(Reposted from a write-up dated March 27, 2008)
Every time I sit in a meet discussing about the welfare of women or take part in rallies against discrimination or debate in television about the growing strength of womanhood a vaguely recognizable figure haunts my mind. The image takes the shape of a puny lady covered in a dim sari with nothing but her solemn face being revealed to the world. I try to read the image looking deep into her eyes but every effort to understand it takes me farther away from it, pushes me into the dread of being a woman and immediately to a level of defiance to etch in history the strength of my gender.
Despite being the only woman working among a group of men, I have consciously tried to be a free thinker, my example for a woman of the modern world. I have numerous men carrying out my assignments but not one of them have stirred this image as much as a male colleague of my cadre. Whenever a male colleague of mine puts forth a question, “Mam, Can you do it?” I blurt out, “Much better than you could!” without a second thought. Sometimes, sipping over a cup of coffee I do realize that I am being too harsh on men; but a moment later, I don’t care.
I was not born with this image neither did a catastrophe provide my mind delusional. It is unclear as to when it started haunting me and not until ten years back did I realize what could have happened to root this image into my memory. I owe it to the initial glimpses of this society which would shape me into being what I would be.
It was one of those foggy nights during the sixth year of my life and this is where my mind takes me to the farthest of my childhood memories. The sun had set very early bringing the cool breeze to the verandah where I sat memorizing my English poems. My mother had completed the household-chores just a couple of hours before and sat beside me reading the weekly magazine. My father came home only after I slept and it was usually days before I caught a glimpse of his face.
“Amma!” Hari was standing at a few feet of distance from us. Hari, a puny boy about twice my age frequented us, usually to run errands between our house and my grandma’s similar to what my mom did between our’s and my father’s.
“Did you deliver the sweets, Hari?” she asked. He walked towards her and told something in his native slang.
“No. Why?” asked my mom. Fighting over English I found difficulty in deciphering his dialect.
“Who told you?” asked my mother and “Sir!” came the reply. Hari referred to my uncle as ‘Sir’.
A few more inaudible seconds of conversation and then those words which made me realize that my English test tomorrow was heading for a toss – “We’ll be there immediately!”
We walked across the streets deserted from the fact that heavy showers were being expected during the nights. It was one of the good old days when people’s belief in the climatic news had been strong. We reached the house and saw my uncle standing outside. The dim light focused on him from the street and I could see his annoyed look. When we reached him, he strode into the house without a word. My mom followed him. I followed my mom.
“What happened?” she enquired with concerned eyes.
“Ma’s missing”, he replied and it took me a couple of seconds to realize that my Grandmother was not home. Grandpa had never been home.
“Did you check the neighborhood?” she asked.
“Nobody’s got a faint idea.”
“Did you ask the woman who delivers the flowers every evening?”
“She was the one who came in the evening and inquired about Ma. That was when I realized that she was not at home. She never leaves the house, except to visit the nearby temple.”
“But she would never have gone alone. There must be someone with whom she left.”
“But who?” he was shaking his head in frustration.
“That shouldn’t be too difficult to find; she doesn’t have any friends”
This hit me hard. Much more than my missing Grandma, more than the ghostly night, more than the increasing anger at my uncle’s face. No friends? What would I do if I grew up and could never get to see Priya, Sherry, Geetu, Dina and all the others? That sheer thought blew me numb. All of a sudden, I did not care about the test tomorrow. All I wanted to do was sit in the classroom amidst my friends holding their hands tightly. But the fear just increased. No friends? No friends!
“Where am I going to find her? I do not know where that old lady is now”, my uncle fumed.
“She might have gone to another temple”
“Does she expect me to come searching for her in the hundreds of temples in the city?” My mom kept mum.
“She should have informed me. I work so hard, day and night to take care of her. I have to prepare for an important meeting tomorrow. Now look what she’s doing to me”
“We’ll find her. Please relax.”, my mom was trying hard to control her own.
“She is never going to set foot out of this house again”, he hollered.
I always feared my uncle. He was the kind of guy who believed that discipline and sincerity always came by the cane. The tension in my mother’s face was readable. She looked unemotional only because of standing near my uncle. I stood in the living room looking at the telephone at my uncle’s desk. I loved the ‘tring’ sound that flew through its holes. I frequently meddled with it until an irate gesture from uncle killed my interest in the lovely black thing. But today I did not touch it. Uncle was already angry.
“Where are Mina and the kids?” my mom asked looking around.
“Mina is at a relative’s function along with the kids. I had to stay back as I needed to be with Ma. Can’t take her along… some customs. Before I left for work, I told Ma that I will be coming a little late since I had to make my presence felt in that function. So I went there and came home immediately afterwards. She was not here at that time. The door was locked and I thought that she was in the temple. Then I got busy with my preparation that until the flower-lady called in, I did not realize that she wasn’t back”, he said.
“What about Mrs. Sitamma….” mom spoke after sometime, “….Ma speaks to her almost everyday… let me check with her”
I walked around the house which was almost six months since I had last been. The food was left open, papers were strewn on the table, and the small red light on the radio was blinking. I entered a room which was dimly lit and surveyed it. A bitter smell engulfed it. To one corner of the room lay few unused caskets, ruptured rubber mats held together by cobwebs, brass utensils eroding black at its cup but glistening at the edges and other retired stationery from the kitchen. The rest of the room was filled with daily newspapers and magazines which I presumed to be a collection from my uncle’s younger days – termites were having a feast. Dust and Dirt had stormed the room to the max. On the top of the pile lay a wooden frame, glass pieces strewn around them. I picked it up and saw my grandmother. She looked very young with neatly plaited hair, strong vermillion mark on the forehead and jewels around her neck which had obviously lost its shine in the dark interiors of this room. She was serenely smiling upon me. Grandfather looked upon me from the living room. I placed the photograph back atop the junk and left the room.
“Sitamma seems to have spoken to Ma yesterday.” I heard mom speaking with caution, “… did Ma talk to you about anything of late?”
My uncle blinked at my mom. It had been days since he had seen his mother smiling. In fact it had been ages since he had had one good conversation with her. Mom was trying to find the suitable words “…Sitamma told that Ma was unlike her of late. She seemed to speak about self-respect, freedom quite excessively…”
“…and I’m not sure if she had joked, but she said: ‘Ma was showing signs of being rebellious’”
That was enough for my uncle who banked on the word ‘prestige’ more than he used his share of oxygen. He put his hands on his head and stared at the floor. My mom shook her head with concern. It was the phone bell that broke the silence. My uncle answered it. Every second of the conversation only indicated frown in his facial muscles.
“Lila”, he told my mother after placing the receiver on the hold “Mr. Saran seems to have seen Ma walking in the vegetable market around 5’ o clock…”
“What was she doing in the vegetable market in the evening hours?” she asked surprised.
“…. and he saw her get into an auto”
“Yes…” he hesitated, “…and he mentioned that she was well-dressed… with jewelry”
My mother looked at my uncle with shock. Tears were finding its way. Obviously colors and jewelry on a widow could never match except for taboo occasions. Thousand thoughts were apparently running through her mind. It never occurred to me at that time as to why grandma’s ‘good dressing’ caused so much of concern. I had seen my mother daily, arranging the fleets of her sari for hours trying to look graceful. ‘Did mother suspect of that dress to be hers’, I thought.
However now I can read what went through my mom’s mind: ‘Her mother…a widow…dressed in jewelry?’ or ‘She wants to break the clichés of a traditional woman and bring disgrace to the family?’ or above all ‘How dare she tries to be something that I do not have the guts to be?’
My uncle had fallen very silent. He was fighting hard to control his temper which was boiling underneath. Any outburst could have caused the china lamp on the tea-stand to see the end of its day. He gave vent of his anger through the clenching of teeth for I could very well hear its grunts.
It was my mother who spoke “Do you think we need to lodge a police complaint?”
The FIR was filed in the police station amidst a consoling inspector, a nonchalant constable, an angry uncle and a depressed mother. My mother held my hands tightly. I could feel the warmth of her hold, a long time since I was down with typhoid the previous year. From what I gather now, there was no mention of my grandma’s audacious clothes mentioned in the FIR. The suspect they put in there was the auto-driver.
We drove back in my uncle’s Fiat towards the house, my mother trying to control her tears, “What has she done? She doesn’t know the world…” she wailed, “it’s not the way she likes… with jewelry…Oh! My God!” My uncle ranted, “I’m going to strangle her for what she is doing”
I sat behind them having the whole backseat for myself. I lay on my back with legs resting on the window, stretched outside. I saw the dark blackish clouds that dispersed the moonlight through out the sky. I could feel the slight drizzle of the rain that occasionally fell on my forehead through the open window. Every drop to my forehead comforted me with some chillness against the anxiety that prevailed around.
We reached the house and saw the lights outside shining brightly. My mom sprung out of the car towards the house and knocked on the doors anxiously. My uncle followed her with an expectant face. Aunt Mina opened the doors.
“Mina? You are here so early?” my uncle inquired from behind.
“The kids weren’t enjoying much. So I had to excuse myself for them” replied Aunt Mina. But she was excited, “You need to know something, Suma is now a teacher”
“Teacher?” my uncle expressed shock. “…that good-for-nothing?”
“Yes. Looks like your mother finally did succeed in helping her.”, she sighed.
“Ma’s missing”, Mom was quick to cut in.
Aunt Mina blinked with shock, “What?”
“Lila, I have to tell you something.” my uncle was addressing my mother, “Suma was the reason why Ma and I were starting to have problems in the first place.”
“What’s the story here?” my mother was getting impatient.
“Ma was the closest thing that Suma could get when she worked in this house. Ma was the reason that Suma survived with the kind of attitude she had. I couldn’t tolerate her anymore, and one day I asked her to get out. She refused the money I gave her out of sympathy and took all that little talking that survived between Ma and me… that arrogant filth! I don’t understand what Ma sees out of that servant creature”
“She doesn’t work here anymore. So what’s the problem?”, my mom questioned.
My uncle pondered over the matter for a second. Then he spoke, “I think that could just be the problem”, he said.
For the first time since that evening, my uncle looked at me. “Are you hungry?” he asked. I nodded my head. “Aunt Mina will take care of you”, he said. He prodded my mom to follow him to the garage. They got inside the car and drove through the gothic road into the darkness as the clouds brought in gushes of rain putting smiles onto the lips of the meteorologists.
The rabbit in my watch glowed 00:34. The lights were switched off as I got up from the couple hours of sleep. My sleeping cousins were missing. I fumbled across the room to open the door. I heard distinct sounds that were inaudible due to the fan revving above. I pulled the door open slightly and saw a woman sitting on a teakwood chair and my cousins cuddled onto their mother. My uncle was pacing the floor and my mom slouched on one corner of the room tears trickling down her eyes.
I opened the door and walked towards the puny lady with the solemn face, a dim sari covering her head and stood near her. I ran my fingers through the wrinkles in her cheeks and asked, “Grandma, where were you?”
She took me in her arms and seated me on her lap. She held me close to her chest and kissed my cheeks. I could feel the wetness of her cheeks. She kissed me a few more times and it was at that time I realized the warmth of a person whom I had not met during the past six months, and whom I never remembered having existed the past six years.
My mother came and dragged me from my grandma towards herself. I obliged. My uncle turned to his mother and asked, “So, what have you decided, Ma?”
“I just wanted my life”, she said with a frail voice. It gave me a feeling that she had never spoken much.
My uncle’s eyes looked angry with resentment. He gave a tired sigh and walked towards my grandma. “In that case… it’s the choice between your life and your home.”
There was a gloomy ambience that existed in the house for the next few days which was eventually forgotten and everything came back to normal. My uncle started smiling again in business parties, my mother introduced herself to others as before and my cousins stopped asking about Grandma in the due course of time. She did not have a big society and so it wasn’t long before those only ones forgot about her. It never occurred to me as to what had happened to that person who had passed life into the generation of mine and next. I started realizing the weird absence of my grandma only as I grew up and my subconscious memories started moving towards the conscious ones.
This isn’t about how I lost my grandma; rather this is about how she came back to my life – little by little, step by step, it was almost a decade before I could completely bring her back to us. It was a night in August, ten years ago. As my age was ticking towards twenty, the clock was ticking seven forty-five. My heart was beating pulses faster than usual and I lay on my bed fantasizing the clouds above. I hadn’t given him a reply but I was very sure that when I met him tomorrow, I was going to hug and kiss him with a force that I felt only in my dreams. The lights were switched off and the breezy night was pumping the excitement into my mind. I lay dreaming about the upcoming happenings, running a skit in my mind as to how romantic the first step of this relationship can be made. The lights went on and I saw my father calmly looking at me. “We need to talk”, he said.
It was an unusual experience, walking beside my father at such an early hour of the night. Nothing much had changed for the past fifteen years, neither me catching those occasional glimpses of him nor him wishing me goodnight only after I slept. It was almost a year since he, mom and I had gone on a trip to Shimla which was cancelled half-way due to his business commitments. Walking beside a father and dreaming of a boyfriend made me realize how strange a father-daughter relationship had gone.
I entered the room and saw my mother slouched on the bed with a sober face and cheeks shining with wetness, the first instance of witnessing it totally escaping my mind. I thought about tomorrow and my heart started beating more. The night suddenly seemed to turn from romance to mystery. The tube lights were put out and there was only a chandelier that glowed brightly. She looked at me and wiped her eyes with the ends of her sari.
My father and I sat at the foot of my bed, his grip tightening over me. I kept looking at my father’s lips for any words that would give a sign of what grave drama was to take place tonight. He turned towards me, eyes facing downwards and heaved a sigh.
“Your mother and I have decided to separate…” he said, “…we are filing for divorce”
I looked at my mother and then to my father. ‘When I was trying to build a future I had suddenly found a hole in the past. Did I dream for the hugs and kisses at the wrong place?’ It took me a few seconds to gather my senses and understand the weight of that sentence. My father was not looking at me.
I settled for a simple question. “Why?”
He shook his head. “Things don’t jell”
“What about all these years?”
“They don’t now.” he said.
I did not know what to talk. I thought about my friends but we never thought about divorce except in the movies. I looked at mom. I wanted to ask her something but the words escaped my mind.
“What can I do to make you change your decision?” I asked timidly.
He moved closer to me and touched my head with his palms. ‘Answer me, don’t cajole me’, I thought to myself. “What can I do?” I asked him again.
“Sweety, there is nothing you can do. We have reached a decision.”
“YOU have reached a decision!” I countered, confident that a sobbing lady was not the sign of an approver.
“Stop calling me like that!” my voice raised.
“You cannot do anything, its not working”
“I am in love with another woman…” he blurted out.
It paralyzed me. He was dumping my mom for another woman? “You are not doing this”, I tried a tone of authority.
“Nothing can be done”, he said with a look that he named ‘repentance’.
“You cannot do this.”
“She’s pregnant”, he said.
This is where I reached the full stop. There was no more writing necessary, no more questions, no more justifications and no more Dad. The line of their marriage was over and I could feel it. I could not stand him anymore in this house or ever, anywhere, neither could have mom. I controlled my disgust else I would have gladly signed his divorce papers. I composed myself for one last question. “How long?” I asked.
Three years! All I could picture was my mother and father at Shimla standing near each other, him holding her tightly around his arms as I clicked the picture. That hung right above my reading table. But it had been three years while those hands were actually yearning for another woman. I went and sat near my mother and hugged her quietly. My father started speaking again but all I could hear was the deprivation and sobbing of my mom resonating my ears.
My Post Graduation was never planned. I, a simple parent’s child confined within the boundaries of girlish fun and family bond realized that I was an invalid until I found something for myself – a life. My contemplation did not take too much to sense that ‘career’ was the obvious choice. It’s not fair to concede that the ‘career-driven’ characteristic belongs only to men; I wanted a fair share myself. It is hateful to consider this a man’s world because a woman lives here too. But I knew that my trysts with the society would be tasteless from which I could never run away. In fact there wasn’t a choice. So I decided to play hardball, I became a journalist.
There were times when I used to sit staring at the reddish skies in the long drawn evenings during my parents divorce as both got ready to move separate ways. During those days I thought about my mother getting ready to leave someone she had believed to be there for the rest of her life and then, I thought about grandma. When I think about why she left the house only one single line flashes in my mind, the line I remember of my grandma, ‘I want my life’. I wondered if that was too much to ask.
When I completed my journalism, I had one thing in mind: to find out what had happened to my grandma. I spent all my time trying to visit people in search of information that could lead me to her. Not one person in my family spoke about her; they never knew where she was and often supposed that she was dead. I did not know whom to turn to. The younger generation did not know her, the elder generation did not speak about her, and the older generation did not remember her. From all I could gather, she lived in vicinity for another six months since she left the house after which nobody knew what happened.
I was not able to meet my grandma since. I was unable to find out where she lived or with whom she lived. Despite the pursuits for my grandma I never intended to find whether she lived a life of satisfaction or repentance. All I wanted to remember of my grandma was a lady who was strong enough to break through conventions in search for her freedom. However I often wished that somehow I could find her and take pride in accepting what she had wanted: her life.
It was on the day when my mother and I moved out of the place that we called home and saw my father waving to us standing with another woman near the gate did I realize the image that would haunt me for the rest of my life. I did not wave him back.
One day I entered my uncle’s store room and picked the photograph of my grandma. I cleaned it from the dust and dirt that had piled on it and hung it right in front of the entrance to my living room. My uncle was furious when he saw that, more since it gleamed at a place where everybody noticed. He ordered me to put it away but I stood ground. Every time my uncle brings someone to my home, I hear them enquiring about the picture that looks below smiling at them. Whenever I enter the house I smile at my grandma and she chuckles back to me. In due course of time, it became a well-known fact that there was a lady in this family who mothered two children leading them to their lives until one day she paraded out in search of her own.
Now, she lives here with us.
Dated: March, 2008.
– Tipu Vaithee Swaran