The Love of a Good Woman

The house stands sullen and gloomy; he hasn’t even bothered to leave the portico lights on. The front door is ajar and a diffused glow along with muffled, static, sounds tells me he is home. He has to be, his whole life revolves around the 7:30 PM news for God’s sake. He kept the volume on mute when she was dying but he did not switch the TV off. By the time the newsreader had moved to the sports section, she was bloody dead and gone. I think he switched off the TV then. Funny how the only time he turned the TV off by himself was when she was no longer around to see him do so.

The steps haven’t been swept for some days and they creak under me. I knock on the door before pushing it open and I pause then, because I realize that this will be the first time that I am in their house without her. Without Aunt Nina, with her loud laugh, her awful jokes, her sweet tea served in white china cups and her frangipani perfume. Without Aunt Nina, a second cousin of my dead mother’s, who stood in as a surrogate mother for me through much of my life and looked after me like one of her own, even though she had none of her own. She was the larger than life, chirpy, beautiful woman who solved most of life’s problems with her trademark cheer and cups of tea. And perhaps because she was larger than life, she married him with his reticent ways and his mumbling, shuffling manner and his grey flannels. He smelt of the old tobacco he smoked and he epitomized all that was vague and grey. He reminded me of an English autumn even as spring gaudily flaunted her wares around his garden. As Aunt Nina cranked up her radio and sang noisily, he smoked his pipe and picked out grammatical errors from the editorial of the “Financial Times”.

I loved her unconditionally but I would soon learn that even when we love someone without any barriers, we do not necessarily understand their choices. I never saw him give her a tender glance, or buy her flowers. He must have been young and charming once but I had no recollections of this, all I knew was that he was ageless because youth had forgotten him.

When Aunt Nina fought her battle with cancer and lost, he didn’t emerge either stronger or softer from her tryst. Instead, he believed that she would tide over everything like she always had, and he pretended that if he ignored the death knocks on the door, they would perhaps go away. I don’t know if he thanked her for the memories, or if he went through her sepia albums with her as she lay dying. Aunt Nina grew worried about him in her last days and made me promise I would visit every week. As she lay fretting over him, he cranked up the volume on the afternoon Poker show and made notes in his barely legible, scrawling handwriting, in his dog-eared diary. If he needed to win a hand to equal his losses with an unctuous fate, he shouldn’t have bothered because he was already losing her. I could have hollered at him then, for being oblivious to the love of a lifetime. “He won’t know what to do without me, how will he handle being by himself?” she had sobbed into her sterile pillows. If she weren’t so sick and if I hadn’t loved her so much, I would have told her that the only thing that could have elicited any emotion from him was perhaps a complete banning of television.

There are places in a man’s heart where the love of a good woman cannot reach and I hated to tell her that for all that love claims it can do, it cannot vanquish the barriers of indifference. I had wept for her instead, for her life that had been wasted around his silences and his indifferences to her role in his life. I had cried for the best years of her life gone unnoticed, even as I knew that a cherished memory is the eulogy of a lifetime. But I had to keep my word and visit him, for a promise to a dying person is really a promise to oneself and that is why such promises are often so hard to break.

So, I walk in through the door and sit down opposite him and ask him how he has been. He waits till the ad break comes on before he mumbles a greeting. I try not to look at the mantelpiece where he has put up her photo taken a few weeks before she died. Her face is gaunt and she wears make-up on her protruding cheek bones. Her hair is wispy and her smile is obscenely brave. His eyes travel to the photo and I hear a sigh escape his lips. I pretend I haven’t noticed because I don’t want to dignify his pain – the man has no emotions, this much I am sure of! “I wanted to remember her like that”, he suddenly says. “Not when she was young and sprightly and beautiful, because youth is always beautiful”. I simply stare at him as he makes the first admission of her death and therefore of her life. “Not many people look beautiful in the face of defeat, she managed to do that, you know”, he is wincing now.

I suddenly want to shake him hard, really hard – and ask him why he didn’t once tell her all this. Why she died the way she did, with what I am sure were cruel silences and an empty miasma of unsaid words and unacknowledged feelings. Instead we both find ourselves in front of her old kitchen cabinet, and he puts the kettle on and brings out her china cups. “It is a crime to judge love by its expression, she always said that”, he says. As he makes me tea the way only she could and adds a sprinkling of sugar like she used to, I know suddenly that silences are not always unanswered questions, sometimes they are merely the questions that don’t need asking.

He shuffles back towards the TV, fumbling with his watch. Through the corner of my eyes, I see him nod at her photo even as he settles into his chair and picks up the remote.


A Love for All Seasons

[Edited to add: This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance completely unintentional. 🙂 ]

On every Sunday, at 3:00 PM sharp, for as long as I care to remember, I call up my mother. As the phone rings and I wait for her to pick up, I trace circles on the floor with my toe. I hear the dull reverberation of the first ring and then the second ring and then the  subsequent ringing fills me with despair as I wait for my mum to answer. It will be my father who picks up the phone now, my mother never takes this long. She actually waits for my calls because for all the things that I am not, I am very predictable. My mother says that you can set the clock by my calls.

There are many things you can set the clock by. Disappointment is one, once disappointment discerns that you can provide it with a home, it will loyally cling to you, for all it is worth. You think you can shake it off, but like a lost pup, it will get home before you do and wait patiently on the door-step till you let it in. Sadness needs a place to sleep at night, mirth is a vagabond, my mother says. My mother deeply believes in predictability. Everything in nature has a season; the world around us is cyclic. The universe repeats its acts in patterns and all random events are a part of this. Nothing is ever unpredictable, she says. If something takes you by surprise, it is because you didn’t read the clues and recognize the pattern.

My mother knows that my weekly call is my place to sleep at night, my home coming. As I wait for her to pick up the phone, but as expected my father answers instead and my heart takes a sad plummet. We run through the gamut of gruff greetings, my Dad and I. I let him tell me that I can do better, that he has dreams for me. “At least, think of your mother”, he implores. Yeah, that is right; bring in the big guns this early on. My Dad (and you wouldn’t really know this), knows the landscape when it comes to organizing guilt trips.

I refuse to take this bait. So I tell him, rather bluntly now because I am done with talking to him, that my mother equates love with acceptance. That not once during all my weekly phone calls has she ever asked me to be anyone else or do things differently. I half expect him to go ballistic but all that happens is that his voice trails off here. Normally I would have accentuated about my mother’s omnipresent brand of love but today I am past caring, I am just looking for her. “Can you pass the phone to Mum please?” I plead. The circles at my toes are now whirlpools threatening to drown me as he starts another tirade, this time punctuated by sighs. It is not his good day, I can tell. I cannot get a word in and he has started rambling about how happy we all were when I was a child – which is always a sign that I won’t get to talk to her.

I know that at this very moment, as my Dad is unspooling a sepia memory of a trip to Sea World when I was 11, my mother is standing at the back of our family room, partly hearing every word and partly leaning against the wall for support. She is looking at the back of his head where his starched collar meets his graying hair. She is pushing away her own wispy strands of hair, and fingering the filigree pendant she always wears.

I can feel her impatience and her silence pushing itself towards me. She won’t say a word though. She will wait for her turn but she will not push him aside and get on the phone to talk. He has her in the corner, with his larger than life presence, and with his black and white theories on how the world should behave. My mother has always been a frail presence when my father is around. It is only when she is alone with me that she comes into her own. She lets me be myself too, a gift that I have learnt to never take for granted. Away from the one-dimensional world that my father has thrust upon us, my mother and I find consolation in our stolen conversations when my father isn’t around to “set things right” as he normally likes to.

Last week my father was away and I spent an entire day with my mother – I do that sometimes. I cooked her favourite meal and set her plate with matching napery like she loves and even allowed her to pick the movie she wanted to watch. I sat down next to her, held her hand and talked – you know the kind of stuff mothers and daughters talk about – the shoe sale at the fashion mall, the secrets ingredients in the recipes that have always been in the family, how my eyes crinkle just like hers when I laugh. You carry the keys to entire worlds in our hearts and when you find the right person to share this piece of yourself with; our worlds suddenly expand and take on new shapes. There is this world that my mother and I share, a space that my father will never have the chance to know anything about.

“When you are comfortable in your own space, you don’t need anyone else”, my mother said that day. When I was growing up and hovering on the threshold of teenage angst, she let me do whatever I wanted. She lingered on the fringe, watching and waiting and tending to my hurts, but any attempt of hers to get closer had me backing off even as she took tentative steps closer to me to bridge the gaps.  That is when we learnt to deal in silences because if there are enough silences, words can acquire meaning too. My mother has taught me this lesson and I now live my life by it.

She stayed when everyone else left, when the nights were inky dark and when I couldn’t bear to get out of bed in the mornings. Every failure of mine was healed by her mere presence. She was there in my room holding my hand, as I rocked myself to sleep in tears; outside the school gates where I was a failure at most things big time and where they picked on me mercilessly because I was the official class weirdo. She soothed me from outside the bathroom door as I lay on the floor pondering about life and death and that precarious state in between, and she picked me up from smoky bars as I waited for her to take me home when I had lost myself, yet again.

The easiest gift is a presence; it is also the hardest because a presence can be suffocating the minute it becomes aware of itself. My mother has never crossed that line. But today I need her because I have been feeling lost again and I am angry at her for not understanding this. The anger reaches my throat and stays stuck there till I feel a bitter taste in my mouth. The bitter taste becomes a salty one because I am now crying. Why can’t she see how much I need her, why will she not talk and just ask him to shut up with his inane tales and reprimands and tell me she will come over now to pick me up or something?

I can picture her frail face, her dark eyes and her windswept hair. I can see the blue veins that have started to show on her hands. I can smell her frangipani perfume and almost hear her soft voice. My temples are throbbing now. I start screaming for her over my father’s shoulder across the phone. She has to hear me now, she will be at the phone in a minute, she will drive over like she always does and she will pat me till I fall asleep. She will leave before I wake up, but the room will smell of frangipani and the cushions will have an indentation from where she was sitting the previous night and I will be able to go on for a while longer.

I close my eyes, tears streaming down and wait for her “Shshh, I am here” but all that happens is that my father’s tones get raspier and his voice gives away to tears as if to match mine. “Listen to me”, he cries, “Please, please listen to me. Come home because your mother cannot come and pick you up. You cannot keep waiting for her to come to you – you have to come home and we will talk about this. You have to understand that calling up to talk to her and not talking to me is not the solution to anything”.  Damn, he is having a worse day. I am in a hurry to hang up now because I know how this is going to end. He will insist I need help, and that I need to pull myself together. I mumble a quick goodbye; I will have to call up when he is not around so that I can actually talk to her. As I rush to replace the receiver, I hear his agonized whisper, “She died frigging years ago, Allie, and you still do not allow her any rest….”

Call Me…

He has had this dialogue with her nearly every morning as far as he can remember for the last 31 years. And yet she asks with a defiant sort of hope everyday if he really needs a second cup of coffee after breakfast.

“If you don’t mind!”, he says with a slight grimace like always. She pours him another cup of coffee then and sighs, just a little bit. He broods silently- is he supposed to feel guilty over this simple pleasure?  One of these days he is going to say no, just to hear her reaction. About time she felt guilty over the way she makes such a big deal over such a harmless pleasure.

“See you then”, he says as he gathers his bag and straightens his tie in the hallway mirror. He catches sight of her through the mirror – her greying hair is tied back, her glasses have vapour on them courtesy the hot water she is running to do the dishes and her housecoat looks faded. She nods in reply and reminds him to check his phone and keys.

“I won’t be around for lunch when he gets back from his half-day shift”, she adds.

“Can’t you come back early?” he asks. Like an old habit, like a piece of his past, like the wrinkles on his hand, he now knows no other definition of reality.

“I have my annual lunch with the book-club ladies”, she says.

“Oh well then” , he mumbles. He waits for her “Call me when you get there” that she says on most days as he is leaving. She doesn’t say that today because she is in a hurry and she is amused at his childlike insistence that he wants her home for lunch. You marry a boy, he becomes a man and somewhere along the way he becomes a boy again.

He gets into the car, mildly bothered that she didn’t remind him to call her. He cannot hear very well these-a- days, perhaps she did ask and he didn’t hear her. Ha, let her wait for his call today. Maybe he will say he didn’t call because it is annoying to hear her grumble about the second cup of coffee everyday. A smile spreads across his face at the idea.

He doesn’t see the semi -trailer changing lanes behind him, neither does he hear the frantic honking because he is busy humming. He doesn’t feel anything either and later everyone will agree that it was for the best.

She pauses to look at the phone as she is about to leave for lunch. He is probably downing more coffee at the factory, exultant that she is not around to raise her eyebrows at him. He hasn’t called yet – surely he knows he is supposed to uphold his part of the concord!  She decides not to surprise him by coming home early. She won’t be the one calling him this time, that is for sure.

The Seduction

He looked at her with a mild wave of irritation washing over him. She was it again, biting her nails as she chatted on the phone with someone, her hair unkempt and pulled back into a pony tail with a big red ribbon (a ribbon for God’s sake, who wore ribbons in their hair in this age), with her frumpy track suit and her t-shirt that was two sizes too big for her with her high pitched shrill giggle interjecting her talk every now and then. He cringed inwardly as he remembered how in the days of their courtship, he had found the giggle alluring, sexy even and for the umpteenth time he wished that the trappings of matrimony hadn’t turned out to be such a damp squib. He sighed knowing that her phone conversation would take a long time and that there would be no quiet till she had finished saying and hearing all.


She was gesturing to him, he could see that out of the corner of his eyes, but there was no way, he was going to give her his full attention, not now, please, not now. “Excuse me for a minute”, he heard her say and then the all too familiar sound of “Sanjuu” rang around the room. “What is it?” he asked her with barely concealed irritation, as she pointed to something bubbling and hissing on the cooker…”Turn it off, it is done…the soup for tonight’s dinner” , she pointed to a cauldron on the cooker and as she did so, the bracelets around her wrists jingled delicately. Smiling at his bemused face, she went back to her conversation, updating whoever it was at the other end, about the recipe she had used and how she had nearly burnt her food. He muttered to himself as he made his way over to the kitchenette to do the needful, and as he passed her on his way, the lingering aroma of ginger and garlic and coriander wafted towards him…for one crazy minute, he wanted to rush to her dressing table, grab the ornate perfume bottle of “Moonshine” that he had gifted her three years ago and spray her with it – just spray her madly, irrationally and forcefully till she stepped out of the dusty, mouldy garbs of domesticity that had claimed her. The temptation passed as soon as it came and he went back to his writing.


He didn’t notice her getting off the phone and making his way to his desk, for the next thing he knew was that she was standing right behind him wiping her hands on her hips and peering over his shoulder. “Is this a new poem?”, she asked as she surveyed the sheaf of plain lined papers with his flowing, cursive handwriting stacked neatly at the far side of his side.  “It is a sonnet actually”, he hoped this would be quick, it gave him no pleasure to explain the intricacies of his work to her, he knew she didn’t listen beyond the first couple of sentences anyway. “Always too technical for me, I hardly understand a word of all those things ”, she would grin helplessly at parties when someone asked her what he was currently working on. At such times, he felt, she almost apologized more for him, than she did for herself.


Once she had eased her way out of discussions of his work, she was free to mingle with the crowd, to swap recipes and to giggle about some seemingly trite thing till it was time to go home. 


The explanation that it was a sonnet that he was writing seemed to satisfy her and without asking any further questions, she moved away, humming to herself.  She dutifully reported the phone conversation to him, giggling all over again, and repeating a couple of things for his benefit. He wondered if she recognized his terse tone, his monosyllabic answers and his complete lack of interest in something that was obviously turning out to be the highlight of her day.


“Do you remember that poem that you wrote for me after the first time we met?”, she asked as she suddenly re-appeared at his desk. He looked up with surprise, taking trips down memory lane was a rare past-time for her, the present was where she was utterly comfortable. She could not be expected to weigh herself down with an era now past or just as she could not be expected to conjure up images for the future. Now and here were the only tenses of time she was familiar with, everything else, he surmised either was forgotten or not ruminated upon. “It was a poem wasn’t it?”, she prodded , “Or was it a sonnet?”. Her eyes lit up as she credited herself upon recognizing this fine distinction in the words that he was a master at conjuring up.


“It was a poem”, he answered, wondering where this was going. “You thought of me at day break or dawn or some such thing, didn’t you”, she was at it again.

He decided to ignore the bland simile she had presented.  The lines presented themselves to him, clear and precise, like he had penned them just yesterday and for a minute he mulled over all that could have been.


When night flees, gathering her robe

And dawn peers over the horizon

At a pristine promise, yet untouched

I sift through your memories

And paint a sunrise for the day that will be


When the seasons serenade the earth

And spring arrives with music in her steps

Ripe with new beginnings and dreams

I sift through your memories

And gather rosebuds for the times that will be


He repeated them for her sake with his voice taking on a new tenderness and depth and she listened, just like she used to in another era and time. He had never dared to ask her back then if those lines or any lines from any poem for that matter, stirred her soul and released a longing inside her, like it always did for him. When you are not sure you have the strength to bear the answer, your questions go unasked, he had read somewhere long ago. It was a truth that he now solemnly practised with her, because he was weary of asking her anything or of expecting a response that could have matched his intensity and his anticipation.


For a minute they stared at each other and he took in her raven black hair, her brown eyes, the fullness of her mouth and the smile that was playing at the corner of her lips.

“It sounds beautiful”, she said, and then added “I am not even sure I really understand it or anything, but it sounds nice…”. He smiled wanly and managed a thank you. He wondered if she had uttered something similar when she heard it for the first time. It seemed like eons ago now and he could see her in his mind’s eye with her head leaning against his shoulder as she chewed on a blade of grass with her eyes half closed. He had been confident back then, that she would be the inspiration for many, many of his creations. It hurt him to remind himself that his writing was now more of an escape from the mundane quality she seemed to emanate towards him and the surroundings.


“Did you ever get that poem published?”, she asked all of a sudden. He knew that she considered his work done, when he published something, in vain he had tried to tell her that his creations, any creations for that matter was an act of completion in itself for the creator, and that no work of art could be tagged with such labels. She had dismissed his theories with her smile and with the logic that no composition was complete till it reached its audience. He had to confess that he had been struck dumbfounded by her ideas, he never expected her to give the whole cycle of art and its creation so much of thought. Then again, like she said, she hadn’t given it much thought per se, she was just extending the analogy of what one did with a cooked meal or anything else that was to be consumed.


“Nah, I never got it published, there are many such poems and verses I have, that were written for special occasions…at least the occasions were special back then ”, he confessed, “They are not for publication, they are private emotions”


“You should get this one published though”, she laughed. “It is just the kind of thing that your readers would love, wouldn’t they, all those words conjuring up images of morning and of night disappearing with the darkness”.  She cleared his desk and made herself comfortable on the glass topped cherry stained table. He noticed that she was rubbing at a turmeric stain on her t-shirt sleeve, like always it amazed him that she seemed to accept such things as part of her daily ritual and they rarely bothered her.


He wondered how she could be so blatantly disloyal to what he considered a very special gift that he had presented her with. Didn’t she realize that he had written each word with her in mind, that her fragrance had filled his senses as the words flew out of his pen, that he could feel the warmth of her body as she leaned in towards him to tell him something…how could she not feel that he was violating something by sharing those moments with the world? “It would be sacrilege”, he mumbled, “I was sharing a piece of myself with you then, it was our love, it wasn’t love that sought to be put up for review”.


“It does not bother you then, that your words touch me but not in the way you want them to?”, she asked. “ I mean, I am not one of your poetic types, I can never respond in kind – we know that don’t we?”. He looked up sharply to see if she appeared upset but she was calm, composed even.


“You should get it published”, she said, her voice strong and steady, “There is no infidelity here from your side here, some one will read it and sigh over it. How would you describe it – yes, maybe some young beating heart will recite these lines to his lady love on a summer morning, maybe an old couple will read the poem together as the moon comes up to light the wintry sky. Don’t you see, the love you sought to express, will somehow find its way? That is the best we can do for each other, sometimes letting go is the only way you can reclaim something”.


He stared at her as she went on, for a split second he couldn’t believe she was the same person whose giggling had infuriated him a while ago.


“I sometimes think of all your readers as your mistresses”, she smiled lightly, her voice almost musical with its low pitch, “I need to share you with them but that is the only way, that you will come back home to me, for at the end of the day, you do not need to woo me, like you need to woo them. I am the part of your life that can exist without this seduction”.


Even as the words sunk in, she jumped off his desk and walked towards the kitchen, picking up the same tune, that she had stopped humming a while ago. For a long time, he stared after her and then kept staring in the direction of the kitchen.


After a while, he went back to writing, only this time he knew that sometimes when you set out to leave, your footsteps can find their way back home.



Old Love

Old love. O-l-d l-o-v-e. She half mutters to herself as they crank up the radio for her to hear. It is late afternoon, patchy sunshine lies on the grass and a brave ray manages to reach her gnarled ankle. Time hangs heavy in mid-air. Just like her, time has nowhere else to go at the moment. Everything starts off as a ritual, spring arrives gaudily, summer follows on its toes breathlessly, you throw in a few autumns along the way, and from nowhere a pattern emerges. Time still doesn’t have a place to go to but you do and therefore you don’t notice the slow ticking of the clock. You miss the fact that clocks are never in a hurry. You miss the fact that one iteration leads to another one but you cannot break the mould, for if there is a pattern inside the circle, there is a void outside it and after a while a void can drown you, so it is safer to be confined endlessly. But a void is filling her up now, drowning her even, as she follows the clock and she is in no hurry this time and she has nowhere else where she can be. She knows now that there is nothing universal about time, a minute is an eternity when accompanied by old age.

In a short while, the sunshine will pass, easing away, walking backwards like a young child that has lingered too long: slow, retraceable steps at first and then a sudden about turn followed by a quick scampering of feet along the horizon. Not that it matters really for it has been a long time now since the sunshine managed to make its way inside her heart, she seems to be a victim of an endless dusk. He has been gone for a long time, she has spent more years cherishing his memories than holding his hand. She has aged without him, he wasn’t around when she noticed the first signs of grey hair, he wasn’t around when she learnt that time keeps a counter for you and paints your skin with wrinkles as a reward, she didn’t have to ask him to speak up because silences are always loud and especially from those who have long since gone on their own journeys. She has talked to him sometimes, when she was by herself, she would ask a question and wait for a response. When none was forthcoming, she would shake her head at where he should have been sitting. “Always a man of few words”, she would mutter as she got up with her aching knees and clear his plate for him. After a while, she stopped the role play, sometimes the characters you create don’t depart when the curtain falls, they hang around and start demanding their own lines. Sometimes, worse still, they wander away in the middle of a performance and you realize that for all the power you think you exude over your imagination, you don’t have the last word.

She goes through his words, she sifts through the times they had spent together, she lives a parallel life where she has accepted that he isn’t around and she very much is. And all the time the counter has ticked and the wrinkles have arrived, the reality of the past has been blurred and the days have become a jumbled maze falling over each other to get to the end. She smiles to herself for she knows that her days of chasing recollections are almost over. And so as the sunshine tiptoes out, and the radio hums an unfinished symphony, she gathers her wrap around her and with trembling hands opens a parchment that has seen better days. She traces his writing on the paper and thinks of his face as he went off to war and knows that in her heart, he came back a long time ago.

His words spring out and for a minute sunshine abounds everywhere.

There will be a summer some day
In a hidden corner of my heart
When an icy fog shrouds
Everything that I once knew

Through eyes that can only see
A few scattered memories
I will see you walking
Towards me, this time forever

And life will come full circle
As I hold on firmly this time
I’ll walk with you into a promised land
Leaving any parting behind us.

Old Love, O-L-D L-O-V-E,the radio continues to croons. She half nods to herself as they prepare to wheel her back to her room. She wonders if she should tell them about her old love – not a love that grew old along with her but a love that stayed around un-exorcised even when it died a young death.