May 1, 2010 Off By Sankhya Samhita

It was a soft warm evening, and it has always been Shefali’s favorite time of the day, when everything looked strangely honey-colored, with the exception of the sky, which had turned a brilliant shade of orange with flashes of pink in the horizon. She couldn’t tear her eyes away from this picture-perfect evening sky, and for a while, she forgot that she was in the rusty old car that had been in her family for the third generation now; that creaked and complained with each bump on the dusty road…and that she absolutely hated being driven from the station in that ‘hideous box of metal’. It looked like nothing much had changed in her village, even though she was returning after what seemed like a million years to her; and yet, so much had changed…

“The road’s definitely the same though”, she muttered to herself as she was brought back from her thoughts by a particularly nasty bump. Dust filled the insides of the car. Coughing and spluttering, Shefali rolled up the windows and wondered for the umpteenth time whether it was really a wise decision to come home this time. But she couldn’t find a good enough excuse to stay away…not when her brother was getting married. She had kept off booking her ticket till the very last moment, as if postponing it would give her an option of not coming at all. But then she had to face the unavoidable. And she prepared herself for the eventualities.

The heat inside the car was starting to get sweltering and Shefali risked opening the windows again. They must be approaching the river now, she thought, for the air was cooler and the fragrance of ‘shiuli’s wafted through the air. She took a deep breath, drinking in the freshness; the fragrance which, to her surprise, was just the same as it was six years ago. Waves of nostalgia flooded her, and she found it silly to be welling up on a fragrance, but then again, wasn’t this always what home smelled of?

It took her some time to realize that the car had stopped and it was only she heard the driver open her door that she noticed that she was, after six long years, home. Slinging her rucksack carelessly on her shoulders, she got down while the driver carried her bag inside. She looked at the proud handsome mansion, her eyes hungrily taking it all, but barely noticed the group of kids playing in the courtyard, squealing in delight, until one of them came running to her and grabbed her hand.

“Are you Mona Maasi?” the little girl asked, panting and puffing.

Before she could reply, Shefali felt herself engulfed in her sister’s arms.

“You’re here… you’re actually here…it’s you…,” Rupali kept mumbling, her words caught between happy sobs.

Shefali managed a weak smile as her sister released her and she looked at Rupali as though for the first time.

“You’re so beautiful,” was all Shefali could say, for that was the first thing that she noticed.

Four years older than her, Rupali had got married just the year before Shefali had left home; left for good that is, and motherhood seemed to have suited Rupali.

“But…are you Mona Maasi or not?” the girl holding Shefali’s hand gave it a tug, and asked again.

“That’s my daughter Kuhu…and yes Betu, that’s your Mona Maasi”, Rupali explained, wiping tears from her eyes and laughing at the same time.

“My niece…for God’s sake…didn’t know she would be this big”, Shefali mumbled, distractedly picking up the child in her arms while her eyes searched for the one person she had been thinking about the most and yet dreading to meet.

But apparently, Kuhu wasn’t to be ignored for long.

“I’m five years old…my Happy Birthday was two days ago. What have you brought me? Is it in your bag? Why are you wearing jeans like Nihal Mamu? Where were you all this time?” Kuhu would have continued with her barrage of questions had not her mother interrupted her.

“God, this girl never stops talking”! Rupali hastily took Kuhu from Shefali’s arms and nudged her towards the house. “Ma’s in the pooja room. Nihal is also there. Maasi, Buwa, Mama, Mami…everybody.”

Shefali could barely make out Rupali’s words. It took some time for reality to sink in. She was home. She was actually home…the place she swore she would never return to, not if she could help it; the place where every inch had once upon a time evoked nothing but frustration in her. And now, she was standing in the very courtyard where her mother had tried to persuade her to stay back one last time. A weird flashback started playing in her mind on reverse, and it was all she could do to try shake it off. How cold she had been…showing no mercy to her mother’s tears. How proud she had stood there….determined to go out to prove her worth. And how she had declared she’d detach herself from this place forever. Forever was a big word, she mused, as she looked around again and again, unable to take her eyes off her home.

“Mona Maasi, can you wear a sari like my Ma can”? Kuhu piped up from her mother’s arms. Shefali came back to reality with a start and found her standing in front of her room. At least, what used to be her room six years ago. Thank heavens her legs knew their way around, more than she seemed to at that moment.

“Of course she can…can’t you, Mona”? Rupali asked, a bit hesitant. Shefali had always hated wearing a sari.

“Um…what? A sari? You won’t believe it, but nowadays I can actually manage to walk wearing a sari”, Shefali said and both sisters giggled at the recollection of the one instance when Shefali had tried wearing one of her mother’s six-yards; with unfortunate consequences. The kind, that left her with a bloody lip and a chipped tooth.

“Well, then…you change. The pooja will be completed in half an hour so better hurry. I need to be there. Kuhu?” Rupali started to go out and called out for her daughter.

“I think I should stay with Maasi. What if she gets lost on her way to the pooja room?” Kuhu replied, and as if that settled matters, sat down cross-legged on Shefali’s bed with her chin propped on her hands.

Rupali shook her head in surrender, and hastened alone to the pooja.

Sighing, Shefali started to unpack. So what if her hopes were shattered? She knew deep in her heart that her mother wouldn’t exactly be waiting at the doorstep like Shefali had hoped. What was she expecting? A hero’s welcome? The battles she’d won made her all the more distant from her family. But at least her mother….

For the fourth time, Shefali was brought out of her reverie by Kuhu’s non-stop chattering.

“Maasi you’re getting us late! What would my Ma say if the pooja ends before I take you there? And Heaven knows whether you CAN wear a sari or not…you don’t look like you can. All you do is stare and stare….”

Shefali rolled her eyes and picked Kuhu up and almost dumped her right outside the door. It was only when she closed the door on Kuhu’s face that the kid realized that she was unceremoniously being thrown out of her Maasi’s room.

“Mammmmmmam…!” Kuhu wailed and Shefali heard the pitter-patter of the tiny feet on the floor as Kuhu ran to her mother.

Left to her own in the sudden silence, Shefali gathered her thoughts. No…it wouldn’t help to just keep thinking. She washed herself and got dressed in a salwar; the sari would have to wait. When she looked in the mirror, she saw a determined face, and although the mirror hid the tremors in her heart, she felt her hands sweat as she walked down the familiar corridor to the pooja room.

Taking a deep breath, she entered the room where, by the looks of it, her entire family was sitting. Her mother, sitting right in front of the room with her back to the door…her brother Nihal, sitting next to the pundit, engrossed in trying to decipher cryptic Sanskrit mantras and repeating them…Rupali with Kuhu on her lap and her husband sitting next to her…her mother’s sister and brother, her father’s sister and a few people she couldn’t recognize. Her Maasi noticed her and gave an enthusiastic smile but motioned her to sit down till the pooja ended. Within seconds, everybody in the room knew she was there and Shefali could almost feel dozen eyes boring into her. Her ears started getting red, her throat dry….and then came the claustrophobic feeling that she hadn’t felt in a long time. She dreaded the moment the pooja would end, but it came all too soon. Before she could even get up she felt herself being hugged from all sides. Mutterings of “High time, beta, high time…”, “Good that you came…”, “You must have starved yourself, you’ve become so thin…!” reached her ears while her eyes searched for her mother amidst the faces.

And suddenly, she found herself face to face with her mother, her mother’s eyes piercing into hers. Shefali looked back, expecting to see anger, or disappointment, maybe (she hoped) even a hint of happiness…but her mother’s expressions were curiously unfathomable.

“My daughter’s home…” was all that her mother managed to say as she put her hand on Shefali’s head.

Words became useless as Shefali rushed to her mother’s arms and at that moment, all the reasons for leaving the only home she’d ever known, all the reasons for not coming back, seemed pretty futile.

“And I thought you were allergic to something called tears”? Nihal said with a naughty grin on his face and Shefali gave him a thump on his shoulders, tears of happiness shining in her eyes.

As Shefali had expected, the evening was spent answering questions…and there were many. The euphoria of being home was wearing off surprisingly fast and she felt the all too familiar urge to slam the door on everybody’s face and spend time all alone.

“Your brother’s getting married with an unmarried sister at home…such a shame. But young people these days…. Tut tut!” mentioned one of Shefali’s aunts as they sat on the courtyard. Shefali took her place in the swing, the rhythmic creaking of the chains somewhat soothing to her frayed nerves.

“Nah…he’s already waited. His bride wasn’t getting any younger, was she? Now that’s a good girl, getting married at the right and proper age. How old are you, Mona?” asked another aunt.

“That’s a very rude question to ask a girl, Buwa”, Shefali replied through gritted teeth.

“Oh come on! You’ll be an old maid soon! Why don’t you find yourself a good boy and…”

This time, her aunt was interrupted by Shefali’s mother.

“You know what she thinks about marriage, Rekha. We won’t talk about it.”

“What do you mean, ‘We won’t talk about it’? How long will you avoid this discussion? Can’t she see for herself how happy Rupali is? Am I not right, tell me? Rupali beta, talk some sense into your sister this time….” Rekha Buwa continued.

“Buwa, she’s made her choice and I too respect that. It’s her life after all.” Rupali said softly.

“But then, how will she live life all alone? Surely you don’t agree with her, do you? Not marry her whole life? Then what sort of a woman will she make? A woman is always known by how well she runs a family!” Rekha Buwa stood up this time, her chest heaving; her round spectacles slightly askew.

It was more than Shefali could take. When she spoke she found herself trembling in anger.

“Will anyone ask me what I think? Or are you so used to not having me home that you forgot I was here? Buwa, do you even know what a ‘financial consultant’ means? Well, for your kind information, that’s who I am. And quite successful too….”

“You could make all the money in the world, but that won’t buy you a husband”, Rekha Buwa declared.

“Husband? You think I need one? And who gave you the right to give statements about my life? If you don’t want me to walk out of this place like I did then, you had better not mention it to me. Ever.”

And she stomped out of the courtyard into her room, unable to resist the temptation to slam the door as hard as she could, and locked herself inside. She heard murmurs outside her door.

“…hasn’t changed, has she? You’ve spoilt her; I tell you…You saw the way she talks to her own aunt?”

“Please Rekha, please don’t start…”

“She hasn’t even had dinner, Ma. Heaven knows whether she’ll come out or not…should I knock?”

“No, don’t…let her be.…you come to the kitchen”

Slowly the voices faded and Shefali let her tiredness take over her. She slumped on the bed, closed her eyes and took deep breaths to calm herself. Deep breathing always helped, even in office. But at least she didn’t get emotional about office work. In fact she wouldn’t let herself get emotional about anything at all. But tonight everything was getting a little too much. Her mind started churning out thoughts faster than even she could handle. Stop, she wanted to say. Let me sleep, she wanted to tell the voices in her head. It felt like a badly tuned radio with mixed frequencies was playing louder by the minute inside her mind. And very slowly, she started getting too tired to fight it anymore. Her last thoughts as she drifted off to sleep were not of anger, but of a vague emptiness.

The morning was as crisp as the evening was soft and Shefali took some time sitting on her bed just to enjoy the calm before going out. Things outside her room were not so calm, though. With the wedding looming ahead the very next day, the house was filled with a horde of people from the neighborhood, some of whom glanced at Shefali and gave strained smiles, while the others looked away. Most of them wanted nothing to do with ‘Baba’s adamant daughter who had defied elders and dared to go away from home to live God knows where doing God knows what. And worst of all, refuses to get married.

“To hell with everybody”, Shefali muttered under her breath and started walking to the kitchen. The morning suddenly didn’t seem so beautiful after all. She couldn’t find her mother and neither was Nihal to be seen anywhere. But then she remembered that Nihal’s bride was supposed to arrive that day. Somehow, her younger brother had turned out to be as different from her as possible. While she did everything to sever ties with her home, Nihal had his roots firmly grounded. The first thing he had told his fashion-designer glamorous girlfriend was that he had always wanted to get married at his home, no matter how lavish an affair he could have arranged at Mumbai, where he had his office and where recently he had bought a flat. But then, he had his reasons for wanting to be close to the family. He didn’t have to fight to go out and study higher. It was assumed, if not outright expected that he would be the one to earn the big bucks, and take charge. Even if Shefali had insisted that she was the elder one, and was ready to take on the responsibility. Shefali shook her head to shake off those thoughts. Not today, she decided.

“What’s this girl up to now? Kuhu…beta, where are you?” Rupali rushed by her and suddenly stopped. “Good thing you’ve woken up. You must be hungry… go ask Buwa to give you something to eat. The bride’s family is about to arrive in a while. Ma and Nihal have gone to the station, and my Kuhu’s done the bunk again! What do I do with this girl?” she told Shefali, exasperated.

“Don’t worry, she’ll be somewhere around. I’ll eat something and join you” Shefali gave her sister an assuring smile and Rupali went off again.

The thought of seeing her least favorite aunt this early in the day didn’t sound very appealing and so, grabbing an apple from a nearby basket, Shefali did what seemed the most natural thing to do. She walked out of the gates of her home and took the familiar route to the river bank like she had always done whenever she had needed to elude her own family. She’d walked this way so many times that even though it was six long years, her legs acted of their own accord. As the bend of the river came to view Shefali got a whiff of the same shiuli scented air that never failed to elate her spirits. Treading her steps carefully, she climbed down the steep slope that ended in a patch of green grass right beneath a massive mango tree on the banks of the river. And as she stood there, for the first time in years, she found what she’d been looking for…herself. The cool wind caressed her face; a few locks of hair broke free from her bun and ran amok in the wind. She felt curiously light, and took in great gulps of the riverside
air…and a smile played on her lips on its own.

It was only then that she noticed that she was not alone. A little girl was sitting cross-legged under the tree with her face buried in her hands, her curly long hair falling like a veil in front of her. Lying on the grass covered by what looked like a handkerchief was a plastic doll; the pale face looking as though it was once upon a time pink in colour… and Shefali smiled as she recognized the doll as well as its owner.

“Kuhu”? Shefali called out and walked towards her niece. Kuhu looked up, drops of tears still clinging to her eyes. She must have been sobbing for quite some time, for her cheeks were red from all the rubbing, and her nose was running too.

“Won’t go home…won’t, won’t” she said between hiccups, “…and I won’t talk to you also. You’re a bad Maasi”.

Shefali smiled and sat next to her. Kuhu had stopped talking to her after being thrown out of Shefali’s room. For a while she just let Kuhu have a good cry, which Kuhu did, now that she had audience.

“So…why won’t you go home”? Shefali asked softly.

“Nobody listens to me! I told Ma that Dolly”, she pointed to the doll lying next to her, “…was sick and we need to go to the doctor but Ma scolded me…told me not to bother her…told me to go away…”

The memory of it brought fresh tears to Kuhu’s eyes. Knowing better than to laugh, Shefali put a straight face and listened.

“She wouldn’t play doctor-doctor, so I went to Nihal Mamu’s room to ask him but the door was locked and he won’t open it…and Nani was in the pooja room…Papa was talking to the…the…” she screwed her face in concentration like it would help her remember the word, “…the…fooder” she decided finally and looked at Shefali.

“You mean the caterer, Kuhu? The one who brings food?” Shefali asked.

Kuhu nodded again but then remembered she wasn’t talking to Shefali, and so turned her face away. Shefali noticed for the first time that Kuhu looked a lot like herself…and strangely, this was the very spot where she herself used to sit for hours until she would be ready to go home and face her mother’s nagging.

After just a minute, Kuhu’s urge to talk won over her dislike towards Shefali and she asked in a small voice.

“Are you going to scold me for running away from home”?

Shefali smiled. Little did Kuhu know that Shefali was the last person to be scolding her for running away from her home, not when she herself did it years ago.

“No…I’m not. But your Ma was worried you know”, Shefali said in an assuring voice.

“She knows where I am! I always come here.” Kuhu said, matter-of-fact.

“But what happened today Kuhu? You didn’t tell her you are coming here?” Shefali tried coaxing her niece to take her into confidence.

“She won’t listen to me! I followed her around the whole house, even kept pulling at her sari, but she wouldn’t even look back. She just kept asking me to go and play, go and play. And when I told her I want to play with her, she scolded me. Bad Ma.” Kuhu explained in a bid to justify herself.

“Ma has a lot of things to do Beta…you’re getting a new Mami, aren’t you? She’s busy bringing the new Mami…” Shefali said and put her arms around Kuhu, who immediately climbed onto Shefali’s lap and put her arms around Shefali’s neck, all anger forgotten.

“Then Mami mustn’t be very good. It’s good I ran away” Kuhu must have concluded and declared so in a conspiring voice.

“No…it’s not good to run away” Shefali started, but her voice trailed off as she suddenly realized the enormity of her own words. She simply kept looking at Kuhu’s eager face, gulping, trying to think of something, anything, to say, but unable to come up with the right words.

Sensing something, Kuhu got up and took her Dolly in her lap instead.

“Maasi, do you think she’s okay now”? she asked, tugging at Shefali’s hands to draw her attention.

Shefali looked at the doll’s face distractedly… yes; it was almost like she remembered it to be. The red skirt had faded but was undamaged otherwise. Except for that tiny rip that she remembered all too well. She smiled again.

“Yes, she looks pretty good to me now”, she said.

“My Ma says Dolly is older than me…how can that be, when Dolly needs to be bathed and fed even now? I can take my bath myself; and I have my own food too…” Kuhu said with pride in her voice. But then like a mother suddenly remembering her duties, she chided Shefali, conveniently blaming her for her own negligence.

“Oho…now you’ve woken her up…I’ll have to put her to sleep again!”

Shefali looked as Kuhu cradled her “Dolly” in her arms and started singing to the doll in a soft voice, patting it’s plastic chest as she did so. How many times had she herself been put to sleep, as her mother sang that very lullaby to the three of them? Maybe that was the first song Shefali had learned, she recollected. She closed her eyes and thought of how it had felt to lie down next to her mother and bury her face in her mother’s neck while she sang that song. Before she knew it, she found herself humming the tune along with Kuhu.

She didn’t realize how long it had been, couldn’t have been more than an hour but it felt like ages as she sat under the mango tree, while Kuhu, after putting her doll to sleep, went off to gather fallen shiulis. Kuhu kept chattering incessantly, seldom waiting for Shefali to answer her queries and somehow, that acted as a soothing balm for someone who had always had to answer questions. Right from the day she’d decided to move out. Every time her mother had called and asked her to come home once. Every time she’d refused to do anything more than send in money, which her mother wouldn’t even touch. To nosey aunts, about not wanting to marry. To her exasperated mother, about where she’d fallen short in Shefali’s upbringing. To herself, about the what-next. She was always answering questions.

Maybe it was the wind whispering sweet nothings in her ears, or the gurgling river…could have been the playful quivering of the leaves in her favorite mango tree, or the sun smiling down, playing hide and seek through the tree’s branches-Shefali didn’t know which, but there was something in that morning which made her go back to days when she was just like Kuhu. Had see, too, run away at the slightest sign of an upcoming tantrum? Had she, too, not stopped to find the reason behind everything? Had she, too, thought it was only about everybody else playing along with her and nothing else? Was she too hasty in deciding to leave the cocoon of her home? Should she have given this place another chance? And then, another question popped on her mind…Was there still time?

And as if waiting for that very moment, a strong gust of wind blew over them, the rustling leaves going wild…Kuhu’s flowers scattered on the grass and she squealed as she hopped here and there trying to gather them again…and Shefali knew in her heart that it meant a yes.

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