nowhere, while the bus honked and hooted its way into the busy streets. I was panting and puffing and still running while from far away, the horn started sounding musical……
I woke up with a start, my heart still beating fast, and it took me some time to realise that the musical horn was nothing but my cell phone ringing. Wondering who could it be at this ungodly hour, I tried to open my eyes while next to me, Neel grunted in his sleep. My heart skipped a beat when I saw my mother’s name on the screen, and it was with a thousand ominous thoughts in my mind that I received the call.
“Ma?” I managed to say through my parched mouth.
“You alright?” I heard my mother say.
Despite of my horrible state, I smiled. How typical of my mother.
“Ma, you give me a call at 3 am in the morning to ask me if I’m alright.”
“Oh”, Ma said, “I didn’t know it was this early”.
“Ma, its still night!” I wailed and checked myself as Neel mumbled something that sounded like “Shurrrup” in his sleep.
“Its just that…..” Ma hesitated.
Sensing something, I got up from bed, fumbled for the bottle of water I kept on the bedside table and tip-toed my way to the living room.
“What is it, Ma?” I asked, having taken gulps of water and settled myself comfortably on the couch.
Mother heaved a heavy sigh.
“The house….its sold, Nena. The papers were signed today but they’ve been generous enough to let me stay till next week”, Ma gave a sarcastic laugh.
Something bit me in my chest and I realised it was my heart that was aching. I had always known this was unavoidable, but thought about it as something that would happen in the distant future. For a while I could find nothing to say, but I knew my mother was waiting for me to say something…anything.
“Its good, isn’t it, Ma? After all we’ve been searching for good buyers since last year…”I said softly.
“Yes…we have, haven’t we? Strange how time flies…I mean, I know I should be happy that everything’s settled, but….” Ma’s voice trailed off.
“You not happy with the new owners?” I asked, although deep in my heart, I knew that I would never come to terms with these new people in my own, at least what used to be, my own house. I would still consider them trespassers in my territory.
“No, no,” Ma assured, “they’re very good people. Doctors, both husband and wife, and the two very pretty daughters. They’ll keep good care….”
I tried to imagine a happy family of four, maybe in our living room and somehow, in my imagination, the husband’s face resembled my Baba’s, the wife smiled exactly like my mother did and the younger daughter had an uncanny similarity with my own younger self. It was my turn to sigh now. If only to change the subject, I asked Ma whether my brother had called her up.
“Obu’s finally tension free. Says he’ll send me tickets through the internet, and has asked me to find somebody who can get me a printout or whatever” Ma replied.
It was Baba’s last wish that after his death, Ma shift in with my elder brother Obhro, who was in Florida, and more than happy to take care of Ma. Having spent the better part of his childhood in a boarding school, he always thought it was kind of unfair that I got to spend more time with Ma than he did.
“Done your packing yet, Ma?” I asked.
“How do you pack in forty-one years, Nena?” Ma asked me in return, “I started packing long time back, maybe the day your Baba left me all by myself….that day I packed in forty years of being a wife, right inside my heart. And bit by bit, I started packing in your childhood, your teens and all the years that went just too fast….And today, I tried packing my present. Not much of it, really. I have given away as much of the things as possible. I felt so empty, Nena….I tried to sleep, but everything kept coming back to me…and I felt like telling you….Didn’t want to wake you, but I could no longer keep things inside me….”
I could hear Ma’s soft sobs, and I could feel her pain. I let her cry her heart out for a while and then tried to soothe her by reminding her that at least we’ve been lucky to get a good family, and the good she’d done by donating every last rupee to the local orphanage, about how happy this has made Dada and about how Baba would finally be at peace.
We talked for almost an hour, and by the time Ma kept the phone, having finally assured me that she was alright, I was no longer sleepy. Wondering what to do with my mind so full of thoughts, I went back to the bedroom to make sure my husband had not been awakened by the phone call. But then I remembered that this was the very man who could sleep right through endless nights of our newborns’ continuous wails while I would wake up even at the slightest change in their intake of breath. Maybe men do have that inherent ability, I mused. I sat on the edge of the bed and looked out the open window. Our bedroom had a splendid view of a huge park just across the street and it always symbolized life – fresh and green – to me. But right now, the sky was an inky blue; the night was after all an hour shy of daybreak. The leaves looked black in the semi-darkness, and the park looked tranquil and calm, unlike my mind.
All I could think about was our house – our home, and a series of images flashed in my mind like a disoriented and badly managed slide show. The huge eucalyptus trees on either side of the gate, and how we would drape strings of tiny lights on them each Diwali; the very house nestled among pretty shrubs that surrounded it from all four sides; the huge swing that I had cajoled and coaxed and ultimately threatened Baba into getting made for me, and how he had soft carpet grass grown all around it to break my fall in case that unfortunate accident ever happened; my room which used to be Dada’s and mine before he went to boarding school; our bunk bed and how we would fight about whose turn it was to sleep on the top bunk that night; Didima’s pooja room, which perpetually smelled of sandalwood; Ma-Baba’s bedroom which would be my sanctuary in the days Dada would come back home for vacation, having learnt ‘a hundred and one tricks to pester the obnoxious younger sister’….. I found myself smiling – everything was just so crystal clear. And how could I forget our prized possession – the well-manicured garden that used to be the envy of all the neighbours, and how Didima would lament about missing flowers every morning. I could almost see Didima shaking her head and wagging an admonishing finger, grumbling about devils that had no pity for the beautiful flowers, and shouting threats at no one in particular and poor Ali, who had to bear the brunt of it all, as if it were his fault. I chuckled out aloud this time – fancy remembering good ol’ Ali after so many years!
I couldn’t recall Ali’s real name – maybe because we never used to call him by any name other than Ali. He never seemed to mind though, but then nobody could ever mind anything that Didima said, and it was Didima who had given him this name. Just like Didima gave Dada and me our names and ensured we were not called by any other names. That sort of explained why I got stuck with a stupid name like Nena, and Dada with Obu. I always knew Didima was no good with names.
If I were to describe Ali to somebody, I’d say in jest that his face vaguely reminded me of a pig. It was not entirely untrue; his nose was sort of upturned and did look a lot like a pig’s snout. He had a small thin face with tiny eyes that had laughter lines around them. Or maybe it was because he spent too much time squinting in the sun. His hair was unruly, and he had salt-and-pepper hair that would have been so fashionable in a man of better capacity. But not Ali. Because he was a blue-collar man, a labourer who had to slog with all his might to earn a daily wage of thirty rupees.
I remember seeing Ali since time memorial. He would always appear the our back door, always at the beginning of each month, when he knew Baba would not refuse him work, and always choosing that crucial moment when Baba was just about to leave for office. He would lean on the door, scratching his head and feigning interest while Baba would give him instructions (he never followed them anyway). His eyes would light up only when Baba would say, “Take your wage from Memsahib at the end of the day”. I always found the scene pretty funny, especially since the routine never varied. I also found it funny that Ali called my mother ‘Memsahib’ – it made my mother sound like a rich princess from some faraway country.
As soon as Baba would leave, Ali would ask my mother for a cup of tea, knowing pretty well we always had breakfast after Baba left and thus he would also be offered some. And while Didima would complain and moan about a Muslim within six yards of her pooja room, Ali would squat on the floor, silently munching on chappatis. Come to think about it, Ali scarcely said anything unless extremely important – and never to Didima. Once his morning meal was over, Ali would set about to work, pruning hedges, weeding flower beds and trimming the grass – and making sure all the plants were watered. It was with Ali’s efforts that the exotic plant Ma had bought in a flower show, displayed a single blossom after five whole years of waiting (we all had given up hope, but not Ali), and it was Ali who discovered that the potted plant tucked away as ugly in the garden-shed bore pretty yellow flowers when brought out in the sunlight during spring.
As much as Didima loved her garden, she could never see eye-to-eye with Ali, his prime fault being the fact that he was born a Muslim. While Ali would tend the plants which bore the very flowers Didima used for her pooja, Didima would hover around, grumbling and muttering all the time about how her forefathers would curse her for letting a beef-eater into the grounds. No wonder I found it quite ironic that it was Ali who had dug out the sacred tulsi plant from amidst wild bushes in our backyard, and it was again Ali who had planted it near our front door. Didima conveniently chose to forget about it every morning she performed her pooja in front of the tulsi.
To compensate for his boring (almost non-existent) social life, Ali had a very exciting personal life, considering how his wives always left him after a month or two of marriage. They always reappeared for the divorce, though, after which Ali would again start hunting for a wife. We had made jokes about how, at the rate Ali was losing wives, he would one day discover that there were no women left in the village he had not married once upon a time. I clearly remember a warm sunny morning when Ali told Ma,
“My wife leave me yesterday night. Take eighty rupees with her”.
Ma giggled and asked,
“Who did she run away with?”
“She with neighbour now. I see her today morning and she hide away”, Ali replied, matter-of-fact.
While we laughed out aloud at this, Ali said again,
“I find another wife. She bring eighty rupees with her”.
Marveling at Ali’s speedy recovery from his plight, Ma asked,
“Why eighty? Why not more? You wouldn’t have to work then, for a few days.”
I can never forget the expression on Ali’s face as he looked straight into my mother’s eyes and said,
“I not make marriage a business for profit”.
It was thus no small surprise when one evening Ali turned up at the front door, what’s more, even rang the door bell. Ma answered the door and found Ali and his grin right in front of her.
“ I need sari for my bride. Get married tomorrow.”
Not understanding head or tail of it, Ma asked Ali to explain.
Turned out one of Ali’s cousins who had had a divorce some time back, wanted to get back together with his ex-wife. Being a Muslim, the wife had to get married to another man and get a divorce from him before she could return to her previous husband. Thus enter Ali, whose notoriety in nuptial affairs made him a prime catch. So he got married to that woman for a day and divorced her on the next. Everybody was happy, including Ali, who managed to coax a fifty rupees bargain from his cousin in this entire episode.
Lest I get wrong ideas about marriage, Didima would always insist on giving me an hour-long sermon after each of Ali’s misalliances. She would make me sit in the pooja room and say things like seven lives and seven vows, till the scent of the sandalwood and her continuous droning would start making me feel stupid and sleepy.
Sometimes Ali would come home on Sundays, when Baba would be home and my school closed. I would sit on my swing and watch Ali weed the flower bed, and I always wondered how his deft fingers could tell a weed from a seedling. When I had asked Baba if Ali had learnt to identify weeds and seedlings in a school, Baba had chuckled and said,
“Once Ali had pulled out more than a hundred plants off the flower bed, saying they were ruining the symmetry because of their queer leaves. The fact that it had cost me a thousand rupees to get those plants, that your mother had painstakingly planted them the very previous week, and something your Didima shouted about breaking his neck the next time he did it, taught him what no school can teach.”
Sometimes I would squat next to Ali, taking in the smell of freshly dug earth, while he tended the flower beds. I would pester him with a hundred questions to which he would just grunt in reply. I remember once asking Ali to help me with a school project, which involved making a scrap-book of different kinds of leaves. Scrap-books and projects Ali had no idea about, but leaves were his domain….and that day, he had showed me more varieties of leaves than I could ever imagine existed. He would tug out a leaf, grunt, and place in on my out-stretched palm. I must have sat like that on the grass for hours before Didima came by, pulled me up by my pig-tails and dragged me into the kitchen to Ma.
“chi-chi-chi….sitting with that labourer like he was her friend…look at her face! A few more minutes and she’ll be as dark as him. Where have I gone wrong with this girl??? How many times have I told her not to talk to that Ali??? I’m telling you bahu, you control this girl or else…….”
Didima had jerked me by my shoulders while Ma had silently listened to everything Didima had to say. Like I said, nobody could ever mind anything Didima said. In any case, Didima’s words hardly reached my ears, I was preoccupied with the happy thought of finally notching top marks in the project.
“You awake already?”
I came back to my present with a start. Neel had woken up for a glass of water.
“Mmm…couldn’t sleep”, I replied.
“You’ve got a long day tomorrow. Try to get some sleep.” He said and again drifted off to sleep.
I kept looking at my sleeping husband for a long time. I guess he could never understand the pain of having to let go of a house. His father was in the army, and in his life, Neel must have called around fifteen houses his home. Nor would he understand that I had been sitting awake in the dark for the past hour thinking about a labourer who had been as much a part of my childhood as my house.
I heaved a sigh and got up from the bed to check on the kids. Both my daughters were cuddled up on a single bed – my younger one still wasn’t used to sleeping alone. I smiled and wondered what memories they would have of their childhood, or whether they would even have a childhood. My elder daughter had already started complaining about annoying boy-friends, and she was just eight. I wondered whether they would ever get the luxury of staying innocent in this harsh world.
All of a sudden I kind of felt sad for my little ones who were growing up too fast for my comfort. I had this selfish urge to hold back time and never let my babies grow up. I picked up my younger daughter in my arms, rearranged the sheets and carried her to her own bed where I slept beside her, holding her close to myself. I always loved the way her hair smelled – it somehow soothed my nerves now. My mind drifted to smells from my own childhood which never failed to lift up my spirits…. I remember burying my face among Ma’s sarees inside her wooden wardrobe to drink deep the typical ‘Ma’-smell; the smell of jasmine which drifted into my room from outside and how could I forget the smell of freshly cut grass? On the days Ali would be working at our lawn, I would rush inside the moment I arrived from school, pull away my shoes and socks and hurry outside without changing my uniform just so I could walk barefoot on the grass and feel the prickly grass tickle my heels and toes. And then I would take deep breaths and laugh out loud while Ali would shake his head and continue working. Interestingly, it was my funny curiosity for all smells that had got me the worst spanking of my life ever.
I had always noticed that wherever Ali went he left a trail of a distinct odour behind him. I knew he used to smoke something when he would crouch near our wall, but this was not the cigar-smell that lingered around Baba. I decided to unravel the mystery and once waited for Ali to finish his smoke and then went to investigate the spot. As luck would have it (or rather the absence of it in my life at that time), Didima chose that exact moment to have a word with Mishraji next door. So just as my fist closed around what looked like a tightly rolled dried leaf to me (I later got to know it to be a Beedi-butt), Didima caught hold of me and the memory of what followed made my cheeks sting till today.
I must have been smiling, for I found my daughter looking at me in a queer way.
“Am I dreaming?” was all she could mumble.
I laughed and kissed her tiny forehead while she closed her eyes and held me tight.
I wondered what my daughters would have to say if they heard that their mother had gone collecting beedi-butts after a labourer. They might think me to be a little out of my mind. I could almost imagine my elder one rolling her eyes at me and say, “Yikes Mammam! Please don’t ever say this in front of anybody else….I’d die out of shame!”
My thoughts went back to my house…and I found myself wondering where Ali was, and whether he even knew our house was being sold. The last time I had seen him was when Didima expired, and maybe that was the only time we saw Ali expressing some kind of emotion…it was touching, the way Ali kept rubbing his eyes and shaking his head. We always thought Ali must have hated Didima, but then again, who knew?? I sighed again.
Busy as Neel was, we had never found time enough to take our daughters to my home. In fact, Neel found it more convenient to have my parents flown over to our place whenever they had complained about not seeing enough of their grand-daughters. It was my dream to show my home to my daughters – and now that dream would never be fulfilled. In a few days, my home would be somebody else’s, and I wondered if they would wipe out all traces of my childhood from there. It was only fair that the new people would want to brand their house as their own – they also would want to have their own memories and they would change all the things they didn’t like about the place and retain all that they did like. I just wondered if the garden would be among them.
In a few days it would be spring… and I loved spring for what it did to our garden. Some ardent lover had once said to his lady love, “I want to do to you what spring does to the cherry trees” and a small voice inside me reminded me that one of the major reasons I had agreed to marry Neel was that he had asked for my hand in that very garden with a bunch of roses (that I suspected were from OUR rose bushes) in his hands, and had quoted these very words to me. The fact that it had been spring at that time didn’t leave me much choice.
Each spring our garden would be a riot of colours – brilliant pinks, fiery reds, pearly whites, flaming oranges and a million shades of greens. I was particularly fond of the creeper roses that climbed their way through a cane shed made particularly for that purpose. They would bloom only once a year, but seeing the numerous tiny pink roses showing their faces through the dark green leaves was more than worth the wait. Baba said his favorite were the petunias, and when in full bloom, the sight of the white, pink and violet blooms was actually an eyeful. Baba would always comment on how nobody, but nobody, could beat Nature’s sense of color combination, and he repeated those words so often I had learnt them by heart, verbatim.
Our garden was not the only thing that spring touched – it also made my mother more beautiful. Come spring, Ma would pick the jasmines each morning and make garlands of them, humming to herself while she did so, and after bath, she’d carefully wear it on her hair, draping it around her bun. I could never decide what I loved more – the fragrance Ma left behind her wherever she went, or the blush that painted her cheeks each time somebody gave her a compliment on the beautiful flowers. I wasn’t to know until much later that it was on Baba’s request that Ma wore those flowers…and that was because Ma had been wearing jasmines on her hair the day they got married.
But my favorite part was the evenings Didima and I spent on the swing, with Didima telling me stories about her times, and me putting my head on her lap, trying hard to stop myself from reminding her that she had told me the same stories just some hundred times before. Didima would lovingly run her fingers through my hair, and drift to a world of her own, while I would gaze up at the star-lit sky and lose myself in my world. Its been twenty years, but I could almost feel the fragrant breeze fill my heart and soul; could almost hear Didima’s soothing voice lull me into a sweet slumber; could almost see the stars drifting in and out of my view as my eyes struggled to remain open to take in as much of the magical evening as possible, and finally give in to sleep, with a hundred sweet-smelling and vivid thoughts in my spring-kissed heart.
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