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At last there was someone who valued me for who I was, what I thought. He didn’t want me for his physical needs but for his mental fulfilment. I wanted it too.
Rohit wiped his tears again. He had done that many times during the flight from Bangalore to Mumbai. His younger sister Reema called him early morning; their mother had passed away in her sleep.
Reema lived in Mumbai too and visited Mom every week. After their father’s death five years ago, they had tried to convince their widowed mother several times to shift in with either of them. She insisted that she wanted to be on her own. She loved their families, but more than that, she loved her independence, her home and the birds in the lake behind their housing society. She was the proverbial free bird, the siblings often teased her.
At home Mom’s body lay on the floor. The neighbours and relatives had been waiting for him for the last rites. Reema hugged him and they cried aloud in shared grief.
By noon, Rohit and his cousins took his mother for her last journey to the cremation ground. They returned in few hours. Since Reema had informed everyone, the visitors began to pour in.
All day Rohit and Reema sat among the mourners. By the evening, they were to themselves. Rohit asked her to come to the terrace. He wanted to see the lake; it was full of birds again.
“Mom used to look out of the window all day, it was her best past time.” Rohit admired the colourful dusk sky in the background. The housing complex had the best view of all New Bombay.
“She taught biology before she married Papa. He was posted in Dehradun that time. Then the company transferred him here. She had to give up her family and job to come here.” He mused.
It was something both siblings knew but it felt good to share the story from each other’s angle.
“When I was born they lived in town. We had a very small apartment there. But Mom was miserable there. She missed the spacious houses of her home. With front lawns and backyards, gardening and home grown guavas and Lichees. Then after you were born Papa bought this place.” Rohit told his sister.
“Really I don’t even remember the older house. I thought we were here always.” Reema wondered how siblings saw different aspects of their parents and thought they knew the same things.
“Remember once I stole a video game from my classmate’s bag? Then I got scared that she would beat me up for stealing.” Reema mused.
“Yes I told you to quietly keep it back. If they found it again, you were no longer a thief.” Rohit smiled looking into the sunset.
“You kept my secret. You taught me it’s alright to be tempted but is more important is to remain honest.” Reema held his hand with gratitude.
Rohit pressed her palm with assurance, “That’s what mom always said. I just repeated her words.”
“No you were always bright. I remember how she used to make you prepare for debates and recitations. You always won.” Reema looked at her elder brother with admiration.
“I just crammed up what she wrote for me. She should have been the one getting the prize.” Rohit laughed.
“You remember she made me dress up as a kite for a fancy dress competition and wrote a poem too.”
“sir sir sir udi patang,
fir fir fir udi patang,
isko kata, usko kata….”
“…Khoob lagaya sair sapata.” Excited, they sang it together and laughed aloud.
“It was so much fun to get the prize and make a run for the house. She always beamed and made a special meal that night.” Rohit savoured the fond memories in his imagination.
“But then we grew up and friends became more important than her.” Reema reflected.
“I remember she used to feel hurt that I danced with the girls and didn’t hang out with her at the New Year’s party. I told her that she did not give me freedom. That she clung to us and suffocated us because she had done nothing else with her life. I feel so wretched now.”
Rohit’s smile turned to a guilty pout. “And I always banged the door loudly, she used to be at her desk writing and the noise played havoc with her concentration. She told me each day but it gave me a sense of power not to obey. I realise how she must have felt.”
Rohit’s daughter ran in, “Daddy there is someone for you.”
Rohit and Reema returned to the living room. A tall man wearing a black blazer and an attorney’s collar waited for them. He introduced himself as Mr. Bakshi and requested an audience in private. The relatives were suddenly attentive. They moved to the adjacent room. Much against the mourning norms, Rohit’s aunt entered with a tray of refreshments. The lawyer went quiet and looked at her expectantly to leave. Her attempt to eavesdrop foiled, Massi’s face fell. She retraced her steps out.
The attorney spoke, “Your mother made a will and divided her assets equally between you two. There are however two last wishes she commissioned me to inform you about.”
The sister brother duo always thought their mother was a simple homemaker. Her arranging an attorney assisted will announcement, was a surprise. The lawyer gave them a packet. Rohit broke the seal. There was a letter, her picture with an unknown man, and a key inside.
Dear Rohit and Reema,
When you will find this letter I would be gone. You might have regrets that you couldn’t say goodbye. Secrets you wish you had shared, or some unexpressed complaints. All children do. But believe me I have talked to you each day in my thoughts. I have rewound and lived your childhood again and again. I am not an ideal mother; if you are human it is not possible to be both. Yet I have done my best.
I have two requests. I would like you to skip dipping my ashes in the Ganges at any of the holy places. I want them to be immersed in the lake behind our house.
Mr. Bakshi must have informed Mr. Shyamal Srikrishna, the man in the picture with me. He is a wild life photographer. I would like you both to take him with you, when you go to immerse my ashes. I could not share my life with him. I want him to find this closure in my death. Please give diary of poems to him. It is in the locker behind my bookrack. I am keeping the key here.
In the locker you will also find another diary that will tell you why I am doing this. It tells you about a week of my life I have never shared with you. A facet of your mother you have never known. It might not go with the image of your mother you would like to believe in. But you need to understand how a woman feels beneath the veneer of an ideal wife and mother.
Just like children, adults too have unrealized dreams and regrets. Living is to strike a balance between what we want to do and what we should do. Ultimately what choices we make, define us. As I said it is tough to be a mother and human both.
Rohit stared at the picture, his mother had her palm over the man’s chest and his arm was on her shoulder, both smiling into the camera. They were sure a couple. She must have been about forty at that time. Was his mother an adulteress? Did she cheat on their father?
In five minutes Reema had observed a rainbow of emotions on her brother’s face- grief, joy, regret, surprise, shock and finally confusion. He handed the letter to her and slumped on a chair. She hungrily scanned through the letter and looked at the picture and her brother’s eyes with disbelief.
Mr. Bakshi informed them that Shyamal would be arriving there next morning when the ashes came. He took their leave after that.
“When did she meet this fellow? We were always there. I don’t remember her going alone anywhere. Dad did not allow her at all.” Rohit was rubbing his forehead in his chair.
Reema took two paces and pressed his shoulder. “Don’t jump to conclusions. Mom was an uncluttered soul.”
“I have my doubts now. Why did she have to do this? I would have preferred her homely image preparing meals, hanging the washed clothes, tending her plants in my mind.”
“Basically you don’t want to see the woman she was, you prefer her as your chained slave, making herself useful around the house!” Reema had bitterness in her voice.
“What do you mean? I loved her.”
“Only if she fitted in the role of a devoted mother. Otherwise you don’t.”
“But she lied.”
“You were fine till she lied, you are miserable when she told you the truth. Let’s read the diary.”
“No, I am afraid I will lose my respect for her. I want to live with her memories the way I know her till now.”
Reema opened the locker and removed the diary. She began to read:
Jayant is away for a company tour again. It is strange that marriage binds the woman and keeps the man free. He becomes the alpha who can come and go, as he likes, the woman becomes the beta adjusting her schedule to everyone. Today the kids also left for a weeklong school trip. I suddenly have no work. I don’t know what to do with my time. Since morning I have done all the cleaning. There is no one to fight for going to a night over at her friend’s house or a motorbike trip with his pals. I think I should go to the supermarket to spend some time.
The next entry had been made a little later. It was not a daily account, rather incidents of several days written in one sitting.
Returning from the super market that day I saw a van parked near our turn. A man waved to my car, I stopped and he asked the way to the lake. I didn’t have anything urgent to do and I always loved to go there. I asked him to follow my car. We stopped at the last drivable point and left the two vehicles. We walked the few yards to the lake on foot.
He told me he was Shyamal. He asked me if I had any relation to Dehradun. I nodded and it turned out he was from there too.
“I knew from the way you spoke.” He exclaimed.
We had never met but he suddenly seemed like a long lost friend. He connected me to my roots. We talked about many places we both had visited, the street food, lichees, and trips to Mussoorie and Haridwar.
I told him how the migratory birds came to our lake from colder countries in October. They assembled here in the shallow salt-water ponds. Fed on the insects and smaller fish. Shyamal was a very interested and patient listener. He asked if they just ate all day?
I had not talked this way to any body since a long time my floodgates just broke open. I talked like an eager breathless teen…
“…The birds begin to land in the lake by noon. Within an hour there are thousands of them. I described their preening rituals of dives, spins and running on the water. The male flamingos danced like tap dancers to entice the females. Then they selected their partners and made their nests in the mangroves. Then came the parenting phase and the saga of sacrifice began.”
He was fascinated and asked the location of each activity. I pointed to the sites. He then opened his bag and assembled the biggest camera equipment I had ever seen. Curious, I asked him what he did for a living. He disclosed he was a wild life photographer for BBC it made me very self-conscious. I had been trying to coach a professional I went silent.
Shyamal was surprised that his equipment and occupation interested me. According to him I was a natural who saw the full ecosystem as an interesting story. He said if scientists wrote with passion like mine, more people would have enjoyed and valued their natural resources.
After he finished marking the sites, we walked back to the cars. He thanked me for guiding him. I invited him over to our place. Shyamal confessed he was a vagabond so homemade meals were always welcome. He promised to turn up at eight.
I had a simple meal ready when Shyamal came. He had carried some flowers. I put them in the vase on the table. He offered to help but I was mostly done. Over the food we talked. His parents lived in their ancestral home he visited them each month. He had never married because he had always imagined it would be someone who loved nature as much as him understood his work and completed him as a person. He had never met such a woman.
He told me about the different assignments he had done. To all the fascinating places he had been. I told him about my stint as a biology teacher before marriage. How I used to prepare my lessons for my students, built them into stories that they could relate to. He was curious that if I loved my work so much, why hadn’t I continued. I told him about you all. How there was no time, after all the housework I did.
He proposed that if I could spare a few days each month we could together do a story feature for some of the lesser-known magazines. Once the idea picked up we could go on to more prestigious magazines. Perhaps my regret was written on my face, he immediately apologised and changed the topic. Shyamal was leaving and invited me to Elephanta caves next day. I wanted to live a lifetime in the week that I had got by luck. I agreed.
Next day he picked me and we left for the caves. I had got used to confinement within the four walls. A total abandon free outing with long drive, boating and hill climb made me dizzy. The wind blew my hair and I laughed like a young girl. In the evening he dropped me home happy.
Then came the shoot at our lake. We reached it before dawn. It was very exciting to be a part of something important. I realised this was what I wanted to do each waking day of my life. The whole day we shot the mating rituals of flamingos. He held my hand when we entered the mangroves to see their nests, eggs and the hatched chicks how they fed their babies. It began to rain that day. The flamingo mothers spread their wings and covered their chicks braving the rain themselves. We stood there drenched, our feet knee deep in the tidal water, shooting the wonder of maternal instincts.
Then we wound up and came home. The storm became rough, I asked him to stay till it passed. We planned the script of the whole feature together. He wanted to rest and slept in the guest-room. I sat down with my pen and wrote a poem.
The flight of the Flamingo
The winds become strong,
Their flock about to leave;
Flamingo’s nest had a chick,
The tender wings might cleave.
Rain pitters and patters,
But chick remains settled,
Below mom’s wings,
To her bosom snuggled.
Mother watched worried,
The last bird pass by,
There was still time,
But she got to try.
The days passed,
Chick got strong,
But it rained harder,
And threatened a storm.
Finally when it’s time,
They flapped their wings and soar,
Covering the sun,
The dark clouds roar.
Hurry said the mother,
Just cross the sea,
His wings still weak
Chick wanted to flee.
The mother took a dive,
Took him upon her rear,
With her tired feathers,
She fought her worst fear.
She went on and on,
Till the shoreline did show,
The wound in her breast,
Began to grow.
She hit the sand,
Like a dead stone,
With no regret,
Her chick was home.
Shyamal read the poem that evening and seemed to be lost in his thoughts. He told me that he would then on design all his features according to my themes and give me credits. I was anxious, told him I could not risk being linked to him. It would bring a bad name to my family. He mocked me – what kind of a family I had that used me like a washing machine and didn’t realise my talent?
I was no less sarcastic. What did he know about commitment when he had never really been loyal to anyone?
He shouted loudly, “Because I wasn’t looking for a woman to fulfil my physical needs, my food, washing my underwear. I needed a woman who could be my complimentary half. And when I found one she is not ready to recognise her value. You can do it Madhu. Come with me let’s make features people will never be able to forget. I have the technique you have the vision.”
Shyamal’s retort was totally unexpected, it hurt my pride. I was stunned and asked him to leave.
That night I lay alone in my bed thinking. Shyamal was right I had become a machine to fulfil the family’s needs. What I wanted, was not important to anyone. For all the work I did you were not even grateful or polite. Jayant had promised the moon when we got married but what does a woman who is round the clock home need anyway? My only outlet were my poems; that is where I was liberated. At last there was someone who valued me for who I was, what I thought. He didn’t want me for his physical needs but for his mental fulfilment. I wanted it too. He was the person I had waited for all my life. It was a certainty I felt deep down my heart and it scared me.
I packed my bags. I was finally listening to my heart. I knew you two were old enough to take care of yourself. Jayant would understand. In the morning I rang Shyamal and told him I was ready to leave.
But destiny had other plans. Mangla, our neighbour walked in. She told me Reema had requested her to keep me company, while you all were away. She praised what a caring daughter I had. Then she told me Rohit often dropped her at the bank. When she thanked him, he would always say, “I would have done the same for my mother”.
It hit me hard. My children’s self esteem and honour was tied to me. If I left, the same people who praised, would ridicule them. We lived in a society that judged us. Jayant had been a controlling husband but still he was a gentleman. I couldn’t let him be humiliated.
I sat there for hours thinking. At last, when Shyamal came I refused to go. He was heartbroken, asked me to think again. I refused. Leaving the house, he gave me his address and said he would keep in touch. Told me, he would take my opinion for each of his feature. If I ever changed my mind, he was just a phone call away.
When he left in the car, it as though drove over my heart crushing it to bits. For last two days of my vacation, I cried my heart out. Then it was the day for you to come back. I went to pick you up. Things were back to routine again. Soon Shyamal’s documentary on our lake was aired. Like all children of New Bombay you both were very excited to watch it. The movie was dedicated to M. your mother.
He kept it touch through phone calls and letters. I thought he would slowly forget me but he never did. Before each project he discussed everything in detail. Made changes that I suggested and included me in the credits. But we never met. It would have killed us to part again.
After my death I will be free of my bondages. It is said that fire purifies everything. What is left after burning is pure. So I want him to touch my ashes with you. Return them to the lake where we first met and I understood myself. My poems are dedicated to him. They are for him to keep.
Reema finished reading and wiped her tears. She understood why their mother said, Its alright to be tempted but is more important is to remain honest.
When Shyamal arrived, they both shook his hand. They gave him the diary.
Shyamal turned the pages and caressed the handwriting Two tears rolled down his cheeks. “All her life she has anonymously contributed to my work. My career blossomed only after I met her. People say my movies have a humane angle and a soul. It was she. I could never bring her to limelight, she resisted it.” He sighed.
He sniffed and looked at them both with imploring eyes. “If you permit I want to publish these poems in her name. I want to give her a tribute.”
Rohit and Reema nodded.
The three people entered the shallow salt lake. There were thousands of birds. They moved away at their sight, all but one. A single bird stayed, where it was. Slowly they emptied the ashes form the urn and it made a cloud in the air. The lone flamingo flapped its wings, took a low flight around them and soared in the sky. They watched it for long till it disappeared. Through their tears, they smiled. They knew they had finally liberated her.
Published here earlier.
Image source: pixabay