Vinu

I remember the driver of the bus I used to take to work when we had first moved to Kerala. Those were days when I was going through the worst phase of my life- loneliness, lovelessness, exhaustion and fear. Whenever I travelled, I desperately wanted to protect my anonymity, and so, my earphones were my defence from nosey strangers who seemed to be all over the place, and did not mind intruding, inquiring. Every day, I would board the bus, sit at the same place, plug in my earphones, and look out through the window. I completely ignored the stares of the passengers and hardened the expression on my face, if I perceived the slightest threat of intrusion. However, the evening trips were different.  A bunch of school kids would board the bus, and the bus would be lit up with their din. I was particularly surprised by the way the driver interacted with the kids, becoming one with them. 

He was a young chap, in his twenties perhaps, and he was brilliant with the kids. He knew each one of them by their names. He poked them, taunted them, played pranks on them, made them laugh, and they in turn, responded to him in the same language. I found myself smitten by the magic of these moments- this picture of oneness that I saw, unfolding in the spell of those moments. The bus would transform into an abode of happiness. Though I pretended to be detached and distant, the truth was that I was soaking it all, and revelling in these moments of uncorrupted happiness- the only happiness in the darkness of my life at that point in time. But I never dared to be open about it. For one, I was not sure if they would accept me as one of them- I was so different, both in appearance, and in my ways. And secondly, I wasn’t sure what people would make of such involvement, especially since I was a woman. So I sat quietly, secretly enjoying every moment.

One day, the driver was not to be seen. In his place was another person who demonstrated no affinity for the kids, no affinity towards this journey. When the children boarded, the feeling was not the same. They sat scattered, and though they talked and laughed amongst themselves, the oneness was profoundly absent. It was then that I realized that the driver had been the soul of the bus. He had brought each one of us under one umbrella of emotion- he had awakened the inner child in each one of us, and that was the power of his spirit. I was saddened by his absence. That day, I did not plug in my earphones. Instead, I just looked out of the window gloomily. 

“Are you not listening to music today?” a voice asked me.

I turned to see a plump, wide-eyed girl peering at me through innocent eyes. I remembered her as the primary target of all the pranks played in the bus when the driver was around. 

“No. Today, I don’t feel like it”, I replied to her with a smile.

My reply helped her find the courage to ask me more questions. She wanted to know everything about me. Who was I? Where did I live? Where did I come from? Where did I work? The questions were endless. By then, all the other kids had surrounded us. They were holding on to every word I said. I was amused and I patiently answered, realizing children were so much more accepting of differences, as opposed to adults. 

Finally, the wide-eyed girl asked me,”Can I touch your earrings?”

I laughed. 

“Sure”, I said.

I could see they had accepted me. The wide-eyed girl’s name was Akshita. Her rival was a lean, outspoken boy called Mithun, who never missed an opportunity to take a dig at her. Suddenly, they were all talking to me at once. They told me their names, gave me a description of their homes and families, and also let me into their little secrets.

“So where is your driver- the regular one?” I asked them.

“He is down with flu”, they replied.

“How do you know?” I asked.

“He lives in our neighbourhood”, they replied.

“So you know him for a long time now?”

“Yes. From as far back as we can remember!”

“Hmm. What is his name?”

“His real name or his nickname?” Mithun asked, his eyes twinkling mischievously.

I laughed.

“Both”, I said.

“His real name is Vinu”, Mithun said aloud. Then he drew me close to him and whispered something into my ear. I couldn’t make out what he said, but I guessed it was the nickname they had given him.

“Don’t tell him we told you”, he said.

“Of course not”, I promised.

By the time Vinu got back, the character of the bus had changed. I had become one with the children. I still wasn’t sure how I ought to react to him though, especially because society is so conservative in these places. So I avoided talking to him directly. He took the cue and did the same. I could see he was amused by this unexpected change in my behaviour, and also perplexed by what had triggered this change in his absence, but he just flowed with the change. So the bus was once again alive with taunts, pranks and laughter, just that this time, I too was a part of it all. Remarks we made were sometimes meant for each other, but we never had the courage to address each other directly. We always addressed it to the children. We also avoided looking at each other directly. Though it felt awkward at the time, in retrospect, those were the most beautiful moments from that phase of my life. In that silence between us was something so pure, so beautiful, so sacred.

I was profoundly attracted to aspects of his personality-the inherent happiness of his nature, the freedom of his spirit, the inner child in him that dominated his personality. I wondered how it was possible for him to be so happy. I desired to know everything about his life. But we never spoke to each other. It was an unvoiced rule we had made for ourselves.

And then, he disappeared again.

“He has gone to Sree Chitra with his sister. She has a heart valve problem”, the children said to me.

That night, after all the chaos at home had settled, and I was all by myself, I sketched him. I had never sketched anybody from imagination; I had only imitated. But at that moment, there was something of his spirit that came floating into my mind, and I tried sketching his side-profile, so that the features didn’t have to be clear. I tried projecting the attitude instead- him, sitting by the wheel, his chin up, the eyes looking straight ahead, and the self-confident manner in which he sat (quite unlike the self-conscious me).  I was surprised at the outcome; there was a strong resemblance. 

Next day, I hesitantly took out the sketch and showed it to the children. They instantly recognized him. They were thrilled and before I could protest, Mithun had snatched it from my hands and tucked it into his bag. He refused to give it back to me.

Next day, Vinu was back at the wheel. But he was unusually silent. I was anxious. Had the children given him the sketch and was that the reason for his silence? Or was it something to do with his sister’s ailment? I looked at his face and tried to find a clue. He suddenly turned around to look at me. I flushed.

To avoid further embarrassment, I asked him, “So did you take your sister to Sree Chitra?”

“Yes, she needs an operation”, he replied.

This was the first time that we had directly spoken to each other.

Subsequently, when the bus had stopped, Mithun took out the sketch and gave it to him.

“She drew you”, Mithun said, pointing at me.

I was distinctly uncomfortable. What would he make of it? What would he think of me? Why did I do this? At that moment, I wanted the earth to swallow me. I saw him studying the sketch, smile, and then fold it and put it in his pocket, never once looking at me. Nor did he say anything. He just drove on, as if nothing had happened. I wondered what he would do with that sketch. Preserve it or throw it?

But after that day, there was a change in his attitude to me. A care, a concern that he demonstrated rather subtly, but I could sense it. Little things like making sure I had crossed the road safely after I had alighted, or waiting until I had seated myself. Little things like that which he had never bothered with before. He had mellowed down, and the kids took advantage of it. They roped me in and played all kinds of pranks on him, with me as their leader. He would smile and laugh, but he stopped reverting back aggressively. He liked to lose. I could sense he didn’t want to ‘defeat’ me, even though these were mere games.

One day, the kids invited me home. Vinu was surprised when he saw me get off the bus with them. The kids were excited; they wanted to show me off to their families. They made me a celebrity and I had to visit every house. The whole village seemed to know that I would be visiting and at every house, people had gathered to see me. Old grandmothers held my hand affectionately and fed me unniappams. People had endless questions to ask me, and the children would finally come to my rescue. I had no more space for unniappams, but I didn’t want to disregard their sentiments, so with Mithun’s help, I stuffed them into a paper bag. They were simple village folk, and they reminded me of the people from my childhood- warm, affectionate, and soulful. The children took me to the pastures and showed me places where turmeric grew, where water lilies blossomed and where the goats grazed, bleating occasionally. I felt like Heidi, sitting with Peter on the top of a mountain, delighted at the wild flowers, the wild berries, and the splendour of the sun rays that bathed these mountains. They also took me to Vinu’s house. His house was full of people- parents, grandparents, cousins. I spoke to his sister about her ailment. Suddenly, we heard some noise up in the trees. We looked up to see a pack of monkeys. “Your brother’s friends”, I remarked. She laughed.

When I returned home that evening, I thought back to the day. They had treated me as if I was a celebrity- a star in the sky. But they did not know that they had everything that I could only dream of. They did not know the horrors of my world- its loneliness, its emptiness, its darkness, its numbness. They did not know that there were things that money could not buy. They did not know how empty life was in the absence of human connection. I was so grateful to them. For that one day of warmth, togetherness and affection. For helping me feel the joy of life flooding through my veins again.

The next day, I was quiet. I was still reeling from the contrast of our worlds. 

“I am not very responsible, am I?” Vinu abruptly broke into my reverie.

I looked at him with a question mark on my face.

“I know I am a monkey”, he said.

I couldn’t stop laughing. 

“Please don’t stop being one”, I said to him.

We lived many more beautiful moments in that bus. But all along, I was aware it was all coming to a close. I knew the end was inevitable. But I had no complaints. People had started to interpret our association, and I wanted to withdraw before people could colour the sanctity of what we shared with the ugliness of their minds. So we slowly faded away from each others’ lives.

“Don’t ever change”, he said to me….

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Make somebody’s day!

​In the early years of my life in Kerala, whenever I felt lost, I would take a trip to Bangalore. To my world of familiarity. So as to rediscover myself. During these times, I would have lots to write because Bangalore would suddenly reconnect me to all that I had missed for a long time. I would sit at Coffee Day, order a coffee, take out my notebook, and write, completely lost to a world of my own. Occasionally, I would look up to find somebody smiling pleasantly at me, and I would smile back, thinking to myself- Could this ever happen in Kerala? 

I made this a routine and on the third day, as my coffee arrived, I was surprised to hear a voice say,”Ma’m, you always order the same coffee!” Startled, I looked up to see a young boy, barely twenty years of age, holding the tray and smiling at me with twinkling eyes. I instantly liked him. He told me his name was Rupam and he was from Assam. After his schooling, he had sought a job because he couldn’t afford University. He told me he had sought Bangalore because it was so cosmopolitan, and it provided exposure to people from different walks of life. He was eager to learn from experience, and he told me that he never missed an opportunity to talk to people. I was moved by his eagerness to learn; he never let his financial circumstances limit him. Instead, he saw the world as an his platform for learning, with unlimited possibilities. He asked me about myself. When I told him I was a doctor, he was speechless. “A doctor….” he said, his eyes full of reverence and disbelief. He couldn’t believe a ‘doctor’ had found something of worth in him and thought him interesting enough to strike a conversation. I could sense that.

“You have that spark in you. Don’t ever let it die!” I said to him when I bid him farewell.

I can never forget the expression on his face. It wasn’t about what I had said to him; it was about how I had made him feel. It struck me then as to how little it takes to make somebody’s day. To keep their flames aglow. But more often than not, we are bent on extinguishing the flame of their souls, pouring water on it. Many a time, all that a human being needs is an acknowledgement- a validation of his struggle, of the hardships of his journey, of what it has taken him to preserve the music of his soul. Show him his worth, and he is capable of giving much love- to you and to the world.

And so, I always carry a mirror with me- a beautiful one, capable of reflecting the beauty of such souls. I like to listen to their stories, let them unfurl fearlessly, and then hold up the mirror for them to see. My reward is the smile that lights up their faces when they see this reflection. There is nothing that makes people as happy as the awareness that they are beautiful and worth knowing.

A stranger once sat next to me as I boarded the bus from Enfield to Central London. It was a long journey and the man struck up a conversation with me. He was a Black, and I do not know what made him share the story of his life with me- the life of hardship he had left behind in his home country, and the life of hardship he was enduring in a foreign country. I couldn’t help thinking of how fortunate I was, to not have gone through the pain of migration driven by financial and social circumstances. My brother had taken care of all my finances, and he had accompanied me in my initial journey in a foreign country. He had left only after ensuring that I was safe, comfortable and capable of finding my way about. Perhaps this realization made me find the right words to say to him. The man was in tears, and grateful for the empathy. It was all he seemed to want. When I alighted and said goodbye, the man was trying hard at composing himself and putting back his mask, and I could see he had much more to say, given an opportunity. All he wanted was to heal by talking to somebody who could empathise. That day, I realized that the fire within our souls had to have enough warmth for lonely, battered travellers to derive comfort from.

Goodbye…

I still remember how you had put in your face through the backdoor one evening, with a “Miaow?” (“Do you have some food for me?”

I remember thinking why you chose us and where you found the courage to walk up to our doorstep, when you weren’t even sure of what kind of people we were. I remember wondering whether we could get attached to you the way we had got attached to the cat that had turned up last year, and that we had seen into its death.

Nevertheless, we gave you milk. We first gave you biscuits, but you didn’t touch them. So we gave you milk. And then, you turned up every day. Mummy started mixing powdered biscuits in your milk so that you would get some nourishment. And eventually, when we spotted two little bulges on either side of your tummy, we realized why you had desperately begged for food. We bought fried fish exclusively for you since we didn’t eat fish anymore. Every day, two meals of fried fish with rice. And the milk porridge in the morning. And cup cakes. You grew very fond of them. You started to put on weight, and mummy was so happy to see you looking healthier by the day.

We don’t know where you stayed. But you visited us every day, four times or more. You were tall, unlike any other cat I had seen. With a tiny face that easily fitted into my palm. I loved to cuddle you because you would purr in pleasure when I stroked your head, and you would try to rest your head on my palm. We would talk to you in varied tones, and you would respond in equally varied tones. I almost thought you would soon start conversing. 

You feared the dogs badly. I remember how Milky and his friend barked at you once and you tried to run, frightened. You hid under the car and watched me shooing off Milky. And as Milky quietened down, I called you and you reluctantly sat by my side, your eyes still fearful. But you learned that you were safe with me and that I would chase away the dogs. One night, you called us and we opened the door to find you in the portico. You had never come at that hour, and you looked frightened. I could hear dogs barking and you screwed up your ears, all tensed and frightened. I sat with you for a long time, trying to comfort you, and you finally went away.

I once patted you while Milky was watching so that he would understand he was not supposed to hurt you. Milky never growled at you after the first time. He knew you belonged to us. But you were always frightened of the dogs.

We never really knew for sure if you had delivered your babies, but the lumps had disappeared and we assumed you had. And then suddenly, last week, mummy woke me up early in the morning and said to me, “Come fast and get your camera too. There is a surprise”. Mummy usually asks me to get my camera either when she spots the squirrel trying to nibble at the scrapings off the coconut shells or at the sight of some bird. But today, she sounded different. I hurried downstairs, not knowing what to expect. And who should I see, but you, with your beautiful babies. Two of them. Bonny and so beautiful. A replica of you. “All our feeding you has finally shown on your babies”, Mummy said to you. Your kids were naughty and all over the place. And you were trying hard to shepherd them, to keep them safe.

That evening was the last we saw of you. We never saw you again. Nor your kids. We knew the worst had happened, but we didn’t want to believe that. And today, mummy saw what may be your remains. A dog was carrying some body part of what was once you. So much for life.

I don’t know what has happened to your children. I don’t know if they are waiting for you to come back. I don’t even know if they are alive.

What I do know is that life is so fragile. Like a soap bubble. 

“Give me words. Their warmth and their strength. That is all I ask for. Words are all I need to comfort the bleeding wounds of my soul”.

Questions to a Writer

Question: Is your writing autobiographical? Is your writing borrowed from your own story?

Answer: My writing is like a dish. When you taste a spoonful of a dish, you can tell there is salt in it, there is spice. But even the tiniest spoonful retains the essence of the dish. It doesn’t separate out into its individual components. So is my writing. There are elements of my own life in it. There are elements of other lives that have touched mine. From the past and the present. From reality and fiction. There is recollection and imagination. The final outcome is the result of an unconscious blending of all these components. Of all that I have written, there is perhaps not a single piece that is entirely mine. Yet, ingredients from my own life have seeped into each of these. But if you try to separate out my story from the rest, it is impossible. I  can no longer differentiate between what is mine and what belongs to the world. I think that forms the essence of all writing. A dissolution of the self into the universe.

Question: Do you believe that a woman has no identity of her own? That her identity is complete only in the presence of a man by her side?

Answer: A woman is not only a woman. There is a human being within her. There is an individual within her. Each, with a distinct identity of its own, and with its unique place in the world. The human being in her is to do with the inherent nature of her emotions. A being capable of feeling and reacting. The individual in her is the entity that comprehends and analyzes. These entities are independent of a man’s presence in her life. But the spirit of the woman in her is nourished by the presence of a strong male by her side- it could be a father, a husband, a son, or even a friend. Somebody who can offer her strong, unconditional protection and therefore the security that her vulnerable spirit seeks. It is this security that enables the woman in her to unfurl- the feminine nature of her personality to blossom to its fullest. The woman, with her softness, sensitivity, receptivity, empathy, shyness, gentleness, tenderness, sweetness, nurturance, deference, succorance and all the traits that bring out the aesthetic potential of her spirit. The very aspects of her being that the man seeks in her and that make the man-woman relationship unique and beautiful.

In the absence of this dimension, the woman is a man. And in being a man, she adopts skills necessary for survival in an unprotected world, but in the process, her feminine self is compromised. Her environment is not conducive for the free expression of her feminine spirit; one aspect of her personality, of her potential, is suppressed. This is not ideal because it takes her away from happiness.

The transformation of our environment is worrying. We have more and more women going into careers that compel them to reject their inherent feminine traits and adopt masculine traits. Also, male children are growing up in an environment where they are not exposed to the vulnerability of the feminine nature (they no longer see this vulnerability in the women in their lives) and are not taught to treat women responsibly. They are thus moulded into success-driven individuals who do not understand the vulnerability of the feminine nature or the joy and beauty such vulnerability is capable of bringing into their lives through its aesthetic potential. They end up rejecting the feminine nature because they associate it with weakness. There is an urgent need to protect the feminine, but that can come only from a change in the mindset of both men and women. That can come only from awareness and introspection. We need media, particularly visual media, to take a lead in this direction, and to project such stories that can create an impact and make men and women ponder about these aspects of change.

 

 

The Death of Culture

As a child, I was closer to my mother’s family. My mother’s family was made up of people who were culturally sensitive, and that made all the difference to the moments I spent with them.

It was my great grandmother who shaped my earliest perceptions of the world into which I was born. My mother was her first and favourite grandchild, and so, she came to take care of me when I was born. My mother was working and I was left to her care in the first year of my life. Though I have no conscious memory of that period, she gave me the very first impression of this world and I am certain she presented the world to me as a fascinating, enchanting place. When she left, I was inconsolable. I was just an year old, but she seemed to have created a deep impression in my mind. My mother recollects how I would look at every grey-haired woman thereafter and cry, “Ammamma, Ammamma!”.

My mother grew up with my great grandmother, and she had instilled in my mother a love for culture. She would narrate to my mother many events and experiences from her life, and she always described them in a cultural context. She had traveled a great deal with my great-grandfather who had a transferable job, and she saw each place and its people in the light of their inherent culture. While the other women exchanged pleasantries and gossiped, she was busy absorbing the difference in culture. She refrained from too much judgement; she loved assimilating, learning and absorbing new aspects of culture, particularly those that appealed to the senses. She infected my mother with this sensitivity to culture, and my mother’s memories were therefore rooted deeply in culture.

Bangalore was not a culturally stimulating place. It was a multicultural community where we were exposed to such broad differences that we had learned to accept difference as the norm. It was when I spent my vacations in Kerala that the cultural ingredients came alive and awakened my senses to the profound beauty in life. My mother’s ancestral house was in itself, a key cultural ingredient that shaped my early emotions. It was an old weather beaten house, and it was a miracle that it had survived the storms of centuries. That in itself, made it special for it was a relic from the past. I was fascinated by its wooden half doors that seemed to let the world in, its patio where we all gathered most of the time, its attic where mice could be heard quarreling, its dark kitchen where the hearth was always warm, and the backyard that looked onto pepper creepers coiling around the jackfruit trees. I loved some of the things that we children were asked to do, and that my cousins seemed to hate. For instance, I loved sitting in front of the lamp, reciting prayer verses at dusk. It was something we didn’t do back home in Bangalore. I loved the feel of pebbles and earth on my feet. I loved earthen floors more than I loved tiled floors. I loved taking bath because it meant drawing water from the well. I loved the sight of jasmine flowers that had blossomed overnight. I would pick handfuls of the flowers and smell them. I loved the wooden reclining chair in the patio where my great grandfather used to sit. I loved the high cot in my great grandmother’s room that served the purpose of a store. From its insides, my aunts would fish out cakes, sweets and savories. I loved the women who passed by our house, sometimes with sickles in their hand, in search of tender grass for the cows. They would smile at us fondly and ask a million questions. I loved the old temples we visited. The stone steps and pillars, the sopanam, the fragrance of the incense sticks, the sandal paste, the temple pond and the serpent shrines. I loved the little lamps that glowed in the dim light of dusk, and lit up the shrine. I loved the oracle’s performance though I was also frightened by his demeanour. I loved the graceful movements of the Mohiniattam and I loved the mudras of the Kathakali. I loved weddings where women dressed up the bride and the bride, clad in spotless white, her hair adorned with the most beautiful and fragrant jasmine flowers, reminded me of a swan gliding through a procession. I loved being part of the wedding processions that walked the bride and the groom to the bride’s new house. Though I was raised in the Hindu faith, and loved the cultural elements of this religion, I was equally fascinated by cultural elements of other religions. I was very excited by toothless elderly Muslim women who stopped to talk to my aunts. I was fascinated by the number of gold earrings that adorned their ears and by the zari bordered headdress through which silvery strands of hair broke loose. Their houses were a delight, and so were their weddings. I loved the boatman who ferried us across the river. I loved the fishmonger who hooted in the mornings and passed by on his bicycle, an army of cats following him dutifully.I loved the tea stalls where old men discussed politics amidst glasses of tea and plates of parippu vada. I loved watching women pound rice; I was in awe of their synchrony.

In those days, the men and women seemed to possess so many skills that we no longer have. People could grow their own food, catch fish and crabs from the streams, chop wood and obtain firewood, make a fire, and cook their own food. They could even build their own house. They could climb trees, swim, row a boat, walk for miles, and labour for hours. My mother tells me about how she would accompany my great grandmother to sow seeds, till the soil, and water the saplings. She remembers how during the cucumber harvest, men would erect a pandal in the fields, light a fire, and stand guard, so as to ward away foxes that ransacked the fields at night. Those sleepovers can never match our modern sleepovers.

In retrospect, I realize that culture played an important role in my formation. It defined the aesthetic framework that was necessary to make all my engagements with the world profoundly beautiful. It taught me to see the aesthetic dimension in all my relationships- with nature, with people, with other living beings, with living spaces. It taught me to explore this aesthetic space in my day to day life, in education, in religion, and in every facet of life I engaged with. The more diversity there was, the more was the scope for such aesthetics. Perhaps that was the reason I loved this country the most. It provided for so much cultural diversity. And so, my memories were rooted in these cultural ingredients.

Sometimes, I am aware that my mind is seeking something from the environment. It seeks familiarity. And that familiarity is to do with these cultural ingredients on which I was raised. When it doesn’t find them in the world, it resorts to the books and movies that have immortalized them.

Today, our lives are so empty. The death of culture is palpable. Instead of the soulful cultural ingredients that once defined our lives, there is just a human buzz- a mechanical buzz with no aesthetics in the monotonous scheme of our comfortable lives. In place of a memory, is a big void. Something that science labels as depression.

Culture is a carefully crafted, time-tested art that has ingredients that nourish the soul. I think these cultural ingredients were largely responsible for the sense of fulfillment that characterized the traditional way of life. Culture comprises of those ingredients that teach us to engage deeply and meaningfully with the natural world, and therefore nourish our souls. As we dissociate ourselves from culture, we are also alienating the mind from soulful ingredients that are necessary to anchor the mind to a fundamental framework of factors that govern life. Cultural ingredients awaken the senses to the inherent beauty in life. All memory and learning feeds on such aesthetic awakening. The definitions of all facets of human life- love, relationships, home, marriage, childhood, womanhood are deeply rooted in culture. Human potential is rooted in such sensory awakening. And so, this era of depression, violence and crimes is not surprising.

The face in the mirror

Water is my healer. Not only does it soothe the external scalds of my body, but it also soothes my mind. And so, I spend hours in the shower. I can never have enough of water.

It is then that I can see something glitter in my mind. Unopened boxes of thoughts, like presents carefully gift-wrapped with glitter paper. Presents sent from heaven. I am like a little child, excited and eager to open these presents. “Shhhhhh!”, says a voice in my head. Then I know I must be quiet and still, though I am trembling in delight. I know that this is a special moment, for I can feel being surrounded by a blanket of silence. The sounds from outside appear distant.

Invisible hands open one of the boxes. Inside is a mirror. I pick up the mirror. A woman stares at me from the mirror. Her face is that of mine.

“Who are you?”, she asks.

“I am a woman”, I answer.

“Oh, you are a woman! Then you must be seeking love? A man’s companionship perhaps?”, she asked.

“I don’t know what I am seeking”, I say.

She laughs. A high-pitched laughter.

“Look at me carefully. Maybe you will know what you are seeking”, she says.

I look at her carefully. Suddenly, it is not my face I see. It is Fousiya’s face. Fousiya, playing with her child. I can see her worry lines; but at this moment, she is fully involved with her child. He is her world.

“Fousiya!”, I call out. But she can’t hear me.

Suddenly, I realize it is not Fousiya. It is Indu. She is painting. I can see by her side all the paintings she has made in the last one week. There are only a few days for the exhibition now. I touch the mirror, and Indu disappears.

There is somebody else in her place now. Who is it? It is Sangeetha. She is sitting in the garden all alone, trying to understand her place in the world.

I see them all one by one. All the women whose stories I have lived. The women I have met. The women I have read about. The women I have watched in films. They are all there.

And finally, I see my own face appearing again.

“So do you now know what you are seeking?”

With that, the face disappears. So does the mirror. And so do the presents.

Now I understand. Who am I? I do not have a story of my own; I live in the stories of all these women. I live- in their vulnerability, and in their strength. In their moments of security and in their insecurity. In their happiness and in their sorrows. In the fulfillment of their love and in the melancholy of their solitude. I am all these women. And so, how can I define myself as distinct from them? How can my needs be different?

I spend my life liberating these women. Each one of them. Through the stories I write. And in doing so, I liberate myself.

 

 

Volatile

“I really like you, Pooja. You are different. I love the way you think. I love your passion for the causes you believe in. Above all, you are such a genuine person”, he said to her.

She looked up at him.

“It is mutual, Vivek. I cherish your companionship”, she replied.

“A woman like you doesn’t deserve to be single, Pooja! You deserve to be loved and cared for. There is so much beauty in you. You are intelligent and thoughtful, and wise from life. And yet, you are sensitive, so full of warmth, innocence and compassion. That makes you very attractive. I think you are being very unfair on yourself, denying yourself the joy of a relationship. Do you realize what you are missing?”

She stood still, her eyes fixed on the tiny speck in the distance that appeared to be a boat sailing in the river.

Without shifting her gaze, she asked, “What am I missing, Vivek?”

“So much! You deserve to be held, hugged, kissed. When was the last time somebody hugged you? Don’t you miss these little things?”

She looked up at him and smiled.

“Sometimes. I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t. But I have learned to live with not having these little things in my life.”

“But why? Why should you not have these little things in your life? You need to loosen up, Pooja.”

She sighed.

“No, Vivek. I don’t wish to go back to that life. I am strong now. Relationships make me weak and vulnerable. When I lose people, it is so hard for me to come out of the dependence. It is such a hard journey back to strength and independence. I can’t afford to put myself through that again. I have a lot of responsibilities and commitments. I do not have the luxury of time anymore- the time I take to heal and recover. Life will not wait for me. No, I have to be responsible.”

He shook his head.

” You have had bitter experiences in the past, Pooja. That is why you are scared to get into a relationship. Not everybody is the same. You should not hold on to the past; let it go. Free yourself from its clutches!”

“But shouldn’t you learn from your past?”

“Of course! But the learning should not snatch away your happiness.”

“What is happiness, Vivek? Is it holding hands, hugging and kissing?”

“I know what you mean. You may be happy doing the things you do, Pooja. But a relationships brings with it a different kind of happiness. And you deserve to experience that. I want to see you happy and free in the companionship of a man. In fact, I want to be that man for you. I promise you I will never hurt you or abandon you. I want you to feel secure so that you can experience the joy of a relationship. Give me a chance and I will never let you down!”

She continued to stare at the boat in the distance. It had become more visible now.

“You want to get into a relationship with me?”, she asked.

“Yes. And please don’t get me wrong. It was you I kept seeking all along in life. I ran into many women who I thought mirrored what I was seeking. But, from a closer perspective, they failed me. All along, I have been looking for you. But when I found you, it was to realize that I couldn’t own you. You were there, and yet not there. Sort of volatile. Please Pooja, I need you. I want you in my life.”

Her expression did not change.

” Why would you need me, Vivek?”

” I need you because I want to bring in happiness into your life. I want to see you smile. And I want to keep that smile for myself. I want to go to sleep with that smile in my head.”

Unruffled, she asked, “Give me a good reason as to why you need me in your life, Vivek.”

“Like I said, you deserve to be happy. And I want to be the one to make you happy.”

In the distance, she could hear the purring of the boat.

“What are you thinking?”, he asked.

She turned to him and said, ” Vivek, I was thinking of how we are speaking from such different platforms. You are a married man. You speak from within the security of a family. A family that can cater to your emotional needs on a day-to-day basis. There is very little for which you have to depend on me. You are like a man standing firmly on the bank of a river, without the risk of falling. For you, this relationship is an added dimension that you can give to your life- the joy of the intellectual companionship of a woman.”

The boat was now approaching the bank. She pointed to it and said,” I am like that boat, at the mercy of the river. I can be easily shaken. I do not have the security of a family to bank on. I have only myself. And so, if I were to get into a relationship, I would solely bank on it for my emotional fulfillment. Any turbulence in our relationship would put me at risk of falling into the river.”

She started to walk. He followed.

She continued:

“You don’t really know me. How would you? You have not seen me in my moments of vulnerability or dependence. I was always vulnerable, with a very fragile self-esteem. In my teens, I did not have a father to help me overcome the feelings of worthlessness I would often feel. And so, I was always looking for the comfort of a relationship. It was my fragile self-esteem that propelled me to seek relationships. I liked that feeling of being wanted, being cherished and valued. But then, I would so easily get used to the relationship- to the presence of a person in my life, to his gestures, his mannerisms, his responses and reactions. I would get dependent on the little things that you mention- the heart-to-heart conversations, the tenderness, the holding hands, the hugs, the kisses. I would see the very meaning of my life in the relationship; I was dangerously dependent on the security it provided me. So imagine my predicament when the relationship ended. It was like being withdrawn from life support.”

She paused and sat herself on the stone bench. He sat down by her side. She spoke, almost to herself, as if lost in a distant reverie.

“It was so hard to come back to life each time- come back to being comfortable with one’s own company. It was this realization- the awareness of my fragility and dependence, that made me refrain from stepping into relationships.”

She looked at him.

“Over the years, I realized that nothing was permanent. A relationship could never assure permanence. I myself was not permanent. I therefore started filling up my solitude with meaningful endeavors that would leave behind something for the world, long after I was gone. And this made me strong for I learned to become comfortable with my solitude.”

She took a deep breath and continued:

“I have to take very good care of my mind, Vivek. I cannot afford to get used to the joy of a relationship. It would be detrimental for both of us. Of course, I will miss the little things in a relationship. But when did life promise you that you can have everything you want? These are but little pleasures- transient, fleeting moments of happiness. I seek the kind of happiness that sets me free. To me, happiness is the freedom within my mind. I want to feel free; I do not wish to be tied down by a relationship. I do not wish to be accountable to an individual. I do not want my happiness to be dependent on an individual. I want to be free- to do all the things I am passionate about. I do not want the burden of guilt- of being into a relationship with a married man. I want to be free of all such feelings that bind me.”

She looked at him with a trace of affection in her eyes.

“What I have truly missed is the joy of companionship. The kind of unspoken companionship that thrives on a silent understanding of the other’s vulnerability, fragility, struggle and pain. I cherish such companionship. Let us not bring down our relationship to anything lesser than that!”

They sat silently for some time. He stood up. She stood up too. He held her hand and they walked in silence.