Dealing with Death

tomb

One among the few blessings of having a nomadic childhood was the shield against facing death of family members. Having spent most of my childhood outside my home-town meant that I did not get to witness the dead body of near and dear ones. The news of someone’s death would arrive in the form of nerve-wrecking mid-night telegrams or mostly inaudible telephonic trunk-calls. As a result, at times, the mourning would be for a hail and hearty relative instead of the actual dear departed. This would also result in mild arguments if it was ‘Khoka Dada’ or ‘Chota Dada’ who had heeded to the heavenly call and made his departure. My participation in the grief and mourning would be to pass on glasses of water to my emotional mother who would genuinely cry her heart out till her nose would turn blood-red and the eyes would almost be ready to pop out! The worse side of the grief would be in the form of eating only vegetarian meals till the period of mourning was over. I suspect, mostly as a compensation for their absence at the side of the grief-struck relatives, my parents would take extra care to organise a bland, vegetarian mourning period. The only treat during this time would be the little memoirs surrounding the departed soul which my parents would share with us. This would be followed by the arrival of a detailed letter from my grand-mother via a blue Inland Letter. A writer that she was, she would pen each and every detail of the days and moments before and after the death – inviting yet another barrage of tears from my mother. This time I too would join in the tear-shedding ceremony . Being an imaginative kid, I would almost see the heart-wrenching final moments being played out before my eyes – tickling my tear glands to shed enough tears.

Looking back, it had it’s own flip side too. Having been away from such mourning and witnessing-the-final-moments, I’ve always struggled to face death as such. As I grew up I found it hard to accept death as a natural process. Every night I would sit to pray, reading out the names of the probable list of relatives whom I would suspect to be counting their days. Then I would pray with all my might to keep them ‘safe, healthy and happy’ for ‘another hundred years’. But God obviously had different plans and most often than not, names would be struck off in random order with alarming rapidity.

The first time I faced death was when I was in sixth or seventh class. We were unfortunately stationed in my hometown for those years. That day it had rained hard. At school we hardly paid attention to our class – keeping our gaze fixed outside the window. It rained incessantly, dollops of black clouds created disarrayed maze in the sky – promising more rains. When the school gave up we made it a point to find out each and every water-filled pothole and waddle into those dirty waters with our canvass shoes. And that would mean travelling by school bus with naked feet –pretending to keep the shoes aside to ‘dry’. That was a strange kind of romanticism – comparing the size of toes with each other, discovering chipped off nail-polish in some of our toes-nails, trying to hide bruises…..

As my school bus halted at my stoppage, I found my cousin sister standing with an umbrella. It was unusual for her to come to pick me up but I happily dangled my wet shoes to the hook of my fingers and hopped down from the bus.

“Come fast, there is a disaster back home”, she pulled me along with a sense of urgency.

The wind has turned tumultuous, making it difficult to keep the umbrella upright. The rain had become fast and nosier. And with my shoes still dangling from my finger, my wet socks in my pocket, I ran with my bare feet. As I entered our premises I saw people and more people. The crowd had gathered not in front of our house exactly, but in front of the next house. Sighting me, my mother came out sobbing.

“Your ‘Gachh Dadu’ is no more”, she hugged me tight.

‘Gachh Dadu’ was my grandma’s sister’s husband. Strict though he was, we had an immense attraction towards him and his garden. He loved gardening immensely and hence we called him ‘Gachh Dadu’ – ‘Tree Grandpa’.

I had met him that very morning – trying to trim off leaves that had turned yellow. How can a man simply die! For my eleven years it was an unfathomable mystery! I tiptoed to the room where his body was kept. There were sound of sobs, wails, murmurs of reminiscing his last moments. I looked at his face closely. He seemed asleep – there was no pain, no anguish. A small dish with two green chillies and a neatly sliced lemon waited for the unfinished meal. I tried to observe if by chance there was any movement in his body. There was none. I waited for tears, I waited for sadness to engulf me but I was too stunned to react. Rather I tiptoed away to his garden. The untimely squall had left his garden in a rummage. The petals of Balsam – once planted in a neat array of colors – lay strewn here, there and everywhere. The rain was incessant. Like a girl possessed I picked up the wet petals – as many as I could- withing the squeeze of my small palms. The petals would slip away every now and then but I wouldn’t give up. Somehow I kept feeling that the garden was mourning it’s master. For a baffled me, that was the only way I could carry on the continuity of the cinema called Life. Looking back, it seems strange what I did but perhaps that was the only way an eleven year old could mourn.

From then on I had witnessed several deaths. Being a part of a joint family meant an alarming regularity in births and deaths. But what I can perhaps never forget is the death of my paternal grandparents. Being brought up by them, I was too close to them. So, the grief is still intact.

My grandfather died few months after the birth of my son. Though he would talk of death often, that Christmas he called everyone –including the ones who worked in our office. From hs little wallet he took out money for each asking them to buy a Christmas gift of their choice.

“This will my last Christmas”, he had smiled.

“Come on grandpa, you are healthy and hearty”, we had laughed.

But true to his words, from Christmas onwards, his health began to fail. He had no disease as such but he gradually became bed-ridden – kind of surrendering to his old age.

Around March beginning he wouldn’t get up from his bed. He would have very little food.

‘He has to be given nutrition, otherwise….”. my doctor uncle had pronounced.

So, we had family meetings every now and then to discuss the different food options. This resulted in the fact that each of his children and grand-children would bring in a variety of food – from fresh fish from the pond to light stew to watery soup. One of us even brought in Spirullina formulation. A quiet and gentle person that he was, he willingly surrendered to the whims of his caregivers. Only the Spirullina was a bit too much for him. Having taken a mouthful, his faced transformed to that of horror till he literally spewed out the contents of his mouth – much to his own dismay.

It was a Sunday. And one of our well-wishers had brought home the priest. “I think we should give him a final communion”, the priest had pronounced. The word ‘final’ hit us hard – my cousin sister and me.

“What does he mean by Final? Whose final?”, my cousin had fumed in anger.

“He will kill grandpa with his words”, I had shot back angrily.

Thankfully we were not within his ear-shot.

Most of us were reluctant but grandma insisted.

“Would you be able to take communion?”, my grandma whispered into his ears.

He smiled and nodded his head in affirmation.

The priest prayed the prayer of Holy Communion, barely audible, grandpa’s lips moved to join in the prayers.  Lying in his death bed, he opened his mouth to take in the Holy Communion. He then closed his eyes with a sort of satisfaction.

That day my mother had cooked a mild stew which he had had to his heart’s content – though just a spoonful or so. That day my mother had also cooked a special sea-fish for us. I don’t know why but I still remember the exact taste – that special garlicky flavour. Almost no one ate that day. But I ate. Contrary to my usual practice, I took almost three heaped helpings of rice. I felt ashamed but I ate. I do not know, perhaps that was my way of finding solace.

At around 2:00 pm, grandpa opened his eyes once. He tried hard to look at the clock.

“What time is it?”, he whispered in the lowest of voices.

“It is almost 2’o clock Dadu”

“Have you all had your food?”, he asked in almost inaudible voice.

Having known that we have all had our food, he shut his eyes again.

We all sat surrounding him. One of my cousins who had work elsewhere came rushing. She was the only one remaining to arrive.

My grandpa opened his eyes once again.

“Have you come?”, he asked softly.

“Yes grandpa”. She held his frail hand.

“Praise the Lord”, he used all his might to utter the line that was on his lips forever.

It was 4:00 pm by then. His breathing became softer, scantier. In another half an hour he was gone – surrounded by his ever loving family.

My second aunt held on to me and sobbed, “You know, till I grew up I used to sleep with father. I had this strange habit of tucking my nose in his bosom and sleep. He had a strange soft smell in his body. I used to call that ‘my Baba smell’. Just now, as I was bending down over his body I could still get that smell – my Baba smell”. Of the many things, I have never forgotten this line.

Five years after my grandpa’s death my grandma died. In line with her strong character, she never exhibited emotional outbursts after grandpa’s death. Infact she was the one who had arranged for everyone’s food the day grandpa had died. But somehow, somewhere there was something mildly different about grandma post his death. She clung on to his belongings – his radio, torch, com, diary……She wouldn’t show but she was breaking bit by bit.  Arrogant that she was, she would never have medicines regularly, nor visit the doctor.

“You people don’t have to worry. I am too impatient to suffer. I would simply fall on the road and die”, she had declared proudly.

But contrary to her belief, she spent almost two weeks in the hospital.

When I went to see her at the hospital I wouldn’t believe that my robust, arrogant, know-all grandma would lie so limp and frail in the hospital bed with an oxygen mask over her face. Eyeing me, she signed me to come close to her.

“My diary. Can you get my diary?”

“No, no grandma. They will not allow you to write. Once you go home you can write”, I tried to explain.

“Then can you atleast bring a piece of paper and a pen?”, she struggles as she spoke.

I was not sure why she wanted that but I ran outside to find out if there was any pen or paper available. One of my aunts tore the white part of an envelope and gave me. Another one gave me a pen.

As I took those to her, she seemed visibly happy.

With whatever remaining strength, she pulled up her hand fixed with saline drip. Balancing her hand and the pen somehow she scribbled a message.

“For all of you”, she smiled, handing over the little note.

Already emotional that I was I couldn’t bear to wait any further. I rushed out with the note. I opened the piece of paper. Inside it, were scribbled these words: “May you all be well and happy forever by the grace of God”.

A week after these my grandma passed away. Her umpteen knick-knacks stayed behind – her unfinished pickle in a secret jar, her hair-oil infused comb with a string of her hair still stuck, her numerous diaries, her wild blue-bell plant that she had tried grow in a coke can, the drawings that she had made with my son…..

And among her diaries I found a piece of writing – her own obituary.

On the day of her memorial service , with tears flowing down my eyes I read out the tiny piece of obituary.

“For all my life, amidst the hustle-bustle of a full family of children, grand-children, sisters, bothers, I have waited for my flute-man! Amidst the cries of noisy toddlers, cranky teenagers and robust laughter I’ve waited all my life to hear the soft tune of his flute. I have no regrets about my life – with my great grand child playing with me I have no regrets whatsoever. But there have always been the longing. I’ve been that lover waiting to cross the river to reach to her beloved. As I sit at the banks of the river, I can see my boatman arrive – to help me cross over to my destination. And as I prepare to take that much awaited journey, I can hear the strings of a hymn – faint at first, much louder now……

Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!
Even though it be a cross that raiseth me,
Still all my song shall be,
Nearer, my God, to thee;
Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!

Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down,
Darkness be over me, my rest a stone;
Yet in my dreams I’d be
Nearer, my God, to thee;
Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!

There let the way appear, steps unto heaven;
All that thou sendest me, in mercy given;
Angels to beckon me
Nearer, my God, to thee;
Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee! “

 

Epilogue:I have lost many, many, many near and dear ones over the years. Some too early perhaps. I’ve grown older, a bit wiser perhaps but this is one reality I have never really come to terms with. I live on with the hope that perhaps somewhere, someday I would still find them – my grandpa sitting with his pet radio, my grandma writing stories with a pillow tucked under her chest, my youngest aunt sitting with her harmonium-her eyes closed in devotion…..

 

 

 

Trail of a Grasshopper

grasshopper-262616_1920

She ran. I watched. It was a different kind of run – you run but there is no continuity – not like a flash, more like a flicker. You run, pause, run again. I let her run to the point where the horizon submerged into the green, mossy pond.

“Aaah…yes, right here”, she broke into a smile. Before I could say anything she sat on the banks of the pond – her left leg dunked into the moss green waters of the pond and her right leg just slightly the trough of a ripple.

“Nack, nack, nack, nack” , she imitated the cackling of a group of busy ducks trying to wade into the pond.

Her white chemise with dull orange flower motifs was gathering as much clayey dirt as could be possible.

“ We took bath in the pond for about an hour that day. Whoop, whoop and dunk….We went on and on, till my Maasi and mother came out screaming. My eyes were bloodshot. But that day I had the best afternoon nap. Wet hair, masoor daal and red coloured chicken curry – I guess, all these did the magic!”

She suddenly became restless. She turned her head to the left and then to the right.

“Are you looking for something?”, I asked her.

“Yeah, the tamarind tree. The huge, h-u-g-e tamarind tree”, she tried to give an estimate of the hugeness with the width of her open arms.

I too looked around. There wasn’t a single tamarind tree around.

“That summer it was here – right here. My Maasi had spread out a mat under the tamarind tree. ‘See how cool it is under the tree’, she had told. I sat on the mat with a story book. Within minutes I was covered with leaves – tiny, tiny leaves from the tamarind tree. The leaves fell like hushed snowflakes – silently. ‘Taste the leaves – they are tasty’, a young married woman carrying a pot full of water told me. I put some in my mouth. They had tangy taste indeed. I don’t know if my aunt had sprinkled water on the mat but coupled with the incessant shower of the tamarind leaves, it lent a somewhat cooling effect to an otherwise hot summer. And then suddenly it hit hard – just like an injection. Wild ants…..I ran, ran, ran as fast as I could. By evening, my lips and thigh had become  red and swollen. I almost had a fever.”, recalling the incident she laughed out loud.

“You so vividly remember your holidays, don’t you?”

“Not all of them…some.”. her voice trailed off.

There was silence – one whole minute of silence. And then she spoke again – her voice, somewhat distant.

“Like I remember the time I went to my eldest Maasi’s house. Compared to others, she used to stay a bit off route – probably a bit distant from the others. So we hardly went there. But that holiday, all of us went there – all my aunts, cousins.”

“Oh that must be fun – with so many of you together”

“Must be….I don’t remember much.”

“ But just now you said…..”

“Yeah, yeah I know what you mean. I remember, but not really much about the fun we had, except the fact that my uncle had bought two huge fishes to be cooked for us. My uncle brought them home swinging them by a  little rope tied around their nostril.”

“But what I remember is the evening we spent at the banks of the river –Hooghly river. My aunt’s house was very close by , so all of us walked to the river bank in the evening. Splash, splash, splash – little steady waves hit the bank every time a boat passed by. And with every little wave, the remains of a clay deity showed itself and submerged again – in turns. Someone would have probably immersed it after the Poojas were over. The water had almost washed away the colors to lend it a beyond recognition look. The color streaks around a single eye however remained intact. I don’t know why but I felt there was so much sorrow in that one eye. That look haunted me for many nights after that. There was a small island in between the river. Not really an island but a small stretch of land just in the middle of the river. A handful of Kans grass swayed there. Two boatmen had tied their boat there and were sitting and smoking in that tiny stretch.”

“You are kind of strange; you remember strange things”, I laughed.

“That I am..”, she smiled. “I like to remember things by their smell. Like the smell of the rails of the train windows. They have a special smell – rust, paint, memories, people – all put together – it is a difficult kind of smell. We used to travel long distance every now and then. And long distances meant days of travel. I used to be restless at times. Pressing my face against the windows I used to watch the kingfishers make a touch and go and the green expanse of farm fields outside. The smell used to pacify me. ‘Don’t stick out your head too much’, mother used to warn me. But I wouldn’t hear. Many a times it was the flying droplets of water from the next window – most probably due to washing of hands by a careless co-passenger- which would make me move back my face from the window rails”.

“What else?”, I was curious. “Smell of rain? Wet grounds? Flowers ?”

“Flowers yes….may be…Night-jasmine, Mahaneem….but not really rains. Rains make me sad.”

“Then?”

“The smell of fenugreek seeds sputtering in hot oil. Most of the time, while studying, I would doze off. And then mother would wake me and put in little balls of rice and curry. Half-sleepy I would put my head on mother’s shoulder and chew on . The hint of fenugreek would give a certain sense of calmness.”

“Do you miss those days?”

She fell silent. Then she spoke again – this time softer than ever.

“Do you know what I feel like right now? To catch hold of a grasshopper, hold it’s wings softly…..Do you know how to hold a grass-hopper’s wings?”, she suddenly asked.

I shook my head. “Naah, not really”.

“ You must fold the wings behind – just softly.”, she explained with a sense of importance in her voice. “You must be careful not to fold it too harshly and then just let it crawl on your palms….just feel the fun”, she giggled.

“But then won’t they get hurt Mumu?”

She shook her head violently.

Offo, don’t call me that…We Bengalis have a fascination for such bisyllable pet names –  Pupu, Khuku, Tutu, Mumu….When I was born they named me Popita. My parents had their pet names beginning with ‘P’ as well. Most of the family members had begun to call to call me that till one of my Hindi speaking uncles pointed out that it was too close to Papita which meant Papaya in Hindi. Neither I looked like Papaya, nor I had a complexion of one – so the name was ultimately replaced with a hurriedly thought of Mumu. But Papaya or not , I still love Popita – it has the sound of candy and toffees”.

I laughed out loud, “Ohh ok, but what about the grasshopper”

“Want to see?”, she asked. Then like magic she drew out a grasshopper from the fold of her chemise. “Show me your palm”, she commanded.

I put forward my palm.

The grasshopper crawled gently on my palm. It tickled at first and then vibrated violently.

And then there was this piercing sound – loud enough to tear into my senses.

It was tough opening my gummy eyelids.

5:30 am – the mobile displayed – accompanied by loud, shrill alarm and unending vibrations.

Disappointed, I ducked my head back into my pillow….

“Popitaaaaa….”, I cried out loud. I still had so many things to ask her….The pond appeared for a brief second but she was nowhere. Nack, nack, nack……the cackle of the ducks faded away. The grass-hopper trudged along it’s tired feet into the oblivion.

Picture Courtesy: http://www.pixabay.com

 

 

The road less travelled

roadThis Sunday was different. After many years, though centuries would have better described it, I stood in front of an open window and savoured a winter morning. It was seven and half minutes to be precise, but within those seven and half minutes I cut off myself from the rest of the world. A small twirl from a lone pumpkin creeper in my window touched my cool cheek, as I inhaled the morning freshness. After many years, I actually smelt a morning. It smelt of a lingering drop of strong coffee sliding down a cube of ice! I let the left-over breeze from a cyclonic depression somewhere play with my hair. My hair – that were once silky and faded brown now smell of old coconut oil and stale cake batter. But I still let the breeze bounce through the sticky mess. I stared at my fingers. Regular chopping of vegetables have left unending marks of knife rummaging through the fine lines of my finger print. I marvelled at how I use the same fingers to key in funny stories, tie shoe laces and run them on calculator pads. I use the same fingers to pinch out the exact bit of salt that would make the balance of taste perfect – even at the cost of the mild tinge of pain that hits my nerves when my cracked skin comes in contact with raw salt.

At that point, somehow I felt proud of myself – proud that I try and manage so many things – so many roles with smoothness…..not smoothness really but manage nevertheless!

I have never been a winter person exactly. Being wrapped in mufflers and caps, winter has always been a tonsil-story for me. And, endorsing my low sustenance to winter cold, a small stream of liquid flowed out through my left nostril. Shamelessly, I let it! It reminded me of childhood – of coloured water bottles, sticky nose-tips, smell of jaggery, bad handwriting, clay dolls with swinging heads……

I then realised that it had been years that I had actually spent time with myself. In my quest to be the ‘perfect super woman’ I had forgotten the smell of a good tea. Who on earth gave me the pre-condition that I had to make the perfectly crispy dosa to be the best daughter-in-law? What could possibly go wrong with the world if I just wish to knit mufflers for a day and not do the dishes? Why would I feel like a sinner if, for a day, I want to spend alone –ALONE and not really want the kids around? I realised that there are so many things I want , I can, I would love to but I dare not. And all this because I am interested in being branded – branded an ideal daughter, perfect wife, fantastic daughter-in-law and an award-winning mommy! There are so many things I want to say ‘No’ to but I do not because I do not want the TRP rating to fall! For instance, I hate to subtly announce the dates of my menstruation cycle when my in-laws are around, just so that my ‘touch’ does not pollute their food! I like long hair but No, I hate to tie it! And yes, even though I love cooking as an art, I HATE to cook everyday – especially the thought process of ‘what to cook’! I Yes, I love food – oily, deep fried and extremely unhealthy sort of food and No, I do not exercise because I feel my everyday schedule is punishing enough! And hygiene be damned, I terribly, terribly hate taking bath in the winter months and detest morning wake-ups! So, to cover up for my flaws what I normally do is pretend. When I was a kid, I used to throw water here-there and everywhere behind closed doors of the bathroom and pretend that I was taking a bath. Then to show that I had actually taken a bath, I used to apply water all over my face and hands and come out shivering. I do the same thing now – though I play ‘pretence’ with myself. I fool myself into believing that the warm water in extremely cold morning is actually relaxing. I apply soap to my face and tell myself that this is the only time I get to pamper myself! Though deep within my heart I know that I would rather cuddle myself under an over-weight blanket and sleep with my mouth open – just to combat my nose block! And all this because I want to be the perfect one in front of myself and the world at large.

Not much, but those seven and half minutes was liberating enough. Like childhood, I wiped my nose with the back of my palm. I laughed and savoured the moment! I felt that at times it was fair enough to take the road less travelled by.

I was thrilled to have rediscovered the things that could identify me as myself. As I was leaving the window sill, I discovered a nascent, green sapling peeping through the dusty soil of an abandoned flower-pot! For once, I loved winter.

Photo: http://www.pixabay.com

The Windows

window

The windows were big – as big as us. We would stand and the windows would cover our full length. The windows were green – a sort of strange bottle green – faded here and there-probably due to the direct rays of the sun falling on them. Those were our windows – our windows to the world outside. And then there were those iron railings in the windows. They were once green perhaps but by the time they became ‘our’ windows they were partly rusted, dark iron railings. They would leave behind marks of brown and a strange rusty smell if we had been clinging on too long but those – the wooden frames, windows, railings were a part of our childhood.

Being naughty that he was, my brother would often use the window to the extreme right on our first floor, as his toilet of convenience.  If prodded to get up too early, he would simply crawl onto the window and pee to his heart’s content – right through the window railings!

On the days when we were not allowed to go out, the windows would become our mini-bus. Hanging from the railings, one feet inserted, we would become bus conductor. Changing our voice to a hoarse one, we would scream “Rokkey, rokkey…bhai…passenger, passenger”. Those days collecting bus tickets from elders was a favourite past time. And these would be the times when we would make use of the tickets. Each of us would want to become the conductor with no one willing to be the passenger. The end result would be two conductors hanging from the same window screaming, “rokkey, rokkey”.

Those were the days when television shows were limited to Sunday shows and one hour every evening. So, all our happiness would revolve around inane, lifeless things surrounding us.

Having been a permanent patient of tonsillitis, a little bit of rain would mean house-arrest for me. From the other side of the windows I would watch the sky gathering tufts of dark clouds and then the fall of the rain – in drops first and then in furious slants! Looking left and right, having noticed no one around, I would slip out my hands through the window, trying to entrap the water droplets within my palm. Emboldened by the venture I would go on to slip out my foot too. But I was a bad prankster and the wet edges of my frock sleeves would often give my prank away! My mother would surely come to know of it.

There was this window in my study room that would not open outside but to another room. The window was shut permanently and became my black-board. Using the bottle green back-ground and left –over chalks I would play ‘Miss Miss’ – pretending to be the science teacher of my class. The uneven surface was often difficult to draw upon but I would somehow manage to draw the diagrams. I even had a torn piece of cloth tucked within the railings as the duster for my ‘blackboard’.

I had my single cot adjacent to the window. During hot summer afternoons, I would spend hours simply staring at the closed window. There were numerous near-obscure  crevices all through the wooden parts. A long file of ants would steadily and patiently march along to reach and disappear into one of the crevices. Some of the ants from yet another groups would criss-cross ways – and as two ants from opposite groups would meet face to face they would pause for a while and change their path. I would conjure up imaginary conversation between the opposite factions – sometimes amicable, at times disputing….There were pairs of pigeons who used to reside in the little room-ventilators – ‘akum-akum; akum-akum’ they used to coo along – providing the perfect background score. Training my ears, I would wait for familiar sounds to float in through the window– ‘Achaar, achhar’….the heavenly sound of the hawker selling pickles!

The windows were our ‘conspiracy centers’. During many a summer afternoon, my cousins and I, used to organise ‘window-to window’ talks. Each of us would stand at our respective window and chat in low voices or fix timings for our evening games or even develop plans for the next prank.

The railed windows used to let in sliced pieces of golden sunlight – flooding the red-oxide floors with unending warmth. During winter, mother used to lay out a mat at exactly the spot where there was adequate sunlight. Then she used to throw quilts, blankets and woollens on top of the mat –making them crisp and warm and smelling of sunlight!

Sitting besides the window on a hot summer night was especially magical. The jasmine creepers peeping through the open window would let out whiffs of fragrance from the tiny white blooms. The fragrance would be maddening…..though somehow depressing too. Coupled with the diffused moonlight, the little white flowers would remind of some unknown sadness. The night before my marriage, I stood for long hour in front of the window- savouring the last moments of my childhood freedom.  The rusty smell of the windows made me cry.

As we grew up, life became different – a bit more convenient, bit more adjusting to the new life systems.  Repairing the huge windows and rusted railings became expensive and so were replaced with sliding glass-windows. The windows close with a ‘click’ and make the room a near sound-proof one. But even if the faint sounds of the street-hawker does not penetrate, the rich smell of the blooming jasmine still makes it’s way in. The other day I saw my niece reaching out tiny fingers through the grilled window to pluck a few jasmine flowers for her dolly. Having managed to pluck in a handful, she held out her clasped palm. “Aunty, just smell it…soooooo beautiful”, she smiled, I smiled. In her, around her, a small part of my childhood perhaps still exists somewhere. Every childhood, I guess, has a soul .We grow up, circumstances change but that soul remains embedded within the concretes of yesterday!

Maadhu, Bonbibi and the Tigers of Sunderban

banbibi

I have a problem – a strange problem- my hobbies keep changing every season.  I begin with something and then I am hook, line and sinker into it – totally, insanely…..till I discover some other hobby!!! (And thankfully, my erratic nature is limited only to my hobbies). Like now my new found passion is knitting. Having accomplished my goal of knitted a baby cap and now in the midst of knitting a muffler for my son. So, I am discovered every now and then, here and there with my ball of wool and knitting needles!

This morning as I sat down with my needle a small tuft of breeze brushed pass my face. There was a certain nip in that breeze – that strangely inexplicable wintry-breeze nip! And all of a sudden I was reminded of my grandma. Come winter and she would take out her semi-bent knitting needles to knit for us though with her limited patience she would offer us mild disasters in the name of woollens – a sleeveless sweater which is two sizes less or the knits being too loose to offer protection against winter chill! But I still remember that one sweater that she knit – pink with red and blue border. It was for Maadhu!

I do not recall how we came to know her family or with whom she arrived but all I remember is that Maadhu was a special person in our family. In those days when there were no scope to hire governess or caretaker, it was a fairly common practice in Bengali families to keep a young person as a companion for the kids of the family. Coming from poor families, these young people would gradually become a part and parcel of the family – some of them staying on even after being married. Maadhu was one such fourteen year old who had come to stay with us. She was mainly deputed as a companion for my hyperactive brother. With his favourite past time being chasing baby snakes and playing with live electrical wire, our family thought that a timid and weak sister like me wouldn’t be enough to ‘keep an eye on him’.

Maadhu was originally from Sunderbans. To us, the mangrove-laden Sunderbans only meant Tigers, Crocodiles and Snakes. That human beings also survive there was beyond our belief till Maadhu came in. With wide eyed wonder we would listen to her strange stories of Tiger and Crocodiles. Little scenes of cinematic pleasures would emerge and dissolve in front of our eyes – of a woodcutter who saw a two-headed Tiger, of a neighbourhood fisherman who went out late in the night only to be half-eaten by a crocodile! We never logically questioned nor debated the idea of how that ‘neighbourhood wonder’ survived till the age of eighty, having no body left stomach downwards! Smeared in nose-burning mustard oil before a bath, we would listen to her ‘wonderland’ stories open-mouthed.

She devised strange ways to keep my brother engaged. Every now and then she would organise a puja – a worship- of BonBibi – the local forest goddess! Forgetting his pranks, my brother would keep himself busy arranged stones in the form of a deity. We would then gather flowers, leaves for the offering. With the background chant of her shrill songs in praise of Bon Bibi we would offer the leaves and flowers to the deity. Maadhu would then offer water to the deity and pray for the safe keeping of all of us against Tigers and Crocodiles. Though at the times my brother would wonder aloud if the Tigers would at all reach this fire, Maadhu would instill fear by saying that the Tigers of Sunderbans were strong enough to cross rivers and mountains to reach the city of Kolkata. It was after many, many years that I actually read about Bon Bibi. Strangely, Bon Bibi is not a Hindu Goddess but is a mythical belief of Muslim origin wherein she is the daughter of a Fakir from Mecca (Source: Wikipedia) and she is revered both by the Muslims and Hindus as a protector against Tigers. For Maadhu, she was the only deity she knew of and believed in.

In the late evenings, in those days when power cuts were a regular feature, we would sit around the burning lamp to complete our reading and homework. Grandma would pull in Maadhu into the circle of ‘avid readers’. Being illiterate, she did not know how to even write her name. Grandma had bought a special note book for her where she was made to practice writing her own name, other than alphabets. With big bold hand-writing she would practice writing her name : M-A-D-H-A-B-I  D-A-S.  We, in the meanwhile, would try and create silhouettes in shadow using our fingers. It would end in jostling with each other for the ‘perfect space’ – a place from where the best shadow figures could be created. I would give a mild push for a pinch in return from my brother, followed by a loud shriek from me…..and this game would continue till my brother would be whisked away to another  corner by my mother. Oblivious to the happenings around her, Maadhu in the meanwhile would continue her writing practice – her fingers bathed in the ink from the pen.

My brother had a carton full of ‘naughty toys’ – partially broken toy jeeps with metals dangerously jutting out from different corners, screw-drivers, heavy stones, hammer….. He would eagerly wait for the green signal from mother and grandma and then let out a loud cry – Maaaaaaadhuuuuuu. It was then time for her to drag along the heavy carton and bring it in the play area. With careful precision she would unpack and pack the box daily – careful to even pick up the stones and wires strewn all around. When things would go in the hyperactive zone, she would begin spinning her stories. From dacoits to crocodiles, her world was no less attractive than Alice’s wonderland. In between the fairy-tale like wonders she would also speak about the uncertainties of a forest life and livelihood. She spoke of how her mother and other women would risk their lives to collect forest wood, how most men fought the fear of crocodiles while going for fishing and ofcourse the every day fear of Tigers visiting the villages due to shortage of food ot the fear of confronting Tigers while going to collect honey or wood.

Every time my brother would try to wriggle out of her clutches, she would spin a fresh story – “Bhai, do you know what happened one day?”

But strangely, though she spoke fondly about her grandma, parents and an elder sister back home, she never cribbed for them. As I grew up I realised that perhaps the comfort of a square meal a day and a warm bed was more alluring to her than a tryst with daily poverty and uncertain future back home.

She became such an integral part of my brother’s life, that he would only look forward to playing with her – making me almost-jealous of her!

Then one day he came – Maadhu’s father. Her sister was getting married so he had come to take her. Sipping on the tea, he spoke of the troubles of running a household without a daughter. “With my elder daughter going away and her mother being forever sick, I have to take back Maadhu you see….” . My grandma tried to reason with him that she was receiving  good education and a comfortable life. But no amount of coaxing or convincing worked. Maadhu too desperately tried to convince him that she should be back after marriage.

“ We shall see. I’ll surely try”, he smiled. But something told me that Maadhu would never come again.

Sobbing, she packed her bag – the different colourful ribbons that grandma had bought for her, the new dress that mother got for her, her copy books, pen and that new, pink sweater that my grandma knitted for her . But my brother was no where to be seen.

“Bhai, bhai…where are you?”, she kept searching for him here there and everywhere.

Finally, she bade good-bye and walked towards the gate with her father.

All of a sudden, my brother came rushing from no where.

“Maaadhu, maaadhu…don’t go away Maadhu”.

Holding him in her warm embrace she too sobbed like a small child.

“Bhaai, I don’t want to leave you bhai. So come and visit me soon”, she cried profusely, oblivious to the fact that the physical and socio-economical distance between Kolkata and Sunderbans was perhaps too great for a small boy.

Picking up a favourite stone of his, he pushed it in her palms as her final gift. She in turn gave him a stone to keep as a remembrance.

“Bhai, when I see the stone I will remember you and when you see yours remember me”.

That was the last we ever saw of Maadhu.

That stone is still there kept in a broken show-case in our store room upstairs.

Whenever there is a news about Sunderbans in the television, I try and search for that big, bright eyes. She must be a middle-aged woman now. I am sure, even today  everytime she prays for the safety of her kin to the deity of Bon Bibi she remembers us – especially my brother. Or who knows, lost in the struggle of her daily survival amidst crocodiles and a depleting number of tigers, we must have been relegated to a small nook of her lost memories!

 

pic courtesy: wikipedia

 

 

Growing up with Grandparents

fam-pic

It was those days when the raindrops used to be blue, green, purple and burnt-sienna. The old, fat toad used to sit under the Toad-stool  and tell stories. The breeze carried the smell of Neem flower and butter-toast.  And in those days I was small enough to tuck myself between my grandma and grandpa to listen to the radio play. My grandpa, the ever hypochondriac that he was, used to be wrapped in a warm shawl from head to toe – with only his tiny eyes visible. Grandma’s long locks smelling of Amla hair oil used to casually flutter over my face. By the time the play used to get over, she would be fast asleep. My grandfather would silently put off the radio with a ‘click’ sound and wrapping the shawl tighter would go off to sleep.

Our childhood was with and about grandparents. We were nine of us – cousins, technically, but we had a single collective tag – ‘brats of Mamma-baari’. Mamma was what we used to call our grandma. Being the assertive and stronger one of the duo – our grandma was the matriarch of the family. So our house unknowingly became “Mamma Baari” (Mamma’s house).

Our grandfather was the soft one – gentleman in the truest sense. By the time I grew up enough, he was a retired man – taking recluse in the comfort of the sofa set in the front room. He was so pinned on to the sofa day in and day out that every second year the sofa would pop out the springs inside–as if to announce it’s exhaustion!  Soft that he was, my grandpa would hardly complain till one of us would get a chance to sit on it! Ouch! What was that?? Grandpa! How could you not tell us all these days? An expert would be summoned to repair it within no time! Once repaired grandpa would be back to his seat. When I was younger, grandpa used to spend his retired moments helping maids and masons open bank accounts in the newly opened branch of a local bank- just like that. When I grew up he became Amitabh Bachhan of Piku. There was this yellow telephone with those round dials kept just for him. Every morning he would dial his second daughter – my aunt- who is incidentally married to a doctor. His opening lines would be something like this:

“Hello Pia. This morning I am a bit better. I went to the toilet and had a near clear motion. Now, should I still take the enzyme in the afternoon?”

Or

“Hello Pia. I just went and tried but ‘it’ did not happen!”

My ever-loving and soft-spoken aunt would patiently answer him or comfort him – as the situation be.

But the ‘it did not happen’ would be the cause of his depression for the rest of the day. He was a terribly neat and tidy person and would insist on shaving daily. But on the days when ‘it did not happen’ he would not shave and would eat as little as possible. Back from office during lunch time, my father would laugh, “Why didn’t you take a shave Baba?”, very well knowing the answer he would get in return.

“Huh, what shave…I did not even have a proper potty!”

My grandma was always poles apart from grandpa.  That they spent more than sixty years together is a Black-hole mystery of the family!

She, unlike grandpa, was robust, loud, hot-headed and unlike women of her age and time – a total dictator of the family! From fixing marriages to ensuring education of all her grandchildren she was the ONLY authority in the family! From her food habits to response to life’s situations – she was so different from grandpa! While grandpa was a frugal eater – satisfied with just a light fish curry and rice, grandma would eat four times his consumption level – and some strange eating habbit it was! While we would be over-filled with our morning breakfast of Parathas or bread, grandma would have an additional 10 am ‘mid-morning snack’! She would have a bowl full of left-over rice from previous day, add oodles of raw mustard oil, salt and then devour it with immense passion with a green chilly. And then have a full three course meal after two and half hours – rounding it off with a short helping of her handmade pickles!

Unlike a ‘womanly’ woman, she would hardly show her patience when it came to cooking. So most of the younger days of my dad and aunts was spent in eating strange items like – half-burnt curries, massive chunks of boiled potato to be had with rice, fish curries still carrying the smell of raw fish, hot chapatis with sliced onion!!!  She was hardly bothered about what the others thought about her! Her real passion lay in her eccentricity! That she was a good writer of her times was a catalyst to that! Once, just after my mother was married into the family, she came home from the market with a dozen small fishes to be had for lunch.

“Just clean these and keep the oil and masala ready. I will come and cook”.

My mother did as instructed and waited for her mother-in-law to return. One hour passed, two hours passed…..with the racing hands of the clock my mother began to panic. It was near lunch time but grandma was not to be found anywhere. Hesitantly my mother took the plunge and cooked the fish her way! My grandma ultimately returned after two days! She had gone to her younger daughter’s house in Dakshineswar –a half an hour train journey from Calcutta – not to meet her but spend moments besides the river Ganges in order to get ideas about a story!

She would hardly be at home, finding opportunities and pretexts to go outside. So, almost every evening I would accompany her to the nearest Gariahat market just to buy ‘important’ household items like – a pair of rubber slippers or clips for hanging clothes or even a handkerchief. I would proudly accompany her –  sitting in the hand-pulled rickshaw. This was till the day we had ‘rickshaw mishap’! God knows why or how but having found a school bus in front of him, the rickshaw puller suddenly gave up! He let go of his hands, leaving grandma and me see-saw head down while he himself hung in mid-air. Men all around came rushing towards us. They brought down the rickshaw puller from his mid-air position , only to flung grandma and me back in mid-air. While the game of see-saw gave fodder for loud laughter to the crowd, grandma was ready to turn the poor man into ashes by her angry stare! From that day on, we both went and came back to the market by feet but strangely that rickshaw puller was never to be found again!

My grandma had a unique knack of being associated with troubles and mishaps of all types. So every second year she would end up with fracture of some kind or the other. The orthopaedic had almost become a family member! Though with her impatience, grandma would hardly carry on with her plaster cast for too long. One fine day we would find her with her favourite pair of scissors – cutting away her plaster cast with uneven cuts! As a result she had knees that wouldn’t bend beyond a certain level, a half-twisted left arm, a limp etc.

But beyond all this she had a self that was unique. That was that part that ensured that her six grand-daughters grew up to be self-reliant and strong-willed women!

But my purpose of writing this blog was not just to tell about the unique people that my grandparents were, it was also to talk about the fact that irrespective of what or how they were, they were an integral part of our lives. They were luckier than the grandparents of our children. When I see my parents, my in-laws, my aunts and uncles – I realise that though they are busier these days, they are lonely somehow. With nine grandchildren creating havoc, my grandparents were a luckier lot! Till the day my grandfather died, it was an unwritten rule in my family that food would be first served to him. It was a satisfaction for my mother to see her father-in-law closing his eyes in front of his plate of frugal meal for a short prayer of thanksgiving.

Sundays were especially special. My grandparents would watch with loving eyes as nine of us would empty jars of biscuits and puffed rice! My father would lovingly accept the little note of donation from my grandfather as his contribution towards ‘one kilo of meat’  for a special Sunday lunch.

“Son, would this be enough for a Kg of meat?”, he would ask.

My father would smile, “Ofcourse Baba. This would be more than enough”, though he well knew that the amount wouldn’t even fetch half a kilo.

And most of all, for us and our parents, their decision was always the final decision. Erratic, wise, eccentric, unbelievable, practical, impractical – we accepted all their decisions – with frown or with smile – but we did accept!

Today, my parents are the ones who have their dinner after all of us . Now, I do not expect my son to have the same level of obedience towards his grandparents as I had. And my aunt who was once a patient listener to her father’s call waits unendingly for a call from all of us!

We are too busy to attend to their needs ; too involved with our own selves to teach our children the value of ‘genuine bonding’. Parents and grandparents are now a matter of need and convenience rather than of necessity.

Times change, so do situations and we are, perhaps, victims of our changing circumstances. But how I wish there was one thing that hadn’t changed – growing up with grandparents – the way we did!

 

 

Shadows…..

raven-988218_1920

The day I lost IT….

I remember the day vividly. Vividly because it hadn’t ever rained like that before….atleast not in my recent memory. Vividly because my steady food supplier, my mother, had decided to take a sabbatical. She had trudged along with her basket to her friend’s house; leaving a sour apple, a few crackers for me to munch on for dinner. A lazy egg had stared lovingly from the refrigerator, beckoning me to use it.

But I was in no mood for a self-service. I ordered a pizza instead. I purposely chose the pizza service that offers a free pizza for every missed arrival timing, just in case….Funnily enough the guy arrived before time- amidst the non-stop rainfall ! I was pissed off for a while but decided to enjoy the night with pizza and my favourite show. The fire-baked tomatoes and jalapenos had a rustic appeal. As I was about to pull out a string of mozzarella I thought I saw a finger – a greyish dark finger digging at the pizza with equal gusto. I blinked twice, thrice and even four times to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. The finger by then had wound a stringy mozzarella around itself.

“Mmm…tasty, but you should have opted for baked chicken with pineapple – full bodied and value for money”, someone spoke.

I turned to look. A dark shadowy silhouette was toying with my wedge of pizza.

A series of thoughts flashed passed my mind in those nanoseconds.

I was dead and the moron was my soul!

I was possessed – by satan, devil, vampire….by whatever hell is sinister!

An evil friend was masquerading- just to scare the wits off me!

I looked closer – the dark whatever was ditto me! Just then I observed the wall. A lamp was placed not far away from me and technically, by the law of science, there should have been a shadow on the wall. But there wasn’t! Which meant, the dark figure was…. my shadow!

That my shadow had decided to make it’s ‘presence’ felt was an absolute improbable, bordering on psychological distress. I thought I had gone insane. For the next few days I hardly got out of my room. I bluffed to my mother that I had an upcoming exam for which I needed to prepare. My mother was only too glad to push in food through my door – happy that her son had finally chosen studies over dance. I avoided my friends too, not choosing to take their calls or mumbling an excuse of a severe flu.

This went on for nearly a week. My shadow shared my bowls of chicken stew while I kept wondering about my shadow-less existence! By the end of seventh day I had almost got used to my other me. Infact I would have perhaps developed an easy camaraderie with it, had it not messed up with my things. My pillow-covers were dyed in ink, my song-list was tampered, shoes were sprayed with my perfume, paper boats were made out of my diary pages….

There was a note-pad on which I had scribbled only two lines of poetry:

“ As crystals of raindrop
Merge in emerald”

A visit to the washroom and back and I discovered two additional lines:
“The frogs do a hop
And monkeys go bald”
.

This was too much for my sanity! A few more hours and I would have throttled myself.

Just then there was a call from Anna, my girlfriend.

“What on earth is wrong with you sweetie poodle?”, her voice oozed concern.

Normally mushy talks like that knock off my patience but for that moment Anna seemed like a dream option.

“We haven’t practiced together for a long time babes. The dance competition is just four weeks away. Infact I am thinking of trying out a new dance form tonight – the shadow dancing….you know, the kind where the audience get to see only our shadows!”

“Done girl! Evening, at 6 pm sharp”, I delightedly confirmed.

To hell with my shadow! I whistled and packed my dance bag. And then it struck me. Shadow Dancing –  is that what she said? Oh hell! How would I be able to do shadow dancing without my shadow?

Anna may be my girl friend but she is a difficult girl. If she has decided ‘shadow dancing’ then ‘shadow dancing’ it has to be! And now I was in total fix! How would I dance a ‘shadow dance’ without my shadow?

I hated the moment but I knew I had no option.

** *** *** ***

The rehearsal hall hardly had anyone. Other than Anna and myself, there were six others who were either busy in practice or watched others perform.

The shadow screen was set just in front of us. The music began. My heart was in my mouth. I eyed Anna through the corner of my eyes. She was busy adjusting her dress. I took advantage of the moment and showed a thumbs up to my shadow.

“ Not a single step away from me”, I had warned It before leaving my room.

“Not one bit bro’….shall be a good boy . You and I will be as inseparable as Chalk and Cheese”, It let out a crude joke while pinning my favourite socks on my wall board!

I had not believed It one bit but so far It hadn’t behaved erratically – deciding to behave as a shadow should. I kept my fingers crossed.

The music flowed like dream. Anna and I waltzed to perfection. And so did my shadow. With Anna’s shadow. There was a perfect sync. I couldn’t be happier….

The music was drawing to a close. I was trying to keep pace with my shadow and hers. They seemed to be much more in love with each other, rather than Anna and myself. Thankfully Anna was so engrossed in looking into my eyes that she did not notice the glitch.

“Close your eyes”, I whispered into Anna’s ears. She was only too happy to oblige.

“Keep your eyes shut…As the music would close I would glide you outside the hall- into eternity”, I whispered again.

There was a mild twitch of surprise in her eye-brows and then like a timid lamb she surrendered into my embrace for the final whirl.

On the shadow screen, by then, a frenzy move – quite different from ours, was being carried out.
Before the music would fade away forever I held Anna by her waist.

She kept her promise. Her shimmery eye-lids let out mild waves of expectation but she did not open her eyes.

Still holding her by waist I drew her out of the back-stage. She put her head on my shoulders – letting me lead her to wherever I wanted.

Two of us walked out through the back-stage corridor….two shadow less entities.

*** **** ****

The night of the Blue Jay

She placed her chin on the glass separator near the window. The commotion below had caught her attention. There is a public tap just below the window. Morning hours often make an interesting collage- of people, events, emotions. Today there was this group of kids chasing and making fun of another one. They had attached a paper tail to the shorts of a hapless victim. The more he ran, the more his ‘tail’ flew in the air – drawing laughter and loud fun-making from the crowd. She too laughed in mirth. I looked around. There was no one in the room. Normally they would never, ever keep the glass separator open. How they overlooked it was a mystery!

“Shall we? Now?”, I whispered into her ears.

Her crossed eye-brows told me that the timing of the question was totally wrong!

She watched the circus below for a few more seconds. But she being she, it did not take much time to change her mind. She rushed to her table and picked up the bottle. In her hurry she almost upturned the table. The pencils made a mute noise as they collided against the crayons.

She held up the bottle and examined.

“Mmm..mmm..na na…not yet….the sunlight has not yet touched the pinky mark”.

She pointed to a small pink dot near the lid of the glass bottle. Golden hues of sunlight splashed the indoors of the bottle. But way below the pink spot.

Just then the nurse appeared with her breakfast. Bread, strawberry jam, milk. The everyday fare.
Her eyes shone in delight. She scooped out a spoon of strawberry jam and let it drown in the glass of milk. The milk changed hue, gradually turning pink.

“Blood, blood, blood”, she clapped.

“This is pink, sweetheart. Blood is red”, the nurse tried to reason.

“Blood, blood, blood”, she banged the spoon against the table.

Damn! Now for the next few hours she will be in the worst of her moods. Why the hell do they fix up new nurses each time!

*** *** *** ***

The golden hue of sunlight had finally touched the pink dot on the glass bottle. My happiness knew no bounds. The day had arrived. I waited for the night to dawn on the other side of the glass window. I stuck the grape-vine laurel to her curly hairs. The nurse hadn’t cleaned her face well. Her cheeks were sticky and dirty…But she still looked beautiful!

“Tonight?”, I wanted to re-confirm.

“Mmm..tonight”, she confirmed. Her concentration was however on the drawing that she was making. My eyes too were fixed on her paper. I watched in utmost concentration the slice of evening light that had found it’s way on the paper. The salmon-pink of the fading evening gradually morphed into pale blue and then a total purple.

Tch”, she expressed dissatisfaction at the dim light. She threw the crayons away and rushed to the glass window…..A plate-like silvery-golden moon sneaked from the clouds.

Wiffooo”, she whistled with her small mouth.

And then what I hadn’t expected happened. And it happened too fast. A larger-than-life Blue Jay appeared on the parapet .It’s wings oozed blue fire….It was nearly blinding. Looking at it she clapped loudly. Then with fearless happiness she crossed over the barrier of the half-window. She perched on and held the wings of the Blue Jay.

It was a blink-and –you- miss moment…..Too fast for my comprehension. I ran with all my might to the glass window.

“Wait, wait for me”, I screamed.

She hardly listened. She smiled and waved. The Blue Jay began it’s flight.

“Stop! Wait for me….You cannot, you just cannot leave your shadow behind”, I screamed hoarse.
By then she was too far away.

A sudden gust of wind blew past. The glass of the half-window slid down the frame – leaving me locked behind in the room – forever.

*** *** **** *** ***

Anish looked around the room. It was dusty. A wet smell hung all around.

“Two rooms should be okay for a single person”, he thought.

Twenty years and no one had entered the room. He wondered, why.

A small two room flat on the fourth floor, without a lift, was perhaps a tough choice. He reasoned.

The rooms suited his need perfectly but there was something that nagged him constantly.

What was the rumour he had heard about a death or a suicide in this room?

Anish turned to the broker.

Achha, wasn’t there a suicide or something in this room?”

The broker laughed a sly laugh.

“Ofcourse there was! A mad girl…you know , kind of psycho case….Her father was a rich man…Couldn’t save her though. But I thought you were a budding scientist, aren’t you?”. Being a seasoned broker, he knew exactly how to touch the raw nerve.

“ Uh no…I am not bothered. Just wanted to know if the rumour was true. The rooms fits fine into my need. If you can just change the glass window and have the room whitewashed….”

“Ofcourse. That shouldn’t be a problem.”, the broker chuckled.

The broker led the way out of the room. Anish followed him. Before the door closed he gave one last look at the room. The room was silent with just trails of dust and two of their shadows.Wait! Was that two? Or was there yet another one? What was that third shadow? Or was it a glitch of his eye sight?

*** *** *** ***

Hariprasad’s Flute

The night was blue- ink blue. Droplets of moonlight were haphazardly flowing down the ink-blue background and melting into the dark grasses. Whiffs of scent – jasmine, wet grass, grain shafts were drifting here and there in little parcels of surprise. And under the Frangipani tree Hariprasad was playing his flute.

People say Hariprasad become possessed when he plays his flute. And that his flute has magical properties. Some even claim that Hariprasad’s flute can cure one of diseases. To Rukmini, it hardly matters. To her, all it matters is that her husband is a four feet pint sized dwarf! All her life Rukmini had dreamt of marrying a charming prince-like man! She herself is no short of a princess. With a peach and milk complexion and doe eyes, she would be a befitting choice of many royals – if there had been any royals that is!

But why her father chose Hariprasad was a mystery to her. That he plays flute like magic wasn’t a satisfying reason for her. So annoyed was she with her father that she had chosen not to visit her father’s house on the eight day after her marriage – a ritual followed in their community.

Standing at the door Rukmini looked outside. Her gazed was fixed under the Frangipani. She lifted her skirt slightly and walked towards the tree. Rubbing against the tall grasses, her anklets hardly made noise. She stood for many seconds under the tree, waiting for the music to fade away.

The moonlight lent a strange mirage. His shadow under the tree looked way taller. And with the flute touched to his lips, it definitely gave an illusion of Lord Krishna with his flute.

Was there tears in his eyes?

Would this be the right time to raise the issue? She wondered.

Keeping his flute down Hariprasad looked at Rukmini. He hardly looked surprised. Infact such emotions were not really his forte.

Only his eyes bore question about her presence.

“ You know they came yet again. Those city babus…..This time they also had their van. A sitting inside the van and it will be done. Two thousand for a six inches , three thousand for one full foot…”, Rukmini hesitantly spelt the offer.

“Hmmm…”.

Now Rukmini was really scared…..rather apprehensive. What if he rejects the offer?

She had even gone and filled up the form. The sale of her silver bangles was enough to procure the money.

It was a simple procedure. They would fix some screws – shoulder upwards and staple on some fresh skin. That would be enough to add the inches.

Infact she couldn’t believe her eyes when a five feet something hunk of the neighbouring village came out of the magic van as six.

“So what do you say?”, Rukmini enquired. “They have this offer for the next two days only. After that they will move on to a new place.”

“What time?”, Hariprasad enquired casually, wrapping his flute in his bag.

For the first time since marriage Rukmini actually felt overjoyed.

“Ten in the morning. Sharp. Their technician will arrive at that time”.

“Ten then…”, Hariprasad looked away while confirming the time.

*** *** *** ***

It didn’t take much time. Twenty five minutes. Just as they had promised in their television ads.

Hariprasad sat still on the chair while the technician worked on him. Rukmini had anticipated that he would back out in the last moment. He didn’t. That he would be anxious and jittery. He wasn’t. There was a certain annoying calmness about him that irked Rukmini.

It rather shook Rukmini for seconds when the technician neatly sliced off his head and kept it on the table. She almost shrieked in horror. But a light with the words ‘SILENCE’ was immediately switched on and she had to swallow in her horror.

Hariprasad’s head stared at her in sheer nonchalance as the technician fixed screws and calipers to his headless neck, straightening and pulling it up.

“How much did you pay?”, the technician queried.

“Three thousand – paid in full”, Rukmini announced proudly.

The technician glanced at her and smiled.
“Your desire for a tall husband is really strong, eh? But looking at the current height of your husband he won’t be taller than five feet at the most. Another thousand and I’ll transform that to six.”

Rukmini sighed. Desires and abilities always shared an antagonistic bonding. Three thousand itself was tough for her.

“May be next time…is it possible to add on later?”, she enquired softly.

“Always….but you won’t get the season’s discount that we are offering now. Moreover, you will have to bring him to our workshop in the city”, the technician informed helpfully, letting his fingers attach more pins and screws to the bare neck.

“We are doing this at such a discounted price as a favour for our rural sisters and brothers. These are all foreign techniques – all the way from far away China. Costs a hefty lot. This we are doing as a part of our social service scheme”, he spoke again.

It took another five minutes to reattach the head and staple on the skin.

It was finally over in the twenty fifth minute and a few seconds.

“After an hour give him a glass of milk and he will be back to normal’, the technician informed helpfully.

“And take this slip. It contains the terms and conditions. Also the warranty card. If you ever find the skin peeling off or the screws not tight enough, we’ll service him….free of cost….for the next two years of course. After that, you’ll have to pay”.

*** *** *** ***

The moon wasn’t like the night before. There was a pretty dent in it. But the oozing moonlight was as wondrous as the previous night. Hariprasad was back under the Frangipani tree. The flute adorned his lips. His lips moved in amazing fierceness. But it did not make any music. He filled in as much air as possible and blew in again. His flute remained silent. Tears flowed down his eyes. But no music flowed from his flute.

Rukmini ran as fast as possible. Her anklets tore out tufts of grass. Her delicate feet rubbed against the here-and-there rocks but she was not bothered. At least not at that moment.

By the time she reached the Frangipani tree, little beads of sweat had kissed her forehead.

She looked at Hariprasad. And then his shadow. Like a tiny blob under the tree, the shadow with the flute was hardly close to the surreal magic it creates everyday.

Like a man possessed, her husband was blowing into the flute with all his might. But the only sound that was being heard was that of the night crickets and the howling of a she wolf far away in the wilderness.
Rukmini could no longer control herself. Holding a branch of the tree she sobbed like a child.

Just a few moments ago, while pushing in the warranty card and the slip inside her tin trunk, she had happened to glance through the ‘Terms and Conditions slip’. Within seconds, the hardly readable bit of a paper had turned her ice-cold.
“Though the customer of our ‘Hi-Fi Height Control’ technique will be blessed with a desirable height, his/her shadow will reduce in proportionate rate”, read the third condition.

“ A customer of our ‘Hi-Fi Height Control’ will however never be able to play any kind of wind instrument – bagpipe, flute etc. A small price for a larger benefit! Condition is irreversible. M/S Jing-Ping and Company – the patented license holder of ‘Hi-Fi Height Control’, will not be held liable in whatsoever manner”, read the final condition.

__END__

Originally published at: http://www.yourstoryclub.com