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The Retirement House

Gopalkrishna Vishwanathan was a Tamilian Brahmin and a retired structural engineer now. His wife, Subalakshmi was a pretty woman. They married each other in 1964 and had spent a major portion of their life catering to each other’s needs, raising their two children and building their dream house- a 2100 square feet, double-storied four-bedroom house in Bangalore. Subalakshmi wore clean saree and Malligai poo (the jasmine flower garland) every morning and was traditional.

“Wake-up. It’s morning. We need to hurry up today. It’s our new retirement home. We have to go and see it,” Subalakshmi was showing the aarti in her home after morning puja. The sweet fragrance of her Malligai poo with Guggal dhoop spread in the room as she hurriedly entered and left. This was their everyday ritual ever since the two had gotten married.

Their kids had moved out now and the old couple found it hard to maintain this big mansion all by themselves. So, they had bought yet another retirement house- their 3-BHK flat in a new township in Devanahalli, close to the Bangalore Airport.

Their daughter, Mridula was married in Seattle and lived there with her husband and a son. Their son, Kannan, the younger of two children, was also married and settled in Texas in the U.S.

Gopalkrishna and Subalaksmi were good parents. Neither did they ever overload their children under the burden of their expectations, nor did they pressurize them to stay with them throughout their life and cater to their needs.

“Our kids have their own dreams. We must never tell them what to do. And I am sure they are sane enough to take valid decisions. Their life should be theirs’ to deal with,” Gopalkrishna was a practical father.

When the kids were growing up, he catered to their needs, gave a separate room to each of the two and made sure that they were never devoid of anything.

Now the kids have grown up. They are well settled and earn pretty well. They took their own decisions to marry the person they loved. Gopalkrishna never became an obstacle in their life.

But Subalakshmi was different. She thought her husband did not pay much attention to the kids. He hardly even called them.

“At least ask them what’s happening in their life,” she often told her husband.

“Let the kids be. Now they aren’t your little children. They have kids of their own. They have good-paying jobs. Why do you want to interfere in their life?” Gopalkrishna often said, peeking from his spectacles and from behind the newspaper as he sat on the swing, where he often relaxed and spent hours reading paper these days, after retirement.

“Okay. But I want to keep up with my children, unlike you. I don’t want to be that parent who is just an absent figure from her children’s life. Kannan’s wife is a sweet girl. I never thought Samantha would adapt to our Tamil culture. I think a girl from here wouldn’t have adopted our culture as much she did. She calls me every weekend, such a sweet daughter-in-law. She is even better than Mridula.” Subalakshmi often said so while picking their landline and calling one of the two children.

Today, she was in a hurry. After her morning puja, she had prepared tea for Gopalkrishna who had woken up by now and was giving a quick glance to the newspaper while swinging in the verandah. The swing was an old rustic sheesham wooden dangle that he had inherited from his father and was much attached to this piece of furniture, among anything else in the house.

Swing

Image Source: Pinterest

Kothu parantha is in casserole. Please cut your newspaper time today and hurry up. Take a quick bath. We need to go far. We will miss the bus. Devanahalli is far,” Subalakshmi’s bangles were clinking as she made raagi balls with both her hands, as if she has been doing it since time immemorial. The house smelled delicious from her cooking. Gopalkrishna seldom said, but he was proud of his wife.

When he had first seen her, she was a shy girl. He was awestruck by her simplicity and pure beauty. She was wearing a beautiful peach silk saree and had flowers in her hair. She did not lift her eyes even once to look at him when he had first gone to her house, but he had quickly saw her peeking from the corner of her eyes once. Gopalkrishna was a tall and handsome man and wore moustache, which made him look even manlier. He walked with confidence and was a kind-hearted man who had never taken anyone for granted. He put extra efforts in family.

In 56 years of their marriage, he had never taken his wife for granted, even once. He knew that she was a woman of wisdom and had brought him his good luck. After their marriage, they had built their dream house in Bangalore, rather early than most of Gopalkrishna’s peer.

Their first dream house was the one that Gopalkrishna planned and built on his own in Bangalore. His structural engineering had come in quite handy. They had lived in the house for more than three decades and had seen their future generation running through the stairs, banging doors, shrilling and shrieking and creating their own share of happiness and sorrows. It was a house of life- of laughter-of sorrows, but mostly of love and devotion and of their family.

He credited all this to his wife, who was a woman of balance. She had saved and spent with precise sense of balance. She was an excellent homemaker and had raised the two kids traditionally, keeping both of them grounded and well-behaved. They were a blessed family of four- now expanded to seven.

Fatherhood was a great experience for Gopalkrishna. He thought he is fortunate to be blessed with two well-behaved and well-educated kids, and bringing them up was yet another satisfying experience among many others in life. He thought of himself as a happy father, and now, even a happy grandfather.

He had never found old age a burden. For that matter even Subalakshmi was contended in her life. The two were enjoying their solitude after the children had moved out. Every evening, they sat on the swing, sipping through their cardamom tea and talking about how life had dealt them their own share of cards and how well they’ve played this game.

Their life wasn’t all rosy, after all. They have had their own shares of miseries and tragedies in life. Subalakshmi had fallen into depression after her first miscarriage. Gopalkrishna too was devastated. This was their first baby and they had their dreams. The first baby was conceived right after one year of their marriage. The two felt blessed- but it was short-lived. One day, when Subalakshmi was coming out of her kitchen, she had not realized that coconut oil had spilled at the door. She thought she would clean it in a while, but had forgotten. When her foot slipped on the oil, the 7-months pregnant Subalakshmi shrieked in pain and there was no one at home.

Gopalkrishna was at work. She was shouting in pain, but was confounded when she saw blood oozing out from beneath her saree. The neighbours rushed to her and she pleaded them to call her husband.

When Gopalkrishna had come to the hospital, he found Subalakshmi unconscious and her face had the entire story written all over. Even in her unconscious state, she appeared to be in immense hurt and distress. Her tenderness broke his heart.

But the two had come out of their depression with each other’s support and love. They shored up each other and sustained the tough times of life with much care and devotion. Patience played a key role.

“There’s nothing we cannot stride over if we are together, Subba,” Gopalkrishna had held his young wife’s hand and told her one day at the swing. When she broke in his chest and cried to her heart’s content, Gopalkrishna too shed his own share of tears.

“That’s it. We aren’t going to remember the first baby like this forever. Let us commit to his memory in a positive stride and keep going.”

After two weeks, they had gone to the Mahalakshmi Temple and prayed for peace and family.

Six months later, Subalakshmi was pregnant with Mridula.

Today was the housewarming ceremony of their new home- the retirement home that was smaller than the Bangalore house and situated in Devanahalli, a small town in the Bangalore’s rural district in Karnataka. It is 40 km to the north-east of Bangalore and also the site of Kempegowda International Airport, the Bangalore Airport. There are two business IT parks here, adjoining the airport and spread over 400 acres of land.

The premises at their new house were just being handed over to the old couple and they were to go and collect keys of this flat, that they would call as their new home- the retirement home.

Subalakshmi packed the food to take along and dressed up in a nice red silk saree with gold border. She was wearing the flowers in her bun. Gopalkrishna wore yellow T-shirt and paired it with a brown trouser and shoes. He wore a gray colored khadi jacket to appear formal.

Devanahalli is known to be a monkey territory. They had known this all the while. The township that they had decided to call their home was a huge orchard earlier, which the builders had eyed. They had preserved 70% of this orchard and built a huge 130 acre new township in the rest of 30%.

Monkeys were the first dwellers of this place and had lived here for decades. Hundreds and thousands of them roamed around in the new township, probably searching for their old home. Gradually, as the humans impinged their territory where monkeys once roamed in freely, they made a sad exit and found new areas to inhabit. But they were regular visitors at the new township.

Gopalkrishna and Subalakshmi had a simple ceremony of housewarming. The builder was kind to organize a ribbon cutting ceremony and this was followed by a puja.

While the ceremony was going on, a pack of old residents- the monkeys, sat at one of the attached balconies and watched carefully. There was a glass sliding door that separated the humans and their ancestors.

 Subalakshmi was alarmed, but Gopalkrishna was excited.

“Sing Hanuman Chaalisa. They will be pleased,” Gopalkrishna mocked and told Subalakshmi. She didn’t take the humour in a good taste and asked him to do something about this situation.

“I will ask a question about this on Quora, the question and answer app, and tell people to suggest me what to do. I will tell them, my wife isn’t very happy with the Hanuman Chalisa suggestion.” These days, Gopalkrishna spent 5-6 hours on Quora. This was a new app, and his comrade of solitude. He had created his own family on the app and had quite a modest number of fan-following. He was a mini celebrity there. Some looked up to him as a great old library, that had interesting experiences to share, while the younger generation found solace in his stories, as if he was a grandfather narrating an old classic.

The day of housewarming went well. The house was just bare with newly painted white walls, tiled flooring and roof that had no fan yet. The electric fittings were yet to be done and the house wasn’t habitable until a few more months.

They left the puja paraphernalia behind- the bed sheets, idols of Lord Hanuman, Lord Ganesha, coconut, banana leaves, diya and bananas and oranges. The monkeys took notice.

Gopalkrishna and Subalakshmi locked the house and went back to Bangalore.

“It’s a beautiful little house, aint it?” Subalakshmi told her husband. “I am going to give a call to Kannan and tell him. And you go on and ask your Quora family what we must do about the monkeys. You were joking a lot about it. Now, amuse me with the suggestions!” She went out of the room, dialled Kannan’s number and started talking to him and Samantha.

The day went by peacefully.

Next morning, Gopalkrishna was busy framing his question on Quora. The newspaper was sitting at the side on wooden swing and the empty cup and saucer glanced from beneath the swing, in anticipation.

At 10 a.m. his phone rang. It was the security staff from their Devanahalli’s retirement house.

“Sir, the electrical contractor boys had left a tap in the kitchen opened yesterday. The house is flooded with water. It has been running all night and we noticed it in the morning when it flowed from beneath your door and gushed into the corridor. We had the duplicate key and we had to enter the house and turn off the tap water. I am sending you the whatsapp video. Please have a look.”

Gopalkrishna was alarmed and appalled. When he called the electrical contractor, he denied the charges and was rather offended. “Sir, my boys did not even touch the tap in kitchen.”

The whatsapp video showed that the water from tap had flowed down the sink since the drainage hole was filled with cement and debris, and overflowed on the kitchen platform, dripping down, flooding the floor and moving all over the new 800-square feet apartment, soaking even the new wooden flooring in the bedrooms.

Gopalkrishna and Subalakshmi rushed to the Devanahalli house as soon as they heard it. Unlike the housewarming day, the two were more alarmed than happy. Subalakshmi packed the leftover food quickly, draped the first saree that she saw in the wardrobe and Gopalkrishna had quickly changed into modest T-shirt and trouser as well. It took them 2 hours to reach from Bangalore to Devanahalli and when they reached there, the security staff and electrical contractor were already present at the site.

As soon as they reached there, the contractor was quick to deny culpability and when they all reached inside, the mystery was solved.

The contractor had tried fitting all the lights in rooms, ceiling fans, water heaters in the bathroom and exhaust fans too. He had instructed his boys to finish the kitchen exhaust fan installation, and leave. By 10 p.m. his boys were tired and had left without fitting the kitchen exhaust, leaving a fair amount of space for the gang of monkeys to pounce on the ravishment left behind from housewarming ceremony.

The gang of monkeys had entered through this kitchen exhaust opening and raided the corner of bananas and oranges. They had dragged the bed sheets, toppled the diya and one of them had climbed on the kitchen platform and played with the tap. The gang must have gotten alarmed with the gush of water and left immediately with their feasts.

The mystery was solved, but the wooden flooring cost Gopalkrishna extra amount of money, Subalakshmi’s deadly glances and over 37k views and 1.3k upvotes on Quora answer when he wrote and shared his amusement with the Quora family.

After a few months when Gopalkrishna and Subalakshmi sat in their new apartment- the retirement house- they were sipping through the cardamom tea in evening and laughing this off.

“I think, I am smart enough to write my own book of experiences now. What do you suggest, Subba?”

She got up, called Mridula on her phone and said, “Mridula, your father’s going to be the next New York bestseller! Watch out!”

Gopalkrishna laughed and picked his newspaper and Subalakshmi went on to talk with her daughter and granddaughter.

मुखाग्नि (Mukhaagni)

“अरे अरे कहाँ भागा चला आ रहा है? बाबूजी पूजा कर रहे है।  तुझे भी उनसे डांट खाये बिना चैन नहीं, है ना?” माँ तुलसी के आस पास चक्कर लगा रही थी और कनखियों से एक ओर इस बच्चे को देख रही थी। 

रोज़ सुबह सुबह सामने वाले घर से बिना नहाये चला आता है ये चार साल का नन्हा शैतान।  बाबूजी और माँ की इकलौती बेटी गंगा को अपनी दीदी बनाये हुए जाने कितनी गहराई से बहन भाई का ये रिश्ता निभा रहा है। 

घर में दौड़ता हुआ दीदी, दीदी कहाँ हो तुम, चिल्ला रहा था।  तुतलाती खनकती आवाज़ और शरारत इतनी की आँखों से बह जाएगी। 

बाबूजी रोज़ की तरह जनेऊ और धोती पहने पूजा घर की घंटी बजा रहे थे।  एक हाथ में आरती की थाली थी और इस नन्हे अली को देख कर उनका बुदबुदाना शुरू हो गया। 

“मन में राम और जुबां पर छुरा? ये कैसी पूजा?” माँ रसोई में जाते जाते बोली और बाबूजी ने धिक्कार भरी नज़रों से पहले अपनी पत्नी की ओर देखा और फिर सीढ़ियों से फुदकती हुई नीचे उतरती अपनी बिटिया को। 

धोती संभाले बाबूजी ने चप्पल पहनी और अखबार उठाकर धम्म से बरामदे में पड़े सोफे पर जा पसरे। 

“गंगा इधर आओ,” बाबूजी ने पुकारा।

“दीदी लगता है आज फिर डांट पड़ेगी,” अली ने चिढ़ाते हुए गंगा से कहा। 

“चुप कर तू।  कितनी बार कहा है नहा तो लिया कर, लेकिन तू सुनता कहाँ है? माँ इसको नाश्ता दो, मैं डांट खा कर आती हूँ। ” माँ और गंगा हंसने लगीं। 

“जी बाबूजी, आपने बुलाया?” गंगा सोफे से थोड़ी दूर खडी होकर पूछने लगी। 

“जानती हो बिटिया तुम्हारा नाम गंगा क्यों है?”

रोज़ की कहानी पर तरीका अलग अलग।  बाबूजी की सोच ज़रा पुरानी है।  भले ही उन्हें इस मोहल्ले में रहते कितने साल बीत गए, लेकिन सामने वाले मुसलमान परिवार से सख्त चिढ़ है इनको।  मास, मच्छी, जाने क्या क्या पकाते हैं ब्राह्मणों के घर के सामने ही।  बदबू से बाबूजी का मैं कलुषित हो जाता है।  और ये अली तो इन्हे एक आँख नहीं सुहाता।  ज़बरदस्ती का भाई बना फिरता है गंगा का।  समय आने पर देखेंगे की कितना फ़र्ज़ निभाता है। 

“जी बाबूजी जानती हूँ ,” सात साल की गंगा ने जब जवाब दिया तो बाबूजी ने अपने ख़याली पुलाव की आंच बुझाई और कहने लगे, “कितनी समझदार हो, उम्र से कई ज़्यादा बड़ी।  फिर क्यों उस नालायक के साथ दिन भर खेलती रहती हो ? अच्छा बताओ, क्या समझी? क्यों हमने तुम्हारा नाम गंगा रखा?”

“क्यूंकि मैं केवल बहना जानती हूँ, रुकना नही।  इसलिए मैं गंगा हूँ,” इतना कह कर गंगा खिलखिलाने लगी। 

“धत्त!” बाबूजी ने समझाया, “हमने तुम्हे गंगा नाम दिया क्यूंकि तुम पवित्र हो, निष्पाप, सबसे शुद्ध,” बाबूजी के चेहरे पे गर्व का भाव था, “जो तुम्हारे समीप आये, वो भी अपने पाप धुल ले, इतनी साफ़।  गंगा तो शांत है।  उसमे सब अपना सहारा ढूंढ़ते हैं।  जो आये वही निर्मल हो जाए, सब भूल जाए।  गंगा स्थिर है।  गंगा अशांत और मैली नहीं हो सकती।  कुछ समझी बिटिया ?”

“इसका मतलब तो ये हुआ बाबूजी की गंगा सबकी है , है ना?” इतना कह कर गंगा माँ के पुकारे जाने पर तेज़ी से अंदर दौड़ गई। 

“ये नहीं सुधरेगी।  बाबूजी ने झल्लाते हुए अखबार झटका और पढ़ने लगे, “अरे चाय मिलेगी या आओ-भगत में ही लगी रहोगी ?” अपनी पत्नी को चिढचिढाते हुए बोले। 

“ला रही हूँ, बच्चों को नाश्ता तो करवा दूँ, ” अंदर से आवाज़ आई। “आलू का परांठा और ले लेना अली बेट।  गंगा, भाई का ख्याल रखना।  मैं बाबूजी को चाय देकर आती हूँ। “

माँ ने जैसे रोज़ का जिम्मा उठा रखा है।  इस घर में खाना तीन लोगों का नहीं , चार का बनता है।  उसके बाद गैया, पक्षी और गली के कुत्ते भी माँ की ओर उम्मीद भरी नज़रों से ताकते रहते हैं।  दिन भर रतना इसी सबमे व्यस्त रहती हैं।  बैठने की फुर्सत नहीं और कहने वाले कहते हैं की करती ही क्या हो घर पर पूरा दिन?

बिटिया भले ही सात साल की है लेकिन रतना लगभग 38 बरस की होने जा रही हैं।  बहुत लम्बे इलाज, कितने पूजा पाठ और निराशाओं के बाद गंगा हुई।  रतना तो चाहती थीं की बेटा हो जाता, ताकि दुसरे बच्चे का झमेला ही ना रहता और सब एक बार में ही शांत हो जाते।  समाज में रहना भी अजीब विडंबना है।  खैर, बिटिया भी इनकी भगवान की नेमत ही है।  इतनी समझदार की जो देखे प्रशंसा किये बिना ना रुके।  अच्छी चीज़ें बनाने में भगवान् को भी समय लगता है, शायद इसलिए गंगा देरी से हुई।  रतना यही सोच कर संतोष कर लेती हैं। 

सामने वाली नुसरत का भी कुछ ऐसा ही हाल था।  शादी के कई साल गुज़र जाने के बाद भी जब औलाद नहीं हुई , तो उनके पति ने घर छोड़ दिया और उनको लेकर इस मोहल्ले में आ गए।  साथ ही एक नवजात बच्चा भी था। गोद लिया हुआ था तो क्या , अली था तो उन दोनों की आँखों का तारा ही। 

इसलिए रतना के पति चाहे कुछ भी कहें, नुसरत और रतना एक दुसरे से अपने एक जैसे दर्द की कड़ी से जुडी हुई हैं।  एक सा दर्द केवल वही समझ सकता है जो एक से तूफ़ान में एक साथ फंसा हो।  तूफ़ान गुज़र जाने पर साहिल पर खड़े लोग केवल सांत्वना दे सकते हैं, समझ नहीं सकते। 

अली को मास-मच्छी कभी रास नहीं आया।  उसको तो सामने वाली माँ के हाथ की पूरी, कचौरी, दाल- चावल, बेसन के पकौड़े, केवल यही सब अच्छा लगता है।  सुबह से शाम तक रतना के घर रहता है और गंगा के साथ खेलता है।  

बाबूजी की अली को डांट पहले तो नुसरत को बहुत परेशान करती थी, लेकिन अब हंसाती है।  नुसरत और रतना खूब हंसती हैं जब गंगा धोती लपेट के और जनेऊ पेहेन के बाबूजी की नक़ल करती है। 

इसी सब में यूं ही कई साल बीत गए।

गंगा मुंबई में अब डॉक्टर है और अली बतौर IPS अफसर दिल्ली में अपनी पहली पोस्टिंग काट रहा है। 

कितने रक्षाबंधन बीत गए , मगर मजाल है कि गंगा ने एक पर भी अली को राखी न भेजी हो।  अली भी सबको यही बताता है कि हम दो भाई बहन हैं। 

वीडियो कालिंग के ज़माने में एक दुसरे से जुड़े रहना बहुत आसान है, अगर कोई चाहे तो। 

“शुक्र है भगवान् का।  नज़र से दूर, दिल से दूर,” बाबूजी बहुत खुश हुए थे जब गंगा का एडमिशन मेडिकल कॉलेज में हुआ था।  उन्हें लगा था अली नाम कि बला से अब पीछा छूटेगा। 

शायद अली बाबूजी को उनकी दबी हुई इच्छाएं याद करवाता है।  धर्म कि चादर में बाबूजी खुद को ढक लेते हैं।  इच्छा तो थी बेटे कि।  आखिर उनके जाने के बाद उन्हें मुखाग्नि कौन देगा? मुक्ति कैसे मिलेगी ? बेटा होता तो बिलकुल अली जैसा – इतना ही नटखट, बहन के लिए इतना ही मर मिटने वाला और माँ का आँचल पकडे खाने कि ऐसी ही फरमाइशें करने वाला।  बच्चा है तो प्यारा , लेकिन परारे धर्म का।  स्वीकार कर पाना कठिन है। 

“बाबूजी फासले तो केवल दिल में होते हैं, नज़रों का क्या दोष? कोई कहीं भी रहे, मन में प्यार हो और रिश्ता सच्चा हो तो कहीं से भी निभाया जा सकता ह।  अपनी अपनी सोच है,” गंगा शब्दों का जाल अच्छा बुनती है।  इससे बातों में जीत पाना असंभव है।  तर्क- वितर्क तो ऐसे कि सामने वाला परास्त होकर ही माने। 

“अली, जल्द से जल्द मुझे फ़ोन करो।  तुम्हे कितनी बार कॉल किया, तुम फ़ोन क्यों नहीं उठा रहे?” गंगा ने अली को Whatsapp मैसेज भेजा। 

अचानक क्या हो गया? आज गंगा अपनी कुर्सी पर बैठ ही नहीं पा रही। 

“क्या हुआ दीदी , इतनी परेशान क्यों हो?” अली ने फ़ोन करके पूछा। 

“सुबह माँ का फ़ोन आया था।  उन्होंने तुम्हे भी बहुत बार किया, लेकिन शायद तुम व्यस्त थे।  बाबूजी रोज़ की तरह सुबह सैर पर गए और वापस आकर बेहोश हो गए।  अभी तक होश में नहीं हैं।  मैंने वहां के डॉक्टर से बात कर ली है।  स्थिति ठीक नहीं है।  लगता है अब कुछ ठीक नहीं होगा।  तुम कब तक आ जाओगे भाई ?”

अली के पैरों के नीचे से जैसे ज़मीन खिसक गई।  उसके कानों में बाबूजी कि आवाज़ गूंजने लगी।  बाबूजी कि डांट, उनका झल्लाना, उनकी चिड़चिड़ाहट- जैसे सब सामने दिखाई देने लगा।  आँखों से कब आंसू गिरने लगे, पता ही नहीं चला।  दीदी कैसे इतनी शांत है? या एक्टिंग कर रही है खुद को मज़बूत दिखाने की? इतनी भी समझदारी किस काम की? माँ कि हालत कैसी होगी?

“अली, अली तुम सुन रहे हो ना?” गंगा कि आवाज़ एकदम स्थिर थी जैसे उसे कोई फर्क ही ना पड़ा हो !

“दीदी मैं फ्लाइट बुक कर रहा हूँ, सीधा घर पहुँचता हूँ।”

“ठीक है , मैं बुक करवा दूँ ?” गंगा ने पूछा। 

“नहीं दीदी, मैं करवा लूंगा।  तुम ठीक हो ना ?”

“घर पर मिलते हैं अली,” ये कहकर गंगा ने फ़ोन काट दिया और कुर्सी पर बैठी बैठी ज़ोर ज़ोर से रोने लगी। 

भाई के सामने या माँ के सामने कैसे रोती?

गंगा तो समझदार है।  उसके पास सब आकर सहारा ढूंढ़ते हैं।  उसमे सब शान्ति खोजते हैं।  गंगा के पास जो आये, वही शांत हो जाए। जो आये वही निर्मल हो जाए।  तो गंगा अशांत कैसे हो सकती है ? गंगा को अस्थिर होने का अधिकार ही कहाँ है? बाबूजी ही तो कहते थे। 

“पुत्र के ना होने पर मुखाग्नि का अधिकार पुरुष के भाई का है।  यदि भाई भी ना हो तो नाती का।  और यदि नाती भी ना हो तो पत्नी ये काम कर सकती हैं।  शास्त्र यही कहते हैं ,” घर पर अजीब माहौल था।  पंडित जी रतना को अंतिम संस्कार की विधि समझा रहे थे। 

अली के आंसू नहीं रुक रहे थे।  उसे सब याद आ रहा था।  नन्हे क़दमों से इस घर में भाग के आना, और बाबूजी का कहना, “फिर बिना नहाये चला आया नालाय।  खुद का घर समृद्ध है।  फिर भी दिन भर यहीं पड़ा रहता है।”

“ये क्या हो गया माँ,” अली माँ में अपना सहारा खोज रहा था।  गंगा का व्यवहार तो उसकी समझ से परे है।  स्थिर और शांत चित्त रहना अच्छी बात है, लेकिन खुद को फौलाद बनाये रखना, और वो भी ऐसी स्थिति में? कैसे कर रही है वो ये सब? और है कहाँ दीदी? सब उन्हें ढूंढ रहे है।  कहाँ गयी आखिर? जब से आई है अजीब सी है। 

बाबूजी को बैकुंठ धाम ले जाने का समय आ गया।  रतना को पंडित जी मुखाग्नि कि विधि समझा रहे हैं। 

“गंगा भी साथ जाएगी,” रतना ने पंडित जी से कहा। 

“गंगा,” किसी ने आवाज़ लगाई। 

अली को तो कुछ समझ नहीं आ रहा।  दीदी पर गुस्सा भी आ रहा है।  माँ को संभाल नहीं सकती ? सब कुछ मैं ही करूँ? माँ को अपनी बेटी कि ज़रूरत है और वो है कि पता नहीं कहाँ है। 

अचानक गंगा बरामदे में आई।  आँखें और चेहरा एकदम लाल हैं और हाथ में एक पुरानी डायरी है।  गंगा को ऐसे कभी नहीं देखा।  शांत चित्त गंगा के चेहरे पे जैसे आज सैलाब उतर आया है। 

“पंडित जी, बाबूजी को मुखाग्नि माँ नहीं, अली देगा,” गंगा ने ऐलान कर दिया। 

सब चौंक गए।  किसी से ये बात हज़म नहीं हुई।  क्या कह रही है गंगा?

“दीदी, लेकिन” अली बोलते बोलते रह गया।  उसको विश्वास नहीं हुआ।  माना कि इस परिवार से उसका बचपन का नाता है , लेकिन है तो वो मुसलमान ही ना? दीदी आज सच में होश में नहीं है। 

“यही बाबूजी कि आखरी इच्छा है,” गंगा ने डायरी दिखाते हुए कहा। 

सब क्रियाकर्म होने के बाद गंगा, रतना, अली और नुसरत आश्चर्य से डायरी को देखते रहे और शून्य में तांकते हुए बाबूजी के आखरी शब्दों के बारे में सोचते रहे।

“गंगा डॉक्टर बन गई और अली IPS अफसर।  परिवार पूर्ण हो गया।  बिटिया डॉक्टर, बेटा अफसर।  एक पिता को इसके सिवा और क्या चाहिए ? धर्म एक ढोंग है।  बेटे कि दरकार थी मुक्ति के लिए।  जीवन- मुक्ति, स्वर्ग- नर्क सब यहीं है।  इतना शांत जीवन रहा।  धर्म-परायण पत्नी मिली , समझदार बिटिया और बेटे कि कमी अली ने पूर्ण कर दी।  और क्या चाहिए? बिटिया के तर्क-वितर्क ने सच मुच सोच बदल द।  सही कहती है।  गंगा तो सबकी है।  अंत में सब उसी में विलीन हैं।  लगा ही नहीं कि एक बिटिया का पिता हूँ मैं।  गर्व से सीना चौड़ा हो गया।  मुखाग्नि की भी चिंता ना रही।  ईश्वर तेरा आभार!”

Kitchen Conversation

“Entire house is filled with the aroma of your curry, delicious!” Sakshi proclaimed as she entered, kept her bag on the chair and car keys on the table. She came into the kitchen and hugged Meera.

“Thank you. South India, it is today! I thought of cooking Sambhar,” Meera hugged her back.

Sakshi retrieved a glass from the utensil stand and fetched herself a glass of water.

“No cold water?” Meera asked.

“No. I am good. I haven’t started drinking cold water yet.”

“That’s good. How are you today? How was the day at office?”

Sakshi sipped the water; gulped it down her throat, took pause and said, “Don’t even ask. Hectic as always! How are you? What did you do all day?”

“House errands. Nothing special. But it is a good day,” Meera replied from her constant stirring of the Sambhar curry in making.

In less than a few months, Sakshi and Meera had become inseparable. They both walked into each other’s lives first, and then into each other’s homes like it were their own.

The conversations flowed naturally between them. Nothing seemed forced. Sakshi was Meera’s husband, Nilesh’s friend initially. She was Nilesh’s colleague. Nilesh introduced Sakshi to Meera and they clicked too soon. Then, came along Sarthak, Sakshi’s husband.

Four of them became a crazy gang of friends who did almost everything together. In just about a few months, four of them had gone to three different vacations together. They all saw each other almost every day.

“When will Nilesh come?” Sakshi asked Meera while bending over the pot of curry to have a look.

“In about half an hour; he called before leaving from the office.” Meera stirred the curry with a squealing sound on the pot.

“Oh God! Don’t do that Meera. This sound irritates me so much.”

And, both of them laughed.

“Once, Nilesh forgot to call me when he reached office. This was just a few months after our marriage. I went into such frenzy. I kept calling him frantically. And, when he finally picked the call he asked what was so urgent. I told him I needed to know that he was always safe. He understood how I am. Since then, there have been I-have-reached-safely and I-am-leaving-from-the-office calls without fail.” Meera said, reducing the flame of pressure cooker on the other side of gas stove.

“I understand,” Sakshi said and went outside the kitchen to pet the dog, ‘Biscuit’.

“Why is Biscuit so quiet? Is this normal?” Sakshi inquired from the dining hall outside kitchen as she kept rubbing Biscuit’s belly with both her hands and Biscuit wagged his tail in fast commotions.

“Yes, he is. But he isn’t keeping well from past few days,” Meera stood at the kitchen door and looked at Sakshi petting Biscuit.

The only thing that didn’t match between both of them was a dog. Meera was a no-pet person and Sakshi was drool-all-over-me pet lover.

Sakshi washed her hands and came inside the kitchen once again. She always did this when Meera was in kitchen. Both of them stood there as Meera worked and Sakshi helped her.

“Don’t you have strong intuitions sometimes? Like, a feeling so strong that you know something is just not right,” Meera asked Sakshi while putting the tomato puree in the pot.

Sakshi turned her head towards Meera from the sink where she was washing used utensils, “Yes. A lot of times. It sends me in panic mode,” she washed the glass and plate; and placed them back on utensil stand before wiping her hands dry with the kitchen towel.

“Nilesh had an accident once. He called me to inform that he, along with his boss was dropping by at the home with a few other employees. He told me to clean the room. I asked him what was wrong. He didn’t say anything. But, I had a gut feeling that something wasn’t right. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be coming back in the mid-day with boss and employees. I just knew it.” Meera closed the flame of pressure cooker as the last whistle went up. “This is done. Arhar daal is done,” she lifted the pressure cooker and placed it on the kitchen top; and then went back to stir the curry as she tossed the spices in it.

“Meera, this smells so good. I want to eat it as soon as it is ready.”

“Of course. Just a few more minutes and then, this would be done.” Meera said.

And then the conversation drifted back to intuitions.

“I still remember the day when mother had passed away. I was in 8th standard. It was a Monday and I had my Sanskrit unit test. You know the weekly tests in school, right? Those ones. So, I had just finished writing my paper when a peon came into the class. I had a very strong feeling that he had come to call me because someone from my home was here to pick me up. I just knew that at home, my mother was dead. I knew it as soon as I looked at him. Then my teacher called me and that was it. I picked my things from the desk, submitted my paper to the teacher, lifted my bag and walked outside the class, pretending to not know anything,” Meera turned back to look at Sakshi who was listening to her with grave silence.

Then, Meera turned to the front, lifted the whistle of pressure cooker as it hissed and pressure reduced. She turned the lid of cooker to open it; and separated boiled vegetables from daal. She then mashed the daal well and asked Sakshi to have a look.

“Is it fine? This has to be completely mashed, right?” Meera enquired from Sakshi.

“Yes, perfect.” Sakshi said.

Meera poured the mashed daal into the curry pot, while stirring everything continuously. She picked the salt container to add some more to Sambhar, which was almost ready.

“When will you add these vegetables?”Sakshi lifted the plate and showed to Meera.

“At last. Otherwise, they will all get mashed.”

Sakshi picked a bowl and a spoon from the utensil stand and said, “Give me. I will taste and tell.”

“Yes, just about five more minutes. So, what was I saying? I walked out from the class that day. Downstairs, at the reception area of my school, my neighbours were waiting with my sister. She had her bag on her back and a strange look in her eyes. I assume, even she knew what had happened at home. She looked at me and asked if I knew anything. I denied and pretended to not discern, knowing all along that both of us had a fair idea. It was so evident on my sister’s face. I had looked into her eyes that day and knew that both of us were aware. We went home and then, rest of it is all history,” Meera added a little more water to Sambhar as it came to boil, “Give me your bowl. Taste it.”

Sakshi’s eyes had welled up with silent tears as she passed on the bowl.

“Taste and tell me what needs to be added.”

Sakshi took Sambhar into spoon, blew into it to cool and tasted it as Meera watched to catch her first expressions.

“Delicious it is!”

“Need to add something?” Meera confirmed again.

“Just a pinch of salt. Rest of it is perfect!” Sakshi told Meera, “And, now, come and sit in the room. You are sweating. Sit down.”

“Yes. I am coming; you go and sit first.” Meera pushed Sakshi out from the kitchen, promising her to join in a few more minutes.

She put the flame off, covered the Sambhar pot with a plate to join Sakshi, carrying two glasses of water in a tray.

 

Date in the Morning Bliss

They say, Mumbai never goes to sleep. I think it sleeps in the morning. I belong to Delhi. And, I believe that a city that never sleeps should be Delhi. Because; I have never seen the roads vacant. Never! Secluded? Yes. Vacant? Never.

Today, I woke up early. At about 4 a.m. before the crack of dawn. I don’t know what it is, may be, it is one of those days when I want to spend time alone. And no, I am not upset or disturbed. I just want to enjoy my company. It is a typical Mid-November morning.

In a season like this, a sweatshirt is enough, but I will still feel cold. Since I have grown up most parts in this city, I can say that a winter early morning in Delhi is the best. There is a strange, yet mild fragrance of musk and wood in the air. Like something is burning; but with an air of weird fragrance garnished with smoke of pollution.

I decide to quickly ready myself up and take a stroll across the streets of Delhi. I rub my eyes, trying to keep them open. I drag myself out of the bed that feels so cozy. Waking up from a warm bed in a chilling winter morning in Delhi feels like a sharp object cutting off every part of your skin. I remove my blanket and the cold air makes my lungs jump. What follows is a dozed off effort to feel that I really want to do it. I quickly finish off brushing my teeth and splashing ice cold water on my face. It feels sharp against my skin and my eyes burn as the beautiful siesta forcefully makes a way out of them.

I wear my shoes and quickly pick up the home keys. I am good to go. It is 4.45 a.m. I decide if it is a good decision at all to go alone and wander the streets of this city that has a much maligned image? I argue, but my heart wins the battle. It feels as if an alcoholic is granted mid-night permission to a tavern.

I make way to the main road. I have absolutely no idea what I am doing, but all I wanted to do today was experience the little things around me. My hands are tucked tightly around my body. I am trying to hug myself. There is still no sensation in my feet. It is so cold at this time. The city seems to be engulfed in a blanket of deep sombre. Only the temple priests and infants are awake at this time, apart from those parents of infants who are still secretly accusing each other for having a sensual night at all.

I take a right turn to the shops that are still closed. Apart from one or two shopkeepers, who are touching the ground in prayer and unlocking the bolt of the shutter, there is nothing else. I want my cutting chai. I know a man who would be putting his kettle on fire right now. I reach this chai stall. The old man was up even before me, perhaps. He has cleaned the kettle and turned on the gas stove that has just one burner. The bigger gas is for bread toast and pakora. There is another single burner stove, dedicated only to his huge kadhai that will serve samosas all day.

“Uncle, one chai, please!” I ask him for a kadak cup of hot chai. There’s nothing better than fog and chai in the winter morning! I sit on the bench next to his gas stove. The fire from stove is bliss; especially when the chilling bench has sent shivers up to my spine. The ginger cutting chai caresses my throat. I hold the glass with both my hands, trying to warm myself. Next to me, a beggar with tattered old rug is trying to fit tightly in it while lighting his beedi.

I walk past this tea stall now. A lane of rickshaws wait at the left turn I take. One rickshaw-wallah sleeps uncomfortably on his rickshaw. His old and torn blanket hangs from the rickshaw. A street dog is adjusting into the hung blanket.

A usually noisy city is gradually waking up to the day break as sun makes a peek-a-boo from the sky. The fog is settling down on the city in its glory, painting it almost shaman. A monk in orange clothes rubs his eyes and folds his hands towards the Sun in his first prayer. His white beard looks almost surreal. I take an auto-rickshaw towards South Delhi. Hundreds of pigeons have started flocking the pavement in search of their food. I want to sit at this pavement amidst these birds.

I pass through a few old historical buildings. The sunrays craft a beautiful shadow of these buildings on the road. I stop at Hauz Khas. I walk to the historical buildings here, the Hauz Khas complex. It has pavilions, tomb, mosque and Islamic seminary. The history of this place is rooted in the medieval era, at around 13th century of the reign of Delhi Sultanate. It’s a strange city. Never once in the history, has it stopped the foreigners from walking over it. It has been ruled over by many dominants. I think it is still being ruled by modern dominants whose huge bungalows sit there at the Connaught Place and India Gate vicinity.

I go inside one of the buildings and look at the beautiful shadow of patterns created by morning sun as it rushes through this old, broken building. There is a lake down there. I go there. A bench sits at the shore of lake. I sit here with my thoughts, trying to collect them at one place. There is no comparison to the peace you derive when you sit next to a water body. A little sparrow is hopping in search of food. I look at it. This is the bird of my childhood. It disappeared in my teens and has again started appearing now. Someone said, the radiation from the mobile phone towers killed these sparrows. I am glad this bird is back. She reminds me of my innocent childhood.

I walk towards the Delhi Metro station. The first few rays of sun have painted the city canvas in the shades of rustic orange and yellow. The morning sounds are making way now- a few honks here and there, newspaper vendors peddling their way to the houses they are supposed to literally throw papers at, the birds flapping their wings ready for their flight, the wheels of Delhi Metro shrieking against the tracks and thunder of shop shutters opening. It’s a very normal Delhi morning, yet calm and peaceful.

I tell my heart it wasn’t a bad idea at all. Sometimes, all you need is serenity in the very basic things of life. It is almost rejuvenating. As I take a walk back to my home, I decide to treat myself to the old Delhi street food, later in the day. It is a good day. I promise to have more dates with myself.

Special Category

“If she had been a little like me, she would have danced and laughed a little more and sang in a voice that’d make people take a bow,” Aranyaka thought after coming home.

She had gone for a dinner at a fine-dine restaurant yesterday, with her husband and friends.

“How long before we can go and eat in?” one of her friends, Samarth enquired.

“Sir, that would be about 20 minutes waiting.”

Aranyaka sat on a couch adjacent to the glass window. Sitting at the left of her was her friend, Enakshi and on her right, her husband, Karthik.

While the four of them waited, a random conversation began.

“What do you call wife’s sister’s husband in Hindi?” Samarth smirked and the four of them, as always laughed like no one was watching.

To that Aranyaka responded and Karthik, her husband said something. To this point, it was a senseless conversation, without a purpose.

Suddenly, a girl sitting next to Karthik on another sofa said, “You haven’t been to a village, it seems.”

The four of them burst out laughing, including Karthik. Enakshi pulled herself a little close to Aranyaka’s ear to mutter why the family sitting next to them was listening and responding to their conversation. And, they both laughed at the thought of it.

This family, until now, was totally non-existent, but now that they had joined the little humour party that the four of these friends were enjoying, it was something peculiar. But, what was odder was the fact that Karthik was continuously talking to them. To Aranyaka, this was stranger since he didn’t talk to random people the way he was doing then. Enakshi too noticed this and told about it to Aranyaka.

Until this point, Aranyaka hadn’t seen that the family next to them had a little girl, who was physically challenged. It instantly hit to Aranyaka that perhaps this was the reason Karthik was inclined to the conversation with them.

Karthik had been a person who found tranquillity in helping people or animals. In their 4 years of marriage, she had, time and again learnt from her husband, the art of compassion. He had a strange affliction towards poor, needy, downtrodden and ill people or animals or even plants and trees. This, Aranyaka had found especially attractive in her husband, although she had never said this to him ever.

The bizarre thing was that Samarth, who, most of the times didn’t like kids, was also being extra nice to this little girl.

Something that started off with a weird encounter had now turned into a light hearted conversation among everyone sitting in the waiting area of the restaurant. Samarth, who has usually been, the most talkative and funny, was as always saying things that were making people laugh hard.

Aranyaka, by this time, was totally focussed on this physically challenged little girl, who looked so happy that it made her feel overwhelmed. Not only that, the little girl’s sister was also a chirpier one and their father looked totally at peace and ease with his life.

From the corner of her eyes, Aranyaka looked at the little girl’s mother, who seemed like a simple lady. She was smiling at the conversations and her girls’ exuberance with these four friends. But, this mother didn’t smile the way others in the family did. It seemed that she was the one reeling under the effects of her daughter’s physical circumstance. There was a tinge of sadness in her smile and her eyes looked tired.

But, out of all of them, the little girl with disability seemed to be the most adorable.

Tired of waiting for a long time, Samarth said, “Is there anyone who has an exam tomorrow? If yes, I will tell the manager here to let us dine and go home early because the kids need to study.”

While Samarth was talking to his friends, once again, the elder sister in that family jumped in. She raised her hand immediately and said, “Me. Me. I have an exam. I need to prepare for my civil services exam.” She was her usual cheerful self and as soon as she said it, she laughed hard.

Her little sister joined the laughing crusade too. “She also has an exam. She has her board exam,” the elder sister referred to this little girl with disability and continued, “She has an exam in special category.”

As soon as she said it, she realized that it shouldn’t have been spoken. Perhaps, it was an unsaid bond of the family.

Clearly offended at her sister’s statement, which she didn’t mean otherwise, the little girl folded her hands against her chest and gave a look to her sister that clearly said, “I hate you.”

The elder sister tried making up immediately and said to the little girl, “You are special. You are our princess.”

The father jumped in the conversation and said, “Okay, now enough,” and the two sisters went back to their accustomed cheerfulness.

Soon, the manager called the father’s name to get a table inside and the father picked up her disabled little girl to carry her inside, as if it felt like the simplest thing in his life to carry his young girl with disability on his shoulders. May be, this father had to carry her like that throughout her life, but he didn’t seem to feel sad or sorry about it, at all.

Aranyaka felt like this was one of the most jovial and happy family she had ever met, despite all odds. The little girl with disability was enjoying her life and it clearly felt like the family had found joy in modest things of life. This “special category” princess had enormously positive aura about her and it reflected on her face and family.

And then, it felt to Aranyaka that perhaps the little girl had a disability, but she had a million more things in life awaiting her!

 

Reeta’s Beautiful Smile

“Hello mummy. Yes, I am good. You won’t believe what happened today,” Divya immediately gave a call to her mother in law after the domestic help, Reeta left in the morning.

“What happened?” Divya’s mother in law asked.

“I saw her laughing for the first time today. Can you believe it? Forget smiling, she was laughing and it reflected in her eyes today.”

Divya’s happiness had no bounds today as she saw her maid laughing. After having done the daily house errands, Reeta didn’t immediately leave today. Instead, she decided to stand there and talk to Divya for some time. May be, she wanted to pour her heart out today, which she seldom did.

Divya remembers that once Reeta came in the noon to clean the house utensils. Divya had asked her if she had eaten anything since morning. Reeta said a sad ‘no.’ Divya was appalled at her answer.

Every morning Reeta came at around 8 a.m. and then again at 3 p.m. for their domestic errands. Her extremely petite figurine was already a matter of concern to Divya from day 1. Sometimes she even doubted whether she would be able to continue work with them or not.

When she heard that Reeta hadn’t eaten anything since morning she asked her why.

She didn’t answer directly. Instead, she started crying inconsolably. Divya held her hand and took her in the hall.

“What happened? Why are you crying?” Divya asked her.

“Didi, he beat me again today. With a rolling pin (belan). It hurts a lot didi. All I can do is crying all day.”

Divya didn’t know what to say. Seeing her expression of grief, Divya embraced her as Reeta kept crying in her arms. Her small body felt even littler.

“Come here and sit down. Eat something before you clean the utensils,” Divya told her.

“No didi. Leave it,” Reeta retaliated.

Divya shushed her and gave her chapatti and vegetable to eat with a glass of cold water. She kept crying with every bite. Seeing her, Divya’s eyes too started brimming and she went to another room to cry. Then she came back to her and asked, “What is your age?”

“17,” Reeta said.

Shocked, Divya couldn’t believe her. At such a tender age, she was not even eligible for marriage. She was a child. Divya thought of her cousins who were same age and felt utterly sad to think of the disparity that existed in two different strata of society.

Since that day, Divya had felt a special soft corner for her domestic help, as if she started seeing her cousins, her own younger sister in her.

Today, when she didn’t leave for home immediately, Divya asked her, “So, what will you do with your first salary that you get from here?”

“What salary didi? He said he will snatch it from me.”

“Why did you tell him? Why didn’t you tell him that you were getting lesser money from here?”

“Didi, he told me to swear on my mother and my sisters. I couldn’t lie,” Reeta answered innocently.

Divya couldn’t say anything more. But Reeta kept talking. Today, she was talking about her life. How she got married. Who married her off to this man and what she really felt about her life.

Then she looked at the photo-imprinted coffee mug of Divya’s husband and asked, “Didi, is that bhaiya, your husband?”

“Yes.” Divya smiled as she followed Reeta’s eyes in the direction of the coffee mug.

“Didi. I never look at bhaiya directly. When I mop floor, it is then that I look at this mug decorated on your TV trolley.”

Divya smiled at her innocence. Reeta smiled too.

“He looks exactly like aunti ji,” Reeta was referring to Divya’s mother in law.

After some time, Reeta laughed hard and said, “Didi, you know what. Once he came to beat me. I was just about to eat my food. I told him to let me eat and then he could beat me. Didi, he actually waited for me to eat.”

“…and then? He left?”

“No didi. I ate two bites and then he started beating me. It hurt really hard.” And Reeta started laughing, as if she had learnt to laugh off her life’s tragedy.

Divya too started laughing, but this domestic help had made her hate that man with all her heart.

The two women kept talking and laughing and then Reeta finally called it a day at her house, saying finally, “okay Didi, now I will leave. Bolt the door.”

Divya kept thinking about her beautiful smile after she left. Reeta was like any other normal Indian girl- beautiful and innocent 17 YO little girl who should be either in 12th or first year of her undergraduate programme, but here she was- a sad domestic help, who had learnt to smile with the tragedies of her life.

 

 

Old Shops of Memories

Chhavi stood at the golden sand of the beach in Goa. It was her much-awaited vacation. The long break that she needed to phase out the mundane errands of her life. As the waves touched her feet, a tingling ran through every vein, not leaving an ounce of her body.

She picked up a shell that the waves had brought along. Beautiful it was. Golden-brown patterns drew beautifully on the immaculate white of the shell. After examining it for some time, she put it close to her ear. Truly divine. The feeling of liveliness rushed through her body as she heard the sound of the entire sea in the shells.

Image Source: http://il6.picdn.net/shutterstock/videos/6473192/thumb/1.jpg

She had once heard that when you put a shell close to your ear and shut everything else, you can hear the sound of entire sea. This shell seemed to be speaking the language of her soul.

She took the shell and put it into her skirt’s pocket. She would later keep it on the book shelf in her home. This shell would remind her of a lot of things, of this beautiful Goa vacation. She walked toward the pier, which was now almost vacant. After a long day & beautiful tan, most of the tourists had gone back. Chhavi was among the last few on this beach.

She proceeded toward the pier that was visible from a distance. As she walked, the wet sand filled in her toes and it felt so comforting; so soft. She turned around. Looked at her footprints on the sand. Some visible, others eradicated from the waves rushing to make it first to the bank. She reached the pier and made herself comfortable at the edge of it.

Lost in her thoughts, she looked at the sinking sun. Last few tourists were making their way back to the banks after an adventurous surfing. The water was shimmering gold and the sky was a palette of colours-orange, pink, red, purple and yellow. It almost felt like the sun was melting into water.

The horizon felt far, too far. She thought about her footprints that she waited to see earlier and the W.B. Yeats’ poetry came rushing to her mind. What was it like?

“THAT crazed girl improvising her music.

Her poetry, dancing upon the shore,

Her soul in division from itself

Climbing, falling She knew not where,

Hiding amid the cargo of a steamship,

Her knee-cap broken, that girl I declare

A beautiful lofty thing, or a thing

Heroically lost, heroically found.”

Image Source: http://data.whicdn.com/images/14797399/large.jpg

Almost on instinct, she drifted back to the lane that is mostly forbidden – the lane of her past. There were some old shops of memories- some good, some bad. She wanted some of these shops to shut down forever. But that wasn’t possible now. These were the shops of her past. But the wounds that they gave to her were now so comforting. It almost felt like they were healed. Yet at the slightest of triggering, they oozed blood. But they were nice. Even the bad memories were nice. They made her feel how long she had come. She no longer recognized her younger self.

This was The Shop of First Crush. The memories came rushing back. She almost felt like being there. Standing there again. This was also the first man in her life. She entered this shop of first crush memories.

She wandered in this shop. Looked at the first kiss incident. It was in a car, when she & that man were waiting for her sister’s annual function to get over, so they could pick her from her school. He had almost felt the urge to kiss her. And he did. But that was without any intimidation. And, it came more like a shock than pleasure. She remembers him getting offended at her reaction. The relation didn’t last long.

She wanders to another shelf of this shop. Stands there. This shelf hurts. She remembers when she was travelling in the Metro one day when she heard he was dead. She didn’t love him anymore, yet it came as a blow. Why, she doesn’t remember! May be, because she had shared a part of her life with him, even if it was for a few months. Lost love it was. And now, also dead.

She moved ahead. Want to take something to your present life, a voice echoed. She just smiled. “No, thank you very much.”

She drifted out of this shop.

***********************************************************************

In the next lane, stood the second shop. The Shop of First True Love. This, she dreaded the most. It was the most hurting one. Yet, she decided to enter it. She had admired every bit of it. Still, this one somehow made her heart bleed the most. It was the most depressing phase of her life.

She wandered in the shop. Shelves of laughter & sorrows, happiness & tears, blush & break-ups were sitting here- looking at her with eyes wide open.

Here is the shelf of their first meeting. She walks calmly through this shelf. She is now married. And happy. She looks at it. She almost feels like he is looking at her walk away. She looks at him. Careful. She manages to pass a smile. A friendly one. She should now be going. William Shakespeare speaks at the back of her mind, “to be or not to be, that was the question.”

“Just go,” says her mind.

“Why?” says her heart, “what is common now?”

“The past,” her mind says.

She walks away from this shelf. Takes a turn and reaches the one where she doesn’t want to linger anymore. This was the most confusing shelf. She didn’t understand what happened here. How they fell apart. May be, it wasn’t meant to happen.

She smiled. A feeble laughter may be. Every time she enters here, she feels so heavy.

She tried coming out of this shop of memories. Want to take something to your present life, a voice echoed again. She just smiled again. “No, thank you very much.”

***********************************************************************

This is the third shop of memories. She wants to be here. It is most comforting. This is the shop of endless memories that she is still counting. The Shop of Soul Mate. It is here she met the man she is married to. She walks past all the shelves with a twinkle in her eyes. This is the shelf of their first meeting. It was almost entreated, she remembers. She wanted to see him more than her. And he had agreed. This felt almost surreal. Like the love at first sight.

She smiled. Then, walked towards their engagement day. His smile is still fresh in her mind. She doesn’t remember seeing anyone else. It was her own world. Just the two of them. Rest had vanished, she remembers this.

The shelf of courtship is the most delicate. She doesn’t want to touch it. The memories here are fragile. But precious. She dusts them off. Admires them. And, keeps them there, again. She will re-visit the shop once again to see these memories.

She comes out of this shop of memories. Want to take something to your present life, a voice echoed again. She smiles. “This is the recent past. Still, No, thank you very much. I will create more memories & will come back to keep them on the shelves here. Make space.”

She decides to come out of this lane of Old Shops of Memories. She will re-visit them again someday. She will come back to this lane when she had made time for herself, like today. She comes back to her present, but looks at a girl standing on the lane of Old Shops of Memories.

Image Source: https://sapphirical.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/girllostphotographyshadowdancingfemale-0df26441e9bfdf935680b31ab2abaded_h.jpg

The girl refuses to come out. Chhavi calls her. She assures her they’ll go this lane together. She is her younger self. She is still stubborn. She still wants what she has decided. And she still sometimes drifts back to these old shops. But Chhavi knows that she will not linger there longer. She will have to come out. She also knows that these are the shops of memories that have made her what she is today. After 10 years, she will again come back here; only to find not recognizing her own self, once again.

Singh Saab and the Active Old Man

Aarna and Swaroop had spent a tough time from past few days; in fact, months. Now that Swaroop’s Atrial Septal Defect (ASD) surgery was over, there was some sort of tranquillity in the head. ASD, in layman’s words is called a hole in the heart, which is one of the most common heart defects in people. Fortis Escorts Heart Institute (FEHI) has a step-down ICU system and after having spent two days in the Recovery Room, Swaroop was now shifted to the room. This was the semi-private room number 310. This meant that Aarna and Swaroop shall be sharing the hospital room with one more patient. The room however, was huge enough to house 3-4 patients or more, as per the standards of the Government hospitals.

Both of them settled down as Swaroop adjusted to the sharp light smashing in from the huge window. Recovery Room was quite closed and from what Aarna had experienced when she went there to meet her husband, it was one of the scariest and the gloomiest places on Earth. Everyone was on life support system with so many tubes and syringes popping out of every part of the body. The dreadful mechanical sounds of ECG machines and a lot more medical appliances, the names of which Aarna did not know, sounded like the time bomb that was about to explode any time. With Swaroop out of that place, Aarna was glad that her husband was one of the first patients in that batch to come out of that gloomiest place on Earth. Doctors said that he was recovering “really fast.” Soon after adjustments and informing the entire family about Swaroop’s well being and condition, Aarna lay down a bit on the couch next to the patient’s bed and closed her eyes. Both of them were waiting, rather praying for no one to occupy the bed next to them so that they enjoyed the benefits of a solo room by paying the price of a semi-private room.

As evening closed in, two old men entered the room with nurses in green uniform around them. One of them was on a stature. It was around 8 p.m. then. The man on stature was quite bulky and even had issues climbing up the bed on his own. So, he was shifted from the stature to the bed, with a lot of discomfort. Aarna, who was looking at that man and one another with him, looked at the scene with a strange expression on her face. Her live updates made Swaroop aware too. The couple talked in hushed voices about the two old men and soon put in the curtains that separated the two sections of the huge room.

They both kept quiet, as they heard the voices from the other half of the room. The other old man, who was the attendant, looked quite active. He was rushing here and there to settle things for his patient. With the accent of the two old men, Aarna and Swaroop understood that they were from Bihar. The archetypical Indian thought made them think that the two were not much educated, just because they talked in their strange language that sounded quite “dehaati.” This young couple stayed quite even now and heard what the two were talking about.

“Singh Saab. Are you alright? Are you feeling fine?” asked the attendant, the active old man.

“Yes. I am fine. Don’t worry about me.”

“Do you need anything Singh Saab?”

“No. Please go and have your dinner. I shall be fine. I don’t need anything right now. I would rather go to sleep,” replied Singh Saab.

“Let me serve you the dinner first and then I’ll go and have it,” argued the active old man, whose name Swaroop and Aarna did not find out even now.

After a few minutes, the hospital dinner arrived. After the room service man left, Aarna got up from the couch and sanitized her hands. She pressed the side button on the bed and the bed started shifting upwards. Swaroop adjusted himself and Aarna made him eat his food.

The active old man too, served Singh Saab and waited for him to wind it up. After having finished the dinner, Aarna sat down and the active old man came to their side and said, “Beta, I am going down for dinner. Will you look after him for me?”

“Sure uncle,” replied Aarna.

“What happened to this young man? Why is he here?” asked the active old man from Aarna and Swaroop.

“Uncle, he had ASD. He has undergone the heart surgery and is recovering now,” said Aarna.

“I see. ASD is quite common these days. Don’t worry, he will be fine soon. Is he your husband?”

“Yes uncle.”

“Okay beta, I will leave now. Please check on him if he needs anything.”

“Sure uncle. Don’t worry. I will check on him,” said Aarna and the active old man left the room.

Soon, Aarna went to check Singh Saab, who was already asleep and she came back to sit on the couch again. It would have been a few minutes since Singh Saab’s attendant left that Aarna and Swaroop heard strange sound, like someone was urinating.

The nurse in green uniform came in and saw that Singh Saab was too fragile and bulky to even go to the washroom himself and so he had urinated on the floor, from his bed only. The nurse asked the room service to clean it up and told Singh Saab to press the Nurse Call Button if he has the next call from nature.

Aarna and Swaroop didn’t say anything to each other, but Aarna felt disgusted. She felt awful that they shall be sharing the room with such patient. Nevertheless, she went to Singh Saab after the nurse left and checked on him again. He was partly sleeping.

“Uncle, call me if you need any help,” Aarna told Singh Saab.

Surprisingly, Singh Saab mistook Aarna for nurse and said, “I will call you sister.”

Aarna did not argue because she knew that there was no point. Singh Saab’s condition was really fragile.

Soon, active old man came back from dinner and thanked Aarna for looking over Singh Saab. He arranged his sheet and pillow on the couch to lie down and so did Aarna. The lights were dim by now. It was around 9.30 p.m. The strange urinating sound came once again and this time, the active old man stood up from his ouch to check on him.

This time, Aarna did not feel disgusted. Instead, she felt sorry for Singh Saab. Old age can be awful, she thought in her head.

The active old man himself cleaned the floor and Singh Saab retaliated.

“Leave it yaar. Don’t do it,” Singh Saab said.

“It’s okay. You should have called me Singh Saab. I would have helped you.”

The active old man again came to the couch and sat down for a moment. His couch was on the same side as Aarna and Swaroop. Aarna could not hold her curiosity this time and she felt the urge to start a conversation with the active old man regarding Singh Saab.

“Uncle, can I ask you something?” Aarna asked the active old man.

“Yes beta. Tell me,”

Soon the two started talking, in English! It’s not strange to talk in English, but what Aarna and Swaroop thought about this Bihari old man was wrong. He wasn’t illiterate. In fact, his communication skill was better than any educated man present there and this was the first slap on Aarna’s face. She ridiculed herself for being so judgemental, and more than that, for being so thought-offensive about a particular state in our country.

“What happened to the uncle with you?” asked Aarna.

“Beta, Singh Saab had undergone a bypass surgery a few years ago. In very rare cases, a few patients start getting fever after the surgery. Singh Saab is one of those rare cases. He started having fever quite frequently after his bypass surgery and my son looked after him,” explained the active old man.

“Your son?”

“Yes. My son, Dr. Vijay Kumar is a senior cardiologist at FEHI.”

“Okay. And how is Singh uncle related to you?” asked curious Aarna.

“He is my friend.”

Something hit Aarna hard. He is his friend? A zillion questions popped in the curious mind of Aarna. Where is Singh Saab’s family? Why is this active old man doing so much for his friend? How long is their friendship? The chain of questions made her look so puzzled that even the old man smiled at her expressions that were spread all over her questioning face.

Without a preamble, the active old man started, “You know beta, Singh Saab is retired from the post of Director of SAIL (Steel Authority of India Limited), New Delhi. He has seen such prestige and reputation in his life that we cannot even comprehend. A man of such stature is lying here, in such condition, in front of you.”

Aarna felt another slap. Director of SAIL, and she thought that these old men were illiterate Biharis? She was illiterate, she thought. Aarna once again felt sorry in her heart for being so judgemental. How wrong she was!

The active old man kept talking, “When in past he had frequent fever, I brought him to my home and took care for him for 45 days. My son looked after him all the time. He was cured that time. Now again he has started showing such signs. We want to check for the underlying cause of this fever. That is why we have brought him to FEHI so that we can take better care of him.”

“But uncle, where is his family?”

“Beta, he has no family.”

Again it felt like Aarna was listening to something that only happened in movies. Hospitals are a strange place. You hear so many sad and interesting stories that every tale sounds like the Bollywood film. But soon you realize that things like these actually happen in real world.

“Why? I mean where is his family?” asked Aarna.

“Beta his wife died of cancer about a decade ago. He has two sons, both of who died at a very young age. He is all alone now. His wife had four younger sisters. Singh Saab took care of all of them like his own daughters. He sponsored their education, helped them establish their careers and married all of them off. All of them are today settled abroad, but none of them has asked about Singh Saab’s whereabouts ever since they got married. They never phoned him again. They don’t know anything about him today and they don’t bother about him at all.”

Aarna bashed the four sisters of Singh Saab’s wife in her head. How cruel is that? In fact, that is so mean. What has the world come to? Is humanity dead? Is there no reward of goodness? How can God justify this? A man with such stature, prestige, good heart and such a lot of money in his good days is left all by himself in his last phase of life? Why?

“So uncle, you are his family now?”

“Yes. You can say that.”

“That is really kind of you uncle. World needs people like you. How long have you both been friends? Aren’t you both childhood friends?”

Aarna’s questions were very obvious. What kind of a friend, no matter how good he is, does so much for other? No one in the world does that. Not even relatives. And here he is. A friend doing so much for other! But why?

“No beta. I am not his childhood friend. I have known him for just 5 years.”

“Then why are you doing so much for him uncle? I am really impressed by your friendship.”

“Beta, I was there with him in SAIL. The story of his life makes me do so much for him. Think about it. Here is a man in front of you. He has retired from one of the most reputed positions in this country. Imagine the kind of life he has lived. Can you think of the luxuries he has lived in? A huge home given by the Government, handsome salary, a whole army of servants to look after every little thing- a kind of life that we all want to live. Isn’t it? But look at him today. This is life beta. You are too young to understand all this. But here is a man of this stature lying on a hospital bed, without anyone to cry on his death and urinating in his own pajamas because he can’t even get out on his own.”

It broke Aarna’s heart. A lump formed in her throat. This was a real story. Not the one that she as seeing in a TV. It was a real tale of friendship, life and what not, perhaps a lot of things that her little heart and head could not understand at just 26 years of age. But she understood one thing- that life can take you to strange roads without a companion. Something changed her forever.

With shattered heart, Aarna held Swaroop’s hand tight, requesting God to not be so harsh on both of them ever in life. She didn’t want a reputation like that of Singh Saab. All she wanted from God was calm and a “normal” life that does not serve a sad story to anyone in the world.

Soon, the active young man went to the Singh Saab’s side as his son Dr. Vijay Kumar came in and checked on him. Doctor asked the nurses to shift him to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) immediately so that he could be attended in a better manner.

Aarna witnessed them all vacate the room and bid adieu to the active old man, praying at heart for Singh Saab’s speedy recovery. She saluted their friendship at heart and soon, all her initial thoughts about these two “illiterate Biharis” changed forever.

Swaroop is discharged now. He is home with Aarna, but this Escorts story and a million more tales that Aarna heard in the hospital will dwell in her heart and mind forever, like a shadow.

Ticket From Girlhood To Womanhood

Usual course of household cleaning was going on. It was just another day for her. Nothing special, nothing boring- just the usual one. After the room was cleaned, she washed her hands, wiped them off with the hand towel and picked the keys of her cabinet. The clothes in that cabinet had been waiting since long to be arranged immaculately in a queue or in hangers. She inserted the key, twisted it in the clock-wise direction, and a few clothes jumped out of the cabinet, as if on cue. “Pheww!” she exclaimed. The cleaning and organizing of things is still not over. There is a whole lot bundle lying here, that needs to be arranged.

She sat on the ground- procrastinating a bit- thinking where to begin from. The bottom-most shelf or the top-most? “Now that I am sitting here, let me begin from the bottom-most shelf,” she self-talked. Suddenly, her eyes stuck to a dress. Her discovery of an old wedding dress in the lower-most shelf, that she wore that day, compelled her to walk down a few miles on the memory lane- a few years ago.

She was no longer a 38 year old Meera. Her thoughts made her young once again, at least in her head. She was once again a 25 year old bride glammed up; waiting to get married to her prince charming and anticipating a life full of roses. ‘A Life Full of Roses’- really? She came back to the 38-year old self- now much more mature than what she was when she wore that dress. She had 13 years of experience from the social institution called marriage; at which she is still a student and is learning new things almost everyday.

One thing that she has truly learnt is that marriage is not a life full of roses; but also, it is not a bush of thorns. Its a mixed patch. Its like, ever since she has entered the nuptials, she is just brisk walking, sometimes running; but seldom sitting. Marriage, she has learnt, with whatever wisdom she has, is a garden- no matter how many roses you wish to sow, you are bound to get patches of thorns. You cannot avoid it. How can you? Even God hasn’t done that.

A few things may sometimes hit like a heavy stone. And sometimes, the same things may sound like a usual conversation. Depends. Really depends on the mood. Having apprehensions about the veracity of this bond is something that may appear every now and then; but in really wonderful moments, you will self-slap behind your head and say to your ownself-“Foolish! This wedding thing is awesome!”

However, one thing is for sure- marriage changes you like nothing else; especially if you are a girl. Meera has learnt this from the institution since Day 1. You are no longer a girl. You are a woman. And surprisingly, this evolution from a girl to a woman has taken place in just a matter of one day- your wedding date! You no longer remain a girl that is expecting tenderness and complete attention from the entire home. You are a woman- just like your mother.

Ever looked at your Maa and thought how she transformed from a girl to a woman- a stronger one that she appears today? There has been a sacrifice and a struggle behind her present womanhood.

She has successfully passed a test of time, where sometimes she had to let go of her dreams and a million hidden aspirations which now remain buried somewhere in the debris of a lot of thoughts in her heart. Sometimes she was compelled to think that if she was just thinking about herself and her career, she was selfish and also, where sometimes she was forced to talk to herself in her mind and think whether it was really her fault. A lot of times, she has just been flatly hurt so much that she cried herself to nights before being a usual, compassionate, much stronger woman. Behind a beautiful woman we call our mother, there has been a more amazing girlhood that had to be left.

You cannot keep clutching to girlhood and think that you too, will one day, be a strong woman like your mother is today, because we all know one fact- a diamond shines beautifully because it has passed through sharp tools and has been cut immaculately to appear what it is today! This diamond is precious and has more value than anything else today, and that is because only diamond knows its history.

You are the Reason I Love my Life

And then it was Thursday, her favourite day. Her closed eyes felt very heavy, and heart very light. A weight was lifted off her chest. She wanted to sleep that night like there was no morning the next day. For once, just once; she wanted to sleep without thinking that she had to wake up early the next morning; half-heartedly. For once, just once; she wanted to sleep like there was no work the next day; like she could vanish into a world that she knew practically didn’t exist- the world of dreams. And then, as she shut her eyes to do all this- sleep didn’t come. Instead, words came rushing to her and she immediately picked up her diary to pen down her thoughts.

That mountain right in front of her window; that same mountain on which nothing except a temple sits calmly; that same mountain which appeared to her the highest of all- she wanted to rush to that same mountain, close her eyes, take a deep breath, embrace the surrounding and with all the saved energy- let go. Let go of all the malice in her heart; all that was making her feel burdened; all that was keeping her shackled. She wanted to let go and shout so that everything inside her gushed out with all force and purify her soul; shout so that all the pain that dwelled inside for long, came out and melted with the clouds that hovered over this mountain.

And then perhaps, those clouds could take away that melted pain and pessimism away from her, and grant her the same serenity that she once felt.

With all the writing, her heart felt so light. She closed her eyes once again; this time without any sense of grief, without any thought to ponder over. And for a few seconds before slipping into her dreams, she opened her eyes and saw him smiling next to her- smiling at her with all his heart-as if making a silent promise that he is there to look after her and handle all her troubles.

All she could say this time was, “You are the reason I never give up. You are the reason I love my life. You are the reason I wake up every day.”