To love, and to be loved

Trying a hand at fiction…

I had seen the message notification in the morning, but I ignored it, certain it was from some random stranger. It was evening when I finally opened it.

“Happened to read your publication. And also the feature in the newspaper. Beautifully written! Keep writing!”, it read.

The profile picture was that of a little girl, clinging to a man who was in all likelihood, her father. I zoomed the picture and realised that the man in the picture was none other than Faisal. 

I felt a sudden pang of nostalgia. Memories of London suddenly flooded my mind.

London is not a chapter that I open often. Not because I dread the memory, but because I cherish it way too much. Like the presents we cherish and open only when we are alone and free from preoccupation. I like to open it slowly, gently, and with much feeling. And then hold it close…become one with the memory.

But now, I found myself at the doorstep of this memory, unprecedented. I was hesitant. I hadn’t talked to anybody about those years for a long time now. There are memories that I like to carry in my mind as raw perceptions. Perceptions meant to be felt. I didn’t want to touch them and spoil their beauty with analysis. So I refused to share them; I never talked about them. I felt they were alive only within me, and they would die the moment I let them out. On every occasion that I unwrapped them, they overpowered me and rendered me speechless. In the dark solitude of my life, they often made me feel rich.

I ruminated on this text message for a long time, unsure of how to respond. It was like a little comet that had landed into my world from that land of fantasy. I thought about my life then. It was so full of people, so full of love. But after the lonely battles I fought and the numbness they left behind, I wasn’t sure how I was to respond to the warmth of this text message. Its warmth made me glad, but there seemed to be an infinite distance between the numbness that had become my natural state now and the emotions that this text was calling for. There seemed to be an infinite distance between this numbness now and the emotional excess that defined me in those years. I had changed beyond recognition. Necessary for survival, but at the expense of a precious part of me that I seemed to have permanently lost. Except within the confines of my mind.

I was struck by the child’s face in the picture. She had dimples and her curly hair was tied up into a pony. Faisal held her hand and she clung to the security it provided her. The picture was blissful. I could sense the deep meaning the child instilled in Faisal’s life. She was Faisal’s world. It made me happy. Happy that his life had not taken a bad turn after we parted. Happy that he had what I could never have given him. I suddenly felt free.

“Thank you, Faisal. I was surprised to hear from you. Is that your daughter in the picture? She is very cute”, I replied to him.

His reply was instant:

” Thanks for replying. You are a wonderful human being. Yes, she is my daughter. I did not have your contact details. I stumbled on your publication one day and tracked you down. Congratulations for all your achievements! I am so happy for you!”

I could sense the happiness in those words. Once upon a time, we were really close to each other. I could decode the emotions that fuelled his words. I could sense his joy now, at having found me. His uncertainty and silent quest had come to an end. He had found me and I had responded. He was at peace with himself.

“I am an ordinary human being, Faisal. Leading a very ordinary life. London feels like a distant dream now. I cannot believe I lived there once!”, I replied.

“You are a determined person. I feel you can achieve anything you set your heart on. I remember your inclination for writing and art”, he wrote back.

Achievements. The word always makes me smile. From the perspective of the system, I am more of a rebel and a failure, than an achiever.

I replied:

“Most achievements come from being a nobody, Faisal. When I moved back from London, I had no plans. It was suffering, loneliness and misery that I moved back to. But I guess that enriched me as a person. I saw much that I might not have seen otherwise.”

“Can I talk to you?”, he asked.

I suddenly felt uncomfortable. I wasn’t ready. 

“I need some time, Faisal…”

“Don’t worry about the call if you are not comfortable. But I am honestly very happy with your achievements. You have done very well in life!”

I wondered why I wasn’t ready to talk to him. The last we had spoken was in 2005. After that, so much had changed. I had changed as a person. There was so much I hadn’t wanted to talk about, after London. How could I explain my journey thereafter? I couldn’t. I think the one journey that is best left alone is the journey of suffering. Somehow, that is a journey that you cannot risk talking about- the journey that broke you until you were born again. That journey is so sacred that you do not wish to undermine its value by verbalising it. I cannot talk to him about the millions of wounds that now lay within me. Wounds I had painstakingly sealed, all by myself. I was more comfortable with my mask. 

I thought back to my life with him. I remember what had brought us together. It was the journey of pain and suffering that he had travelled and that I could see in his eyes, though he spoke about it matter-of-fact. His father’s early death had put an early end to his childhood. He had learned to deny himself the pleasures that children of his age indulged in. He had witnessed helplessly his mother’s solitary struggle and that had seeded in him the urgency to grow up fast and shoulder the responsibility of the family. These circumstances had shaped his attitude to women. He was driven by the need to protect them and to shoulder responsibility. However, he believed that beyond this, a woman had no needs. As our relationship progressed, the monotony of it weighed heavily upon me. The beauty in my life gradually faded away. His inability to engage meaningfully and find joy in the little things in life- in conversation, in nature, in travel, in hobbies and art- it suffocated me. I found them all vanishing from my life. I felt a huge barrier come between me and the world. I found myself sinking into depression.

I found it hard to communicate this to him. Especially since it wasn’t something he could change. It was probably rooted in the fact that he had alienated himself from all these joys very early in life. For him, achievements were pleasure. And that was understandable. But my personality thrived on these simple pleasures. I couldn’t do without them. Perhaps, if he wasn’t so caring towards me, it wouldn’t have been difficult for me to communicate this discordance in our personalities. But he was a wonderful human being and he cared deeply. That made it difficult.

While I was struggling to find the right words to communicate, he surprised me one day by speaking out my mind.

“You are in conflict. You feel suffocated being in this relationship, but you find it difficult to step out as well.”

He sensed it. I remember the melancholy in his tone when he said this to me and my heart went out to him. 

That conversation propelled me to try harder to stay in the relationship, but I realised that the natural course of our relationship was headed towards separation and so, it was futile working against the inevitable. Our relationship staggered as we found ourselves caught up in confusion, insecurity, guilt and agony. That made us a little bitter. When we parted, we were bitter. But now when I look back, I realise that bitterness was superficial. It was only human- a transient emotion that was necessary for us to find the courage to part ways without damaging our self-esteem.

I remember the freedom I felt when I stepped out of that relationship finally. I remember sitting in a sidewalk cafe on a cold winter morning, eager to feel the warmth of the sunshine. I remember feeling the joy as the warmth of the bleak sunshine percolated into my senses. I remember feeling ecstatic at the aroma of coffee, at the sight of people walking on the sidewalks, at the sight of the ferries on the river. I remember feeling alive again.

But today, when I read his text message, I look at Faisal against the backdrop of the years after London- the years of loneliness and suffering. It is gratitude I feel- for what he gave me, and for what I haven’t had in my life for the last several years. 

Not that I miss him. Or that I repent or regret. But today, I see the abundance in him; I see his worth. And it makes me happy to see that he got what he always deserved and longed for- a family to come back home to, to call his own.

This makes me appreciate the irony of life. We don’t need happy marriages. What we need is truth- in our relationships, in our emotions. Unfortunate are the ones who lose love and their ability to love, to traumatic relationships.

The unwritten memoirs

They had moved with me to wherever I had moved.

They had flown with me to London. They had accompanied me to the rented house in Thalassery. They had moved with me to this house in Kannur. They had kept me company during my post graduation at Manipal and Mangalore. They had also moved with me to Calicut. Now, they are back here. They are inseparable elements of my life for they carry within them a part of me-

A part of me that I cannot locate within myself anymore.

 

I look at the dust piled up on them. And the cobwebs that spiders have woven around them.

My diaries…

They span the years from 1994 to 2008. In 2008, I had started blogging. There were no diaries thereafter.

diaries-2 

I took them out from the shelf. I wiped away the dust and the cobwebs that time had woven around the fragrant memories that I had tucked into the pages of these books. It struck me then that I had not read them for many years now. The only year I had revisited was 2002. And perhaps 2006.

I was still not comfortable with the fragility that was palpable in my entries before 2002. Particularly 2000 and 2001.

 

However, today, I read through a few entries. I started with 1994. They were childish narratives. I read a few entries from 2000 and 2001. I wrote so differently back then.

In those entries, I was the centre of my world. I was the theme around which everything revolved. There was a simplicity to the emotions that I had poured into the words. Those entries were raw and highly personalized. But today, it is perhaps impossible for me to retain that tone. Somehow, a whole lifetime creeps into the spaces between my words. Today, I can only write from a broad perspective. A perspective wherein life replaces me as the central theme.

As I read the entries, it is possible to feel the vulnerable self that I lost to survival over the years. I love this feeling of briefly being in the shoes of someone I used to be once upon a time. It is a bitter-sweet feeling- this feeling of missing one’s own self. To the writer in me, this contrast is precious- this contrast between what I used to be and what I am now, between the vulnerability then and the numbness now.

It is in these moments that I am alive.

A spans the entries from 2000 to 2001, and then fades away towards the end of 2001. 2001 is in 3 volumes. My relationship with A is the central theme in those volumes- entries that represent my persistent effort to make sense of my feelings for him. All those entries radiate an anxiety and uncertainty I felt for I was baffled by the nature of our relationship.

So was he.

Sometimes I wonder if I will ever hear from him again…if I will ever see him again. In 2001, it would have been impossible for me to imagine that it was possible to lose someone who mattered so much…that they would disappear permanently from your life. It was impossible to imagine that you would see them in a different light as time went by…that you would see your relationship with them in new light.

It would be interesting to meet him after all these years. I wonder what changes time has etched onto him. I wonder if life has hardened him further or if it has managed to mellow him somehow. He was a rebel when I had known him in school and thereafter, but I could always spot the vulnerability and sensitivity beneath his defenses. His mother had expressed on many occasions her anxiety about his personality, but I was too young to understand then.

Between us, we had a strange chemistry. The verbal communication between us was always disastrous. He was fast, witty and brash, with interests that were different from mine. I was slow, dumb and shy. However, the non-verbal chemistry between us always perplexed us. There was something beneath the language of words that moved synchronously and in perfect rhythm, creating a strange bonding between us.

I loved him unconditionally. There was a certain sadness that I could feel in his heart that I wanted to heal and pacify. That sadness was not acute; it was deep seated and had therefore lost its fury. It was a sadness that had lost its voice, but was still needy. A sadness that responded to love, briefly silencing the rebellion in him. But then, it had been left on the burner for too long.

Those years lit up as I turned the pages of 2001. These pages bore the nostalgic fragrance of our relationship. I closed the diary and put it back in its place. There was a strange sadness within me- the sadness of melancholy. It had replaced the numbness of the years.

diaries-3

I suppose there is not much that a second person might identify in those words. The entries may sound silly. Entries that can only be brushed off as the impulsivity of adolescence. But having walked those paths, it is an altogether different story for me.

To me, these entries are my life. Life that somehow escaped me, unnoticed.

These diaries are sacred to me. For within them are people, places and the emotions that once connected me to them. People and places that would have changed with the passage of time. And so, it is only in these pages that I can find them again- the way I knew them to be…the way I want them to be.

Mere khayalon ke aangan mein

It was an afternoon class.

I was teaching a small group of students. It had only been a few weeks since they had started with the course. They were anxious-

The anxiety that marks the early months of medical schooling until every student finds his own means of coping with the stressful curriculum.

 

I feel the first year of medical school demands the most intense mentoring. The transition from secondary school to medical college is a huge transition for the student. Most students do not even know what to expect. The syllabus is vast and complex. The environment is unfamiliar and intimidating. From the protected world of secondary school where they receive individual attention and ample guidance, they suddenly find themselves insecure in an environment where they are expected to be independent. Dissection is a nightmare for many. Anatomy, Physiology and Biochemistry start off simultaneously, and before the students have oriented themselves to the curriculum and to their new environment, they are already into the second term. In most colleges, the orientation programme is only a formality. It does not really orient the students to the curriculum. Many students fall prey to stress and anxiety. It reflects in their performance. However, mentorship is never given the necessary priority in medical colleges in India.

 

Every new batch takes me back to my own MBBS days. I remember how frightened and lost I had felt in my first year. However, there was more human touch to life in those times. And so, with friends who were empathetic and sensitive, we managed to scrape through our first year. That ceases to be the case today. And so, it pains me to see our children end up as victims of depression, anxiety and personality disorders by the end of the curriculum.

This understanding has moulded me as a teacher. I mentor them in my own capacity. I make myself receptive and approachable, bring in warmth into my interactions, and focus on making learning an enjoyable experience. I teach them to love their subject so that they lose fear of it. I help them set goals, identify their strengths and weaknesses, and overcome the obstacles that come in the way of their goals. In my role as a teacher, I am inspired by Randy Pausch’s perspectives. His book, ‘The last lecture’, is a book that every teacher must read.

Students are like clay- raw and mouldable. It is up to us teachers to carve them into something beautiful.

 

So, as I addressed my students that afternoon, I tried to be as interesting as I could. For this was the worst hour for a class- right after lunch. They listened and responded.

All, except J.

J yawned. He distracted me because he was so restless. I could tell from his eyes that his mind was far away. Occasionally, he looked around or fiddled with his pen. All in all, he was completely disinterested.

Could you tell me why, J?

The mention of his name made him snap out of his reverie. He hadn’t heard the question. He hadn’t heard anything at all. I repeated my question. He gave me a blank stare.

Sleepy, after lunch? Or is the class too boring?’, I asked.

He only smiled.

Any way I can make this more interesting?’, I asked him.

And then I continued. Following the class, when they were doing the experiment on their own, I went to J’s group. I concentrated on him and asked him questions as he continued with the experiment. I encouraged him at all the times he did something right.

I suppose it is very difficult for you to sit still and listen. You like to be on your feet all the time, right? Too restless!’, I said to him at the end.

He smiled, amused. I could see that he was surprised that I had taken note of his restlessness and inability to sit still. He was grateful for that understanding.

In the subsequent class, I stopped to ask a question to the class.

So, where is my favourite student?’, I asked.

Everybody laughed.

Yes, J. By now, I am sure you know that I am referring to you’, I said to him.

He answered something, and I nodded, correcting him subtly.

It worked. J loved this attention and he lived for my classes. I was amused to see that he was more attentive than the rest in my classes. When they had to divide into groups, he would come running to the group that I was to take. Over time, I grew very fond of J.

He would respond to all my posts on FB and I could sense that I had become his hero.

J did well in his final exams and made it to second year.

J was passionate about photography. He was a true artist at heart- he could never subscribe to systems. I had seen the photographs he posted on FB, and I could see the artist in him. He had been doing portraits at that time and one day, he asked me if he could click me.

‘I would make a very poor subject, J. I am very camera conscious’, I said to him.

But he insisted. That evening, he turned up with his girlfriend, and we had dinner together.  Over dinner, he tried taking a few pictures. But I was very conscious. Following dinner, we walked out and he managed to get a few pictures. His girlfriend left for she had to get back to her hostel on time.

Could we take a walk?’, J asked.

Of course’, I said.

We walked. Like I always say, cities are very pretty by night and I love walking their streets at night when traffic has thinned.

That was the beginning of our friendship. Until then, I had only known J as a student. I knew little about his personal life. We spoke a lot- about childhood memories, about parents and grandparents, about movies and songs, and about a million other things. When it was time for me to leave, he looked at me and said:

Today, I feel so happy. You are really special.

He was trembling with excitement and happiness.

But what makes me special?’, I asked.

I don’t know. You are different. When you teach, you always have that little smile on your face. You are in love with the things you talk about. I love your happiness. I always wonder if it is possible to be this happy. You are not like the rest’, he replied.

I smiled.

You are special too. After all, you are my favourite student’, I said.

Yes. And I hope it will remain so forever. I couldn’t bear to see someone else take that place’, he said.

I smiled.

That night, he put up my portrait on FB and tagged me. I was overjoyed.

I shared very special moments with J. We loved walks and we loved conversation. There was something very special about our relationship.

I thought about it one day. I was aware that our emotions had stepped out of the confines of a student-teacher relationship though we had never expressed this to each other. However, I had to be mature enough to handle the relationship very carefully. It is one thing to feel, and it is quite another thing to act upon it. I could sense that he was going through the same conflict.

He voiced this to me one day- his discomfort pertaining to the nature of his emotions towards me. That was the most difficult moment in our relationship. Until the moment the truth of our emotions had not dawned upon us, our relationship was effortless. There was no worry surrounding our relationship. However, the moment the emotions permeated consciousness, we were uncomfortable.

What is it I feel for this person?

This was a question that troubled both of us. While we both loved each other’s companionship, we did not wish to long for more than companionship and complicate the scenario. And yet, the plane on which we related to each other in our interactions, made it easy to feel that way for each other. We related so effortlessly to each other that it was hard not to fall in love.

Eventually, the worry dominated the joy we derived from our companionship. He stepped back. He brought a deliberate distance between us. This was very uncomfortable because it took out the life from our conversations. When we chatted, we were both careful to keep the conversations rather formal. We would strip the conversations off their emotions and talk. We had to think before talking.

This process was so disturbing that I decided to step back a little further. And so, we distanced completely. We stopped talking to each other. I shifted my focus completely to my career. It was very hard initially because my interactions with J meant a lot to me. However, it was necessary.

Two years later, he texted me.

How are you, ma’m?

I replied to him. We had a conversation.

I am so relieved. I feel so happy we spoke’, he said.

I smiled to myself.

Images from the past flashed in my mind.

J yawning in my first class.

Walking on the streets on moonlit nights, holding hands and talking about childhood memories…

Holding hands and running on the beach, the waves lapping up our feet…

Looking into his eyes when he sang for me- ‘Mere khayalon ke angan mein koyi sapnon ke deep jalaye’…

To this day, I have not found the right words to describe our relationship. For it was far beyond conventional definitions of relationships. It was a relationship where I was loved unconditionally. I could be a child, I could be a woman. I could be dishevelled and ugly. I could be immature and stupid, I could be mature and intelligent. I could be all that I was capable of being, without worrying about not being loved.

The relationship was less about us and more about all that we loved. It was always about the enchanting world in which we lived.

 

What was right? What was wrong? Was it wrong to hold hands and walk? Was it wrong to look into each others’ eyes and sing? Could somebody delineate the boundary between right and wrong? Where does one draw the line? I still do not know the answer.

 

However, what I do know is that in the realms of the mind, there are no barriers. I like to keep J as a beautiful perception and memory in my mind. And I am aware that he feels the same. That is all we both ask of life. And of love. There is nothing that we ask of each other in real life.

And that makes our relationship special.

 

 

A bonfire

On the horizon, the sun was setting.

And in my own life, a chapter was coming to a close.

I took a rickshaw to the adjacent block, where I was to meet Rohan. Rohan was getting married in two weeks time, and I felt relaxed, contrary to all the times we had met before. I was early and as I waited for him, I thought back to all those times we had spent together. That was such a long time ago.

And yet, as the darkness blurred my present, those moments felt so near I could almost touch them.

Life has its ironies. Sometimes, love blossoms in the most improbable circumstances. We had spent a good part of our relationship, oblivious to the nature of our relationship. Our relationship was about the conversations we indulged in, and the mails we wrote to each other. We never attempted to define our relationship. It was free flowing.

And yet, at some point, love just crept in.

We felt something- something that was so hard to define. Something had changed in the course of our relationship. I had finally begun to take notice of our conversations. Anxiety crept into my mind for no obvious reason and I found myself constantly interpreting our conversations and interactions. I found myself all worked up if I didn’t hear from him. I realized then that he had found his way into my heart.

I was both excited and nervous.

On an evening when black clouds filled the sky, we were seated on the stone bench, and I was crying.

I feel very strongly for you. And yet, I feel that we are incompatible in some ways’, he was saying.

I looked at him through my tears. His eyes softened. I put my hand past him to grab the tissues to wipe my tears, and found myself in a tight embrace.

I was reaching out for the tissues’, I found myself saying, almost in a whisper.

My tears stopped, and I just stayed in his embrace, resting my head against his chest. I didn’t want to move, partly because I was too shocked by his gesture to move, and partly because it felt so good to be there. I found my chin being lifted and I felt his lips on mine. I resigned to that kiss with my lips trembling.

He suddenly drew himself away and looked at me. I had stopped crying.

I am sorry’, he said.

That evening, I had driven back home in the rain, listening to Cascades. That evening, my mother saw in my eyes a glow she had never seen before. She might have sensed the reason.

I was in love. For the first time in my life.

Time thereafter was studded with memories- some happy and some painful. We had never really fought.

But we were incompatible.

Sometimes I don’t even know what that means.

I suddenly became aware of his familiar figure walking towards me and came back to the present. Habitually, I felt butterflies in my tummy. He stood in front of me, 6 foot tall, and smiled at me. The butterflies disappeared, as if by magic. I felt very relaxed and smiled back. He led the way and we booked a table at the restaurant. Sitting opposite each other, I was bewildered by the peculiar mix of emotions I felt. I guess I was expecting a transformed Rohan. In two weeks time, he was getting married. I was perhaps expecting him to talk excitedly about his fiancé, about his dreams and hopes, about his wedding, and about all that was part of being the prospective groom.

But what was it I read in his eyes? He looked at me just as he had looked at me all those years ago, when I was a part of his world-

When I was his world.

 
I talked more than he did. I talked about my life. Never once did I touch upon his marriage. Not that it hurt, but since he refused to touch upon it, I didn’t want to.

When we were done with dinner, I wanted to leave. I had loved this evening- loved his presence, loved the ease with which conversation came, loved this togetherness.

I wanted to leave because I didn’t want to give myself the opportunity to long for more.

My mind was at peace with his marriage, and I didn’t want to break that peace. And yet, when he insisted on a stroll, I found myself complying. We walked in silence, lost in distant memories. The cool night air embraced us in its freshness and fragrance. He stopped abruptly and looked at me. I looked up at him.

I want to take you home’, he said.

Won’t I get late?’, I felt obliged to ask.

I will drop you home’, he said.

I nodded.

To walk with him by my side, and to go home together, was a part of my dreams a long time ago.

When we reached his house, I became tight-lipped for some strange reason. We sat opposite each other, and he leaned against the couch, while I fumbled with a cushion, and looked away. The silence felt eerie. I looked at him once or twice and then looked away. He said nothing, and continued to fix his gaze on me. Eventually, he walked up to me and took my hands in his. I stood up, unsure of what was coming. He took me in his arms and hugged me. I felt calm and relaxed as I rested my head against his chest. He held me very close to him, ran his fingers over my hair and then kissed me on my head. I felt like a baby, and behaved like one. I rattled on at random, unsure of what I really wanted to say, until I got fascinated by a crease on his T-shirt. He watched me meddle with it, and when I looked up at him, I saw the fondness in his eyes. He sat down and he made me sit on his lap.

I continued to talk, and he smiled the smile of someone who listens fondly, absorbing all the emotion, excitement and expression, but failing to have grasped a word of what was being said.

At length, I paused, and he kissed me yet again on my head. Then he kissed me on my cheek. And then he traced my lips with his fingers, brought me close and kissed me on my lips so very softly. I was dazed, but I responded. After a long kiss that seemed to have flooded life into my very soul, we drew our faces apart and looked into each others’ eyes.

Why can’t I understand you? Why are we like this?’ he asked.

I wondered if it mattered any more. He then lifted me and carried me in his arms to the bedroom. He had promised me that a long time ago- that he would carry me to bed every night and tuck me in. He placed me on the bed and kissed me.

Are you happy?’ I found myself asking him.

I don’t know’, he said.

That’s what you always say’, I said.

And that is the truth. I don’t seem to understand the ways of the world. Nor do I understand myself’, he said.

As he kissed me, tears rolled down my face.

Does my marriage hurt you?’ he asked.

No’, I said.

And I meant it.

He doesn’t know what he wants. And I don’t want him when he doesn’t really know.

That night, we slept in each others’ embrace. At some point, I woke up to find that he had encircled his arm around me, and my head rested beneath his chin. I moved a little, and he drew me back, his eyes still closed, and kissed me on my head.

Next morning, when we said goodbye, I felt a strange peace.

Perhaps I had lived my lifetime in a day.

Rohan never called me after that. I wasn’t around for his wedding. Two years after his wedding, I met him. As we sat across each other at the café, I found in those eyes something opaque and cold. They had stopped talking.

It was as if a dream had died in those eyes, as if a flame had been extinguished.

When we said goodbye, he kissed me on my cheek. It felt cold.

I withdrew, said goodbye and walked out into the night.

 

Money

Ammalu amma stirred in bed at the sound of the bang from the mosque. She was always the first to wake up in the house. She got out of bed and went about her chores slowly, mumbling to herself. At 70, she still attended to the household chores. She grumbled when her daughter-in-law, Sarojini, stepped into the kitchen.

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At 70, she still attended to the household chores...

When I was your age, I would be done with the morning chores by this time! Oh, whom am I to ask for a glass of water at this age?“, she remarked.
But Sarojini had learnt by now that it was best to not respond to any provocation from her mother-in-law. She heated the water and started to make tea. Ammalu amma muttered something under her breath and made her way to the verandah. Here, she picked up the newspaper, reclined on her chair and adjusted her spectacles. For the next several minutes, she read the newspaper, looking up only when her cup of tea arrived.

Anita and Ranjith came running to the verandah. They had picked up a squabble and were now creating a huge chaos.
Don’t you want to know what happened to the squirrel that had entered the little boy’s house by mistake? Let me read to you! Come here, children!“, Ammalu amma called out to them. The children came over to take a look at the comic strip. Ammalu amma started reading out to them and that kept them preoccupied until their mother called out for them.

Ammalu amma stared at the trees in the distance. She thought back to those years when both her sons had been around. She had always taken pride in her sons; she bragged to the neighbours that they would never leave her. But the elder son had got married and moved out with his wife. The younger son had then married, and Ammalu amma always feared that he would move out too. She was prejudiced against his wife and though Sarojini took good care of her, Ammalu amma was never happy. However, she loved her grandchildren. She weaved her life around them. She told them stories, shielded them from spankings, and gave them little presents from time to time. Sometimes a sweetmeat. Sometimes clothes. Sometimes color pencils.

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Ammalu amma loved her grandchildren...

Ammalu Amma’s most precious posession was her betelnut box. She carried it all the time and refused to part with it. She guarded in it a stack of betel leaves, some arecanut and some lime. And beneath the stack of betel leaves, she guarded a stack of notes- money that she had collected over years. Some of it was money she had managed to save for herself. Some of it was money that family members deposited in her hands when they came to visit. She counted it many times in a day.

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Ammalu amma's most precious posession was her betel nut box...

Occasionally, Anita would trick her. She would pretend to play with her betelnut box and stealthily take out a couple of notes. Ammalu amma was aware of this. But she would pretend not to notice. Anita bought herself sweets or clothes with the money.

However, Ammalu amma was wary of Sarojini. She would never count the notes when Sarojini was around.

That wicked girl cannot be trusted. She will steal this money and buy sarees for herself. She will not give it to my son when he is in need of it. Nor will she spend it on my grandchildren. I must be careful!“, she would say to herself.

But in truth, Sarojini never bothered about the financial affairs of the family. She was a happy soul. She worked as a farmhand and was content with the money it fetched her. She was aware of Ammalu amma’s stack of notes, but she had no interest in it. Sarojini and her husband worked hard towards fulfilling the one dream they nurtured- of building a house for themselves. With a little more money, they could buy the land that they had in mind. Ammalu Amma could have made it easier for them by giving them her savings, but she had no such plans.
‘In any case, it will go to them after my death. So why now?’, she convinced herself.

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Sarojini worked as a farmhand...

Time went by and Ammalu amma grew older. The stack of notes in her box increased. But Ammalu amma’s health had begun to give her trouble. She fell ill from time to time. Sarojini took good care of her. However, Ammalu amma’s health declined steadily. She could feel that she wouldn’t live much longer.

One evening, Sharada, the neighbour, came to visit her.

I have something important to tell you“, Ammalu amma said.
Go on“, Sharada said.
I have some savings. 10,000 rupees in total. I haven’t told anybody about it. I want it to be given to my son. But I don’t want Sarojini to know about it. She will use it all for her selfish needs. In the event of my death, inform my son about this money and ask him to buy the land he wishes to buy. Let me show you where I have hidden the money“, she said.

Sharada followed her to her bedroom. Ammalu amma sat down on her bed and started to unsew the pillow cover. Sharada was astonished by the stack of notes that lay within.
Here it is. Mind you, not a word until I die!“, Ammalu amma said.
She counted the money, put it back in its place and sewed the pillow cover.
Strange woman“, Sharada muttered to herself.

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It wasn’t long before Ammalu amma fell ill yet again. This time, it was a fatal attack of pneumonia. Her condition deteriorated, but she refused to be taken to hospital. She breathed her last on the morning of a cloudy day, and the family attended religiously to her death rites.

A few days later, Sharada came to visit Sarojini.
Sarojini, I have something to show you. Can you take me to Ammalu amma’s room?“, said Sharada.
Sarojini led the way, perplexed. When they stepped into the room, Sharada gasped. The cot stood there, but there was no mattress or pillow on it.
Where is the mattress?“, asked Sharada.
Oh, I burnt it! Why do you ask?“, replied Sarojini.
And you burnt the pillow too?
Yes…the very next day, I burnt the clothes, mattress and pillow! But why do you ask?
Sharada sighed.
Your mother-in-law acted rather unwisely. She sewed in all her savings into her pillow, refusing to tell you about it. There were 10,000 rupees in all. With that money, you could have easily bought the land. Silly woman!“, said Sharada.
Sarojini smiled.

At the end of the day, money is just paper that will burn in the fire. It will leave nothing of itself “, she said.
Let me get you a glass of tea“, she added and walked towards the kitchen.
Sharada watched her walk, perplexed by her calm acceptance of such a big tragedy.

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Thanksgiving

I don’t have to be reminded it is December. As November slowly rolls into December, I can feel it. A welcome transition all around me.

A little less humidity…

Clear blue skies…

Misty mornings…

Pleasant evenings when I can feel a little chill in the air….just enough to remind me it is December…

Winter blushes in the roses and bougainvillea in my garden, as they smile at the bright sunshine, their petals crisp from the cold that is unique to this season. A crisp and rosy freshness conspicuous by its absence otherwise in a tropical land where the sun and monsoons dominate most of the year.

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A little red rose blossoms in the garden of my mind. Its fragrance is familiar, and it awakens a part of me that has been dormant all along-

The woman in me….

Womanhood is a unique facet of a woman’s personality, with a core of its own. A core that shares a delicate relationship with the human being and the individual in her. The three have an unspoken contract. When the circumstances are favourable, she is prolific. But when adversity strikes, she makes room for the other two.

In the blossoming of that fragrant red rose, I could feel the essence of my womanhood…

Delicate, fragile, exquisitely beautiful. Incapable of sustenance in adversity. Its need for the most sensitive, tender, loving care. Something that only a winter spirit was capable of. A winter that would wrap its cool arms around the freshness of the fragile petals of this flower, shielding it from the harshness of the sun.

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Every winter unlocks the girl I once knew myself to be.

No…I was never pretty. But that was a strange blessing. It allowed me to be myself. It allowed me to be secretly infatuated, and build an imaginary world in my mind where I lived the moments I believed I couldn’t live in real life. I would laugh when my friends raised the possibility of falling in love. That was for them. Who would fall in love with me? And so, I continued living the life of a child in the real world. The dreams that my adolescence gifted me, I kept to myself. Locked up in a secret corner of my mind. I was content just gazing stealthily at someone I was infatuated by. I was actually terrified when that someone would come up to me and talk. Then I trembled, my legs shivered, and I was certain the pounding of my heart could be heard outside. I was terrified that they could read in my eyes what I felt for them!

I suppose I had a duality about me. Something my friends didn’t seem to have. I was adventurous, loud, crude, mischievous, fond of food, and I loved riding and driving. Conventionally unfeminine traits. My female friends were soft spoken, graceful in the way they walked and talked, very proper in the way they dressed, with rather feminine interests.
But within me was a feminine spirit I couldn’t articulate in the real world.

It took love to articulate it.

I still remember that day. That day when he stood before me, stammering and struggling. I couldn’t believe it was possible for him to run out of words. He was 6 feet tall and I was self-conscious when I looked up at him. It made him more self-conscious. I felt giddy. I couldn’t figure out if it was from excitement or anxiety. I couldn’t believe this moment was real! He stood there, tall and strikingly handsome, his eyes deep and probing, hiding a world beneath them. I lowered my eyes.

The rose blossomed for the first time in me and its exotic fragrance flooded my being. I transformed as my feminine spirit mustered the courage to spill out. It spilt out into the way I lowered my eyes when he fixed his eyes on me. Into the blush that I tried to conceal when he taunted me. Into my strides when I walked, hugging this feeling that was love. Into the bubbliness and exhilaration I failed to contain when he was around. Into the anxiety and restlessness I felt on days he was away. Into the tenderness I felt within when I held him close.

For the first time, I loved myself. I loved the unruly strands of hair that fell on my face. I loved the dreams that gleamed in my eyes. I loved the fragrances that lingered about me. I loved the softness of my cheeks. I loved the warmth of my skin. I had fallen in love with freshness and fabric and textures and colors and fragrances….almost as if they had abruptly been introduced into my world! Never before had I felt beautiful this way!
There was magic in the words he said to me…in the way he said them to me. They made me feel exquisitely beautiful.

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As is the case with all impulsive beginnings, the endings are often tragic. So not very long after we confessed our feelings for each other, we fell out of step with each other. And we tucked it under the label of ‘Just an infatuation!‘.

Beauty is a season. And that season was gone. But the spirit of the woman within me had been awakened. My love had no recipient now, but I lived my life with zest and vigour. The memory remained fragrant, and I was content with that.

When love stepped in next, it came disguised in the form of friendship. I didn’t recognize it. It was slow in its evolution, and it was beautiful. A beauty different from that of impulsive love…

Love that invisibly, but palpably filled the infinity of the spaces between our interactions.

In those spaces, there was a strange missing and longing that spoke of our deep friendship. We were absolute monkeys, forever teasing and taunting and playing pranks on each other. But in the smiles we gave each other, there was an unmistakable trace of that love we felt for each other.

And yet, this love had not penetrated our thoughts.

It stayed as a feeling, and that was beautiful. On days we didn’t see each other, there was a gloom within that we refused to notice. It was ironical that all our friends jokingly referred to me as his girlfriend, just to irritate us. Eventually, I took the cue and I would irritate him, pretending to be his girlfriend. And he would pretend to be really annoyed. I would ask him to gift me roses and we had a bet on that. And one day, he surprised me by getting me a bouquet of roses. He pretended to throw them at me. ‘Don’t ever ask me for roses again’, he said. There were double-meaning statements we made to each other, and they hung in the air, uninterpreted.

And beneath this game of pretence, we never realized that there was a big truth hiding…waiting to be unraveled.

It finally grew strong enough to permeate our thoughts. I remember wanting to confront him on this. It was a very anxious moment for me because unlike my previous experience, we were thick friends, and I did not wish for anything to cause the tiniest crack in our friendship. I thought back to all those moments of overt concern and care….to those double-meaning statements….to the feeling that I could read in his eyes and in his gestures. It gave me the courage to ask him. I remember how I had held his hand and dragged him out after morning rounds.

‘Can I ask you something?’, I had asked. ‘I am scared though’, I had added.
‘If you want to ask me something, you better ask me now….coz I am in a really good mood right now’, he had replied.
I looked into his eyes and felt he knew what was coming. I remember getting coffee from the machine. I remember how we sat next to each other that morning, sipping coffee.
‘So, do you see me as just a friend….or is there something more to it?’, I had finally asked.
He was quiet. I had wanted to die at that moment. I looked at him and was surprised to see the sadness in his eyes. He reached out for my hand and stroked my hand affectionately. I had never seen him this sad.
‘I am not asking you for anything. I just wanted to know what you feel for me’, I had said.
‘I have loved you ever since you drew my caricature in class and passed it on’, he slowly said and smiled.
I was taken aback. That was a term before.
‘I have loved you from a distance all along. But I cannot step into anything. It would only get complicated….for you.’
I nodded. Race was the issue.
‘I have asked my mother many times if I could marry an Indian girl. By now, she knows there is someone in my mind. But my father would never agree.’
We both sipped our coffee silently.
I took a deep breath and asked ‘So are we going to let go?’
He ruffled my hair and asked,’Will you wait? 5 years or maybe more?’
‘Why not?’, I answered.
‘Sigh! You have complicated my life. I was a carefree, happy-go-lucky boy. And you have made me a worrier now!’, he half-taunted.
‘So am I really your girlfriend now?’, I asked.
He smiled, ‘You have always won.’
I pretended to frown.
‘I have let you win’, he said. ‘And I like to see you win’, he added.

We sat there for quite a while, holding hands. He stroked my hand gently and I did not want to leave. We soon saw the rest of our gang approach us and we quickly let go. They suspected nothing. The general taunting and mocking went on, but today my heart was not in it. I wanted to be alone….be alone with this feeling. I went home with the Chinese record I had just been gifted.

There I was at home, listening to a song in an alien language. But at this moment, it stood for everything that someone had felt for me.

Besides, I had always loved ballads. The phone rang. I picked it up. It was him.
‘How did you know I liked ballads?’, I asked him.’
‘Oh, I have spent enough time with you to know your taste for music, food and clothes’,he said.

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In the one year that we were together, we spent our lifetime. I couldn’t believe love had this dimension to it. Nothing had changed between us, for we had that bonding right from the start. But now, there was a deep contentment we felt as we gave it direction. We went about throwing surprises at people on their birthdays. I remember the pup we gifted an animal-lover friend of ours and the fish we gifted to someone who took pride in his aquarium. We celebrated holi, diwali, Christmas, Valentine’s day, and even Chinese New Year together with a whole bunch of friends. We went go-karting, boating and bowling. We played shuttle and we played UNO and Monopoly. We went to donate blood together. We went to Coffee Day at Sadashivnagar to eat apple pie with ice cream. Those guys loved us because they were amused to see an Indian girl with a Chinese boyfriend. I always blushed when I saw them smiling at the spoonfuls of ice cream he fed me. He was like that. He always believed I was incapable of patience. I was always restless and too excited to sit still and cut the pie into little pieces or shell out prawns from the dish. I was like a child and he treated me like one. We drove down all the way to ‘Friends’ at Koramangala to eat fish and chips. I tried my best to like the authentic Chinese food we ate at ‘Lemon Grass’, and he gave me a knowing smile when I swallowed the expression on my face. He pushed all the dessert towards me and said quietly,’You can have that!’ The others smiled.

He had this habit of holding my hand whenever we crossed a road. He didn’t seem to trust me on that. The patience issue again. Ironically, he would encourage me to drive his friend’s car that I was always hesitant about, but that I wanted to. He would push me to try all those new feats that I would regard with conflict- a desire to indulge, mixed with hesitation. He was always proud of me. And so, I found my personality expressing unrestricted in a judgmental world. I was surprised to discover that I was really good at go-karting. Almost as good as him. I was beginning to differentiate between what I liked and what I didn’t….between what I was good at and what I wasn’t good at.

I loved the way he would ruffle my hair every time he thought something had upset me or disappointed me. My friends would look at me with envy.

For he cared. And he cared like hell. He sacrificed to care. The way only parents do. He could never bear to see me struggle or suffer. He wouldn’t let me do anything difficult; he would take it on himself. He was like the wind that wrapped itself around the milkweed- the grip loose enough to let it float free, and firm enough to prevent it from falling. He was like winter wrapping its arms around the delicate petals of the rose that smiled up at the sunshine, the arms shielding the flower from the harshness of the sun, while the rose basked happily in the warmth of this tempered sunshine.

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Once in a while, we went to the Buddhist temple near the college where he had studied. He would look at that college building, make a sad face and say,’This was where I first landed when I moved from Malaysia. I was so lonely and homesick in this new country.’ It somehow made me sad too. He would imitate my expression and laugh. The truth was he couldn’t bear for me to be sad. He would instantly transform that moment into humour and make me laugh. The beauty of our relationship was that we communicated our love more through the silences than the words. And this was palpable. Not just to us, but to all the others in our gang who looked at us with admiration. We had squabbles too. And when we had them, they were bad. And yet, not once did I fear losing him. When they ended, I would always have tears in my eyes. ‘Crybaby’, he would make fun of me. And then ruffle my hair 🙂

I missed him like hell when he went home on holiday. We had all gone to see him off at the airport and I remember how the others taunted us and left us alone to say our goodbyes, pretending to look away. I remember how he had arranged for his friends to take care of everything for me while he was away. I remember how I hid in the rear of the car when we went to pick him up from the airport on his arrival and how he had guessed I would be in, hiding. I remember how he sat by his friend’s side, talking to him, while holding my hand quietly. I had missed that terribly.

The memories are too many. I can’t find the words to write them down any more. My heart is flooded with the magic of those memories and with a deep gratitude I feel.

To time and destiny that brought us together…

To the truth in the love he gave me…

There is none of the bitterness or sorrow that generally accompanies relationships that never culminated in marriage. Marriage is so far removed from love. On the darkest days, I only have to look within….to find the warm glow of a memory. There is none of the loneliness and emptiness that often creeps into our lives as time passes by. For I have the companionship of these beautiful memories. Memories whose fragrance permeated my soul- a fragrance I shall carry with me when I leave behind this mortal body.

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"When the memories are gone, so is the soul." From the South Korean movie 'A moment to remember', 2004

A. Ayyappan’s poem, ‘Ente shavapetti‘ comes to my mind…

https://vchathoth.wordpress.com/2015/01/22/to-those-who-shall-carry-the-burden-of-my-coffin/

Perhaps if I were given the chance to write one more chapter into this memory, I would choose one day with him. To go back together and visit all those places that are tagged with those memories. To sit next to each other, stare into the nothingness, and cry. Cry with gratitude.

And to feel those hands holding mine and stroking them gently….the way I know them to. To feel those hands ruffling my hair again…

A Benign Infatuation

To realize the place that noise, nonsense and infatuation have in life, I had to lose them and rediscover them.

After a long long time, there came into my life this fleeting infatuation. I had almost forgotten what it was to have a crush. I had tucked away all memories of love and infatuation; they seemed to have been from a past life. In this life, I looked upon them as a luxury that I couldn’t afford. I felt too worn-out to look beautiful or appealing. My mind had sunk into some abyss from which I couldn’t see any way out into the sunshine. In the darkness of that abyss, the only sound I could hear was my own. It was frightening to hear my own voice in that eerie silence. My heart pounded so loud that I thought it would pop out! I felt terrified, uncertain and thoroughly muddled. I was so exhausted from fear that I wanted to sleep, but every time I closed my eyes, I saw myself. I had never imagined I would be terrified of my own reflection. The conflict within me threatened to break me into a million pieces. I fought to be left alone…to be rid of my own burden…to close my eyes and go off to sleep. But my mind fought back to confront me with nightmares…to keep me awake…to echo into my ears a million voices that sent me into a chaos. I had never before known that the most fearful vision was to stare into the abyss of one’s own unconscious. I almost thought I had left the realms of reality and crossed over to the opposite side. I dreaded the setting sun…the dark hours of the night…and its deafening silence.

It was at that point that I pulled myself together, realizing I had to stop looking inward. I guess I had been forced to look inward for a long time now. I was progressively moving into deeper planes of my mind, failing to see how deep I had travelled. It was time to look outward. I booked my tickets to Bangalore.

The night I left, I felt lonely and sad because I had no one to drop me. At other times, it had never mattered. But this time, I wished I had someone with me- a friend or a relative or a neighbour. But there was none. It had never been like that in Bangalore. Once in the bus, I felt better as I preoccupied myself with thoughts on how I would spend my days in Bangalore. I slept eventually and when I woke up, it was to discover that we had hit Bangalore before sunrise. It was 4.30 a.m. when we reached our destination. I hopped off the bus and smelled the air, as I always do. The question I always ask myself as soon as I land is – ‘Can this city succeed in its magic again? Would I still relate to it? Would it still instill in me all that I wish to feel?’ The breeze felt cold and nice, almost as if answering my question.

I don’t know why, but my first memory in Bangalore is always of dad. Perhaps because right from childhood, I would follow him dutifully as he took me around the city, lost to my perceptions of the city, trusting his ability to find his way around, irrespective of which part of the city we were in. The consequence was that I never learnt to find my way around, left to my own. To this day, I feel lost when commuting. Yet, I love exploring the city to dig out familiar vestiges….and collect as many as I can.

I guess I stood frozen there, lost in thought, my eyes silently caressing this vision of a city that has always received me with open arms. So I was a little startled to realize that I was being spoken to. I looked in the direction of the voice that had broken my reverie. A man with a boyish gleam in his eyes was the source of this voice. He was stretching his arms and legs and he probably realized that I hadn’t really been on this planet for the last several minutes. So he repeated,” Where do you have to go?” Someone from the travel agency patted him and walked by, and I realized that this man who had spoken to me was from the agency. ‘Hebbal’, I said. He looked away, stretched again, and then stared into the distance. For a moment, he too seemed lost, almost as if captivated by the feel of this beautiful city. And then he suddenly replied, ” We don’t have our buses going to Hebbal”. Meanwhile, another man from the agency walked towards me and suggested I take a rick. It was just 5 a.m. And I didn’t want to barge into my friend’s house that early and wake her up. I thought for a while, but there seemed to be no other option. I started walking towards the rickshaw stand, when the first guy called after me, ” Hop on to this bus.” I turned back to see him point at a bus that was parked there. I didn’t know what to make of it, but I boarded the bus. I asked a passenger where this bus was off to. Marathahalli was the answer. To my surprise, the man who had asked me to board, hopped onto the driver’s seat and started the engine. He turned to me and said,”You can get off at Marathahalli. You will get enough buses to Hebbal”. I nodded and sat back. Meanwhile, the other guy who had suggested me to take a rick came running and asked me why I had boarded this bus. “She can’t walk to the rickshaw stand with all that luggage. Instead, she can get off at Marathahalli and take a bus right there”, the driver answered for me. He took off with the excitement and exhilaration of a teen driving his first motor vehicle. I looked at him as he drove. He had a boyish charm and an infectious happiness that were hard to ignore. I looked out of the window- Bangalore city awakening from its slumber, gathering momentum…striking a chord with the momentum of the bus…the music playing up to this momentum…the boyish zeal of this man percolating my heart…my heart soaring. It was too good to be true. I wanted to hold on to this moment forever. I had forgotten what it felt like to be happy…zealous…light hearted.

When it was time to alight, the man gave me directions like I was a retard, but I absolutely loved the attention. As I walked towards the door, I could feel the happiness spill into my stride…the smile lighting up my face…and perhaps a tiny blush that burnt my cheeks. I summoned the courage to look up and thank him. He flashed a smile that made my heart skip a beat. “Happy?”, he asked, pointing at the bus bound to Hebbal. I was tongue-tied, so I just smiled. For a moment, time stopped as i met his gaze. This was the magic I had wanted to feel. “Stay happy always”, he said. I came around and hopped off the bus. As the bus moved off, I could see my reflection in the mirror. The reflection shrunk and the bus finally disappeared from view. But I was aware that my reflection in somebody’s mind would last a trifle longer. And that was the magic of a benign infatuation.