|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.