Monday 23 April 2012

Kousha’s debt of gratitude

It was an odd-looking bird. Its green feathers seemed borrowed from the parrot, just a shade duller. Its head was bigger, but the body smaller. It had a short tail, like that of the mynah. Its beak was also orange in colour and shaped like the mynah’s, but its big round eyes reminded Kousha of the kingfisher.
He noticed that it preferred the lush tree that overlooked his backyard, not the ones a little beyond.
He decided to call the bird Bhuri for the spray of brown on its chest. Was it perverse logic to call a green bird brown?
“Pray, why not?” he asked himself. “What’s wrong with giving it any name?” After all, his parents had not thought whether his name would match his character or personality. “Bhuri it will be. I insist.”
Bhuri and its companion.
Digital sketch: Harjeet
They had been following a routine for a month or two now. Kousha would read the morning newspaper sitting in his rocking chair in the yard, one ear cocked to catch Bhuri’s trilling notes which were a queer mix of “cheep-cheep” and “twit-twit”. He felt the bird too looked forward to his audience.
Kousha even tried to imitate Bhuri when he worked in the kitchen or was lazing in his warm bathtub. He once caught a bad chill when he forgot to dry himself while attempting a “cheep-cheep, twit-twit” performance.
Kousha had never seen this species of bird before. “Could it be a hybrid? A cross between a parrot and a mynah?” he muttered to himself one day as he pottered around his kitchen garden.
It seemed to him a soft little twitter had been addressed to him, something that sounded like “Excuse me?” He froze, turned around slowly and found Bhuri perched on his wall.
The bird could not possibly be talking to him! He felt Bhuri was looking straight into his eyes. Head bent slightly to one side, the bird appeared to be chiding him, as if offended. Kousha turned away and pretended to pull out a weed.
“This is ridiculous”, he told himself softly.
“Cheep-cheep?” he thought he heard it ask again.
“No, I am imagining things,” Kousha thought. With measured steps he gained the door. He left it ajar, so that Bhuri should not feel he had shut it out, and peeped out. He was not quite sure, but it did appear that the bird had puffed out its chest and was strutting about on the wall.
He was perplexed. He had endowed the bird with a name and now a personality. He could not help it: Bhuri acted so human.
Kousha’s was the life of a hermit, almost. He kept to himself, except for occasionally visiting the departmental store. The avarice of relatives and deafening silence of the cops when his parents died in a freak accident had left him numb.
He retreated into a shell after this loss. He had enough money to live on, and had found work online to keep himself busy. That way he did not need to suffer the indifferent ways of the world outside his four walls.
His reclusive life eliminated any chance of a family or friends. He told himself often that he did not need company. Yet, since Bhuri’s appearance, he looked forward to its songs every morning. They were strangely soothing.
It was not long before Bhuri made bold to hop about in his little garden, foraging for a hapless worm or an insect. Sometimes it would glide gently around the yard. On more than one occasion it even swooped across Kousha’s path, chirping loudly when he swore in alarm. He had a sneaky feeling Bhuri enjoyed teasing him.
One morning it brought along company. There were two of them now. He spent hours watching the pair flit from branch to branch, giving each other loving nudges, chasing away any intruder that strayed into their domain. It seemed the tree was now their property.
Soon Kousha figured out what they were up to. It was nesting season. They built a cosy home, smartly stacking twigs and dried leaves in a wonderful round shape to warm their eggs in.
Before the eggs arrived, though, a rough storm knocked the nest off. His heart wept as a listless Bhuri and its companion hopped across the branches, emitting sad little cheeps.
He was astonished when they put the past behind them within hours and set about building another nest.
Their resilience and determination shook him. They had taken a disaster in their stride; he had not. This forced him to think hard about the way he had allowed his life to drift.
Kousha decided he would change too, but that could wait. First he had to ensure the birds were safe.
He hammered a few rough shafts of wood into the wall beneath his balcony, making sure no cat could pounce on them nor a storm dislodge them.
He collected a few twigs and placed them on the loft.
The bird couple had been following his movements with great interest. He woke up to loud twittering in the backyard next morning. Bhuri and its companion were singing as they flew around, first arguing and then agreeing on how each twig was to be placed in their new home.
They stopped mid-flight, dropped to the rafter and followed Kousha with their eyes as he walked into the yard. He could feel a distinct warmth in their gaze. As he broke into a tuneless song, they resumed their frantic chirping, failing to notice that he had shed a happy tear.
He did not want his green company to fly far and wide in search of food for their nestlings. When he went to shop for grain and seeds to feed the birds with, there was a smile on his lips and a spring in his step. He hailed the man at the gate cheerfully, not in his usual grim manner. The man started in surprise, but saluted him promptly.
The trips to the town library must also be resumed, he told himself firmly.
The world suddenly seemed a friendlier place.
A year later, Bhuri flew away with its clan, which had multiplied fast in the big tree.
Kousha was no longer lonely, but he would miss the ceaseless twitters. And he owed a debt of gratitude to Bhuri. He had found his soulmate during one of his library visits, a loving wife who was going to be the mother of his child soon.

Monday 16 April 2012

The daughter’s husband

He was in college when Shubhendu fell in love with a stunning girl he saw at the bus stop. She lived in the neighbourhood and used to take the “women’s special” bus to the university. It took him all of a year to approach her. She did not seem to mind his company, and soon they were regularly exchanging notes on studies and career plans.
Digital sketch: Harjeet
Shubhendu was affable and caring.
Digital sketch: Harjeet

Shubhendu went on to complete his MBA while she took her time completing her master’s. He landed a job with a hefty pay packet at a reputed firm, and later managed to get her employed in the same office.
It was not pure coincidence that his family moved into a house opposite hers soon after. He was besotted with her, but hadn’t yet opened his heart to her.
She was rather flighty but sweet, full of the goodness of life that he sought. It was time to ascertain if Cupid had struck her heart too. Indeed he had.
He invited her over to his place and introduced her to his family as an acquaintance, hoping they would take to her.
They did.
Shubhendu’s next move was befriending her family. They were wary of him, apprehensive of an alliance between two very different communities and its long-term consequences. But he was so humble, unassuming and wholly charming that it was impossible not to like him.
A quiet marriage took place before the registrar. No dowry, no exchange of gifts, no fancy reception.
Shubhendu insisted that she give up her job when she was carrying their first child. A second one followed within a year. His parents were ecstatic.
So were hers. Living within shouting distance of each other, the two families developed deep ties. He was as much a hit with her family as she was with her in-laws.
Over the years, his father-in-law came to dote on Shubhendu, to the extent that they spent at least an hour together every evening. He came to be regarded as the son of the family, more than his brothers-in-law who willingly passed on their responsibilities to him.
His in-laws began depending on him for every decision, financial, social or health-related. His parents did not grudge it, because he struck a fine balance between the two families. Besides, his wife took really good care of them.
A few years into their marriage, Shubhendu got lucky with a whopping amount in salary arrears plus a chunky bonus. He bought a piece of land in a township coming up in an adjoining suburb. The plot lay neglected for long, but when his children grew up and wanted to leave the cramped quarters, Shubhendu had to make a tough decision. He started building a house on the land.
His father-in-law’s health, which had been deteriorating, took a turn for the worse meanwhile. Stopping the construction halfway, Shubhendu devoted to him all the time he could spare from work. He was there to take him to the doctor, to feed him, to lend his shoulder when he could no longer sit on his own.
There came a time when his father-in-law had to be repeatedly hospitalized, and doctors warned that the end was near. Shubhendu had built an enviable reputation at his company with his affability and hard work. They understood when he sought long leave.
He would not move from his father-in-law’s bedside but for a shower, to attend a phone call or visit the doctor. His wife fluttered around, but could contribute little. His brothers-in-law would pay lip service and push off to work. His mother-in-law helplessly watched her husband withering away.
Shubhendu would not let a nurse into the house. He attended to his father-in-law’s every need, from washing him and helping him turn sides so that the dreaded bed sores did not appear, to feeding him soup or juice when he could take solid food no more.
In her family, tradition does not allow a married daughter, her husband and in-laws to take part in funeral rites. Shubhendu not only lit the pyre but also participated in every other ritual reserved for sons. The brothers-in-law did not demur, for their father had expressly said he wanted his daughter’s husband to perform his last rites.

Thursday 12 April 2012

Mother and son: The eternal bond

Maleg was a middle-level manager. With three daughters and two sons, life was one treadmill of a task.
His widowed mother was their sheet anchor. She looked after them all, including Maleg and his wife. They were the only family she had.
Maleg was devoted to his mother.
             Digital sketch: Harjeet

The five children were her daughter-in-law’s prime responsibility: Bahu had to make sure they drank their morning glass of milk, took lunch to school, came back to a welcoming home, and rested well. Then his mother herded the children out to play.
Television programmes those days were limited to the evening hours. So when Maleg was at home, he monopolized it. Otherwise, his mother insisted on watching religious programmes and Krishi Darshan. That was her way of protecting her grandchildren’s young minds from getting corrupted.
Maleg lived in the house his father had built, so there was no question of moving his family when he was transferred out of town. He would spend a lot of time and energy trying to get a posting back home. More than his family, he missed his mother.
He liked to touch her feet every morning. After work, the sight of his mother waiting for him at the door lifted the weight of all weariness. Moreover, her calm personality helped him keep his hot temper in check.
She fussed over him, but she was not possessive. She made sure her Bahu spent time with him. She would beckon all the children to come and greet him. Then they were shooed away while she plied the couple with tea and snacks.
Getting busy in the kitchen, she would leave the two together. In an hour she would be back. Bahu must get up and attend to the children’s studies while Maleg watched television. His mother would meditate in the prayer room.
Time for dinner, and then the children were allowed to sit around their father. He was not very demonstrative, but he did his fatherly duties full justice. When his youngest daughter was born, Maleg’s mother had advised him never to shower undue love on one or the other child, but to be even-handed with his affection.
The daughters were married off one by one as soon as they came of age. It was a quite struggle arranging three weddings in a couple of years, but Maleg’s father had left him a small inheritance. His own frugal living too had helped collect a neat sum for the purpose. All the girls were happy. He had followed the simple tips his mother gave him for finding them the right grooms: educated sons of joint families not living on rent.
His sons were not yet fully settled when Maleg was a year from retirement. Orders came for his posting, and he was most reluctant to go. Strange were the ways of public corporations. They transferred everyone who was on the verge of superannuation, quite a quirky practice, he held. When a man is old, he needs his family more.
As luck would have it, his mother had a sudden seizure. Though he was only an hour away by train, by the time he reached and they took her to hospital, complications had set in. She became bed-ridden.
Bahu had a lot on her hands, what with her sons needing their meals at separate hours and all chores now her responsibility. She had no time for her mother-in-law. Maleg decided to commute by train. He was up before dawn to clean her nearly limp body, change her clothes, say a prayer by her bedside, feed her a small meal and then off to the station. He would fret all day till he was back with her. Then he would help her bathe and wash her clothes, careful at all times that she never felt embarrassed.
This went on for a few weeks. She recovered some strength, but not enough to be self-sufficient.
One day he found his wife washing his mother’s soiled clothes. He stepped in, saying: “I do not hold it against you that you cannot take care of her. She is my mother, and I understand that you find it repulsive having to clean her up. You have other responsibilities, but mine centre on her. Your marriage vows do not bind you to serve her as well.”
Bahu replied tearfully: “That is indeed how I convinced myself. I even allowed myself to forget how completely she devoted herself to us. I saw you tending her, and gradually my nausea gave way to a deep regret that I did not take up my duty by your side. Forgive me, but I will henceforth share equally the duty of her son, as he has shared his life with me.”
Maleg did not need to bathe his mother again. Her quiet submission to fate as she lay there helpless inspired him to take up study of religion. He would read to her from a variety of scriptures late into the night. He also found the strength to conquer his angry disposition at this late stage in life.
His mother died a year after Maleg retired. He devoted the rest of his life to her memory, serving the infirm and his religion.

Monday 2 April 2012

The man with the iron hand

Jaidevi was tall, dark and comely. She had a generous build, was honest and, being punctual to a fault, very popular with the households she worked in.
She rang our doorbell sharp at 6 in the morning. Indeed, so reliable was she that I stopped setting the alarm soon after I engaged her. If at all she took leave, she would warn me beforehand. It would be on a weekend, when the children did not go school. So it did not matter if we woke up late that day. She worked for us nearly five years, but was never away for more than two days at a time.
Jaidevi chalked out her routine with clockwork precision. She started from the front gate and worked her way indoors. Tucking the broom out of sight, she expected the tap area in the backyard to be clear for her. By the time the bucket filled up, she would have dusted the furniture. And woe betide anyone who left footprints on the freshly mopped floor.
A shy Jaidevi in her finery.
Digital sketch: Harjeet
By then, my daughter would be done with her bath and it would be time to wake up her little brother.
Mop and pail in hand, Jaidevi would add to my call: “Baba, get up... Get up, Baba.” He would be out of bed like a shot at the sound of her voice. “Oh no, my slippers! Jaivedi Aunty she has moved them again,” he would wail. “Jaivedi”, not “Jaidevi”, in case you did not notice.
My son did not like to walk barefoot. He would position his slippers every night in a way that he could step straight into them when he got off the bed next morning. Jaidevi, however, never could put them back where they belonged when she swept the floor. The child was bound to protest. She would rush in and offer to put his little feet into the slippers, coaxing him: “Say my name again, no, little Baba... please, Baba.” He would not oblige.
Initially this exchange irritated us, but soon we realized they shared a unique bond.
Jaidevi told me she had two sons, but now they were grown up. She said she loved it when the “little Baba” looked at her accusingly, his brow all puckered up. And the way he pattered off after their daily little spat.
“To look upon him makes my day. And only he in the entire world calls me Jaivedi,” she said sheepishly in defence of her teasing.
Her “Baba” also missed her. If he found his slippers were in place, he would promptly ask if “Jaivedi Aunty” had not come in that day.
Jaidevi was not very chatty, but dispensed advice freely if she felt it was warranted.
“Never leave the tawa on the stove,” she told me once.
“Why?” I was puzzled, sure that I had turned off the gas.
The reply amused me. “It is not good for husband-wife relations,” she said gravely. That same evening, I bought a stand for the tawa.
Her home remedies for a running stomach, a headache or a cold were all honey-based. She suggested that my father-in-law take a spoonful of honey with a dash of lime in warm water every morning to get rid of constipation. It worked. He followed the practice till his last days.
Jaidevi clearly stood in awe of her husband. He ran a small fleet of cycle rickshaws, and was a terror for his workers, she said. He ruled the household with an iron hand, and led a very regimented life. Towards her he was stern but caring. He took care of their meals in the morning, but expected her to serve lunch sharp at 1.30. Now I understood why she was so fussy about her timings.
One day she came dressed in a shiny sari and a tikka on her forehead. After some prodding, she disclosed shyly that she was going out with her family. They would be picking her up from our gate.
She scurried out when her son rang the bell. We craned our necks to catch a glimpse of the famous husband. The elder son was in the driver’s seat, the younger one with his father at the back. She joined them on the back seat, turned and gave us a proud smile.
A stunned silence followed. As they disappeared round the corner, we burst out laughing at the contrast between our collective image of Jaidevi’s husband and the man himself. Not only did he have a slender frame, her man with the iron hand was a full head shorter than his wife.