The Tree of Grace

book

The little brown tree with it’s hardly-there leaves used to resemble a woman dancing in wild frenzy. It did not offer much shade but the fact that it was just next to the little pool flowing by made it an ideal spot.

“Some streamers please”, the tallest among the cousins would cry out. We would immediately hand over colourful streamers to him. Tall that he was, it was easier for him to hang the streamers from the tree branches.

Then four of us would promptly lay the mats and bed-sheets for all to sit down.

“Move, move, move away”, our family servant Deenram would loudly announce, making way through our huddle.

Just under the higher branch of the tree he would then place two cane chairs.

That was the cue for grandpa to walk along (and most of it over the freshly laid mats and bed-sheets-much to the dismay of grandma) and take his seat in one among those two chairs.

That would mark the beginning of our ‘Boxing Day’ ritual – our family picnic.

One by one the mats and bed-sheets would be dotted by huge tiffin carriers, badminton racquets, wailing babies, balls of wool and knitting needles, newspaper, giggling teenagers, annoyed mothers and aunts, eager-to-eat fathers and uncles.

Amidst the commotion, grandfather’s eyes would be fixed towards the little foot-bridge over the pool.

“Ah, there comes Freddy and Fanny”, he announce loudly – getting up to welcome them.

Our Boxing Day family picnic would never be complete without Uncle Freddy and Aunt Fanny.

How and why were an Anglo-Indian couple a part of a Bengali Christian family was unknown to us. Once when I had dared to ask my grandfather whether they were actually a part of our family circle, he had let out a loud laugh.

“Ofcourse, they are,  infact they are a close relative of ours”. And then he had gone into the details of one Shantilata’s husband’s sister’s step son’s  daughter’s sister-in-law and would have gone further till, exasperated, I put up my hands.

“Yeah I understood. They are quite close indeed” – with this I had closed the conversation.

We knew the seat next to grandpa would belong to Freddy uncle. Unlike the other men of the entourage, Freddy uncle would come to the picnic wearing format suit and tie and would never remove his shoes. Fanny aunty would however adjust her tight fitted dress to sit carefully on the mat with our mothers and aunts.

We never knew what Freddy Uncle did for a living or where they stayed. The only thing we would bother about was the silver tiffin box that Fanny Aunty would bring out from her picnic basket. Amidst the pile of oranges and cookie tin would gleam her flower-carved silver container. As our plates would receive left-over Christmas mutton roast, grandma’s ghee pulao, cardamom scented rice pudding, our eyes would greedily gaze at the glimmer from Fanny Aunty’s silver box -as her dainty fingers would bring out golden brown Shammi tikkas. Her recipes were often noted down by the newly-married, kitchen-enthusiast women of our family but somehow no one could replicate the magic of her creation.

There was a certain art with which she would just hold on to the greasy discs of minced meat – touching lightly, careful not to break them.

Somehow our Boxing Day picnics had become synonymous with melt-in-your-mouth tikkas of Fanny Aunty. And she would be generous enough to hand out those -as many as possible -much to the satisfaction of Freddy uncle. His eyes would glimmer in pride as plate after plate would be sent across to her to have ‘just one more’.

There was one more thing without which our picnic would be incomplete – Freddy Uncle’s violin . Once the empty tiffin carriers would find their way into the picnic baskets and our legs would be tired enough from numerous rounds of catch-me-if-you-can, grandpa would take out his cigar from his Burma teak cigar case.

“Freddy, shall we?”, taking a puff he would expectantly look at Freddy Uncle.

With utmost care Freddy Uncle would take out his violin from it’s case.

There would be a prelude of total silence except a twitter here and a chirp there of lonely birds.

Placing his violin on his shoulders he would close his eyes. With dedicated precision his strings would send ode of love to his lady.

        “I can’t help falling in love with you”

And every time he would play on, Fanny Aunty would move her fingers over the lace of her dress- her eyes downcast.

I was too young to notice perhaps, but my cousins who were older had noticed a shy drop of tear rolling down her cheeks. But I did notice how her cheeks would turn crimson at the end of the performance!

We would clap loud as soon as he would end his performance – as a mark of appreciation as well as a symbolic gesture that the Christmas celebrations were finally over.

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

Time brings in its own bag of surprises – sometimes pleasant , not-so-happy ones otherwise. And as we grew up, our large joint family underwent a lot of equations – new wailing members were added, while others took abode in the Lord. And with the passing away of grandpa and grandma, things were not the same anymore.  Ours was no longer a joint family that it was – meeting only occasionally during birthdays and festivals.  And amidst the burden of exams and the challenges of fresh teens, Uncle Freddy passed away. It was shocking for the family because Uncle Freddy was hardly in his forties. For me, it left a tinge of a piercing sadness thinking of his Elvis Presley looks and the musical magic that he used to gift us every year. Most of us were busy with the ongoing exams so only the elders attended his funeral. For many days, with red-tinged nose and silent tears mothers and aunts here and there remembered Uncle Freddy. But like every other death, Uncle Freddy soon faded into the album of memories.

But with his passing away, somehow Fanny Aunty became our occasional guest every now and then. Poverty or loneliness – which of the two was a more profound reason I wouldn’t know but in between our school days and holidays we would often discover her in our front room sofa sipping on her cup of tea.

As days cloaked on to nights and seasons brought in new emotions, opportunities  and people to our lives, the petite and dainty Fanny Aunty quietly transformed into a bulky middle-aged lady. Her visits became more often, transforming our courtesy to annoyance. With age, the ever-quiet Greta Garbo became a quintessential middle-aged, talkative lady. No matter who heard her, she would incessantly talk about ‘her Freddy’ and ‘his values’ that she claimed to be adhering to –much like the crucifix around her neck.

“Grace multiplies when you share it. It is like a seed. You sow it and it branches out to a huge tree – sheltering many more under it. The moment you share what you have, you light a candle of gratitude in front of the good Lord”, she would repeat and repeat the lines. Our mother and aunts would still lend her a patient ear for the sake of old times but for us, she was annoyance. Often my elder brother would call my mother aside and laughing out loud would hand over a few notes to her.

“Here is my piece of ‘grace’ – please share it with Mrs. Grace Tree! “

The notes clutched tightly within her palm she would walk out slowly while we would heave a sigh of relief!

Near the gate she would invariably turn back, smile at us and say, “Do come to my place one day”.

“Sure”, we would smile back, knowing well that the word really meant nothing because most of us hardly knew where she stayed.

**********

With the family becoming scattered, family events became rarer, though we still stuck on to our Boxing Day ritual of family picnic. Some faces left, some got replaced but Fanny Aunty became that corner-furniture who would never be replaced. So be it rain or shine Fanny Aunty would walk slowly down the bridge on the pool to join our family picnic. And every single year she would unfailingly take out her silver tiffin box – now dented and lustreless. The shammi tikkis would still be there – except that their numbers would dwindle every year. There wouldn’t be any change of taste but the numbers would be too less for each of us to have one. But with deft fingers she would break the discs into neat twos and threes and distribute it among us. With the new generation acquiring newer tastes, there would be no one to give a feedback about her culinary skill but her eager eyes would hover from face to face – seeking that small glimmer of satisfaction.

Don’t know how long this ritual would have gone on but it didn’t. As she was opening her tiffin case one Boxing Day, one among the younger cousins spoke up, “Fanny Aunty, why do you take the trouble of bringing the tikkis? Yeah they are tasty but they are too less for all of us. Moreover, now that you do not have so much money, I don’t think you should be spending so much!”

I assumed that he was only trying to be helpful but Fanny Aunty’s fingers quivered a little as she moved away the lid of the box. She tried hard to bring in smile to her lips.

“Aah as I say, grace should be shared. If Freddy had been here, he wouldn’t like it if we came without these “, she tried hard to make the situation easier but I somehow felt that her voice was tinted with painful agony. She did break the tikkas and distribute among us but unlike other years, her eyes did not seek appreciation.

That was the last we ever saw of the dented, silver box.

No,  Fanny Aunty never missed a single family picnic but her silver box and shammi tikkas melted into the oblivion – much like Freddy Uncle’s music!

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

Then one fine morning, she died. As the lazy winter morning was just letting the warm sun rays seep in, someone appeared at the front door to let us know that Fanny Aunty was no more. With most of our aunts and uncles no more, we were the only ‘family’ left for Fanny Aunty.

“Where do we have to go? I mean where is her house?”, my brother asked.

The man who had come to inform us looked puzzled.

“Beniapukur…that is where she used to stay. Have you never been there?”

“Well no…not really…”, my brother sounded apologetic.

“I can show the way if you come now. But I cannot wait. There are a lot of arrangements that have to be done. You can keep the number of my shop. Call the number. Whoever picks up, just ask the direction to Grace Home, they would direct you. Tell them my name – Salim Bhai”.

“We will join you in an hour Salim Bhai. I will have to inform my cousins too”, my brother told him.

As he left, my brother took out the phone book to inform our cousins.

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

I do not know who did the arrangements and how but by the time seven of us reached there, Fanny Aunty was peacefully sleeping in her inexpensive coffin, wearing a powder blue gown that she had so often talked about. Her coffin lay outside a small shanty that smelt of pigeon poops and animal fur. Six girls of varying age, stood around her coffin, sobbing silently. A small gathering of men, women and children stood scattered here and there.Six dogs and a lame cat moved in and out of the single room. Enclosed within the maze of her fresh wrinkles, her lips carried a strangely beautiful smile – as if she had always been waiting for this moment.

Seeing us, the man who had come in the morning, Salim bhai, came running.

“Now that you all have arrived, shall we proceed towards the burial ground? But sahib, I have a small request. I know you all are her family and she always reminded us to inform you all in case of her death, but sahib, many of us want to carry her coffin on our shoulders one last time. Her contribution to our lives have been immense. And if you all permit us, we would like to organise a prayer meeting in her orphanage.”

“Orphange? What orphanage?”, one among our cousins questioned.

Salim look a tad astonished but recovering himself, pointed to a two-storey building. With red-gate and sunshine yellow walls it stood out against the back-drop of the shanties around.  “Grace Home”, the words in blue were bright enough to catch our attention.

“What a lady she was”, Salim continued, “ she gave away her house, her belongings , her every saving to bring up this orphanage for girls. Most of the time she couldn’t manage funds for the girls but would somehow collect money from here and there. You saw the girls, didn’t you?”

“And the dogs and cats Salim Bhai. Don’t forget them. She would hardly eat a meal but would pick up and bring home every other street dog”, another man joined our conversation.

Astounded we looked at each other. We had no words or even if we had, they only flowed down as tears.

***********

As promised, we let them carry her on their shoulders. The boys, the men, the unknowns -with their dusty, torn, stitched and dirty dresses took turns to reach her to her destination. Holding back tears, the little orphan girls marched along, holding the hymn books – singing aloud their farewell song. I couldn’t gather enough strength to join them. I stood there, holding on to a pillar. Amidst the dust, foggy mist of the setting sun I could see Fanny Aunty with her powder blue gown walking with dainty steps towards the lone man under the tree – holding a violin. With shy, yet content smile, she walks towards him – proud- that she did manage to light her candle of gratitude in front of the good Lord. The curtain of tears block my vision but the music reaches my ears:

Like a river flows

Surely to the sea

Darling, so it goes

Some things are meant to be

Take my hand,

Take my whole life too

For I can’t help falling in love with you

 

(picture courtesy: Pixabay)

 

 

 

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John Solomon’s Christmas

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Hot, oven-fresh bakes would lure us from behind the glass cases. The younger amongst us would press our nose against the glass case and try to venture into the kingdom of forbidden happiness.
“Don’t they look yummy?”
“Yummy and hot…..look at vapour coming out from the patties”.
“ Can we not buy just two or three and share amongst ourselves?”
The mention of sharing would bring us back to reality. Three pieces among sixteen of us would be too tiny a share. Leaving our mortal lures back in the glass case, we would rush to catch up with the rest of the troupe . John Solomon and sixteen of his grandchildren visiting the Hogg Market as a pre-Christmas ritual was a sight to behold. The old man, donning a colorful paper cap would lead the entourage , singing aloud ‘Oh come, all ye faithful’. The younger ones would join him in full fervour , while the just-teenagers would try to walk as slowly as possible, looking elsewhere, trying to avoid being identified as a part of the singing troupe. Hogg Market,being the hot and happening place those days, would be teeming with good looking Anglo-Indian boys and girls. Who would risk being avoided a glance just to be a part of a Christmas-happy and noisy gang!
Moss-green Christmas trees ,curly mistletoes, felt hats, rustle of American Georgette, freshly brewed coffee, vibrant hues of Christmas candies…..we gaped at all of those in star-struck wonder. We were free to look and admire , even steal a glance the handsome men who resembled Elvis Presley, but we knew we wouldn’t buy a thing. The new-to-the-team young ones would obviously tug the old man’s coat and ask the never-to-be-asked question: “Dadamoshai, can we not buy some of the Christmas decors? A Christmas tree perhaps…..”. We all knew the answer to this question but we would still eagerly wait for Dadamoshai to give the answer. In his inimitable style, the old man would stoop a little, look left and right as if to ensure that no one was listening to this gravest secret of all times and then whisper: “All these belong to the Babus. We are supposed to only look but not buy”. With the British having left the country, who the Babus were– the rich or the imaginary British- we had no idea but all we knew was that whoever they were, they had the right to buy while we didn’t! The only thing we were entitled to buy were home-made, hard candies that were sold in dozens and required special skills to bite into bits without risking damage to our teeth!
While we would go by public bus, we would return by tram – sitting in the second class compartment! Our legs would ache, our nose-tips would be ice-cold but oblivious to the discomforts we would pop our heads out of the tram window and savour the cold December evening . The tram would chug along the sleepy Calcutta roads while we would inhale the smell of Christmas!
As soon as we would reach our destination, Dadamoshai would cup his hands like a loudspeaker and announce: “Friends, with this we begin our Christmas festivities this year. From tomorrow would start our…..”, he would pause dramatically. No, we were not supposed to fill in. He would change the tempo of his voice and complete it for us:”……yes, we begin our rehearsals for the Annual Gala Christmas Show”. It was a cue for us. We would break into a mad frenzy of claps and whistles!

2
The Annual Gala Christmas Show was a special show that would be organized on the lawns of ‘Solomon Villa’. Apart from the numerous children belonging to the Solomon branches, the children from the neighbourhood would also join in. There would be Christmas carols, group songs and finally a spectacular drama – all with costumes and make-up. The stories would be heavily borrowed from popular tales and would have nothing to do with Christmas or nativity as such.
“ For that, we need to attend the Church”, was the old man’s firm dismissal.
So the rehearsals would be carried out under his total supervision. He would strategically place his arm-chair in the lawn so as to get the warmth of the sun on his ageing back while watching us rehearse our lines. He would be watching us hawk-eyed from his seat of importance till the warmth of the sun would prompt him to close his eyes.
Placing her gentle arms around him, grandmother would whisper, “Ahem….they are practicing quite fine…You were almost sleeping.Why don’t you just get inside and rest for a while?”.
“Sleeping? Not at all! I was just concentrating on their dialogue delivery”, he would protest vehemently, till grandmother would coax him to get inside and just stretch his tired feet.
While we would struggle with our dialogues, the squirrels of the garden would pop their head’s from behind the Bougainvilea bushes and watch us in amusement. The older ones among us would generously twist and turn the ears of the younger ones at the miss of a dialogue or two and the mothers would be unfailing in the constant supply of drinking water and tit-bits of munchies.
Long back, in his youth days, Ronu Kaka had by-chance picked up a song in the old family violin. From then on he was a constant fixture in our plays; playing his bit in the interlude of our plays. Be it an adventure story or a hilarious one, his violin would break into the same tone of pathos while we would try hard to suppress our laughter.
But if there was someone who hated these plays, it was Inu Maasi. Every year she had to sacrifice a lock or two of her luscious hair to the whims of an over-enthusiastic make-up man. John Solomon wouldn’t trust anyone else with that department other than himself. And he would insist on curling out mustaches out of snippets of Inu Maasi’s hair.
“But Baba why don’t you try other things – wool, eye-brow pencils, threads….just anything, other than my hair ?”, she would howl.
“ They would not look authentic”.
“Then, for a change, why don’t you take from Bela Didi, Moni Didi, Jumki Didi…..Why me ?”
“Because your coarse hair would look fine as a mustache. Moreover I have observed that your hair grows quite fast”.
Saying this he would take out his sharp scissors and hand it to Inu Maasi who would then snip off little locks from her long hair, grumbling all the while.

3
That year we zeroed in on “Alibaba and forty thieves”.
“But we cannot have forty children on stage”, one among us protested.
Dadamoshai gave a know-it-all smile and added, “ Stupid! I wonder, with such chicken-brain how you landed up being my grandson! We would show only a few thieves, the rest would be done through cut-outs using shadow effect”.
Cries of protest emerged from two persons this time – Dhiru Kaka and Inu Maasi.
“I have too much work at office Baba. I cannot spend so much time making cut-outs”, protested Dhiru Kaka- the unofficial art director.
“No way…..there are too many male characters”, protested Inu Maasi, who had by then calculated that the number of male characters were directly proportional to the number of her hair locks under the chopper!
But John Solomon always had the last word in matters such as these and so “Alibaba and forty thieves’ it was!
We rehearsed for days to perfection until the D-day arrived.
The night of 24th of December had finally arrived! Dhiru Kaka and his friends erected the make-shift stage with two wobbly cots. Dadamoshai supervised the make-up. Grandmother boiled liters of milk in the mammoth caldron for the late-night coffee after the programme. The married girls of the house decorated the adjoining church with flowers for the Christmas service on the morning of 25th December. We glanced through the script one last time in nervous frenzy.

4
The play was a grand success! The entire crowd broke into impromptu applause as soon as the curtains were drawn. We hugged each other in genuine happiness. But where was Dadamoshai ? We wanted to rush to him to take his blessings like every year . His arm chair was placed where it always was placed – behind the stage! But the chair was empty and our grandfather was missing from his seat.
We rushed inside our home, only to be told that Dadamoshai was in his room – resting for a while since he was feeling unwell.
We wanted to go by his bedside but grandmother stopped us.
“ Let the poor man rest a bit dearies! His aging bones can hardly bear so much excitement. He will be fine. Unless he sleeps now he will not be able to attend the morning church service”.
Being young that we were, we soon became engrossed in our coffee cups and the freshly baked cookies.

5
Twelve of us slept in the same room for a full month during Christmas; with the very young ones being pushed to their mothers.
And that year, like every Christmas morning the younger ones shoved their hands below their pillows to find their respective gifts from Santa Claus. We, who were beyond the Santa-age sniggered at their enthusiasm. Though this did not refrain us from pulling away their gifts and opening the wrappers out of curiosity!
Christmas mornings always had a signature smell – the aroma of mixed fruit cakes and the strong coffee tickled our nose, even before we were fully up! But somehow the aroma of coffee and fruit cake seemed missing that day. We were about to wonder aloud about this when Inu Maasi came in rushing. Her eyes were moist with tears and she looked visibly distraught.
“ Children,your Dadamoshai is very sick ”.
The simple sentence sounded unbelievably untrue but we all rushed to his room nevertheless.
There in his room, Dadamoshai sat in his chair – his head resting on the head-rest and eyes closed. His lips looked purple and his breathing was heavy.
Our mothers sobbed in silence while our fathers tried to talk with him.
“Baba! We are calling Doctor uncle. He will be here soon.”, they tried to reason.
The old man’s lips quivered a bit, then it broke into an impish grin. “I am not yet dead son! And today is Christmas!”
“So what!”, Dhiru Kaka lost his cool. “ Don’t be childish Baba! We can all see how unwell you are”.
“ I will not die on Christmas Day, I can guarantee that”, Dadamoshai spoke slowly, amidst pants. Then he opened his eyes with great difficulty and turned his head to look at grandma.
“Pramila, what time is it ?”
“Ten minutes to eight”, grandma answered, with strange calmness in her voice.
“ Ten minutes from now the church bell must ring. My death can wait but Christmas service can’t”. Saying this he closed his eyes again.

6
It was the strangest Christmas service ever. Holding our hymn books we sang “Joy to the world, the Lord is come”, but all of us had tears streaming down our eyes. The pastor choked his voice while giving his Christmas message and the organ player missed a beat or two.
The news spread like wildfire and one by one people came to see our grandfather after the service. While they meekly inquired about his health, he extended his shaky hands towards them .
“Merry Christmas”, he whispered in his barely audible voice.
Taken aback, the visitors had no other option but to return his wish with a smile.
True to his words, he did not die on Christmas Day. The next morning we found him sleeping peacefully, wearing his new Christmas dress. John Solomon had made his final journey to meet his Lord.

7
Normally we never dared to clean Dadamoshai’s room. And we would have not dared do so if grandmother hadn’t reminded us of the ritual to clean the rooms after a person’s death. It was while cleaning his bed that Dhiru Kaka discovered two envelopes under his pillow.
Opening the first one he sat motionless on the chair. No amount of coaxing would prompt him to come out of his trance. Perplexed, Ronu Kaka pulled away the paper from his hand.
“ What is this ? An ECG report ? “, Ronu Kaka seemed equally surprised.
“Myocardial Infarction ? What does it mean Dada?”, he asked Dhiru Kaka.
“Heart Attack. And the report is six months old. All this while the old man knew he was so unwell and did not give an inkling of information to us”, Dhiru Kaka finally spoke up.
“He did not want to ruin Christmas. Moreover, he wanted to spend his final days surrounded by his children and grandchildren. Not in the hospital bed.”. We turned to look. Grandma was in the room.
“ So all this while you too knew it?”, I asked.
“Yes. He had told me not to inform anyone. There is one more envelope. He wanted you all to read it after his death”.
Dhiru Kaka picked up the second envelope . On the big brown envelope, in turquoise blue ink were words that read: John Solomon’s Will.

8
All of us assembled at the main drawing room while Dhiru Kaka read out the contents of the will. The 14 page ‘will’ was nothing but a hand-written note. The entire contents were divided into paragraphs with weird sub-headings: “ The lights for church decoration”, “How to ring the church bell”, “Number of packets of Christmas goodies for distribution”, “Recipe for perfect Christmas Pot-Roast”, “Supplier to be contacted for purchase of dry fruits” etc. Each of the children and grand-children were assigned duties to make each Christmas perfect – the John Solomon way!
Silence followed this long reading session.
“Is that all ?”, Inus Maasi asked.
“No, there is a bit called ‘Final Note’ “
“ And ?”
“ It says: ’ As to the rest of my property – do whatever you want, distribute it amongst yourselves the way you think it to be perfect. All my life I’ve believed in one simple fact, that whole-hearted celebration is a form of prayer. And a family that prays together, stays together – forever’.”

    Epilogue:

The squirrels pop out their heads in surprise and the tailor bird makes a quick survey of the noise around. We sit with our back to the sun. The warmth of the sun really does give comfort to our ageing bones.
Kyra forgets her lines once again. Nimmi gives a mild spank on her back.
“Stupid girl! Why don’t you memorize your lines well!”
“This is difficult Didi…..we should have opted for something like Harry Potter”.
“ The entire book ? Crazy girl!”
We lovingly look at our grandchildren and laugh out loudly. We were sixteen and they are forty two. Every Christmas they assemble from all over the world – just to celebrate Christmas – the John Solomon way!
I look around the garden. I discover Dadamoshai standing amidst the Nightqueen shrub – smiling in his own inimitable style. ……His words seem to resonate throughout ‘Solomon Villa’ – a family that prays together, stays together- forever!

__END__

Story originally published at:yourstoryclub.com

Pic Courtesy: Pixabay

The Rainbow Bubble

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1

For a moment I sensed a hurried numbness overtake every part of my body – my fingers, toes, shoulders – the not-being-alive feeling seemed to grip every nerve of my body with alarming rapidness. But it shouldn’t have been so. A rainy day has always been a welcome break for us – for Tojo and me. We’ve made paper boats and gone out in the rain, we’ve jumped in the muddy puddles till creases have formed in our toes and then the wrap-up under the blanket with a hot cup each – chocolate milk for Tojo and coffee for me…. But today was different. The unexpected call from his school rather increased the rate of my heart-beat, faster than it should.

” Mrs Sengupta ? Ah, here you are. This is Mrs. D’Costa, the school administrator of Sunrise Academy. Actually Mrs. Sengupata we’ve been trying to contact you over the landline but….”

“ No, its out of service.” I hurried to put an end to her prologue. Now what ? Toja has had an accident ? He’s not well ?

“ Oh that’s why…actually Mrs. Sengupta we’ve declared a “Rainy Day” today at Sunrise. Actually its more about a leaking overhead tank than about the rains. But we can’t declare a “Tank Leak Day” you know”, Mrs.D’Costa laughed at her own joke.

I collected myself. Phew! My heart was almost in my mouth!

“ That shouldn’t be a problem. Another twenty minutes and I would be there at the school gate to collect him”, I assured her.

“Oh no Mrs.Sengupta. You don’t have to worry about that. Sunrise Academy is always sensitive towards the difficulties of the students and the parents aike. Aniket is already on his way home. Our school bus will drop him right at your doorstep”, the administrator tried to assure me. And then added, “ I suppose you or someone would be there to receive him?”.

“I’ve come out for some personal work. My mother-in-law is at home….”, I tried to bring in as much softness in my voice as possible. After all they were doing quite a bit for T.ojo

“ Very well then, have a good day Mrs. Sengupta and enjoy the rains”, she signed off.

I put the mobile back in my handbag and then it struck me! Amma would receive Tojo, change his dress, open his shoes but what next ? With her heavy medicines she would certainly doze off in her reclining chair. She normally has this small siesta everyday at 11am. It’s a small nap but a deep one. And then Tojo would be left alone with Tara!

2

She twitched her nose, when I touched it. A little twitch, not too much but it definitely added a kind cuteness to her face. Aww…that looked so cute! Her lips curled up in a smile, as if to acknowledge my touch. “ Mamma, can I touch her ? Just once”, Tojo whispered into my ears. He knew he shouldn’t be loud otherwise the baby might wake up.

“Yes, you may”, I assured him. He lifted his index finger and placed it on her cheeks, just at the spot which had been a dimple just seconds ago. Joy glanced at us through the rear-view mirror. Our family was now complete!

The picture was so different even an year ago. Tojo was already four years and we desperately wanted a new member in our family. “A brother or sister for Tojo would definitely be a welcome change for him. He would be less lonely and less hyperactive”, our doctor friend Meera had advised us. But things were not as simple as we had thought. Many tests and tears later it was concluded that medically it would be difficult, if not impossible, for me to conceive once again. Medical options were available but……For us that was it. We decided not to go on and on with the medical processes.

“Why don’t you think about adoption? Or even surrogacy”, Meera had suggested.

“ Adoption would be great! Tojo would have a friend and a child would be blessed with a home.” To my utter surprise Joy hadn’t even wasted a minute to come to a decision and then as if on an after-thought had looked at me for an approval. I was only too happy to relent.

Many counseling, home-visits and discussions later our daughter was finally ours! As we took her home in our car, Tojo could not contain his happiness. He would give a small tug at the towel one moment, the next moment he would be playing with her soft, pale fingers! “Mamma, what shall we car her?”, he asked while stroking her cheeks.

“You find a name for her” , I told him indulgently.

“Hmm…then I shall call her ‘Twinkle Twinkle little star’”, Tojo replied with all the seriousness one would expect of a big brother.

Joy laughed , “Hey big one. That’s a lovely name but a bit longish. What about Tara ? That means the same – a star! Tojo’s sister Tara!”.

“Yay…yippee….Tara! Tojo’s sister Tara”, Tojo screamed with joy.

The one who was just christened Tara, woke up startled, the commotion around was too much to be able to remain in the recluse of a good, warm sleep. And looking around with her tiny little eyes and furrowed eyebrows let out the loudest wail one would ever expect of a child of five months.

3

I don’t know how I managed to pay the bills at the counter but I did so with lightning rapidness and dashed towards the gate of the shopping mall. The guard at the gate came running towards me, bewildered probably at the pace of my exit. His anxious looks almost seemed to question if there had been any terrorists inside the mall.

”Taxi, where can I get a Taxi ?”, I asked him in between my breath.

“Hmm…did you say Taxi ? Well if you are looking for Taxis then I can tell you that you won’t get it anywhere nearby, this lane is one way now. And you will have to walk all the way to the crossing to get one,” he informed me. He smiled broadly having ‘successfully done his duty towards a hapless customer’. Holy Crap! Now what? I will have to walk upto the crossing and without a guarantee that I would get a Taxi back home.

While I walked towards the crossing I thought of calling up Joy. Though that won’t be of much help but atleast it would help me unburden myself. Joy picked up the call after two rings.

“Mmm…what is it Nidhi ?”, he sounded busy.

“ Joy, Tojo is having a ‘Rainy Day’ today at school”.

“ And you want me to come home early to take him to the park ?”

“ No, that’s not the issue.”

“ Then what ?”

“ He is going to be alone with Tara!”

There was a silence at the other end for a few seconds and then came the response, “Exactly what do you mean by that Nidhi?”

“ Actually Tara normally sleeps between 10:30 to 12:00 in the mornings everyday, after her bath and milk….that’s been her routine forever since she’s been with us. She never bothers to get up in between. And Amma takes her nap around the same time. So I thought today…..”

“ Today what ?”, Joy seemed too impatient to let me drag on.

“ So I thought I would just check out this new shopping mall at Kyd Street. I had to buy some dresses for Tara and…”, I mumbled.

“ Jesus Christ! How could you do this Nidhi ? You know we have to be careful with Tara. And Amma has been here hardly for a week and she has no idea so far about Tara’s condition”, he sounded furious.

“ I know, it was not a wise decision…but I thought since both of them sleep around the same time I can always make a fast trip and go back….”

“ Anyway, what is done can’t be undone. And now please go and pick up Tojo and rush back home”, he advised, having completely forgotten the primary cause of my concern.

“ But Tojo would have already reached home by now….his school bus would drop him. And the god damn phone at home is also out of service. I can’t even call up home to tell Amma to keep an eye on him!”, I tried to put all the issues in a nutshell.

“ What! He is alone with her? And you have not yet reached home!”, he panicked.

“ Now don’t add fuel to my panic Joy…my nerves are already out of order!”, I screamed back at him, quite unnecessarily and disconnected the call.

A taxi was in sight and I took no time to rush past other potential customers to get hold of that only taxi around.

4

“ Everything is not very fine, Nidhi”, Meera’s voice was laced with worry. Tara was already two years old but she hardly spoke a word. Apart from an occasional childish gurgling sound or two, she hardly seemed to respond to any gesture. She would let out a faint smile and then keep that smile intact for many minutes at a stretch. Too long enough to give an uncanny feeling within. She never cried out loud, only a constant, nagging roar seemed to emerge from her.

Her eyes would well up and the roaring sound would continue for many minutes or even hours; no amount of coaxing would convince her to stop her from crying. At first it seemed strange, then that strangeness gradually transformed into an eerie feeling! Was she dumb ? Was she deaf ? Or was there any deeper problem? The questions we didn’t want to entertain began to huddle in our minds every day with increased rapidness. And finally we decided to consult Meera…in case she could suggest some tests.

“I had a word with Varun, I mean Dr.Varun Jain a few hours ago. After having met you all, Tara especially, he is of the opinion that she is unlike a normal child”.

“ You mean abnormal? “, Joy asked. I could not determine if it was a question or an anxious expression of a loving Dad. Joy loved Tara immensely and it was because of him that we had held back this visit to the doctor for so long.

“ Oh she is perfectly fine, just a bit lazy enough to pick up new words”, he would laugh off my anxiety. It was only after much coaxing did he consent to meet Dr.Varun and only after Meera had assured him that Tara ‘would not be pestered’ by the doctor!

“ Being different does not being abnormal Joy”, Meera almost chided Joy. I glanced at Tara. All these discussions seemed to have no effect on her. She was not even interested in the teddy that I carried along for her – just in case she finds it interesting! She stared blankly at a poster on past-partum depression that hung from the wall behind Meera.

“ We cannot be sure as yet but Tara definitely is showing signs of autism – hopefully of the milder form”., Meera tried to sound less alarming. The degree of autism didn’t matter to me what mattered was Tara’s reaction to Tojo. Tara would just not tolerate Tojo – she would shake her head , roar in incomprehensible – monosyllables and would advance towards him violently! Sibling jealousy – I had comforted myself! But Meers’s words just shattered my belief – there was definitely more to it than mere jealousy!

5

What could be more distressing than an incessant rain and a traffic snarl just when you need to reach your destination – at the earliest! No amount of coaxing or pleading with the driver worked in my favour.

“ Bhabiji, just see for yourself! Show me one gap and I will push my Taxi through it!”, he reasoned with me. I knew he had a valid point. I closed my eyes and tried not to think about the problem. At that moment how I wished we had confided and shared our problems with Amma. But it was the last thing that Joy wanted to share with her, just when she was coming to terms with this whole issue of adoption – that too after almost two years of Tara’s arrival. She’s been here for a week now and we were careful not to let Tojo and Tara remain together in front of her lest she gets a picture of the reality.

“She’s warming up to Tara now…so lets wait for a few more days”, Joy had advised. But right at this moment how I wish we hadn’t been so foolish!

I fiddled with the mobile for a while. Should I call up Joy and tell him the real cause of my anxiety? How could I tell him that it was more about Tojo than about Tara ! It was about two months ago that I discovered the scratches on Tara’s cheek. Poor child, must’ve scratched herself! I clipped her nails neatly to avoid any such mishaps again. But again and again they appeared till I discovered the chilling truth – it was Tojo who was scratching her!

When alone in the room I confronted him. He looked straight into my eyes and replied, “ Yes, I scratched her. I will scratch her, beat her, kill her…I hate her. She is not my sister , she hates me! One day if I get her alone I will push her down the stairs or stuff a pillow inside her mouth. I don’t want her!”

A chill ran through me! Was this my Tojo? Was this really my son ? And now, with Amma probably sleeping in the next room Tojo would be all alone with Tara!

With desperate fingers I tried to call up my neighbour Mani but her phone went unanswered…..

6

It is hardly a matter of twenty steps from the gate to the front door but I made it in six . I almost flew through the distance. My hands shook while the opened the lock. I opened the door ajar only to discover Amma deep in sleep on the sofa. She was so deep in sleep that my entry to the room did not awaken her. Tojo’s shoes and socks lay strewn on the floor. A half-open tiffin box was kept on the centre table. Tojo would surely have skipped his tiffin, he needs a lot of coaxing to complete his food.

I tiptoed down the hall to the bed-room. A strange gurgling sound was emerging from behind the closed doors – a muffled grunt….My heart stopped beating for a second. Did my worst dream come true? Would my Tojo be so cruel as to harm my little Tara ? I didn’t know, I didn’t want to know. I pushed the door open. The sight that was in front of me was the last thing I could have ever imagined.

Soap bubbles- big, small, medium – floated about in the room. And Tojo was trying to blow out yet another one! This was one of the games I used to play with Tojo when he was small and wouldn’t stop crying! I used to make soap water and blow up the bubbles and let Tojo touch them with his little fingers. We used to call them ‘rainbow bubbles’ because of the myriad hues that the bubbles adorned on them. And now my Tojo was trying out the same trick with his little sister. Tara sat wide-eyed in front of her brother, trying to touch the bubbles with her unsteady fingers. And everytime a bubble burst she let out a strange muffled giggle. So immersed were they in their play that they did not notice me. And I was too stunned to move any further.

While I stood mesmerized, Tojo blew up a really big bubble and said, “ Look Tara, rainbow bubble. Say, RAINBOW!”.

Tara grinned and then with sheer might pushed her tongue to utter, “NEN…BAU”. That was the first ever complete word that my daughter spoke in all these two years!!

Photo Courtesy: Pixabay

My Golden Bond

Photo Credit:www.pixabay.com Photographer:Kalliwumpe

      

1

I passed at the turning of the road. I had to. My heavy breath and tired legs needed a break. Ronnie was a few steps ahead of me. My sudden break made him turn around.

“What’s wrong ? Tired?”, he asked.

“Hmm….”, I could barely answer him.

“Ah, now what should I do with you Grana ? Do you want me to carry you?”, he queried. He seemed to expect an answer in affirmative.

“Won’t be a bad idea. Would you be able to?”, I asked.

His lips broke into a mild grin . “Why not! Wait there, I am coming”. He retraced his steps back to where I was standing. He inspected me – probably deciding on the right posture to pick me up.

“Hold my neck tight with both your hands Grana, it will be easier for me to carry you”, he instructed while encircling his arms around my waist. Arms that had barely witnessed six birthdays!

I could not help smiling. Thankfully he did not notice my smile. Rather with a serious tone he commanded, “Now, keep walking Grana! Don’t worry, I am carrying you safely”. I kept walking, as commanded, setting aside the scientific impossibility of walking and ‘being carried’ – all at the same time! A lone cyclist who was passing by laughed at this strange image of a conjoined grandmother and her grandson trying to walk in that fashion. Ronnie stared back at him with crossed eye-brows, just the way his father used to whenever he was annoyed.

“Stupid man! What is there to laugh?”, he muttered angrily.

“You shouldn’t use such bad words Ron, he is much older to you!”, I chided him gently.

By now he had begun to realize the immense hurdle of walking in such conjoined manner. Moreover his patience was giving away. He cleared his throat and said, “Ahem…well, Grana, aren’t you feeling better now?”.

“Are you tired already, Ron ? Am I too heavy for you?”, I teased him.

“No, no it is fine. I am too strong…I can easily carry an old person like you. Just that I was wondering if…..”, he began to sound helpless.

I suppressed my laughter and said,” Of course I am feeling better my love. In fact I think it is better if we walk down the rest of the road. If you hold my hand that should be okay”, I assured him, much to his relief. His face bore a huge grin as he let go of his tiny arms around my waist . He slipped three of his fingers into mine and held tight.

Last night there had been a short spell of Norwester and the road now wore a moist-red look – having been carpeted with gulmohar flowers. It seemed as if we were walking on a bed of red velvet. Ronnie picked up a Gulmohar bud and looked amused at the green tubular bud with an orange hue.

“ What’s this Grana? A fruit?”

“No love, it is a bud.”

“ What’s a bud?”

“It’s a baby flower”.

“But I can’t see the baby flower Grana!”

I took the bud from his hand and peeled-off the outer green casing of sepals – one by one. A burst of vivid orange greeted us from within. “Here’s the flower Ron”, I pointed to the crumpled, yet-to-bloom petals.

“Aha..so here they are – hiding inside”, his eyes brightened as he examined the bud closely..

“They are being protected till they grow up”, I tried to explain to him.

“Like Mum and Daddy protects me, right, Grana?”, he rattled off, his voice moist with I-know-all pride. I nodded and ruffled his hair with my hand. “And who protects the grown-ups Grana?”. His box of curiosity was not full yet.

Out of breath, I took a pause and said, “Well, God protects us. And sometimes even small children like you do”.

“Aha..just the way I did now when I carried you, isn’t it Grana?”, he was thrilled.

“Yes darling, just the way you did!”, I smiled back at him.

By now we had come to the end of the road and the gate to our house was beckoning us. I could see Nita standing at the gate. Her anxious eyes were looking for us. Having sighted his mother Ronnie waved at her. Nita waved back at him but I did not miss the hint of annoyance in her looks. Really, I should not have taken Ronnie for such a long walk, it has been quite a while now!

2

“What’s this Daddy?”, Ronnie screamed out – loud enough for us to break our chain of concentration. We shifted our glance from our packing activity to look at his prized possession – a wooden car with broken rear wheels.

“ That’s my car”, Amod answered, his eyes glistening at the sight of his childhood favourite in the hands of his son.

“And where is the motor?”, Ron tried to discover the non-existent engine of the car. His father laughed out loud.

“Well, those days we did not have any motor in our cars. They were made of wood or plastic but none had a motor”.

Disappointed, Ronnie kept the car to one side and continued to rummage through the old card-board box that his father had kept aside. Nita and Amod went back to their packing spree. She held tight the brown, leather suitcase while he tied a rope around it. The lock just wouldn’t work!

“I still don’t understand why we should pack all the photo-albums. Anyway we won’t be taking them and it would be difficult for Ma to maintain all these old pieces”, Nita tried to place her practical advice.

“ Forr mmmy ssson to ssee”, Amod spoke, amidst his trysts with the rope and the suitcase.

“Nita is right Amod, they do not allow too many suitcases or boxes in the home”, I tried to reason with him.

Amod was about to say something in defence when Ron’s excited voice made us look at him yet again. “ And what is this Daddy?”

Three pairs of eyes glanced at his hand. Pinched in between his index finger and thumb was a worn-out ribbon- a little less or more than three inches – the matted copper look bore witness to the fact that it was once golden in colour. Amod looked at it with bewildered wonder and then whispered in a hushed tone, “ Golden Bond….thats my golden bond!”.

“Golden Bond?” Ronnie was curious.

Amod pulled his son to himself and made him sit on his lap. He cleared his nearly-choked throat and said, “ There is a lovely story behind it Ron. Those days we were staying alone in this house – ma and I – your Grana and Daddy. Your Grandpa had just died and only both of us were left alone. It was a rainy day. Not just a rainy day, a bad rainy day. The rain just wouldn’t stop. I had high fever and there was not a drop of medicine in the house. To buy a medicine those days we had to go to the city side. Grana wanted to go and buy the medicine but I was too scared to let go of her. So Grana found this little ribbon that had just been lying around. She tied it around my wrist and said, “Son, this is our golden bond – the bond between you and me. As long as you have this ribbon tied to your wrist, remember your mother is there with you – no trouble, no fear can touch you.”. With the ribbon round my wrist I was not one bit afraid. Grana could go and buy the medicine and come back. It was a magic bond. I did not feel afraid at all. From that day on till I grew up I used to make sure that I wore my golden bond whenever I was afraid or uncertain – somehow my fear would just vanish”.

Amod concluded his story. His eyes were already moist and I was afraid of making an eye contact with him lest my eyes too betray me. I pretended to be busy with the rest of the packing while Ronnie went back to his treasure hunt.

3

I knew I would find him there. I tiptoed my way to the corner of the terrace where he was standing . His back turned towards me he was staring at the darkness outside. He didn’t notice my presence but didn’t shudder nevertheless when I placed my hand on his shoulder. It was almost as if he was longing for this touch.

“Ma, what is that smell? I know the smell but somehow can’t remember the name of the flower.”, he said without looking at me.

“That is wild jasmine Ammo”, I answered, somehow stressing too much on the word ‘Ammo’. It had been ages since I had called him by his pet name. My Ammo was now Ronnie’s Daddy and Nita’s Amod but I never regretted this. Having been widowed very early in my life I had come to accept the realities of life with alarming calmness. So much so that many my close relatives call me “stone-hearted”. The nickname which was once a hushed whisper is now a loud wonder but I have not let myself change. I know, only by accepting the reality I can make Amod’s life easier.

“ Ma, do we really have to do this?”, Amod turned to look at me. His eye-lids were swollen and rimmed with a reddish hue. I knew he had been crying. He was always the soft one – just like his father.

“Don’t be silly Ammo. You both are there in Bangalore and I cannot possible continue to maintain such a huge house. Moreover the place isn’t as quiet as it used to be. Isn’t it wiser to sell it?”, I tried hard to reason with him.

“ But..but why on earth should you stay in an old-age home, Ma? You can always sell the house and come and stay with us in Bangalore”, he sounded desperate.

Yes, yes, yes Ammo, I want to go with you, I want to stay with you. I was tempted, I was willing to be not so stone-hearted. But my lips took control of the situation. “ No Ammo, that is difficult. I am old now. Even though I don’t stay with your aunts or uncles I need to be in touch with them sometimes. Moreover I am used to being in this state….”, I was losing my circle of reasons.

Amod was adamant. “ That’s not done Ma. If you stay in an old-age home your loneliness will not go…Moreover, what will people say?”.

“Oh, don’t worry about that. They all know about your Ma, Ammo”, I tried to laugh away the heaviness that was getting built up in the atmosphere. I patted his right palm and lifted it to plant a small kiss there, his cheeks were way beyond my reach now!

4

Thank God we made it on time! The announcement of the incoming train was blaring through the loudspeakers at the station as were entering the platform. Of course there were still some minutes left, the train had just departed the previous station. As we placed the luggage on the concrete bench of the platform Nita made a last minute check. Satisfied at not having left any luggage behind, she turned towards me and smiled. “I know I have this fetish for making everything prim and perfect…..”, she sounded apologetic.

“Don’t worry, that’s the story with almost every woman, “ I smiled back.

She bent down to touch my feet. I placed my hand over her head to bless her.

“You take care of your health Ma. This time you look unnaturally frail and tired. Thankfully most of the packing is over. The sale is also through. Now all you have to do is to move in to the old-age home this weekend”, she tried to assure me.

“Don’t worry Nita, I’ll be fine. Remember you have an early morning flight to Bangalore tomorrow. Don’t miss it. You’ll reach Kolkata from here in about an hour. Do give me a call once you reach your brother’s house there’, I tried to shove in as many instructions as possible because the train was already chugging in. I turned around to kiss Ronnie. And that is when it happened.

I was stooping down to kiss him when mid-way he stopped me. He put his hands into his pocket and pulled out the worn-out, almost-discoloured golden ribbon. With tiny fingers which had barely learnt to tie a knot he tied it around my frail wrist. He then stood on his toes to reach upto my ears and whispered, “Grana, that’s my golden bond! As long as you have it tied to your wrist, remember I am there to protect you and take care of you. You’ll be fine Grana”.

For many nano-seconds, seconds or perhaps minutes I stood there – dumbstruck. Mechanically I led them to their coach, I even waved them a good-bye but I knew my senses were numbed. And then as the train merged away into the dusty oblivion a warm tear-drop rolled down my sunken cheeks.

For all these days I was in two minds about showing my biopsy report to Amod – I wanted to tell him but the practical mother in me held me back. I just couldn’t tell him the real reason of selling the house and the real reason why I completed all the nomination documents in such a hurry. I just didn’t want to burden my son, I wanted to die a dignified death by just surrendering myself at the hands of disease and death.

But now, at this moment, I felt an irrevocable urge to live on. My life was no longer mine, it was entrapped in the half-tied knot of a discoloured ribbon. I wanted to survive – at least give a strong fight to live on – for the sake of the belief of a six year old boy – for the sake of my golden bond!

__END__

Originally Published at: yourstoryclub.com

Photo Credit: http://www.pixabay.com Photographer: Kalliwumpe