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Beena listened carefully, smiled at me in an affectionate and supportive manner, and held out raw mango slices placed wrapped in parchment paper.
Now it is more than a couple of months since her enraptured and unflinching laugh delighted me. I reminded myself that it was no use worrying over this matter.
She could be out somewhere paddling patiently through the sweet and sour mess that is characteristic of living a full life, or she could be fiddling around humming some old Abba song, totally unaware of the fact that her phone’s battery had died! But I was pretty confident that Beena would ping me soon and laugh my favourite laugh and tell me enthusiastically yet another one or more of her awe-inspiring stories.
It was last September that Beena had to circle back to her hatching locale. The nest had shrunk since Beena and her siblings relocated to their places of work elsewhere but right now it shrivels from the sudden death of their beloved Papa. The wilderness still continues to occupy its place in the porch and the encircling walls sag from the heavy weight of sadness. Yet her affectionate mother holding on to her father’s memories is unwilling to leave the nest which she had built with lot of care, love and numerous sacrifices. Wallowing in father’s lingering presence, she is silently decaying a little every day, with her increasing arthritis problem paralleling old furniture’s crumbling from termite attack. Every day in the morning she lovingly packs Beena’s lunch box and eagerly awaits her return in the evening. Simple rituals such as these appear to mend back some of the slashes, and the home continues defying the odds.
Beena drives her father’s steel grey Honda Amaze to work and does shopping of greens and groceries on her way back home. Every now and then she prods her mother to relocate to some other place where old memories will not linger around. ‘Was Aunty agreeable to that idea? I had once inquired over the phone. ‘So far, no affirmative reply, but maybe someday …………..’ she sounded a bit vague and uncertain. I thought aloud, ‘How long can this go on?’ Several moons had elapsed since cleaning and sealing of rooms, no longer used. A small portion of the house was unwillingly given out for rent to keep it breathing and alive. ‘Clearing cobwebs seemed to be making more room for life to leave. The house still resisted retrieving,’ said she. I can easily feel the unavoidable change in lifestyle encircling over Beena’s and her Mom’s lives. They are like peas and carrot now – they are going to stay under the same roof; it would be that either Beena would give up breaking free from the captivity of her present or her mother would give up the hope of retaining her satisfactory past…
Our calls have gradually diminished. ‘How is life treating you?’ I would ask whenever she found time to ping me.
‘Kozhikode is jam packed with beliefs and is humid still,’ she would say. There are frequent power failures during monsoons and these failures are long enough to allow for rethinking one’s entire life; but what do you think they do instead, they relax over a cup of chai, make phone calls to their overseas siblings or their cousins in India; or swat at mosquitoes. . There is not much change in the neighborhood except for some expansion of the temple premises. We see sons growing up to be more like their father, and the daughters following the footsteps of their mothers-in-law. The entire society lives on binary fission. Homes are kept homogeneous and stubborn spirits are eliminated from the system.
‘People residing there are straight-forward, mostly related in some way and are over-familiar,’ Beena had once told me. They are a friendly set of neighbours, they bring you special items cooked in their homes; take it as their privilege to tell you how to live your life; advise you on the ideal length for your tresses; or your correct measurements for your flowing skirt. Not alone these they take the trouble of enquiring why you are still single, especially if you are a lady of thirty-something, and take it as their responsibility to free you of the “ordeal”. Their assemblage of solutions spans ‘pujas’ and fasting for ‘mangal dosha’ remedy for the well-mannered but divorced, wealthy cousin from Bahrain. They discuss all your personal issues. All you do is listen patiently, nodding your head now and then, without getting choked on the divinely bite of appam soaked well in rich and creamy coconut stew. They are broad-minded enough to allow you to express your unwanted and nonconformist opinion as long as it does not smear the standardized one; and as long as you safeguard tradition.
‘How do you tread along in shoes that no longer fit your feet?’ I had asked Beena the last time we exchanged news, and she replied ‘Well, I don’t know’. She continued that she had finished cooking the chicken curry, and it had come out well. She was now in the process of filling the casseroles and was stepping out to return them to her neighbours in time for their dinner. It was really thoughtful of them to have brought delicious breakfast for her and Mom. I very much wished that we could speak for some more time but there was nothing much to talk about.
Our lovely friendship had blossomed spontaneously and unnoticed like a flower growing in wilderness. Yes, we bumped into each other six years ago at Xavier’s’ Institute of Medical Sciences. We were batch mates and there was interaction between us during our course work. As excruciating and distressing as the PhD coursework was, it proved to be a fated way to meet people. Whenever we met, there was nothing much in common to talk about except for academics. We were mere acquaintances with a few common friends, until all our common friends drifted away. Five years into Ph.D when I was due to submit my thesis, my longstanding friendship with four of my batch mates was abruptly cut-off , as if I was suddenly considered to be unfit. As it gradually dawned on me that I had been severed off by my friends on whom I had relied most, a rusty film of heaviness settled over me, hindering all my activities. Gradually my angry bafflement morphed to dullness and grief. Beena and I started to bond in the misty exhilaration of my thesis completion. Friendship between Beena and I started to unfold and Beena showed up for me like cool and welcoming rain in summer. She seemed to be a very balanced person. She still continued her friendship with my ex-friends, and also became my rock as I was growing scar tissue over the rejection that wounded me to a great extent.
This happened when we both attended a stand-up comedy at our college premises. Roopa, my ex-friend showed up with a smile on her face and sat next to us. Beena took her seat between me and Roopa. There was exchange of pleasantries between them until the show started. Their conversation exuded warmth and concern. The bird in my throat became mute and my heart experienced cramps. Soon the lights were dimmed announcing the start of the play. Beena put her palm in mine and I sat through the haze. Later on when we were returning to the hostel, I broke into tears without warning as water from a check-dam., with uneasiness of a jilted lover. Hurt and shame descended on me!
Beena stood by my side, in the middle of the well-lit road, without disrupting my chain of thoughts and my consequent action. At the same time she saw to it that no pedestrian stared at me or interfered in our privacy. It was about 10 minutes before I composed myself and became self-conscious and apologetic. She was in no hurry to break the silence. She cushioned it like some damaged item should be. By the time my deep cut within changed into a fading mark. Beena had started to open up to me as well and our friendship started deepening by the day.
Once it so happened that we were preparing lunch together, something homely to sooth our nostalgic memories. I had diced some carrot and beans and told her to slice the red onion. ‘Can I chop instead of slicing?’ she enquired. That sounded a bit odd, so I asked her as to what was it that made her prefer chopping over slicing. ‘You know, my grandma was very particular about symmetry to whatever goes into the cooking utensils’ ‘Ya!’ it makes sense though; I myself was very fussy about it in my earlier days. However, Beena immediately added ‘…but it is not necessary that we have to symmetry. I would call it her eccentricity or maybe her irrational contention…’ ‘Ok. Let’s go ahead with chopping,’ said I. ‘Symmetry sounds easy and soft!’ So saying Beena melted like candle on a flame. She wiped the tears in her eyes and swallowed down a sob. It was only then that I knew of her recent loss or how raw it was.
Beena’s grandma had spent her last days in the hospital. She took Beena to be her neighbour, and not her granddaughter. Earlier Beena would climb on to her grandma’s hospital bed and braid her grandma’s pepper-salt hair, which was something she loved doing. Beena had lot of fun immitating the neighbour whom she could not remember now and enjoyed the make-believe conversations. This uncensored gossip made the bond even closer. During this phase of innocence and trust, much of Beena’s own life grew side by side like equally divided sections of hair turning into a braid. As Beena fed and bathed her grandma with an incredible tenderness, a part of her childhood, which was somewhat bruised, got itself healed and rearranged.
It was when Beena’s grandmother was wheeled into the Operation theatre for the fifth time consecutively that peering through the glass door of the ICU unit, Beena prayed for a peaceful life for her grandma whether it be at home or heaven. She felt totally helpless and distraught looking at her grandmother’s pathetic condition. But this needs strength and courage to let go that way. But of course there is no other choice, thought I, to know that you will be left all alone with a huge vacuum in your heart left by your beloved grandma.
It was vulnerability that had thrown Beena and me together in this journey of life and our friendship seems to grow steadily with the passage of time. It may been termed as pratfall effect; we bunch together because we both are set in our own ways, often distanced and misinterpreted because we are not disposed to shape ourselves to genetic expectations. We are inclined towards a wonderful surrogate family, substituting for the biological one that is mostly not available and at times even unsympathetic. Till the time Beena completed her doctorate, we shopped, cooked, went for sight-seeing trips and dined together. We grew to be each other’s depository of our day-to-day stories and unfulfilled dreams.
My first unforgettable experience of Beena was particularly marvellous and exalted. It was late noon. The sun was slowly setting; the sky was clear; with the heat tolerable and the breeze invigorating. We met outside the library and sat on the warm oblong granite steps. Rose plants were in full bloom and the butterflies were flying hither and thither over the blooming bushes close by. We joked and laughed about our underpaid and exhausting PhD life; our temperamental professors; and the lonely life of a scholar. She spoke at length about Germany, which she had visited recently and about the friends who had cruised me. I winced and she noticed it. I openly confessed my uneasiness felt from losing valuable friends.
Beena listened carefully, smiled at me in an affectionate and supportive manner, and held out raw mango slices placed wrapped in parchment paper. Mouth-watering, they were raw and fresh; cut into medium sized pieces; and sprinkled with chilli powder and salt. I kept on turning down the offer politely. But Beena was insistent that I take a few pieces of the tempting raw mango! I was thoroughly perplexed! Here I was telling Beena how shattered I was, as uninterestingly as I could and she was obsessed with the mango! I sighed and asked her the reason. She laughed it off and replied ‘It is because they are really, really very yummy and delicious.’ I finally gave in and took a slice. Yes, it was spicy and crisp. Though my pain stood undiminished, snorting like an offended militant, at that point of time, I had distanced myself a little from it. It did give a really good feeling. I miss all those good times. I glance at the phone but it just refuses to ring!
Image Source: Pexels
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