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They have a lot to catch up on. They have both come very far indeed from that unfulfilled young dream. They have both led their separate lives.
The train stops. She looks around. It is a big station, large and open, nothing like the big city railway stations that she has seen. This station is surrounded by lush greenery as far as the eye can see. There is a chill in the air. And a sense of belonging. She breathes it in, deeply.
She walks towards the end of the platform to the foot-overbridge that will take her out of the station. A few taxis and auto rickshaws are lined up near the exit, and she hires one at random. The driver helps her stow her one bag near her feet, while she sits to one side of the wide seat, as if she is sharing space with someone. Because she is used to taking up only so much space – always in a corner, trying not to make her presence felt. Now as she thinks this, she moves a little towards the centre of the seat, as if to affirm to herself that she is now travelling all by herself, for the first time in her life.
You wouldn’t really know it now, to look at her, but she is scared out of her wits! She has never ventured anywhere alone before this. And now, she is here, in a place that is only vaguely familiar. A place that is technically her birthplace, but it looks no more familiar than some exotic holiday location she has never visited before.
The auto rickshaw stops before a blue-walled house that she has come looking for. This too, should have been a familiar sight, but isn’t. Nor is the house next to it – a neat one story home, yellow now, with a brown trim; but which was white washed, with a red tiled roof when she was growing up in it. That house is barely visible through the ticket of trees from where she stands at the entrance gate of the blue-walled house. She cannot see it now, but she knows there is a well in the front yard of that house that serves as a source of water for both that house and this blue-walled one.
On hearing the auto rickshaw, a middle-aged woman comes out of the blue-walled house and welcomes her warmly.
“Was the journey comfortable?” the woman asks.
“Yes, thank you,” she replies.
“Please come in,” the woman says. “I am Lata. I help around the house here. I will help you unpack.
You can freshen up in the bedroom at the back. There is an attached bathroom. Tea will be ready in ten minutes. Please make yourself comfortable.”
So, that was why she couldn’t place this woman. She is a domestic help! But then corrects herself. That is not what one would call them here. It would just be Latabai.
She is led through a neat home, via a passage that cuts straight through the middle of the house, to the back where a spacious bedroom is awaiting her. With large windows overlooking the back garden and the side of the house, the fresh air and bright light in the room immediately make her feel comfortable. Latabai begins unpacking her bag and gives her a fresh towel and a bar of soap, pointing out the bathroom door for her.
“Ummm…when will…” she begins to ask.
“Dada has gone out to the post office. He will come in a little while. By the time you have your tea, he should be home.” Latabai smiles and heads off to the kitchen.
As she settles in the living room with a cup of tea, she walks around, looking at the small but neatly tended front yard, the shelves in the living room crammed with books; and finally goes to stand near a wall that has a lot of photographs on them. There are recent, colour ones and also some black & white ones. It is these black & white ones that interest her the most. She knows the people in these pictures. In fact, she is in a few of them!
Yes, there she is, with two pigtails hanging on either side of her face, looking seriously at the camera – a picture taken of her, with some other children in a studio. Then there is one picture of hers, with long, curly hair loose, eating a corn on the cob in a field. Standing next to her, is a boy, maybe a few years older than her, also eating corn on the cob. He is smiling widely at the camera, his eyes full of mischief.
She is looking at this picture, of pure, innocent joy, when she hears a sound behind her; and she feels a presence. A feeling so familiar, and yet, so far back in the past, that her breath catches at the mere memory!
She slowly turns around, and there he stands, all six feet of him. His hair has turned white, he stands holding a walking stick in hand, although, if he really depends on it she cannot tell, as he doesn’t lean on it. She cannot help thinking that he is barely recognisable, that she would indeed never have recognised him if she hadn’t been here, in his house, and looked at a few recent, colour photographs of him. And then he smiles.
And just like that, years drop from his face! He is, once again, the innocent, widely smiling boy in the picture with the corn on the cob!
She smiles back.
“You comfortable?” he asks.
“Yes. Thank you for putting up with me while…”
“It is no big deal, really,” he says. “I am glad you decided to come here.”
“I am glad I decided too. But the truth is, if that house next door…”
“Yes, if it hadn’t been available, I don’t really know if I would have come.”
“Then it is good I bought it when it came on the market and I was just looking for someone to rent it out, isn’t it?” he asks, his eyes twinkling.
She just smiles.
They chat for a long time, of old days and new. Of a shared childhood and adolescence that knew nothing but joy. And of a dangerous youth that could have been a completely different story if they had had their way. But her parents had found a match for her in the big city when he was barely even beginning a career; and things had just gone differently from there.
He has come to settle down here after his wife passed away some years ago. His children are abroad; and he has made good money, enough to have bought her childhood home which her brothers couldn’t maintain anymore and had put up on the market.
She has separated from her husband finally; after years of justifying his emotional abuse; and is now trying to find her footing. Her daughter, bless her, has researched on her behalf and found her this place, in her own place of birth. Only, her daughter doesn’t know that the owner she has interacted with on Facebook on her mother’s behalf was him.
Long after dinner, she sits on the front porch with him, chatting, making plans of having her house cleaned up and moving in there. She doesn’t know what living here next to him, at this age, when they would both have their grandchildren visiting, is going to be like. She doesn’t know what she expects living in a place where she grew up, would be like.
All her life, she has been a wife, a mother; and even a grandmother. But now, she is going to be by herself. After a sheltered life, she is going to live on her own. At an age when most people begin to look forward to life’s sunset, she is looking forward to a life that is nothing like what she has known so far.
She is nervous. She is breaking the pattern. But she is also excited. She is looking forward to it.
Image source: By Ishupragun (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons, for representational purposes only
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