Monday, February 28, 2011

Little Women

Chapter Eight: Maternal Hassles

I had phoned both my daughters. The elder one had cut my call and the younger one’s phone was switched off. I had even messaged them, which is rare, me being a luddite of the first order. Why have phones if you don’t want to be contacted? “All grown up, but still a reason for worry, these children”, I mumbled. A mother’s curse is that she can never have peace.

I made my way to the kitchen in an attempt to divert my attention from the possibilities of what my offspring could be enduring thousands of miles from home, somewhere in the Himalayas. Dinner for one tonight, nothing too exciting, a toast with butter and some soup is good enough.

It was time for some television, I decided. I had to snap myself out of mother-mode and I definitely needed to feel independent. Both my daughters seemed to managing perfectly without me, why couldn’t I do without them? All these years, they were dependent on me, and now, all of a sudden, I am the dependent one? Perhaps, life was coming full circle.

My thoughts were interrupted by the door bell. It was my neighbour Mrs Madan. She wasn’t the most pleasant woman in the neighbourhood. In fact, at times I felt she was almost delighted my husband had passed away, leaving me to lead a life companion-less, just like her. I did not want to be around her, but my social conditioning led me to open the door, smile, make conversation and feed her some soup. She tried her best to convince me to join kitties, but I knew what these get-togethers were really about. Middle-aged ladies coming together to gossip, create and disseminate rumours about other women, turn every woman’s house-hold problems into an entertaining episode of a soap opera, or better yet Desperate Housewives. Popular topics of discussion included: extra-marital affairs, incompetent daughter-in-laws, weight issues, recipes, all in all, nothing that interests me.

I yawned twice, and a third time when I was done being polite. She finally took the hint and headed for the door. “You are lucky Radhika. You still have a daughter who comes home to you. You still have to look forward to her wedding...” And in that one statement, all the bitter things she had said in the past vanished. I realized this woman who lived in the house across the street, was more than anything else, alone.

That night I vowed to not let the loneliness make me bitter.

Little Women

Chapter Seven: Ready to Serve

Today’s evening snack menu: Paneer pakoras, hot jalebis dipped in syrup and ginger tea. Just the thought of food made my stomach turn. It never ceased to amaze me how the Sahais ate so much. And today was special. Bade Papa and Mummy were coming to visit. Their excuse: “Oh, we haven’t seen bahu rani since the wedding!” The real reason: Good weather for some free pakoras and pampering.

I guess the menu stands to be corrected. The only item on the menu was the latest addition to the Sahai clan – Me aka Bahu Rani, served on saree-clad platter accessorized with a ton of gold. Okay, I didn’t mind the gold.

Every time I had to parade myself in front of the elders, I could hear my mom-in-law announcing, “Presenting – the girl who is almost good-enough for my son,” full, with background music and all. The spectators would make their judgements, depending on my behaviour and also on how good the refreshments tasted, and eventually leave. I would then crib to my husband while getting out of the 30 metres of cloth, he would comfort me while sneakily watching television. My mother-in-law would return to the kitchen, more or less satisfied with her performance, and possibly with mine, while heating heaps of food for the Sahai men, and me.

Trips to the in-laws’ house was mostly all about talking, eating and eating some more. For the women of the house, it was about feeding and playing roles.

Visits to the Khanna house were liberating. My mother too, was all about pampering. But the subject of her attention was me. I could legally bully my sister and charm my mother into doing anything. When Papa was around, I could take it all one notch higher. We would both join hands and transform Eeshu virtually into my slave, all on the pretext of one statement, “Didi is only here for a few days after all.” Being married had its perks, I guess. I threw unreasonable tantrums. Once, Papa woke Eesh up, just so that she would run to the shop and get me some rusk with my morning tea. A run-of-the-mill biscuit was simply not good enough for his long-distance daughter who seldom visited.

Papa and Eesh had their moments. They had a love-hate relationship. Actually, Eesh loved to sleep and hated being woken up by Papa. He is the only one who dared such a feat, Mom and I gave up long back, for fear of loss of life or a useful body part.

Papa’s departure had been really tough on her, I thought to myself as I poured the tea, which had copious amounts of ginger may I add, into the kettle. All this business of biking to the Himalayas was a rebound. Or maybe not. She had always been attracted to such outdoorsy activities and wanted so much to be like Papa. I could only hope she found a way to cope with the changes that life had offered us. Life, the only thing I couldn’t protect my baby sister from, I sighed.

Little Women

Chapter Six: Sunny Side Up

My rendezvous with Ashinde became a thing of delight within hours of meeting him. He was a kind man with soft eyes with lines around them from smiling so much. I noticed his eyes smiled even when his lips did not. He felt not like a stranger, but a friend and philosopher I soon found out, also my guide.

After my mid-evening snack, I headed to my room. It was small but clean, and that was enough for me. A single bed, a table and chair packed into one corner and a frame photograph of the Himalayan range on the wall, this was the modest composition of the room. I opened the drapes and saw a vision of darkness, with just little lights, like ants on fire, lighting up the whole valley. I smiled to myself and turned to head straight to the loo. I peeped in and found the essentials considerably clean and sighed with relief. I was fussy about bathrooms.

I dove into bed and closed my eyes just for a second and blacked out till 4. 40 am next morning.
I woke to the wet feel of my own drool on my hand and the sound of some very soothing instrumental music. It took a moment to register where I was but it all made sense when I looked outside the window. There it was, my first solo sunrise.

I sat up and just stared. The sky was grey and the world was slowly waking. Now blue, now lilac, now pink. And suddenly, like a fired match in the sky, the sun burnt the blue canvas and the birds welcomed its arrival. I had just witnessed the death of night and the birth of day. The moment was poetic.

I leapt for my bag and pulled out my diary. I turned to the first page and wrote:

Day One
5.09 am

Sunny side up
Riding the sky
Dipped in crimson
Blue says goodbye...

I decided to venture out and explore. I wanted to know the source of the music, for one. Is this how life is in the hills? I couldn’t help but feel left out. As if we city folk were being kept out of this beautiful secret. But then again...the sun rose in the city too...

Half-way down the stairs, I knew what the music was. It was Buddhist music. They called it Honkyoku. Japanese Zen monks played honkyoku for enlightenment and alms. The instruments used were mostly inspired by sounds in nature, to help one soothe the mind. I walked into the backyard to find Ashinde with a cup which had curly shapes of steam rising from it. He sat on a seemingly pointy rock, but seemed unusually comfortable for the surface he was sitting on. He was looking at the space from where I entered even before I had stepped out, almost as if expecting to see me. I gave him a friendly smile but he looked and turned away. His indifference to my presence made me nervous. “Beautiful sunrise,” I said, an attempt to make conversation, which was met with silence. Just when I thought I knew Ashinde as a talkative, ready-to-help, friendly bloke, he pulled this new one. Men, I mentally sighed. When for some more time he didn’t speak, I decided to make peace with the silence.

“I was mourning the passing of the night, while you celebrated the sunrise,” I heard him say. I turned my face toward him and saw him looking at me with resilient eyes. He held my stare and his eyes softened, a facial metamorphosis rarely seen. Just like the night had given way to light, Ashinde’s face had lit up. Every moment death, every moment life, I thought to myself.

“Where are you going, Little one? Why on this journey alone?” I heard my thought breaking. “Aah, but you are wise. You understand, one must voyage through the seas of thought alone,” Ashinde said before I could say anything. “That, and also, no one wanted to be my pillion!” I laughed. “So where are you off to from here?” “The next stop is Dhanaulti at 16 00 hours. Provided I leave from here on time,” I peeked at my watch. I had enough time to sightsee and have a filling breakfast. My thoughts wandered to Ashinde’s special omelette. “Oh, I come with you? I have hotel there too. You give me ride. I be your pillion. I am not scared of dying, you see,” he said winking at me and then chuckling. “Okay, okay, I‘ll give you a ride ... Only if you feed me your world famous sunny-side-up and let me stay at your other hotel for 108 bucks!”

Little Women

Chapter Five: Travel Home

Sunscreen: check
Toothpaste: check
Woollen socks: check
Sunglasses: check
Raincoat: check
Diary: check
Powder, rock-climbing shoes, fuel tank full: check, check, check. With that, I was all set to take on the road. Just me, Dad’s biking accessories (leather jacket with matching gloves) and Anuj’s bike. Bliss.

I handed the list of emergency numbers to Mom, promised her at least a thousand times to keep my phone charged and take her calls, texted my sister (which I thought was probably the safer option) and readied myself to take off.

I did not draw much attention on the road, which was great. I reckon it was all the gear that made me look like just another guy on a Bullet. Had people known it was a girl, dilliwalas would have found another reason to gawk.

As I approached the outskirts of the city, I realized the reality of this predicament. This was actually happening! I felt a nervous-excitement in my stomach.

Three hours out of Delhi, it all started sinking in. No home, no Mom, no job, for the next seven days. Just a bike to ride and a road map to guide. I decided to make my first stop at a dhaba in Karnal. I parked and removed my helmet. A few truck drivers turned to look, but I didn’t wait to see their reaction. I made my way to the charpoy and asked the waiter for chai. I took out my cell phone from my bag, along with a wet tissue. I might be riding a bullet, but am a girl at heart, I thought, wiping my face with a ‘Kara’ wet tissue.

I looked at my phone and exhaled in anticipation of what I was about to do next.

Type New Message> To: Mom; Didi; Jijoo> Hi guys, this one’s between Me, Dad and the road. I know your numbers. Will stay in touch. Love you. Eesh> Send

With that last communication with the known, I switched off my Nokia 5600 and threw it into the depths of my rug-sack.
I studied the map. The next destination was Ranikhet, 150 kilometers away. As I rode along, I could feel the temperature lower and the land rise. Soon, sheers of hills draped the sky. The light was getting dimmer and I had no intentions of riding at night. A girl on a bullet on the highway at night, even I drew the line there.

I had marked up a few hotels at a distance of every fifty kilometres to avoid any trouble. I took a bylane from the main highway and headed towards my pit stop for the night, Hotel Star Plaza. When I reached the spot however, the hotel in question was nowhere to be seen. Instead, I found a small bed-and-breakfast. Well, you can’t plan for life, now can you, I said to myself.
I got off the bike and dusted my jeans. In front of me stood a yellow board which said ‘Travel Home’ in army green colour. When I went in to check the place out, I found a middle-aged Tibetan man wearing a T-shirt that read ‘Yak yak yak’ along with a picture of, guess what, a yak. His hair touched his shoulders and was longer than mine.

“Hello! You hungry?” he greeted me. “I...ya...but...” I mumbled. “I make great omelette! Always sunny side up!” he said, with every word slightly mispronounced. “Ya, that’s good. But I wanted a room for tonight...” “Sure sure. We have room. Only Rs 108 per night.” “Why 108?” I enquired, though pleased at the meagre tariff. “108 lucky number for Buddhist. Even for Hindu. Rosemary have 108 beads, you see?” and with that he began counting the beads on his mala. “Yes, yes, now how about that omelette?” I replied, in an attempt to get him to stop counting.

The omelette was scrumptious, but it came with a side order of the man at the reception, who was also the owner-cum-chef-cum-repairman with just his young son to assist him at Hotel ‘Travel Home’. I guess I should have known he was a talker, his shirt clearly gave it away. The ‘sunny side up’ was that he wasn’t a nonsense talker and seemed more or less harmless and very helpful. “So, how come you call this place ‘Travel Home’? To my mind, it’s an oxymoron, isn’t it?” I was surprised to find that Ashinde knew what an oxymoron was. “For a true traveller, home is where his travels take him. But for someone like you, I can tell, you are travelling towards home?” “Sorry to disappoint you, but home is where I am coming from. Where I am going, is still a mystery.” “Little one, home is where you are at peace.”

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Little Women

Chapter Four: Up, up and Away!

You don’t know what I am going through, every cell in my body yelled, as my boss screamed at me for missing my deadline yet again. “You took leave for two weeks. I expected you to be done with your work by now. This is absolutely unprofessional.” I took leave because I lost my father, I wanted to tell him, but didn’t, because I knew I was just a decibel away from bursting into tears. He saw my face contorted with pain and lowered his pitch just a tad. “Listen, I understand you have been having a tough time personally but these things happen, you can’t let it affect your work, move on.” That was it. “Move on! Move on!? Don’t you tell me to move on you insensitive pig!” I leapt off my chair with streams of tears wildly cascading my face and looked my boss straight in the eye and said, “You know nothing! You didn’t know my dad and you don’t know what it feels like to lose him!” I could hear my decibel levels hitting the roof, but I didn’t care. I felt wild and free and dangerous, after a very long time. I even enjoyed that look of absolute shock on my boss’s face. “I quit, you insensitive asshole!” I hurriedly took the first sheet of paper I saw in front of me, jotted my resignation, signed it and violently thumped it on his table. “There you go, Eesha Sahai has moved on! Moved on from this stinking office with a stinking boss!”

I stormed out of his cabin to see the bewildered expressions of colleagues. I walked over to my desk, picked up my bag and my but one belonging, a photo frame with Dad’s picture in it, and left the office without a farewell. I didn’t get a goodbye and it was only fair no one else got one.


“So, what now?”asked Mom. “I don’t know,” I said. “You clearly haven’t thought this through... you are too impulsive, and too sensitive... You always have been. It doesn’t pay beta, to be so emotional...” “Ya, and it pays to bottle in your feelings and cry at night when no one’s watching. That’s better, right?” I said, and regretted it the minute I had. I gathered myself and looked my mother right in the face and told her what I had been avoiding telling her for a long time. “Mom, I have decided to go away for some time. I have some money saved up for a trip. Anuj has agreed to lend me his bike for ten days and I am going to ride to a few towns in Himachal. You know I am a traveller like Dad and you know I am going to go. So just let me.”
I waited for her over-the-top Mummy-type hysterical response. Instead she said this, “I should have seen this coming. You are, and always have been, your father’s daughter. Give me a map of the route you plan to follow and phone numbers to all the hotels you have booked yourself at, and then you can go. A little bit of soul-searching will do us all some good right about now.” I jumped up with joy! All of a sudden I was excited at the prospect of this new adventure. The day was turning on its head. A dream was turning into reality and I was finally running away from the ghost memories of these past few months.


“You are sending her where?” “On what?” It was official, my mother and my sister had lost it. Eeshu wanted a sabbatical in the form of a lone trip to the Himalayas on a bike and my mom had agreed. “Have you guys lost it? I know Eeshu is dumb, but what’s the matter with you, Mom? How can you allow this? You know what, I put my foot down. She is not going. She is leaving when? Give her the phone right now! Right now, Mom! I don’t care that she refuses to talk to me, this is not done! What about you, how are you going to manage alone? How can she be so selfish?”

“She hung up on me! My own mother hung up on me!” “Don’t worry about it love, you tend to have that effect on people,” said my loving hubby. “You are not going to believe this...Eeshu...” “Is going on a trip to Himachal. On her bike. Sorry, on Anuj’s bike. I know, and I believe it. Who do you think funded her expenses?” he said, with a mischievous grin on his face.

“You! Why do you hate me? Instead of talking sense into that girl, you encouraged her into this madness? Was my father the only sane person in this family aside from me?” I sat dejected and disillusioned on the side of the bed.

“Your father was the one who took impromptu trips on his Bullet to Rishikesh. Your father, my dear, rehearsed a fish-hook stunt on his bullet, with your mom sitting behind him!” said Raj, with a victorious glint in his eye. “Ya, ya, I know all that, and much more, mind you. But Eeshu...she’s my baby sister. And... She’s a girl!” “Whoa! Thus spake the lone spokesperson of feminism in the Sahai-Khanna khaandaan! How sexist, jaan, really!” And with that, he knew he had shut me up. Great, I had myself a smug husband this weekend and a loony baby sister for life.

Little Women

Chapter Three: Turn it Up

“Stop honking! It’s a bloody red light!” Jerk. Delhi traffic jams can be the true test of patience for anyone. Even Lord Rama in all his glory would at least think of giving drivers here the middle finger. But then again, he had the brahmastra... “Arey madam, green ho gayi!”
I put the car in gear, accelerated and zoomed ahead, happy having proved myself as a worthy driver, leaving those Indica drivers in the aftertaste of my exhaust. “If Rama had a brahmastra, I have you baby,” I said patting the stirring wheel of my metallic blue Swift Dezire. As if in response, my Bluetooth device attached to the wheel started buzzing. Mom calling flashed on the screen. “Surviving Delhi traffic is one thing, surviving Mom-in-law’s phone calls, quite another,” I said to no one in particular. “Hi Mom. Ya, I am on my way back from office. Ya, I got a little late today. Yes, Raj is home already. Of course there’s food at home, Mom! He’ll help himself. He doesn’t mind...Hang on. Cops.” And with that I put Mom on hold. Not that that stopped her from talking. I could hear her monologue blaring from the phone. “Beta, you should feed him hot chapattis. I mean you both should eat together. Hot food. He likes his food hot, except daal. He likes his daal warm. Not too hot, not too cold, medium. Since, childhood only...hello, hello?” “Haan, Mamma, I am just about to reach home, will just call you. Can’t talk on the phone while driving, you know. Okay, bye.” Thank you, traffic rules.

Just when I increased the volume of my stereo, the phone rang again. This time it was Ma. Mere paas maa-ien hain, I said to myself in the typical Amitabh Bachchan style and chuckled. “Ya Mamma, what’s up?” “Nothing baby, just about to have dinner. Have both of you eaten?... Are you driving?” “Ya Mom, not home as yet. Was stuck at a meeting.” “What about Raj, is he home? Has he eaten?” “I don’t know! I haven’t eaten either! What about me?” Ignoring my response completely, my mother says, “Beta, you should feed him hot food. Hot hot chapattis...” Wow. Do all mothers in the world go by a common script? And do all of them care just for my husband and at what temperature he gets his regular dose of carbohydrates? “Ma, you are unbelievable,” I said half enraged and half amazed. “I’ll call you when I get home... And when I have fed your damaad smoking hot chapattis,” I said for effect. My own mother felt more for my husband than she did for me. It was at times like this that I missed Dad. He balanced everything out perfectly. He would shower Raj with gifts and me with compliments. I was his beta and Raj was the son he never had. When Ma went overboard with this son-in-law business, Dad would give me the extra attention. In one of my last visits home, before he left us, I remember he had given me a five-hundred rupee note before I left. No reason, just like that. And in one of the last few moments we had shared, he had told me to take care of Ma and Eeshu. “You are my beta na,” he had said and few weeks later, he was gone.

I wiped the growing droplet of water before it even left my eye and submerged myself in the music, as I increased the volume of the stereo. It didn’t matter what song played, as long as I couldn’t hear my own thoughts. There was no time to cry, in a life as busy as mine.

Little Women

Chapter Two: Breathe

He’s on ventilator. How did this happen? We were to move him out of the ICU today. No, this can't be. But the doctor keeps saying it. Why? How? What does this mean? He says he can’t breathe on his own. His heart can’t beat on its own. What about my heart? My life is suspended with his. Don’t they understand?

There they are, those pipes and wires surround him. Who is this? Is this my husband? And I feel the tears drowning me. What do I do now? How do I change this? Is this the end of his fight, our fight to keep him alive? Has he left me? But we were in this together. We have lost.

I wake up with a feeling of despair weighing me down into the depth of my blankets. I hold on tightly to my daughter, sleeping beside me. It is only at this hour that I can plead protection from my child, who I lovingly protect during the tyranny of daylight. I hold her and feel like a child again.

Every night, his absence in my bed becomes daunting by his presence in my dreams. I wish not to recount the last thread of his life with us, but its memory haunts me. Soon, I get myself out from under the comfortable covers and look at the clock, never at his smiling photograph that hangs above it. It is 4.30 am. My husband and I would wake at an early hour like this and over a cup of tea, discuss ways to wake the girls in the morning. Needless to say, none worked.

My morning routine remains unchanged, just without him now. I look at my younger daughter as she sleeps and silently resolve to protect her, like I often do. The purpose of my life seems to have come to this now. A few months back, it was to keep my husband alive.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Little Women

Chapter One: Birthdays

It’s Dad’s fifty-fifth birthday today. Everyone seems to have forgotten. Except Mom, who doesn’t seem to want to remember.

He left us quite abruptly, though on-lookers would disagree, exactly five months and seventeen days back after a five-year-long fight with cancer. We were unprepared, but then again, who is ever prepared to face death?

Everyone says we have handled it well, but I wonder what the criteria for that is. Yes, we are alive and yes we are living. But is that enough? My mother, sister and I, are a whirlpool of emptiness. That has to count for something.

Death wounds you in a way that everything else becomes secondary to its pain. Much like what chemo was to Dad. The sun rises and sets but the wound smarts the same, truly unaffected, like the reality of our very being. Much like what the reality of cancer was for Dad, and subsequently in our lives.

What’s funny is that not in my wildest dreams had I thought he would leave us, which is strange, given his condition. But, I guess, such is the arrogance of the human mind, believing it is invincible. And such is the innocent love of a daughter, who believes in her father’s immortality and her mother’s ability to endure everything. Yes, innocence and perhaps ignorance, is a wonderful thing.

Here comes Mom, morning cup of tea in hand, blissfully unaware of my thoughts. She sits on the chair next to mine and sips her hot tea and drapes her shawl on her knees. Both the cup and the shawl are Dad’s. “Have you had your tea?” she asks me while tilting to see my empty cup. She doesn’t wait for an answer. “Should I get you breakfast? Garam garam methi ki paranthi hai...with homemade white butter!” she adds, with her usual I-am-tempting-you-with-good-food look. She loves that look, like all mothers, I guess. “Nahi, Ma. Not yet,” I say, playing the role of the spoilt sport to the tee. “So, what’s your plan for the day? Any meetings?” I ask Mom as she scans through the headlines. “No...not today...” “When, Mom? You need to restart your work. What will you do all day? You really need to get back to work...” “I am not ready yet. Just let me be. Give me time. Don’t force me.” The same old argument. I soften my tone and say, “I don’t want to force you, Ma. I just want you to keep yourself occupied... I am sorry, okay? You take your time...We’ll go out for a movie today when I get back, alright?” To this she nods and I know this plan won’t materialize, it’s more to lighten the mood. “I am going to go get ready for office, then.”

And I exit the verandah, leaving Dad’s memories suspended in the air. A woman can only endure so much, I tell God as I cross the puja room on the way.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


Circles inside my mind's eye,
I wonder if I can hang them on my wall
Like I have, you
In a silver frame, with flowers on the side.

One would not be enough
To hold these whirlpools
And I don't know how they would seem
These framed entities, some blue, some white.

And so I am at a loss to think
How these shining boundaries contain you
You, who is alive and dead, at the same time
Within these four walls, how have you come to reside?

Have I, then, for many years
Just admired the frame?
At a distance I may have stood,
And not seen what it contains.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Signing out

So, I haven't written much lately, partly because I have been reading a lot (an occupational hazard) and partly because, well...What are the other billion reasons why a person doesn't write?

But here we are again. And that's what counts, isn't it?

I am the usual, flowing effortlessly through the monotonies of my excessively routine stale-bread sort of life. I do make it sound horribly brain-dead, don't I? Well, it isn't, I am sure.

Or maybe it is?

Too much for now.

Signing out.