Saturday 26 May 2012

The red circle

I love my dartboard. The darts are red and green. I also know the colours of the rings on the board. Mama taught me.
When Dadda makes me angry. 
   Digital sketch: Harjeet
I love my Mama very much.
She bought the dartboard for my sister and me. Papa and Mama are trying to teach me how to throw the darts. But I am very small. It is not easy.
I find it hard to make the darts stick to the board. They keep falling down to the grass. Sometimes they hit the boundary wall.
I have to run and gather them up, and start again. If I hit the board, Mama is happy and gives me a hug. But she does not hug me much. I wish I could hit that red circle. 
Whenever my big sister hits any place on the dartboard, Mama calls out, “five” or “eight” or “three”… If she hits the red circle, Mama claps a lot. She shouts, “ten!” and gives my sister a big, big hug.
Sometimes I get angry. That day in our play school, I was very, very upset with Nammu when he took away my pencil box. Teacher laughed when I told her. That made me very angry. When Mama came to pick me up, Teacher told her about Nammu and me. When we came back home, Mama said I should call my friend Manu. She does not understand. He is my friend, and his name is Nammu.
Aunty who comes to clean my room also does not know the right names. She calls me “Baba”. That is not my name. She also calls my sister “Baby”. That is not her right name. I think she would hug me if Mama lets her, but I want my mother to hug me, tightly, many times. I so much want to throw my dart into that red circle on the board.
Dadda, my grandfather, is very strict. He wants me to learn spellings and tables. I want to play, so I spell some words for him and then I want to go out. I do not want to learn “two twos are four”. When I cannot multiply, Dadda plays a game with me. He tells me to hide behind the car and learn my tables. When I say “Ready”, he asks me to recite them. Then he lets me go out to play.
My grandfather does not like it when I leave food in my bowl. One day he scolded me because I did not eat all the fruit he had cut for me. I did not want to eat it. Dadda said I must finish it. I was angry. I went and sat against the door, and put my head in my lap. Papa came home and saw me there. He picked me up in his arms and told me a story that made me laugh.
He goes to office. Mama also goes to office, but she tells me more stories. Sometimes Papa takes me to the market to buy toys. My sister likes to buy things to eat.
One day we went to a place called Zoo. We saw Ephelant there, but my sister calls it Elephant. I counted one and two and three and four Monkeys. My sister said they were Papa Monkey and Mama Monkey and their children. Papa said the green bird that went round and round was Parrot. It had a red mouth. My sister was afraid of the yellow Lion. He opened his mouth wide and gave a big red roar-r-rr, like this.
There was also a play school for Ducks. They were swimming in it. They can even fly. Now I want to swim and fly too. I will take Nammu with me to the new play school and we will swim together.
Mama showed me Bear. I went up to his big window to see what he was doing, but he did not look at me. I wanted to talk to it, but it had put its head in its lap. I told Mama his Dadda had scolded Bear for not eating his fruit. Now Bear was angry – just like I was that day at home.
I don’t know why Dadda, Papa and my sister laughed so much. Mama also laughed, but she picked me up and gave me a really big, big hug. Now it is okay if it takes a long time to hit the red circle on the dartboard. But I will keep trying. I want to make Mama very happy.

Friday 18 May 2012

Getting to know Mother

Rukmi, Maheen’s mother.
Digital sketch: Harjeet 

The light played softly on Rukmi’s children, asleep in their favourite “Granny cot”. Naman, her son, was born two years after Maheen. He was sprawled across the bed, one foot resting on his sister’s as she slept to one side. Rukmi moved Naman’s leg away, and Maheen shifted into a more comfortable position.
Rukmi pottered about the room, quietly relieving their bags of the heavy load of books.
Maheen and Naman had returned from the city late last night. They lived there as paying guests of a nice old couple, spending most evenings at their aunt’s, just across the road. Rukmi’s sister had a large family, and there was no space in her house for two more growing children, so she had secured PG accommodation for them.
Maheen would be completing her graduation next year and Naman his schooling. They seemed quite okay with their lives, but Rukmi was not really at peace.
At their age, Rukmi and her siblings had literally been satellites to their parents. Her brothers’ lives revolved around Papa, and she and her sister couldn’t have enough of Ma. The family evenings were always the most pleasurable. Queer little buns and pasties, some popcorn and lime or cane juice did the rounds while the children played games with their parents and Grandma … word games, number games, song competitions, story telling sessions.
Papa had retired early from the Army, so he was always around when Rukmi and her brothers and sisters went to high school and later to college.
Maheen and Naman, though, met their father Ramanuj but once or twice in a year. They were born and brought up in this house, which belonged to their grandfather. They were quite young when Ramanuj got a chance to work abroad. He had always been restless, wanting to get so wealthy that his children would never need to rough it out like him. Before he went overseas, he had enrolled them with a well-known city school.
Rukmi could not have lived in the city with her children. Ramanuj’s parents needed her, as did the house. Indeed, their fields on the edge of the town needed her attention too. She kept tabs on the tilling, sowing and harvesting, all she could do to help her father-in-law in his advancing years.
Maheen called out softly: “Mother, why are you up so early?”
“Oh, did I wake you up?” Rukmi hurried to the bed.
“No, you did not,” Maheen sat up, tightly hugging her mother.
To let Naman sleep more, they slipped out into the sunny porch.
“Mother, you must teach me how to cook, to stitch, to knit, to …” Maheen was cut short by her mom’s tinkle of laughter.
“All in good time,” said Rukmi. “And how much can you possibly learn in a month? Besides, you have to study hard. It’s your last year at college.”
“We shall see how much,” Maheen was quick to retort.
Soon Naman was up too, and all five of them sat down to breakfast. “Gramma” and “Grampa” pulled his leg. “You slept well after months, right?” they teased him. “How’s your Granny cot?”
The cot was Rukmi’s wedding gift from her parents. It was a giant bed, and the children grew up playing and sleeping in it. From playing host to “the ghost’s aunt” to providing a toy train and tracks with a solid platform, the bed had borne up well with the times. The children had ousted their parents from the room so they could “live” in the Granny cot.
Naman did not like being teased. He gave them a surly look and slunk away. “He’s growing up. Let him be,” Maheen warned her grandparents.
Rukmi gave her a sharp glance. Hadn’t Maheen herself grown up, too? “And I missed out on those golden years,” her mother thought sadly.
Later in the kitchen, Maheen watched her mom alternate between doing the dishes and stirring the porridge she was making for Naman and her.
She picked up a mop. “You did not ask why I want to learn cooking and stitching, Mother.”
Rukmi smiled. “You’ll tell me soon enough.”
“Naman misses home. He can’t stand the PG food any more, and we can’t be eating at Aunt’s everyday. Anyway, we’ve starting getting on their nerves, I think. And, I’m sorry … we aren’t very comfortable either.”
“So you’ll be mommy to him?” Rukmi teased her.
Maheen held her mother’s hands in her own. “I can try to make him miss you less.”
“I miss you two a lot as well,” Rukmi embraced her daughter. “Yet I can’t be there for you when you need me so much,” she said.
Wiping her mother’s tears, Maheen said, “You cannot hold yourself responsible for this. Our circumstances are not of your making, Mother.”
The month flew by. Naman lounged around, doing very little but demanding dollops of attention. Maheen cooked alongside her mother, helped her with little chores, cleaning the high shelves that were beyond Rukmi’s reach and re-setting the pantry. Tired by the evening, she would nevertheless plonk down on the Granny cot for an hour or two, engrossed in her books. It mattered most to her that Mother should not worry about her studies.
Those tired lines around her mom’s eyes had deepened in the last few months. The strain of looking after two ageing elders, the house and the land had begun to tell on Rukmi. Maheen wished her father would return home, but that was going to take some more years.
Rukmi asked her what she was looking for on Internet. “Just checking if there’s a PG course available in town,” Maheen replied.
“They have courses to run paying guest homes too?” Rukmi asked naively.
“Postgraduate courses, Mother dear,” Maheen laughed. “Or I can go for a distance learning course. In fact I would love that most.”
“But why here? You can continue college in the city,” Rukmi pointed out.
“Simple. Long-term planning, Mother. I’m not letting you struggle alone any more. I’ll be back here after my exams ... for good. I intend to teach Naman to cook, clean his room and live on his own. Anyway, he might go to a hostel if he passes his engineering entrance exam,” Maheen assured her mother.
“But,” Rukmi protested, “you can’t compromise on your studies, child.”
“I can’t compromise on my mother’s life either. It’s too precious. For your sake I have lived in the city, but not beyond this year.”
“But…,” Rukmi tried once more, a little feebly.
“No more buts, please. I have made up my mind. Children too can want to pamper their parents, tease them, pester them. I am your daughter, but I also want to be your friend, your companion. I miss being with you, Mother, I miss sharing my laughter and tears with you. I miss being able to love you back!” she exclaimed.
This Maheen was new to Rukmi.
“Look, Mother,” she pressed her to sit down. “I want to buy you little knick-knacks you will never pick up yourself. I want you to buy me flowing saris and lovely fabric only you know how to pick.”
Maheen gave her mom an intent look. “I want time to get to know you, what you did when you were a girl, a sister, a young wife. Which of your brothers you loved the most, which school you went to, which college... When will we get the time for all this? Once I’m a postgraduate, I’ll join some office. Then if I don’t find a guy by myself soon enough, you will insist that I marry one of your choosing. What then? Poof! there I go. We’ll just be flitting in and out of each other’s lives then.”
She went on coaxing Rukmi. “I want to spend time with Gramma and Granpa and play pranks on them, too! Watch the sunset with them, take them out occasionally, just walk in our fields with them, maybe.”
She ran her fingers through her mom’s hair. “And, Mother, most of all I want to grow up into a caring human being, just like my mommy. And there is no distance learning course for this, is there?” asked Maheen.
The emptiness in Rukmi’s life filled up in a flash, leaving her radiant. “You don’t need any teaching.”
“Yes, I do. Are you going to teach me how to get the cutlets just right, or aren’t you?” Maheen demanded, pretending to flick an imaginary fly off the table as she tried to stem a rush of happy tears.

Wednesday 9 May 2012

For the sake of their old ones

Sumi wondered why Maddham had got up so early in the morning. She found him at his laptop, trawling LinkedIn.
“Good morning. This is a surprise, I must say. You did not tell me you are hunting jobs,” she joked.
“Morning, darling,” he said, giving her a peck on the cheek. “I just could not sleep. That was all.”
His furrowed brow troubled her. Maddham was carefree by nature, but a caring husband nevertheless. Smoothing a lock of his rumpled hair, she asked what was worrying him.
“Mom and Dad. I was thinking of them. I feel we’ve been very selfish.”
He knew his wife would not dismiss his concerns in a hurry.
They had come to India on a six-month assignment. Life in faraway Amsterdam was all he had dreamt of since he was in school. His parents sent him to England for his graduation, and he had landed a cushy job on campus. He had met Sumi during evening classes for a specialization course. She too had studied in that country right after school, away from home.
Maddham’s Dad (left) and Mom.
Digital sketches: Harjeet
By the time they decided they wanted to get married, Maddham’s father had retired.
The two families readily accepted the match.
Sumi had no issue with Maddham’s parents coming to live with them in Amsterdam, where the newly weds worked. Soon Saksham was born, and Ridhi three years later. The children loved having their grandparents around, and life was coasting along fine.
Saksham would soon need to join school, so Maddham seized upon the chance of coming to India for six months. Sumi was anyway on a long sabbatical.
A company-provided flat helped, so the entire family was on an extended India visit.
Last evening, Maddham’s uncle had dropped in with his family. There was some awkwardness initially, because all these years they had met only briefly.
Uncle invited his sister and brother-in-law to stay with them for a week or so. Maddham’s mother was ecstatic, but turned to him enquiringly. “Of course, Mom, any time,” he assured her.
The look of longing on her face stabbed at his heart. She had been huddled cosily all evening next to her brother and sister-in-law, exchanging notes amid peals of laughter and the occasional tear. His Dad also joined in at times, recalling the wonderful family trips they used to go on, sharing an old joke or discussing the way they had tackled a crisis together. Now and then mention of long-lost relatives and friends meandered in and out of the animated conversation.
Maddham’s children took time, but did break the ice with Uncle’s grandchildren. Sumi was busy with the cousins’ wives, arranging dinner and keeping all the children plied with snacks and juice and games. Maddham spent some time with his two cousins, recounting their days at school together. Revisiting his boyhood was good fun.
He found Saksham tugging at his sleeve.
“Yes, dear?”
“Dada and Dadi are looking so happy. I have never seen them laugh this way. The uncle with so much white hair is Dadi’s Saksham?” his son asked.
“No, child, you are Saksham,” he smiled.
 “I know. I am Saksham and Ridhi is my sister. The same way Dadi is Ridhi and Uncle is Saksham, isn’t it?” the child replied. “See, he loves Dadi like I love Ridhi.”
Maddham was jolted. He had never seen it this way.
Blinded by his love for his parents, he had plucked them out of their milieu. Maybe he was only salving his own conscience. He had assumed that being together, and being with him and his family, would be enough to keep the old ones happy.
They had never complained, but he could see now that they must have missed their siblings and friends, the life they had grown old with. They had not demurred when he asked if they could join him. They were a great help with the children, and he was glad he was around for them in their old age.
He realized now they were out of depth in that community. Sure, they could go for long walks and their health was less of a concern. They shared some moments with other families in the locality, too, but it was not what they had known all their lives. The mirth and joyous recollections he was witnessing here had vanished from their lives abroad. They lived with him and for him, but were not half as happy.
“I was wondering if we could all settle in India for good. Would you mind the change? We can live in an upscale gated community here, send the children to the best school around, and be closer to our families as well,” Maddham suggested as Sumi set out their morning cuppa.
He hesitated a bit, then added: “It should not be difficult for you to find a job too, if you want to, or maybe once Ridhi is two or three years old.”
Sumi stared at her tea going cold in the cup. “You are suggesting that we move here permanently? What about the kids’ education? We are used to an entirely different environment. They will be deprived of all that we’ve enjoyed,” she said mildly.
“It’s just a thought,” Maddham said hastily. “We have enough time,” and left it that.
Two days later, Sumi saw her mother-in-law rifling through a pile of photographs and sundry knick-knacks that her snowy-haired brother had left with her. She smiled. Her father-in-law was looking relaxed, swinging a leg while he watched her from his seat in the alcove.
“Thinking of old days, Mom?” she enquired.
“Yes,” came the reply. “There is so much I have put behind me, but looking at these makes me feel like a child again … Look at these … My eldest brother had bought me this frock. See the shop behind us? That was my parents’ regular haunt. And we had juice and fruit ice-cream at this parlour every day after our engagement,” she said, slanting a look at her husband.
“And this friend and I got married the same month. She lives in the opposite side of town. When she had a granddaughter, I had promised I would call on her, but …” her voice trailed off.
“… instead, you took the plane to join us,” Sumi completed the sentence softly.
“What about this one-legged sailor? Where is his cap?” she asked her mother-in-law.
“My younger sister broke his leg when she was … let me see … five, perhaps. Both of us claimed he was our boyfriend. He was in great demand. How foolish can girls be!” she exclaimed, her cheeks all rosy, her eyes trying to look far into the years gone by. “When I meet her, I’ll ask for his cap. Your father-in-law never tires of teasing me about this boyfriend,” she said coyly.
“You mean I used to tease you.” Dad sounded very sad.
“Yes, um … er … I mean, you used to.”
That night Sumi sat up late, waiting for Maddham to complete his conference call with headquarters. She was slouching, deep in thought, when he turned up finally.
“Not sleepy?” he asked.
“Maddham, we must talk. You were right about us letting down Mom and Dad. I know they won’t say a word when we all head back. For the first time I got a glimpse of their old selves. And I saw today what we can give them if we stay on here.
“I agree. We are young, it’s easy for us to strike new roots or to move on. It is cruel to ask it of them,” Sumi told him. 
As if changing the subject, she sat up straight. “Any luck with your LinkedIn search?”
Choking with emotion, Maddham hugged his wife. “We’ll make a go of it, don’t you worry,” he said when he got his voice back. “I just hope when the children grow up they will understand why we did this.”
“They will. After all, they’ll have grown up in India, just like we did!” said Sumi, suddenly very confident. “If not, I’ll make they sure they do,” she dimpled at him.

Saturday 5 May 2012

Sunehri's golden moments

Sunehri looked at her husband with considerable pride. It was a great fifty years of wedded life they were celebrating.
And to think she could still blush to her roots when he reminded her of the gaffes she had made the day they got married!
The first time they were together was when she rode pillion on his bicycle. Rajaditya, or Ditta as she began calling him later, was pedalling furiously in the rain to make sure she reached her hostel in time.
She had taken a day off to visit her newly married sister, but had been told strictly to be back before nightfall. Hirman, Sunehri's brother-in-law and Ditta's cousin, was to drop her but his motorbike broke down.
Ditta was providentially at hand, and was promptly commissioned with the task of depositing her safely at the hostel.
Sunehri on her wedding day.

Digital sketch: Harjeet

Sunehri braced herself subconsciously as she relived the moment when she swore and wrapped her arms around him tightly on a particularly bumpy road. He laughed, assuring her she was in good hands. He had hardly spoken before this, but his laughter made her heart pound.
She turned her head at the sound of her husband's laughter. She knew now that he never laughed unless he was truly enjoying himself. And she did not want to miss a moment of that happiness, or what caused it.
This same laughter had given her away at their wedding when she whispered to him she had mistakenly put on sandals belonging to two different pairs. And also when the stone in the cherry on their cake that she had meant to spit out rolled down her chin and into her blouse!
She stole another look at Ditta. Of medium height, he still managed to dominate every gathering because of his impeccable dress sense and pleasant personality, and of course his infectious laughter.
Every person in the hall was there because Ditta insisted it was their right to share this moment of happiness: their own children's extended families, Sunehri's sister, her husband and daughter, the daughter's husband and children, Ditta's first boss and Sunehri's college principal, the close friends who had helped them get married when circumstances were completely against them, and their neighbours of twenty years and their families.
They were lucky to have such loving children. Their son, for instance, was so sensitive to his father's every mood. Mehr was the one who decided to throw this party, who looked into every detail personally to ensure that his parents stood here happily together.
The joy of their lives, though, was their daughter, born ten years after their marriage. Sanaa, they had decided to call her, and today she had truly lived up to her name. On their golden jubilee, she had ordered sprays of tiny golden flowers to light up the occasion.
Sunehri had given up hopes of a second child, and of giving Mehr a companion with whom he could share his parents, his joys and sorrows, and their memories lifelong. She had been so close to her sister, she felt Mehr had equal right to a sibling. It was Mehr's seventh birthday, and very innocently he had asked for a sister as his birthday present. Sunehri nearly broke down, but Ditta steadied her. They had taught their son to be happy with what he had, to thank God for all He gave.
"But I will thank God when I get a sister", he protested when Ditta tried to divert him. "Promise me you will," he nudged Mehr jokingly. When Sanaa was born, Mehr reminded his father they all must go to pray together that day itself. Ditta was beside himself with joy. "I am twice blessed, to have a daughter now, and a son who keeps his promise at this young age."
They absolutely loved their son, of course. Mehr had done them proud in every way. He was handsome like his father, but much taller, the darling of his teachers in school and in college and, she ruefully recalled, of a bevy of girls. Always, there were girls around him. She was quite worried for years that he would get himself an unsuitable wife, and then would follow misery in their happy lives.
She shook her head, as if to disperse those memories.
It turned out she was being the typical insecure mom. Mehr had taken up a job, and was sometimes away for weeks together on tour. One day he walked in with a grave air, asking his parents if they had a minute to spare. Sanaa was a step behind him, very pretty as usual but with a naughty twinkle in her eyes.
Ditta settled into the couch, motioning Sunehri to join him. 
Mehr passed on an envelope and declared dramatically, "My happiness is in your hands."
Ditta drew out a photograph from the envelope, and Sunehri saw the most beautiful girl she had seen, lovelier than her own Sanaa.
"We want to get married," Mehr said. Then he broke into an impish grin. "You know her, but you won't remember her," he told them. "She is Peeha, the little girl next door when we were living on rent. I was ten years old and used to bully her. We ran into each other again at an office do."
Sunehri gave her husband an uncertain look. How should she react? But Ditta was beaming. "She's a professional, just like you?" he asked.
"Yes, Dad," Sanaa piped up. "We get along famously."
"Oh, so you knew all along?" Ditta asked her. "And does she remember us? Will she be happy with us?" he turned to his son.
Clearly, Ditta was fine with it. They arranged to meet Peeha together, and knew they were living their own life all over again. Only, this time there would be no trials and tribulations.
They met Peeha's parents, and a small wedding followed soon.
The day they brought the bride home was Sunehri's golden moment. And more happiness followed a few years later when a bashful Sadaman appeared on their doorstep to ask for Sanaa's hand.
Sunehri gave up her career then, preferring instead to enjoy her family. Ditta was not very comfortable, but let her have her way. She must not meddle with Peeha's lifestyle or expect her to be available just because she was at home now. Parenting the children was Mehr and Peeha's privilege, not the grandparents', he told her gently. "But we will be the best grandparents," he assured her.
Sunehri 's reverie was suddenly interrupted. "Mom, it's time to cut the cake," Sanaa called. Flanked by Peeha, Mehr, Sadaman and their children stood her natty husband, holding out his hand for his wife of fifty years. Their three grandchildren joined them in cutting the cake. Once the clapping and cheering had died down, Ditta asked in his booming voice, "Anyone noticed the cherry on the cake?"
Peeha's son spoke up. "But there is not even one here, Grandpa!"
"There was, but your Grandma hid it in her bosom fifty years ago," he laughed loudly, taking Sunehri into his arms.