26 Apr 2011
When I opened the window, I felt it was cold. The sky looked cloudy, but I felt like going out and enjoy a stroll. I looked at the street. Involuntarily, I focused more on how much it has changed. "Sid, wear sweater. It's cold", I heard mom's voice. She was in kitchen, making tea for us. Earlier, it always irked me that she thought more about me than about herself. But now, it didn't. I thought I would say, "Mom, please! I lived in Ladakh for so long, this is nothing".
But I said, "Okay, mom!"
"It's in the second shelf of your wardrobe, Sid".
It amazed me how she remembered such a trivial accessory with such precision. Mothers are a rare breed.
Quickly, I pulled on the sweater. When I was about to shut the door, I noticed an old diary. Twenty years old. "Wow!", I exclaimed. It was more out of curiosity than a rush of nostalgia that I opened its cover. The pages have aged. It's a funny thing about diaries, they get heavier with time. They store your memories. It was dad's gift for my birthday. In a neatly written hand, the first page had dad's favourite quote.
"Music should strike fire from the heart of man, and bring tears from the eyes of woman."
I admired how beautiful the writing looked. Dad's fingers not only played piano to perfection, but also wrote exceptionally good. He was an artist, impelled to compose and play music. He performed for years, held audiences captive, and taught music at university. For him, music was not a discipline to be learned; it was the very essence of life. On an evening when I was about to fall off the car, he tried saving me and had his fingers crushed by the car door. Doctors broke it to him that he can never play piano again. Next evening, he jumped out off our flat on the fifth floor and fell dead. Doctors took pride in being frank; I lost my dad.
"Sid, ready yet? Tea is ready".
I closed the diary and put it carefully back in the same place. "Done, mom. In a minute".
As I sat and relished tea, she ran her fingers fondly through my hair. It felt so nice it choked me. When I left home eight years ago and chose to stay in Ladakh, I had no intent to detach myself from anything or anyone. Yet, even as I met strangers and made friends, had my moments, memorable and forgettable, a sense of distance had slowly crept into me. With every passing day, the world looked further afar, and I thought its affairs would never touch me again. Along with the feet that battered and bared many a rough terrain, and felt hardened, the heart, I thought, too, had become stronger like the solitary soldier whose armour no weapon can pierce. And how wrong I was! A simple, loving gesture felt like the touch of a gentle breeze in the midst of a desert, wafted across lands and sea to soothe a forlorn bird and break all walls and doors of the cage to set it aflutter in joy. I realised I didn't become detached; I merely shielded myself from all care. It was fear; strength was a pretense. It felt so absurd that it choked me.
She arranged my collar neatly around the sweater. "You are still a careless brat", she teased. "Mom, easy! Sit and have tea", I smiled and pulled the chair beside. I always liked being lazy and disorganised. I could never imagine living any other way. An organised, planned life is a dead life, I always believed. Nevertheless, when I reflected this moment, I realised it was probably not this heavy philosophy that drove my inertness. It was probably that I valued these small moments as priceless and desired them more, for every such moment attracted care and attention from mom. What if she admonished, didn't she just so lovingly notice how I wore the sweater and arranged my collar? And if I added up all such moments through the years, I would have a wealth of precious memories. The price of being disorganised! Priceless!
She didn't say it, but every glance of hers said, "I am so happy you are back, my precious child". I had regularly written her how it was there in Ladakh, what I ate and drank and where I stayed and slept and worked. But she asked about it all again. I answered in brief, as ever.
But it was enough for her. She didn't ask to know answers; she asked just to hear me talk. Just to notice that glint of joy in my eyes. She recounted how the neighbourhood has changed over the years, who moved in and who moved out, how unfortunately Steve met with the fatal accident just a day after he finally had agreed to marry Jennifer and how sad she felt, how prices have increased, how fast the neighbour's baby has grown up, how fond the kids in the society have become of her... As I listened to her, I didn't mind it was getting late for the stroll. But she remembered. "Oh, I could go on! You enjoy your stroll and come back soon. Don't stay out too long, Sid, you could catch cold".
"Sure, mom! Will be back in an hour".
I went to Steve's. A Goan family had moved in, not long after he died. The house looked new. I rang the bell and an old man opened. He put on his glasses when he noticed me. "Evening, Mr Benjamin. I am Sid, Steve's friend". It took him a few moments to map. "Okay! come on in", his tone was cordial. I walked in and looked around. "Please", he pulled a chair for me. "That's okay! Don't bother, sir", I took it from the old man. An old woman entered the hall and smiled at me. "Steve's friend", Mr Benjamin told her. "Hello! That's nice", she said, with a smile that made me feel at home. "Hello! I... I just dropped by to... to just see the place... and say hi to you. He is my best friend, and I used to visit him often. Steve". They followed me ardently. "I understand. This is your home. You are always welcome", she said. "Let me get some coffee for you".
"No... it's fine. I just had tea at home, in fact. I wouldn't have anything. Next time, surely", I replied.
As I conversed, I looked around the house. Everything looked different. The family was nice and warm, but I couldn't relate to anything. As I got up to take leave, he gave me his card. "Do call up and drop by with your mom. Would be a pleasure", he said.
"Sure. Thanks!" I would rather never call or visit them again. I had nothing against them; I had nothing to do with them either. Steve is gone, and what does it matter who lived there? I wasn't sure why, but I was angry. Maybe I thought they had destroyed all signs I could possibly relate with. I didn't expect Steve to receive me at the door, but I didn't want the house to look so alien either. Steve was dead, and the house looked alien. I had no intent to extend acquaintance with Benjamin family.
After walking a few paces, I wanted to call Sameera. I heard from mom that Sameera got married a few months ago. She also said, "Don't call her up at late evenings now. You will cause her trouble". I always found it queer that unlike any other attribute, that of marital status affects all other equations, and perpetually alters a few. I asked quite a few people, relations, acquaintances and friends alike, to explain this to me, but none could. It was as if they had accepted it as a divine dictum, and questioning it sounded like blasphemy or at best stupid. For my part, the fact that one person's arrival should alter the equation with others meant absolute disrespect for the others. It did not, however, matter what I thought. The world runs its course. None of the friends lived in the town anymore. Sameera was the only one. Without thinking much, I called her number. A male voice answered politely and put me to her.
She was her ebullient self. I wondered if she could take some time out for coffee. She suggested me to drop by at her place instead. "You could get to meet Armaan too. He has met all my friends except you, so he would love it", she pushed. I was not up to it, as I felt somewhat lonely and lost, and preferred some time with someone who has known me for a good time. I was surely not up to striking it with strangers. "I would love that, too. Will drop by, one of these days. Take care", I assured. I thought I would visit her next week.
I walked back home, observing people and streets. It felt cold, and it was not just the weather. Streets were buzzing with trade, people were rushing, and it confounded me how distant and cold urban spaces are. But then, it's probably just me; I never felt at home in cities.
After supper, mom liked watching news and playing some music. I waited impatiently for the newscast to finish. She knew how much I hated watching news. "Just five minutes, sweetie", she smiled. "No problem, mom". Soon after, I checked if she wanted to listen to Kishore Kumar or Ilaiyaraja numbers. Listening to the music, she fell asleep. I switched off the player, closed the window and left for my room.
Lying on the bed, I stared at the roof. I saw no sky or stars; only a dark concrete wall. I don't remember when I drifted into sleep, but something woke me up suddenly early next morning. It was quite early, it may not be even 5 in the morning. I heard someone gasping, trying hard to breathe. For a few seconds, I tried to make sense of it all.
I realised I was at home. I rushed to mom's room. I switched the light on and saw her writhing in discomfort. "Mom!" I cried out loud and rushed to hold her. She was not in pain. It was rather a feeling of being strangled. She was trying hard to breathe. "Mom!" I called her, holding her by shoulder. I felt she might need some medicine, but I had no idea. "Mom, are you all right?" A stupid question, but I just wanted her to say something. Recollecting herself, she said, "tablet... it's on... the... table... coffee table..." Quickly, I fetched the medicine and offered her. "Water", I gave the bottle. A minute later, she could breathe normally.
She looked weak. Weary. Her forbearance has worn out. She couldn't open her eyes. Sitting beside and holding her hand, I noticed the wrinkles on her face. It scared me. All these years, every day of my life, every morning when I woke up, every evening when I slept, I took her presence for granted. I held it with certainty that she was always there, whenever I needed her, and whenever I needed her not. I could walk out in anger, booze and return home at midnight and find her serve food, and I could stray for years and return and still find her receive and welcome me with a hug. For the first time, I found my certainty shaken. For the first time, mom looked mortal. For the first time, I realised how fragile it all comes down to when you sense the end. It felt as if I was looking at her for the first time. How busy we get running around for tomorrows that we rarely look at those we think we love! I cried.
Shortly later, she slowly opened her eyes. She looked at me fondly. "Don't cry, my child! Old age, you know. But... not much time left, though. I have lived well and I lived happily. I am proud of you, child. I am happy you are back. I have no regrets and nothing to seek. If this is it, this is it. I love you and I'm always with you. Always". She had tears in her eyes. "I know, mom. I know. You will be fine. No worries". I didn't have it in me to think of her death. Maybe, it seemed to me, this is why I left home. Having lost dad, I was perhaps scared to see her age every day. So I ran away.
Or maybe I felt like that being faced with a sensitive moment. Maybe it wasn't out of any fear.
Maybe I left because I had wanted to, having become quite averse with living in cities. I wanted to see the mountain, the stars, the streams and breathe fresh air. Maybe that was it.
I had a quick breakfast. I convinced her that we will visit doctor. She checked if I would take her to temple also. I assured I will. She was happy. She wanted me to select the saree. I was never good at that. But I suggested thick blue and she liked it. "I will be ready in five minutes", I told her.
When I came out of the shower and pulled on the tee and jeans and walked into her room, I found mom lying on the floor. She must've collapsed. I held her, pulled her up and cried, "Mom! Mom!" She didn't respond. I sought the neighbour's help for rushing her to the hospital. I didn't keep track, but I was sure it didn't take more than twenty minutes for us to reach the hospital. All the while, I kept checking if she was breathing. After the formalities, doctor suggested we can't afford to delay and that she be put in intensive care unit. They put her on the bed, lined in white sheets. She lay quiet and motionless. As I stood out at the door and watched through the glass, they took her into the intensive care unit.
The hands pushed, the wheels slid, and the bed retreated. And with it, mom.