hy she had been on the roof of her house she could not remember (there were many things that she forgot these days). Anyways, so she had been on the roof when the keening sound struck its first cords in the absentness of her mind and her heartbeat went a pitch higher. Fear and panic played on the strings of her soul; impotent rage set atremble her whole being. A surreal roaring throbbed in her mind making it dull, numb and at the same time very wary like a hunted animal ready to pounce on the hunter to survive. She rushed downstairs (surprisingly fast for her), aware of only the music of separation that played inside her and the hunter that chased her.
The keening sound frightened her and yet she loved and yearned for the moment she had hated. Life now was a nostalgia, a series of days passed over remembering and yearning for the past. She walked down the silent corridor of the old house, wiping sweat from her forehead with the corner of her sari, frayed and soothingly soft from her tears. Sometimes she exercised her Right but she could not think of any reason for tears except her own selfishness, of course. Her mind refused to think of any other reason. The maid had come and gone, cleaning up half-heartedly and cooking up a mishmash of spoilt, burnt food. The maid was basically a young girl who had not seen the kitchen until she was employed. She didn’t mind what the food was. There was no appetite left in her. Sorrow had feasted on her, made her too hollow to care and besides, everything tasted like crushed Neem leaves these days although once she had gambled entirely on the power of food, especially her rotis… She sank into a bamboo chair and prayed quietly. These days life was as much a memory as a reality, if not more.
The electric fan above gyrated slowly and contentedly, making small mechanical clanking sounds as though it had lived its life to the fullest and was happy to retire now. The feeling of nostalgia slowly swelled until it filled the room in a physical presence, suffocating the frail body. She hurried out on the porch of her house, nauseous, and looked upon the driveway that led from the iron gates. Refreshed from rain, bright flowers with silk-like petals swayed gently, tiny shining drops of water on the petals captured the sun-sodden scene around them in little mirrors. The afternoon stretched out languorously, drowsy with the calm that surrounds all afternoons in Cuttack as people enjoy their siestas. The air was humid and atremble, as though with tears being held back. This place…so dear and yet she hated it, wanted to leave it. Hated it and loved it and hated it but loved it and… She brought up hot withered palms to her forehead and felt the heavy throbbing veins pushing through and stretching the thin papery skin. She stood quietly on the porch, patiently, as though hoping for someone, anyone to knock on the gates. Eventually, she forgot where she was, swiftly carried away by the sea of memories…
Anita bent over the hot mitti ka chulha, deftly avoiding the acrid smoke as it danced around her long hair that was forever tied in an over-oiled braid. She prided herself on her soft round rotis. It was a secret subconscious pride, of course, for women were neither supposed to be seen nor heard in the early 60s. They were to live behind curtains, doing jobs that were taken for granted by everyone, including themselves but today, for once, she madly and openly wished that the softness of her rotis would somehow entice the eater into her arms forever. It was an outrageous breach of feminine timidity, but the heart of a mother clung to that crazy belief and the power of her rotis.
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She packed up a large steel tiffin for Ravi and hurried fussing about as he ate lunch with his father and her husband, Suresh Pradhan. Suresh was tall, dark and slightly balding now. He was the man she served. Neither hating him nor loving. She liked him and felt that it was fate that she had married him and was obliged by society to serve him. Anita didn’t mind. Anyways, she was too busy trying to stop Ravi. Normally Anita would have stood quietly by the table, waiting on her husband but she was too busy today, trying to win over her son’s heart. Suresh, for once, oddly understood and didn’t mind though he pretended to mind just so as not to breach old norms.
Anita watched breathlessly as Ravi gingerly tore off a bit of roti, the steam rising in a swirl of earthy motherly fragrance and ate it. His face did not change but Anita did not, could not lose hope yet. She knew Ravi would stay. By some crazy unbelievable miracle, he would stay. Maybe he didn’t realize that he would never be able to eat the rotis if he went away… she had to make him realize. Surely, he loved her cooking a lot? Did he love it enough to stay? Ravi kept checking the clock in the hall, kept saying that he just couldn’t be late. Oh, he was still her child! So pleased with himself, so proud to go out in the world alone, alone and without her! But…but…what did her child know? What would he do so far away from home? Home in their Cuttuck (Odisha)- with its Durga pujas, Bali jatras, the Cantonment Road made by the angrez, the Ring Road, the Barabati Fort, the Katak Chandi temple and oh so much! Its people, lives and places were as delicately and intricately fascinating as the Tarakasi silver that had made it famous in the world.
But more than anything- it was here that she, Anita, was. It was imperceptible to her that he would leave the warmth of her love for anywhere else. Her love that had shielded him, nurtured him and watched him with pride. Her love which was a soft warm cushion for him- he had hugged the cushion in happiness, made it wet with tears in sorrow, slept on it when tired and hit out at it in anger and now he intended to leave it, forever leaving the mark of his head to remind her of the void in her life.
They set off for the station at 20 minutes to 4. The train was to come at four. With any luck, Anita hoped, it would be late, and she would just be able to stop Ravi from going. Her mind did not know how but her heart knew she had to stop him. Ravi carried two bags in his hand, his body stout and fresh with the quivering notes of youth. Suresh carried a small bag that contained the tiffin and a few other knickknacks. The station was just 10 minutes away from their home. They walked in a line through the narrow back alley with houses clustered together. She knew every household and normally she would have been glad to pass by here because she seldom had time to visit friends but not today. She wished she wasn’t so painfully conspicuous trailing behind her son. People came out and smiled knowingly, patted Ravi and occasionally stopped them and chatted amiably. Walking through the crowd Anita felt that she was taking a sacrificial animal to the pyre, ready to be killed. Old acquaintances seemed to her to be wicked strangers out to take away her son. She walked half consciously, dragging her feet and staring helplessly, furtively looking for an escape through the crowd of houses, dizzy from the sun and somewhat jealous of her son’s jovial attitude.
They finally reached the Railway Station- abuzz with the lifeblood of people from many places. Suresh looked at her and told her to wait while he got the station tickets. The rain-like pitter-patter of a dozen feet, pigeons flying in and out, hawkers, passengers, potters- the mother saw a thousand lives, big and small, come together to bid farewell, to say goodbye. Sweat streamed down her neck and back like a thousand tiny bugs crawling about. She scanned the crowd feverishly, wary, searching for the enemy who would take away her son. The glaring light of the sun made it hard to see or think. Everyone seemed out to take Ravi away.
“Why are you looking so frightened ma? Don’t worry. I know you are scared here without baba but he will be here soon.” She smiled up at him, the sun blinding her eyes as she tried to look clearly at him. The tall boyish figure of Raviwas more dazzling than the sun and looking at him brought shame out the depths of her soul. Ravi had worked so hard for the scholarship and he was finally going to some university in Delhi. How happy he must be! And how ignorant of her selfish feelings! But it wasn’t that she was not proud but that feeling was suppressed by the steely coldness of congealed tears that cut across her heart in waves of forlornness.
She knew she mustn’t act like a fool, mustn’t make him nervous or worried. She must face this with strength and pride. Control yourself and look at him with pride and joy. Anita did look at him, but the pride and joy were thrust away as her eyes met his. How wonderful her boy was! Surely, he couldn’t dream of leaving her. Surely… there was a chance that he might say. Ravi smiled down at her, brighter than the sun and she held her breath, hoping he would tell her that he was indeed not going anywhere, that he loved her too much to leave and he couldn’t ever bear to leave her just as she couldn’t bear to see him go away! “I hope the train’s not going to be late ma.”
By four the train had not come, and the hope burned stronger than ever in Anita’s heart that something would stop him… each minute meant time gained. Perhaps the minutes would stretch on forever… It was five minutes to five when the keening sound struck its first cords in the absentness of her mind and her heartbeat went a pitch higher. Fear and panic played on the strings of her soul; impotent rage set atremble her whole being. A surreal roaring throbbed in her mind making it dull, numb and at the same time very wary like a hunted animal ready to pounce on the hunter to survive. The train came sliding along like an old man with a horrible wheezing problem whose lungs rattled and shook painfully. Its whistle wailed and trumpeted, tired and indignant at so much work in such an old age.
Pigeons rose suddenly in dark flocks against the angry red twilight sky, hawkers and porters rushed forward and the rain-like pitter-patter of feet turned into a thunderstorm as people ran about excitedly. She felt so completely excluded from this excitement, so deprived of energy or life. Her eyes turned anxiously to Ravi, all the naïve hope gone now as she watched him rush ahead with Suresh and his bags. He came out shortly, looking flushed. He turned to his father first as per the proprieties, touching his feet and looking at him with a proud smile. Suresh smiled wanly, patting his son awkwardly. His face looked battered as though a weak damn holding back too much, about to burst open and yet always being mended just enough to keep it going. He needed to cry but he could not.
Even Ravi would have been astounded to see tears in that heavy-set manly face. Society did not give the Right to Cry to Suresh even if he might have wanted to. It was too unmanly. For the first time in days Anita noticed her husband, how haggard and broken. She would have to take proper care of him. She had ignored him almost completely these days. I will have plenty of time for my husband now, she thought bitterly. Anita was busy looking at Suresh when Ravi embraced her. It surprised her but she clung to him for support in the thronging sea of people. She wanted to say something but nothing happened. Society gave her the Right to Cry but she could not do that either. Tears could not express her grief and neither could words. She felt numb even as one feels a few moments of numbness after an injury, just before the injured area begins to ache painfully. Ravi released her and looked at her as though waiting for her to say something. She could think of nothing. Only the melancholic feeling of shame remained. There he was, finally leaving his poor beginnings probably for a better education and a brighter future, and she, the mother, was selfish enough to not want him to go. She couldn’t describe the emotions that pounded her body with soft dumbing blows, making the reality fade in and out- pride, joy, sorrow, hatred, love…it was all there and all of it startled and frightened her.
The train inched forward slowly and the crowd became more excited. Ravi dropped his gaze. They said goodbyes and he walked away. Her heart was intoxicated with pain as she watched him go and a dizzying mist swirled around her, making her tremble slightly and sway like a drunkard. Oh Ravi! Ravi! Don’t go. Don’t… She took two tottering steps in his direction… “Beta keep writing letters and call whenever possible! Don’t forget us!!” Even in the loud bustling crowd people turned and stared at her but Ravi still didn’t turn. There, she had shouted so uncouthly, so unwomanly but so what? Anita watched as Ravi got into the train and kept watching until the train disappeared in a fit of coughing smoke.
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She finally turned around and stared unblinkingly at Suresh who was weeping softly and wiping the tears with his large hairy hands. Anita, for once, didn’t care what others might think and her mind refused to be ashamed. She simply stared at Suresh as one might look upon a wall, impersonal, even uncaring. Her mind could not move away from the moment when Ravi had looked at her, brighter than the sun. The moment seemed to last forever as she carefully drew his face in her mind’s eye. Suresh looked at her and said in a voice choked with tears, “He didn’t hear what you shouted. I know he didn’t. I am sure.”
Anita went through the empty house like a ghost in her white sari. Her eyes were large and watery red and her cobweb-like withering white hair was tied back in the usual over-oiled braid. She felt restless and tired at the same time but she was strangely used to having contradicting emotions and thoughts. Something caught her attention and she looked sharply to the right at the wall beside her. There was a dusty calendar on the wall. “Calendar 2005” was written in block red letters on the top. It was turned to the page of October. Besides the dates there were pictures of different types of Odia sweets. She slowly turned the pages, dust stubbornly clinging to her fingers. Chenna Poda, Chenna Gaja, Arisa Pitha, Khaja… Ravi had loved all these sweets. Maybe she should ask him if it was right to bring along some for him and her grandchildren when she came. The thought brightened her and she hurriedly looked at the clock. Almost six now. It was time to hurry. She was about to go to the dining room when her eyes once more caught “Calendar 2005”, and this time she stared at it for a long time. Anita realized that Suresh had died in 2005 too. She kept forgetting the year and date but the calendar reminded her. How he had loved keeping things up to date, always going out to buy a calendar for the New Year, turning pages on the 1 st of every month. She had never changed any calendar in the house after his death. The problem with death was that people died and rested in peace but left behind too many memories and things to torture those left on earth. She unclipped the calendar and threw it in the dustbin. Anita tried to walk briskly just to shake off Suresh’s memories but her steps were slow and lumbering as her mind went back through the years. There were so many remarkable features about Suresh- his over six feet height, his tobacco-red mouth (always with a bit of tobacco sticking through his cheeks), his love for movies, his hair forever dyed a dark orange; but oddly enough, the only thing that Anita could recall when thinking about him were his tears.
The day he had chosen to break norms was the day that Anita had started loving him. There was such a vulnerability about a strong man with tears dripping down his long handsome nose, such a softness that it had pierced Anita’s heart; his crying had unburdened her, made her feel less guilty for selfishly wanting her son; her impassive tough-looking face had made Suresh reach out to her, had made him want to seek shelter in her courage…
She realized that it was already 6:02 and hurried to the dining room where her phone was. She sat down in a white wooden chair and held the phone close to herself, impatient but not daring to call Ravi herself because he had told her strictly that he would be busy and she mustn’t call and disturb him. Every day her son called once at six in the evening and every day Anita went through the morning and afternoon on the lookout for something that she could talk about, for something to talk about just so that their conversation lasted a little longer. At 6:20 Anita was still sitting on the chair, hearing the aughter of some kids playing cricket next-door. The phone rang suddenly and she picked up the call with lightning speed.
“Hello Ravi Beta.”
“How are you ma?”
“I am perfectly alright.”
They chatted for a while and just as they were running out of things to talk about, Anita quickly said, “Accha Ravi beta I wanted to ask you whether I should bring along some sweets from here for the children and you. I could bring it easily because I don’t have much extra luggage.” “Good idea. The children will love those sweets.” She quickly saw her chance and said a little desperately, “But first you must tell me when I am supposed to come so that I can buy the sweets in advance.” “Oh, you will come very soon ma.” “When Ravi? You say ‘soon’ all the time. I want to be with you beta. I want to see my grandchildren. I have just met them once. You haven’t shown me your home in U.S.A (She just said ‘Amreeka’ instead of U.S.A) even once. I have hardly ever seen you over the years since you went away to that university in Delhi and later to Amreeka. I don’t know how much I will live now…your father’s already gone…please Ravi.” She hated sounding so selfish. The same melancholic feeling of shame came over her. She knew already what was coming.
“Ma I don’t know what to say to a grown-up who behaves like a child. Why do almost all our conversations end like this? I hate to even think that you consider me as someone who has just left you to your own devices. Who’s been sending you mean for the past twenty-five years? I can’t believe someone of your age can behave this way. I had a lot of work in office today and I am too fed up to deal with you. I talk to you to lighten my day. Not to add to my worries. We will talk tomorrow now. Goodbye.” He cut the call and she sat still for a very long time. The oppressive ticking of the wall clock made her break out in sweat after a while and shudder ever so slightly. All of a sudden, she burst into tears and cried loudly, screaming along just to outdo the horrible loud beating of her heart. Sometimes she exercised her Right but she could not think of any reason for her tears except her own selfishness, of course. Her mind refused to think of any other reason.
Author is a student and freelance writer based in Aligarh. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org