Not Permanent…

My parents have repainted the house that I grew up in. The walls are so pristine now, they do not flaunt the staunch tattoos of another time – pen scribbles and cello tape marks, scuffs and chips from things that moved around in another time. The furniture is mostly new too. My old desk was handed down to my cousin, the old dining table is with an uncle. There are things that were there when I was around, of course there are. The kitchen table has marks from when I left a burning candle without a holder. The dressing table in my room still has the old box with cards and gifts from those I once used to speak to, every single day. A bit of the old and the new in every room – like my parents and Miss A. Who I once was, who I am now, bits and pieces cobbled together to make a person.

The garden, it is overgrown in some parts and bare in others.

“There was a swing here,” I tell Miss A. “And a garden bed here and roses over there.”

I spent years playing hopscotch around the pathways and I used to chat into the evening with the best friend. She is gone too now, but I did get to meet her, we sat on the same step after all those calendar pages, we talked of the same things we did when we were younger and when the world was this strange place down the highway. She went home after that and as I waved goodbye, I knew I was not staying either.

Homes are not permanent. Only the times spent there are. That is the way it is for most things in life but why would childhood teach you such a harsh lesson!

My parents still talk about the day in the early hours of dawn. Outside the sky is black but a bit of pink is creeping in from underneath the doors, a bit of light is pushing against the curtains. They talk about the day that is yet to be and the day that has since been.  About the hibiscus in the gardens and the coconuts that need to be stored in the spare crates. About how the old water tank will need a new pump set soon. The winter outside their window and how two quilts aren’t enough because the weather forecast was wrong yet again. They complain of how the new teapots these-a-days have bent handles and how they need to stock up on some kind of light bulbs. About the squirrels raising a ruckus in the garden, and the back tiles that need scrubbing. It is a soft muffle, their voices, laced with sleep, in the early hours of an incorrectly forecast winter morning

Then they switch topics and talk of politics and cricket and mull over election results in some far flung north eastern state. The tea boils over in the meanwhile, in the teapot with the bent handle, and the cups go clink-a-clink. There is a scraping sound as the biscuit tin is opened and the door to my darkened childhood room opens just a little bit.

“Do you want tea?” they whisper. “It is cold outside.”

“It is 5 AM,” I grumble and disappear under the blankets.

“I could get you tea here,” my mother says. “You could go back to bed after you drink it.”

“I am in bed,” I say. “And I don’t want the tea.”

This has not changed, this bit, we have had this dialogue for years. She walks away closing the door behind her and suddenly I want the tea. But then sleep, blessed and warm, beckons and it remains unsaid and discarded, this morning wish. Tomorrow, I tell myself, tomorrow is when I shall say yes to the tea.

Like so many childhood things, like so many grand plans that never make it to the cusp of the day, that tomorrow slips away too. Some things are meant to be done later, some things come postmarked with a future date.

The garden is sleepy and agreeable in the afternoon. The air is woody and has a tang – it it smells of the cold in the way only my hometown does – it is heavy with the memories of a thousand past afternoons. The winter sun is at once plump and meagre, a marvellous contradiction of sunlight. I fall asleep on the swing this time, and the road, it stays quiet like it did when I was a child here. A bird chirps. A tap drips. A door bangs three houses down. I fall into a dreamless sleep because when you are home and safe, you do not need any other visions.

Image

Somewhere in the middle of the nap, I wake up to find myself covered with a blanket. Dregs of sleep in my eyes. The street still a quiet child, waiting to be given the go-ahead to talk again.

“Do you want tea?” my mother asks. She has, I suspect, been staring at me all along, waiting for me to wake up.

“Yes,” I say and her face lights up.

She brings me a cup almost immediately and we drink tea on the porch, me on the swing, still under the blanket, she on the side chair. Occasionally the swing bumps into her chair. There is nothing else to do on afternoons like this. And so we say little and yet there is such a crowding of memories.

A week later I pack my bags and Miss A’s and we cry a little bit on that same swing. There is so much to say when you part for a while, there are so many incomplete stories that beg to be finished when you open the gate to leave. Instead I joke about the garden and I fuss over the luggage. I try to pretend I am not leaving the house behind. It knows though, it has seen my pattern over the years. So I crane my neck and try to gather in the walls, the jasmine creepers, the errant hibiscus, the mango trees, the faithful swing, the neighbours with wet eyes and wrinkled palms – they all wave back, they do not break eye contact with me. It knows, like I said, the house, it knows that I will go past the bend in the road and not be back just yet. My heart sags, my throat hurts and I do not dare speak.

If they had told me that goodbye was an essential word in the vocabulary of grown-ups, I would have asked the house to hide me in one of its many forgiving nooks, I would have created a tree-house in the old branches, I would have parked inside a tent under the beds. But I am gone now and the house has stayed behind.

And one day, I shall see it again but that day is not today.

There were so many days in my childhood when I wanted to grow up and do things. Big people things, adult things, things that extended beyond the fence and the rusty gate.

Someone opened the gate and it cannot be shut again, I think my childhood escaped when I was growing up and I did not even notice.

And now, I have a key and I can go where I want to but that damned, damned key – I cannot lose it even if I want to.

Homes. Not permanent. Time. Permanent. The twitch in my heart. Eternal.

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Word Stains

It is a sheet of lined paper, folded and refolded many times, the questions a squiggle, the space for the answers stringent and economic.

“You need to fill it in by hand,” she tells me. “And use your best handwriting. I could get points for this.”

So, I sit down after dinner and fill in my feedback about Miss A’s learning portfolio. Half an hour later, I have a document that looks a lot like my journal entries from the engineering days. There is, on this itsy-bitsy paper, a need to say and do the right things, there is a need to dot the “i”s and leave plenty of margins. The “g”s are perfectly looped, there is a smidgen of space between the paragraphs, the capital letters are imposing and grand with their curves.

It is like my handwriting of yore,  when words were solid and pebble-like, thick entities that dug their feet into the paper and stood there with bravado, looking you in the eye. Even if you did strike them out, there was a whiff of their presence, sulky ghosts that peeped out at you from behind the lines that beheaded them. The words then were for the long term – they did not cease to exist in their entirety because of a few, fast-tapped, frivolous backspace key strokes. Things were more permanent when the world was younger, when I was a child.

“You don’t write like that, anymore,” Miss A says.

I don’t. I can retract my words now, I am an adult. I understand that words and promises can break and disappear and that there is always a clean slate around the corner. I can say what I want to because when you grow up, your vocabulary grows with you and you learn words like disclaimers and fine-print and clauses that can be summoned when it is time to shatter truths. You can say you never meant what you said, you can forget the pen-strokes and you can reach for the eraser before reaching for the pen.

And yet, here on the paper that my daughter will take to school, alive and present, a clunky yet clear truth emerges in this collection of words that came as my first choice – no edits and no corrections, no afterthoughts, just honest writing with a borrowed pen. This page, she tells me, will be filed into her portfolio and it will come home at the end of the term. I will look at it then and wonder if I should have said something differently, if I should have been more verbose in my praise or less subtle with my criticism. But this, here and now, is a time capsule. And time, that unctuous thief is the only honest one out of all of us.

“I used to write like that all the time,” I say. “Once.”

Once. In another time. A girl with ink stains on her hands and endless  reams of clean paper. Once. When words were supposedly forever.

“You should start again,” she says. And then, with a wink, “I have tonnes of cursive writing you could do for me, Mum.”

“They would be my words then,” I say. “Not yours. And you need your own pages, you cannot borrow mine. And I cannot borrow yours. We have to write our own stories.”

“You were someone else, once,” she says.

And I was.

And so were the words.

And now it is all strange and clinical and precise and there are no ink stains on my fingers.

For the best friend

For that time when you lived down the road from me. A best friend for all seasons. Dress-ups and sulking sessions, secrets shared on the ledge of your terrace, encounters with the boys dissected and magnified in great detail as we lay giggling in my room. Walks around the park and screams of thrill as we learnt to ride our bikes and then later those rickety scooters. Sharing make-up, lunch box treats and birthday months. Endless phone calls throughout the day, conversations that stretched over a dozen years and more. School yard loyalties and summer holiday ice-cream binges. The best friend a girl could ask for.

Do you remember the number of times we watched the same movie again and again once we liked something? Do you remember how we stayed on the terrace in the heat, with the mosquitoes biting and the sounds of the evening dying down, talking about this song, singing it endlessly? We did not understand the language but it did not matter.  Love and life and growing up seemed so easy and so effortless that evening, do you remember?

The future that day was obscenely rosy, our hopes were naive and nascent, we knew what we wanted our life to be like. 20 years down the line, some things worked out, others did not. I miss you R. I miss you tonnes.

I do not think we can ever take stabs at deciphering the script of the future. But with a friend like you, I can turn back every single time and say that my childhood was beyond wonderful and perfect. I would not have had the laughs and the fun and the joy in my heart if I did not have you to share notes and stolen candy, teach me how to to apply lipstick, cheer me on, hold my hand, hug me when I cried and followed me with sane advice when I walked away from you sulking.  Thank you for being there. For R. For my first and forever best friend, for being the sister I never had. For making my childhood worthwhile.

Like the song, with all true friendship, you do not always understand the language but it makes your world a better place. There are no better words to hum.

Change of Guard

“My Uncle A passed away this week,” your mother tells you over the phone.

The enormity of the demise does not register right away.

You never got to see your grandmother, your mother’s mother. She was always a photo around the home – a gentle sepia portrait, her eyes so much like your mother’s (and therefore yours), her smile warm and welcoming, her gaze on an object in the distance. Thus it was that you came to know and love a woman who you never saw but re-created through part legacy, part longing.

You spent all your summer holidays with your  mother’s side of the family. Every May, you made the 3 hour bus trip, in a dusty red State Transport bus to your aunt’s home.  Your aunt lived in a rambling old building where your grandmother’s brothers including Uncle A also lived. It was an ancient buidling with endless nooks and crannies, creaky wooden staircases,  latticed balconies and a huge amount of people distributed amongst the eight individual houses that the old building house.  Every house had someone you were related to – it was a merry gaggle of aunts and uncles and second cousins and first cousins and great- aunts and old grand-uncles and everyone else that was somehow, family.

You could wander into anyone’s house around lunch time and they would set you a plate and you would eat. If you went to the neighbouring house, you would be fed lunch again, you did not refuse. In the afternoons, while your mother and your aunt and the extended family chatted, you wandered the large building, opening doors and discovering new and old worlds. It was the magic hour, the world lay suspended in a brief stupor, a humid silence coloured the world. And yet you played with stray cats, you hid behind the dusty cauldrons that housed the water for your morning bath and you played hopscotch on the blazing hot tiles in the paved courtyard.

“Come inside, do you not feel the hot sun?” someone would say. It could be anyone of the extended family, love and discipline and meals and treats were shared around here, you were looked after by everyone in the building, even the building itself.

You were a child here surrounded by a thick blanket of summer,mangoes, late night icecream and family that sat around and talked and drank endless tea. You stayed awake, bright eyed and revelling in these chat sessions, hugging yourself to stay alert under the whirr of the fan and the animated chatter. Your mother was a child here too, but you did not realise that till you were grown up.  Here she talked to her uncles and aunts, she sat at their dining tables and they made her tea and fussed over her. Her, the youngest daughter of the sister they lost so tragically, without any warning.

You would talk to your mother’s uncles and her aunts several times a day. They wanted to know important things about you like what flavour of milkshakes you liked and whether you were doing your times tables in school and how you liked your tea. They gave you little gifts, sometimes a crisp 50 Rs note in a plain envelope, sealed and fresh, brimming with the promise of everything you could hope to buy. Sometimes it was little lunch box or a book,  little gifts that you recieved with profuse thanks and then packed carefully to take back home. You had surrogate grandparents every summer, you never realised it till today, till you accepted that they were all gone.

They bulldozed the old building one summer. You had grown up by then and you had moved out of home. Your aunt moved away to a better and bigger place. Your mother’s uncles moved away too. Your summer holidays were still fun but you did not have the luxuryof a house anymore where you could open doors and find so many branches of family sprawled inside.

Then you heard the obituaries from your mother over the years. One by one, they passed away, taking with them their gifts, their promises of crisp notes, their steel lunch boxes, their friendly banter on the steps, their admonishings to abandon the afternoon sun.  One by one they became empty chairs around the communal dining table, mounted photos on aging walls, a past reference to a time now irrevocably eroded.

Uncle A was the last of the grand-uncles. 38 years after his baby sister, your grandmother, died in her sleep, he passed away in a town that was far away from the bustling house of the past.

“There is no one of that generation left,” you say to your mother. The greatest of absences. The simplest of truths.

“No, they are all gone now. All the siblings,” she says. She does not have her siblings left either. They are really all gone now, the old house included.

When you were a child, these people built a fortress around you, a canopy overhead that kept the sun and the clouds out. You are left with crumbling battlements now, the house is in ruins.

There is no canopy anymore. The mighty trees have been felled, there is an endless horizon as far you can see, a clearing where once there was a magical land.

The sun blinds your eyes now, there are not many people left to shield you anymore.

RIP Uncle A. And everyone else that left.

Happy Ganesh Chaturthi

Mounds of chrysanthemums waiting to be shaped into garlands. Milk, coconut and cardamom bubbling together in a large vat, the air getting sweeter by the minute. The last minute run to the shops. Sidestepping puddles. Staring defiantly at the sky hoping the rain would abate till the shopping had been done. Dawdling at the displays to see the giant cut-outs. Guessing games with friends to decipher the theme of the Ganesh decoration display around the corner.

Gathering the 21 vegetables needed for the special offering after the puja. Ticking off items on itty-bitty lists. Incense sticks. Young mango leaves. A kitchen overflowing with food and cheer. Piles of red hibiscus flowers from the front garden. The sizzle of puris being deep fried. Lata’s divine voice on the radio, the TV, the neighbourhood speakers singing melodies that defined the season – and still do after two decades and more.

The sound of fire-crackers. Of late ‘aartis’. The late night jaunts in a hired rickshaw to see the displays around the town.  The afternoon siestas after a heavy meal. Sleeping through firecrackers. Relatives. The general din. Waking up to eat more of the lunch left-overs. The twinkling silhouettes of lights across homes and street corners.

Baked karanjis await in the oven. Lata’s songs are playing in an endless loop on my laptop. The air is thick with incense. And soon I am about to go look for red hibiscus blooms.

A part of my heart is back home. The other part of my heart realizes with flooding and overehelming relief that home is a memory away. Ready to be beckoned at will. The more I travel, the more I know the road back to where I came from.

Happy Ganesh Chaturthi. May the paths you choose have obstacles that can be easily vanquished.

Every August…

Every August when sooty black clouds inhabit the sky and the air stands chilly and sullen, a faithful memory rewinds itself and I am reminded of my paternal grandmother. Her presence in my life was periodic and the memories therefore are largely seasonal.

It was not your traditional grandchild-grandmother relationship – I didn’t see her very often though she lived in the same town when I was younger. We didn’t speak the same language either – we could understand each other’s words but we stuck to our comfort zones – adamant and safe in our careful worlds while occasionally peering over the hedge to catch up on each other’s milestones. When she came over for a visit, I got the perfunctory hug, sometimes an odd gift.  When the other kids talked about their grandparents, I talked about her but I had no funny anecdotes, no evidences of affection and no memories to add because my grandmother was fairly complex yet placid and fairly obstinate yet silent.  The only thing that got her galvanized was when she walked to Pandharpur every August for her annual pilgrimage.

She had graduated from the school of hard knocks and walking everywhere was her preferred means of journeying.  This meant that she stubbornly refused to take the bus or the train to Pandharpur even though she was well in her seventies. She walked along with hundreds of other devotees, and every night she camped by the roadside in open fields and cooked her meals on a makeshift fire. This was the pinnacle of her yearly calendar – every ounce of energy she had, was carefully saved and preserved to make this offering and any pleas to partake this journey less ardously usually fell on deaf and mostly indifferent ears.

While my mother and grandmother were as different as chalk from cheese and had a polite if not formal relationship, my mother was the only person that my grandmother trusted when she needed to pack her essentials for the annual pilgrimage.  I would come back from school on a rainy day in August to find Grandma in the kitchen while my mother made lists of everything that was needed for the trip. While I sipped hot tea and told my mother about my day, my parents would pack up rations for Grandma and seal them dextrously to keep the moisture out. My mother and my grandmother would then walk down to the shops to buy Grandma her trademark nine-yard sarees for the pilgrimage and round off this excursion with a visit to the optician for an eye checkup though Grandma was openly critical of such frivolities.

When all was done and packed, Grandma would get restless at the thought of waiting till the next day to head off on her journey – once every year she became a sprightly young girl, her eyes twinkling, her face shining, her voice softer than it normally was.

I never missed her when she left for her journey. Sometimes my mother would say things like “Your grandma has must have reached Pandharpur” and at other times she would inform me that Grandma had been back for a week. The hedges would resurrect themselves –  our lives continuing firmly in their pattern.

Somewhere along the way these pilgrimages stopped. Grandma moved away during my High School years. We still got the occasional visit or a snippet of news about her but there was no yearly journey to bind us anymore.  When she passed away over a decade ago, I cried profusely for a woman with whom I had not exchanged more than a 100 words in a lifetime. I had no grandparents anymore – all my ties to a generation older than my parents had been firmly and politely severed for eternity.

Years later, a small silver perfume pewter found its way to my parents house – Grandma’s final gift for me, her last bequest. Much like my relationship with my grandmother, the gift was a one-off. An unpretentious, practical, old world piece, made beautiful only by the passage of time.

The pewter shares a spot with other knick-knacks I have gathered over the years –  every August when the wind howls and the rain strikes up a relentless chatter, I stand by my window and look at the rains and then the pewter. Grandma has long since left on a journey where we didn’t have to pack for her. There is no waiting involved for anyone, anymore. I do not have any memories of her that are significant enough to make me cry for once what was.

And yet, every August there comes a day when I tear up at the memory of a grandmother who has long since walked far, far away.  All that now remains now is the dull shine of  silver that bears witness to the fact that she was once around. That will have to do – for now and for ever.

Miles to go before I sleep…

Parshu was the laundry-wallah of a small suburb in the sleepy town where I grew up. There had never been any pressing desire (pardon the unintended pun) for most families around to own an iron. When we needed clothes ironed, we walked or ran up the quiet street and turned left at the cross-roads that meandered on to the market square. Two more skips, a jump across a shallow ditch and you ended up face to face with Parshu in his makeshift laundry. The little tin roofed shop had a messy pile of clothes on the left and an old rusty cabinet with yellowed glass on the right – ironed clothes occupied the pride of place here. In the middle of the room was an old table covered with faded bedsheets and threadbare blankets. An old Murphys radio on the wall behind him played Hindi numbers in a never ending loop. Parshu was hard of hearing and his coal powered iron made a fine hiss whilst it tackled our creases and so the radio was always cranked up to a very high volume. On the days, you did not want to walk past the cross-roads or jump past the ditch to check if Parshu was around, all you needed to do was to listen very, very carefully when you got to the bend in the road. If the radio was in operation, so was Parshu.

Parshu could neither read nor write. This did not preclude him from carrying out sums in his head and coming up with random rates for our clothes based on his whim for the day. The families around the street followed the same logic when paying him. An old grievance or a story of how he once burnt old Aunt Shah’s shawl or misplaced Mrs Sathe’s silk blouse would be aired with much melodrama from the aggrieved party – Parshu followed this up with much denial and feigned sadness and indignance. A paltry sum would be dispensed either way and all was well till the next piece of clothing went missing. My mother insisted that as long as you held up your fingers and itemized the cloth count for him, the man never made a mistake. The logic failed at times and when it did, we all blamed it one of two things – Parshu’s lack of literacy skills and his undying love for a drink. On a bad day, both factors combined and became a force to be reckoned with. The more he drank, the more emphatic he became. “Your clothes will be ready in the next hour”, he would magnmously promise us kids. “I will bring them over”, he would add loftily. “I will iron them so well that your mother will think you got them dry-cleaned” would be the next generous declaration. This was usually a sure sign to go looking for the other laundry-wallah in the neighbouring street who didn’t take too kindly to being utilised as a back-up plan for the mad-as-a-hatter Parshu.

Shortly after these flamboyant offerings of spectacular service, the main door of the laundry would close and Parshu would fall into a heavy slumber, his snores mixing with the lilt of the Hindi songs in the background. An hour or two after the drink had worn away, Parshu would wake up and make his way around the suburb, sheepishly letting people know that the ironing would take longer than expected. No matter how drunk he was or how busy he was or how many clothes had gone missing, Parshu himself was always attired in crisp, well-ironed sparkling white clothes. For all the things he was not, you could always rely on him to look like he had been to the best laundromat in town! An open field has a fence too – it is just harder to spot.

“Drinking never did anyone any good Parshu”, old Baa Shah would tell him. “Your soul, you foolish man, will be possessed by the demons”. Old Baa Shah laid much in stock by the demons and this was her routine threat for everything from missed homework by the grandchildren to errant cricket balls in her garden to Parshu’s drinking.

“Chee, chee, Parshu”, the doctor’s wife would admonish him. “How long will you play this charade? You are a very bad example for the children. I have half a mind to take my business elsewhere. That should teach you! ”

Parshu was the very picture of remorse. He promised to give up drinking, he promised to never make such high claims again and he promised to never let us down again. When he found himself near the bottle, all returned to normal around the street.

It was a problem but it wasn’t a big enough problem for any of us to buy an iron, find another laundry or take our business elsewhere. We may not know this at the time but we carry the burdens of those around us more than we think.

Parshu ironed a generation of clothes for that suburb – bibs, school uniforms, clothes for visiting cousins and family, wedding sarees, last minute shirts that needed ironing – the man ironed them all.  Like a memory film unwinding in bright, garish colours, our lives and our milestones found a way into his  little shop aglow and warm with coal embers. There are people who are witnesses to your life even when you don’t know someone is watching.

You don’t miss a part of the landscape till you lose your way.  The clothes had piled up, the shop was locked and we wondered whether he had gone on a holiday without as much a word – something he had done several times before. When they did find Parshu, he had been dead for a couple of days. He had fallen asleep by the roadside after a drinking binge and somehow this time around, he didn’t get up from his slumber and  finish the part of the act where he went around retracting his promises. Miraculously, his clothes were still impeccably crisp. Those fences in the open fields are closer than we think.

For all the things we are not, there are always things that redeem us. None of us are a lost cause. We just don’t know this at the time.

Full Circles..

Dear Aunty M,

There were only two times that you didn’t uphold your promise to me. The first was one when you were supposed to visit us before my Year 10 exams to wish me luck in person – these exams were something of a milestone moment back then and you wanted to be there for the momentous occasion . It was a family tradition started by Grandpa when he was alive – all his grandchildren were seen off to the exam hall by him. When they passed in flying colours, he gifted them with their first ever grown-up wristwatch. A rite of passage, a legacy of sorts. One generation walking with the other for a while till the roads diverged and the paths swallowed you whole. When my time came, Grandpa had long passed away and everything I knew about him was through you or through Mum. But the traditions didn’t have to end because he had left us, you had assured me. New people take up old roles, this is how families survive and thrive.

There was a communal riot in town, buses were torched and a curfew was declared. There was no way you could have travelled – my mother would not hear of it. So you called up instead and wished me luck. And told me that even if the curfew lifted late at night, you would still take the night bus to be there in the morning. The curfew didn’t lift, in fact the town burnt for a few more days. You called up everyday and everyday you promised me the same thing. And the promise saw all of us through days of deserted streets, burnt rubber, inky exams and tiring late nights.

The next few years saw phone calls being exchanged from all over the globe – short calls, long calls, funny calls and calls where I realized that distance has very little to do with closeness. I called you as often as I called my mother. And she called you as often as she called me. Three sides of a triangle, each defined by the two others. Something so stable and so comforting that I didn’t ever stop to think that it could ever be any other way. I nearly called you from an amazing concert one night, I was kind of hoping you would be able to hear the songs and feel the pulsating sky like I did. So when Mum called up in tears the next day to say you had passed away during the night, I went into a state of disbelief. This is not how it was supposed to end. You had said you would be there to see Miss A grow up. And unlike the last time where a phone call saw me through, this time I was left with nothing but a heart full of memories and a sepia photo to let my daughter know about you. This was a promise you were supposed to uphold.

Three years later a part of me still aches for you incredibly. Memories do not hurt because of the days we shared but because of the days that were never meant to be.

I made pancakes for breakfast a few weeks ago – the kind of pancakes you always made for me during those endless summer holidays I spent at your place. Somewhere between the second helping and the sizzle of oil on a hot griddle, I told Miss A this was your recipe. And with that one declaration, I unwound a spool of warm summer days, long rickshaw rides, midnight icecream binges, museum trips, movie afternoons and memories of thick slumber on May mornings even as you tiptoed around trying not to wake me up though you had to leave for work.

Seasons change, people more so. But the memory of your weather beaten hand holding my little hands has remained untarnished through it all.

Today when I was ruminating over breakfast choices, a small voice asked me for pancakes. Not any pancakes, mind you – she wanted Aunt M’s pancakes.  There was a patch of sunshine on the windowsill, a bird singing in a nearby hedge. Traditions don’t leave us because people do – you taught me that, remember? Like the wrist watch you gifted me all those years ago, I now have a slice of time for eternity – the legacy of one generation passed on to another. Like always your love, your tales, your recipes slipped effortlessly from the past to the present, as strong and as tangible as ever.  Someday perhaps Ms A will tell her children about great Aunt M’s summer pancakes.  New people taking on old roles so that families survive and thrive.

The seasons came full circle today. I should have known it – you were always good at keeping your word. And your gifts always came without an expiry date.

Love,

S

PS: Was there any secret ingredient in the pancakes? I swear yours tasted way better.

Where the Koel Sings…

 I see the solitary green mango stare at me from across a crowded aisle in the rundown Asian supermarket near my place. It stands alone and proud, untouched by the chaos and the mess from the overflowing shelves all around it – the sole occupant of a now empty cardboard carton. I pick it up on an impulse and bring it back to the counter to pay for it. “$4”, the lady behind the counter tells me. $4 it is then, for a slice of firm and unripe tartness. My head is agog with ideas even as I balance it precariously on the top of all my other shopping and bring it back home. A sole green mango in a season of downpours and biting winds offers a host of endless opportunities – for an unripe mango in the winter is a harbinger of sultry summers now relegated to dusty memories.

 

A summer evening long ago – a shimmer of silk, a pile of sandals and shoes outside a neighbouring house as we sat crossed legged on the floor inside, the ladies and the girls of the neighbourhood feasting on the ambe-dal – soaked and cooked horse gram piquantly seasoned with grated raw mango and a smattering of red chillies- handed to us in leaf cups; downing the gossip, the giggles and occasional sharp bite of the chilli as the hostess passed around the ‘panha’ (the juice of unripe mangoes flavoured with jaggery and cardamom) in small steel tumblers.

 

A small hand held securely in a weather beaten one, even as we waited to cross the road, with our goodies of more ambe dal to eat later, packed securely in those green leaf cups. “Hold my hand tightly, don’t let go – we are near the main road now”, “I can’t, I am trying to eat the dal with one hand”, “Can’t you wait till we get home?”. Ah, but you couldn’t wait really, the first lesson that summer taught you was that the seasons race you by; if you waited for too long, summer was gone in the blink of an eye and you were left with an empty longing for the geriatric mango trees to blossom again.

 

Long summer afternoons, stupor in a never-ending siesta around the winding roads of the dusty town, as the whirr of the ceiling fans was occasionally punctuated by a koel’s cry in a far away mango tree. “Ah, the first messenger that the monsoons have arrived on the outskirts of the town”, the old octogenarian neighbour would say.  Sudden storms, angry, dark skies lashing out at a parched earth. Green mangoes raining on the tin roofs of the washing sheds around the neighbourhood. Teeth clamped together in a moment of pure delight as the mangoes and the chilli powder overpowered your senses. The rain, threateningly close now – on your doorstep almost. “Come in, come in now”, the mothers and the aunts and the grandmothers would shout in unison even as giant surges of powerful moonson winds lured the half dried clothing away from the clothes-lines.

 

Then there were the summer holidays in a place away from home but as good as home. Anticipation looming large in the confines of the shaded drawing room where the gaggle of cousins lay sprawled, half asleep and half awake waiting for the clock to strike four o’clock. For four o’clock was official tea time. The time when the aunts and the uncles gathered around the old, rickety dining table and downed hot tea as the hot afternoon stood sullenly outside, and ruffled our hair and humoured our requests for ice-cream and bhel and panipuri at the promenade around the now dried-up lake. “Look at the heat outside”, they would laugh, “why don’t we wait till the sun sets? How will you eat your ice-creams if the sun melts them before you can eat them?” “The poor bhel wallah”, my aunt would say, admonishing us mildly at this point, “is probably having his afternoon rest at this time. Let us wait, shall we, till he can step out for the evening and start making bhel?”

 

Late evening walks along the crowded lakeside. Bhel with raw mangoes, icecream in tiny cones that left sticky, happy tattoes of summer on your arms and elbows. The delighted squeals of children from somewhere over the lake. Crowded rickshaw rides back home to comforting meals eaten on the terrace, even as the day started to cool down. The first stars of the night, the sharp smells of mango blossoms wafting over the terraces and the balconies where summer holidays were being enacted in all their mirth. Falling asleep to the tune of All India Radio even as sleep claimed the last of the grown up cousins who had dared everyone that he would stay awake all night.

 

The king of all fruit – the Alphonso, being brought home royally in rickety wooden crates, covered with layers of soft hay. A quick glimpse before the Alphonso was relegated to the dark, cool interiors of the house, usually beneath an old bed, even as the fruit was brought out every couple of days for an aamras feast. Chins, hands and plates being covered in a golden hue as the sweet, rich tones of the mango became the subject of a summer slumber.

 

The places, the moments, the people are no longer around. They are now sepia memories in old albums, reiterating the lesson that summer taught us long ago that the seasons do waltz by, that a moment ends for a memory to be born. Those that roamed the streets with you hunting for summer’s bounty have now moved away. The streets have changed; the trees are no longer there. The loved one that held your hand as you waited in line for ice-cream is now a black and white photograph on your dressing table. Summer has long since disappeared, leaving a trail of muted and distant sounds behind.

 

The heart follows its own seasons though, and for that we should be thankful. Because sometimes a raw green mango in a lone cardboard carton in a land far away from home, takes you down memory lane again. Like an errant summer shower, a memory arrives and leaves you less parched in its wake. Because in some remote recess of the heart, the koel sings eternally of her songs of a distant land and the monsoons are always waiting on the outskirts of the town.

  

 

The Gift..

An overcast afternoon, a sleepy road. A house rousing itself from its afternoon siesta. The girl plays hopscotch on the chalk marked tiles, with the mango trees keeping a watch on her. One. Two. Three. The double jump. She has nearly made it to the end. She hears the front gate creak to life. Four. Five. Six and Turn. And Jump. The creaking of the gate stops ominously. The decibels die away in the middle of her jump. She stares at the visitor with frightened eyes even as he leans against the gate, breathing heavily, smiling at her. She stands frozen in time as he walks in through the gate. He stands unsure for a moment wondering if he should walk towards her or attempt the steps that lead up to the portico. She will have to walk past him if she is to run inside and she doesn’t feel brave enough. “You have grown taller”, he says as he walks towards her and pats her head. She catches her breath then because his breath reeks, his hand is unsteady and his eyes are bloodshot.

His trembling hand settles on her shoulder and she stifles the urge to run, to scream, to push his hand away. “I got you a gift”, he says even as his hands fumble inside his pockets. A soiled handkerchief and a rolled up note are the only things he find. “I did get you a gift”, his voice is plaintive now, pleading even. “Would you like my bus ticket? Do you still play with such things?”. The ticket is torn and in a sorry state – it also reeks – just like him, she thinks.

There is a quickening of steps and the portico door opens. Her mother sounds calm and measured “What are you doing here?”, she asks in a tone that is strangely clipped and unfriendly. He smiles at her and staggers down the path towards the steps. “I came to see you, it has been a long time”, his eagerness and joy shine through the gloomy afternoon.

She opens the door to let him inside and wonders if anyone saw him. Her face softens when she sees the scared face of her girl,  “Do you want to come in for some tea now?”, she asks. The girl shakes her head, she is petrified and the thought of seeing him across the table fills her with dread. “Send Dad out to play with me”, she pleads. “Your father needs to have a talk with your uncle”, her mother explains. And then almost to herself “I do too, it has been long coming”. “Use the back door if you need anything” she says and then the steps hasten down the hallway.

She hears the voices then, a slurred apology, a firm tone, a soft voice asking how long he intends to hurt the people he loves in this inhuman way. She hears words like drinking and addiction and shame thrown around. She hears a muffled sob and she knows it is her Uncle because her mother is too strong to cry. She hears her father’s tones asking questions and a half-frenzied outburst in a heavy voice. She hears the door opening and her fears give her wings. She races down the garden path to where the old storage tank drips water in concentric circles on to the moss beneath. She has been told to stay away from the terrace but today she needs to escape. She grips the rickety old ladder with both hands and makes her way to the terrace. There is a stock of chopped wood there and she hides behind it. She can hear indistinct sounds from the rooms below but she feels safe here. She knows in some corner of her heart that her Uncle wouldn’t hurt her but a small, nagging voice tells her that he is not himself and that perhaps he could hurt himself someway.

Her father finds her an hour later – she has fallen asleep, leaning against the logs and her clothes smell of sawdust and the humidity of the impending rains. He picks her up and guides her down the ladder even as she leans against his shoulder and tries to invoke feelings of safety. “He has gone”, her father says. “And he wouldn’t have hurt you – but I saw him off on the bus a while ago”.

“He is not coming back”, her mother tells her. “He is not coming back till he gets better or till he wants to get better. He is not coming back because he knows he scared you”. She feels sorry for him then and wonders if he will know when to get down from the bus and she wonders if someone awaits him at the end of his journey. She feels better when she sees three teacups on the side table.

“Why did you hide on the terrace?”, her mother asks her, without once reminding her of the rules that usually forbid her to access the terrace.

“Because if he could barely walk, he wouldn’t be able to climb up the ladder”, she whispers.

She doesn’t see him for 10 years after that. He doesn’t want to get better, she assumes. Or maybe he doesn’t want to scare her again. So when her mother takes her along to a wedding and he greets her, she wants to disappear up the ladder again. His breath still reeks and his eyes are still bloodshot. He is still unsteady on his feet and his hand trembles – only one hand works now, the other one stays limp by his side. He has aged tremendously and he smiles at her in delight. “You have grown taller”, he says as she shirks away from his pat. She wanders around her mother’s old house, a house she has only seen a couple of times and stops when she sees a photo of her mother with him. She is too late though, he has walked up to her and he sees her taking in the photo. “You look like her, you look so much like her”, he smiles through his failing eyesight. She doesn’t know what to say to this old, frail, man. He is as much a stranger to her as the smiling elder brother, her mother is looking adoringly at, in the sepia photo.

Her mother takes her to the top of the house and shows her a hide-out. “I spent ages here, hiding from the world. I could tell when your Uncle was home – he always came zooming down the hill there on his shiny, new bike”. She looks at her mother with new eyes, “Did you hide here from him?” she asks and her mother laughs, “He was the best elder brother anyone could have asked for”, she says with a faraway voice. “Maybe we all stopped waiting for him to return – maybe no one was around when he did decide to get home”, she whispers.

She receives the news of the death of her uncle an year later. He died in his sleep, she hears and she wonders if he looked at the sepia photograph of his sister before he died. She wonders if he knew how his younger sister waited for him everyday, even after she turned him away.

Years later, her mother hands her a stack of old LP records that belonged to him, in another place and another time, when things like music and song coloured his world. As she goes through the records, her mother gives her a heavy, gold chain wrapped in fine muslin . “It was my mother’s and then mine and now it is yours”, she says in a whisper. “I gave it to him many years ago, when he needed some help to battle his addiction – he never used it because he wanted it to be returned to its new, rightful owner – you”.

She knows suddenly that after all those years, that the gift he was supposed to have given her then, has come back to her. And then she wonders what it would have been like to have the gift accompanied by a trembling pat…

She has been wearing the gold chain ever since – as a reminder that even at our worst, there is some goodness that sustains us enough to create a memory for the ones we leave behind, long after we have packed up and left. And that even after you have lost the tryst, someone will remember the way you played the game and hope you made it home….safe.

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