Having been fired from her job, Riya seeks advice from her nani. What does nani have to say about taking second chances in life?
Riya reached her nani’s place in Dalhousie early in the morning and was welcomed with a warm hug. Nani planted a kiss on her forehead. Riya’s arrival didn’t surprise her, as her visits were always unannounced.
“What’s it this time?” She said, closing the door behind her.
Riya threw her bag on the floor and collapsed on the armchair. “I got fired, nani”.
“You have come at the right time. I was about to make chai.”
Riya followed her into the kitchen. The kitchen window overlooked a valley which was covered in trees.
The wind seemed to caress the trees like a mother stroking her child’s hair. Riya felt a shiver of loneliness run through her.
She turned her gaze from the luscious greenery to her nani’s grey hair. “Don’t you feel lonely, nani?”
“Of course I do, betu. But like everything else in life, one gets used to it. We have become friends now – my aloneness and I.” She strains the chai into two cups. “Are you hungry?”
“No,” Riya takes the cups from her and goes to the adjacent room where they usually sit by the window and talk over tea.
“Tell me now. What troubles you?”
As a child, Riya used to spend all her vacations in Dalhousie. Her nani and nana had settled here after both their children had moved on with their lives.
City life never suited them. Nana joined the Dalhousie University as a professor and they made this beautiful cottage their home. Riya would always look forward to visiting them and spend time here.
As she grew up, she preferred spending her vacations in exotic locations. She, however, developed a new fondness and affection for her nani over the last few years.
After her first boyfriend of four years broke up with her, she packed her bags and came to Dalhousie. She never shared her personal life with her parents.
If they knew she had a boyfriend, all hell would have broken loose. She found her nani to be different with her progressive and radical thoughts.
After nana passed away six years ago, nani opened her dance school. She started with teaching two sisters and now she had twenty-five students and two trainers.
Riya felt accepted with her, Nani never made her feel inadequate unlike her own mother.
“I made a mistake, a blunder rather, nani. It’s all my fault. And now who would give me a job after discovering that I was fired by one of the top consulting firms. If mom finds out, you know what would happen. I feel useless.”
“How old are you, betu?”
“Huh? Don’t you know?”
“My memory fails me at times. Tell me.”
“Twenty-seven. I’ll turn twenty-eight in two months.”
“You’re an adult. What makes you incapable of making your own decisions?”
“It’s not that simple, nani.”
“It’s never simple. I was married when I was seventeen. I begged my father to let me study and complete my graduation. I didn’t have the courage to run away and take charge of my own life. We aren’t afraid of people or situations, we are afraid of nothing.”
“Yes. You’re afraid of what would happen tomorrow or what would your parents say. The fear of something that doesn’t exist in the present – that is the fear of nothing. And it cripples you.”
Riya sighed. “It’s not nothing, nani. I don’t have a job or a prospect right now. I do not even have the motivation to look for one. I feel lost.”
Riya peered at the dense forest below. She could hear the wind outside punctuated by nani’s sips. The noise inside her kept on rising.
Nani, as if sensing her agitation, said, “When you were a baby, you would rarely cry. I still remember the day you learnt to walk. I had woven a basket for you. You held it in your hand and walked all day long.
“We tried to make you sit but you wouldn’t stop. Not even in the night. You didn’t want to sleep. You kept walking until you were exhausted and fell asleep in my lap.”
Riya had heard this story many times. It was one of nani’s favourite anecdotes. She studied nani’s face, her wrinkles had not been able to rob her glow.
There was a calmness in nani, a serenity in her eyes that one couldn’t find in people these days.
“You’re fortunate, Riya. You have the freedom to walk on a path of your choosing.”
“This isn’t freedom, nani. Your generation thinks we are free. But that’s not true. We are bound in a different way than you, but no one’s free.” The freedom talk always annoyed Riya.
They sat in silence until nani said, “Are you going home this time?”
“I don’t want to. Tell me something, is mom really your daughter?”
Nani laughed. “Why, betu?”
“She’s nothing like you.”
“Are you like your mother?”
Riya blew air out of her mouth. “No friggin’ way!”
“Women try too hard to not be like their mothers,” nani said and rose from the chair as the doorbell rang.
“That must be Raju.”
Riya wondered if she could live here all by herself, shut herself out from the crowd, from the tall buildings and snaking flyovers. In Mumbai, what she did was never enough.
The more effort she put in, the more restless she grew. The cacophony around her kept on increasing and expanded the void in her.
As she sat surrounded by silence, she could feel her heartbeat and hear her breathing. Existence felt effortless.
The loud bang made her rush to the kitchen. Milk on the wooden floor ran in all directions in search of corners to hide. Riya picked up the mop and began to clean.
Nani guffawed. “I’ll call and ask Raju to get me more milk”.
It took Riya around half an hour to wipe the floor completely off the milk. She washed her palms until the smell of raw milk left her.
When she entered the living room, nani said, “If your mom was here in your place, I’d have gotten a scolding. I’m glad you’re more like me.” She winked.
Riya sat next to her, smiling, “Me too, nani.”
“Don’t you have the dance class today?”
“Geeta takes the classes now. I go there once or twice a week. I cannot dance with these aching joints.”
“Nani, why did you never dance when nana was alive?” Riya had heard her nani narrating stories of the opening of her dance school but she never thought about this earlier.
“Your nana didn’t like women who danced. It was something that only base women did in his view.”
“And you never thought of leaving him?”
“Tch. It wasn’t an option for us. Before I knew, I was a mother. And then we grew old together. When you get used to someone, a certain way of living, it isn’t easy to break that. My life was his.”
She continued after a pause. “After he left, I wandered around this house for days, my tears wouldn’t stop. I didn’t know how to live without him. Then after fifty-six years, I spoke to my childhood friend, we used to dance together.
She was battling with blood cancer and she told me that she wished to dance once again. Dance meant freedom to her. That’s when I decided I’d go back to dancing.
Your mom asked how I would dance at this age and your mama instructed me not to break my bones. Well, I haven’t broken any yet. I started teaching the neighbour’s daughters and slowly other kids joined in.”
“Hundred and seventy-one.”
“I keep a count of how many times you have told me that story.”
“Well, betu, this is the only story I have that is my own. I wish I had more.”
Riya watched her nani in admiration. She didn’t realize when she had bought the story sold to her by others.
How would it feel to spend your entire life by someone else’s design only to realize in the end that you didn’t really live at all?
“Now I can die in peace.”
Riya embraced her, “Don’t say that.”
“It is inevitable. You are too young to think of death like that but I live with the thought all the time. The truth remains, perceptions shift.”
Noticing the puzzled look on Riya’s face, nani continued, “You blame yourself for being fired. But I don’t see it as your mistake. You haven’t been happy in this job but you never left it on your own.
You always talk about sculpting, but you have never done anything about it. Why?”
Riya fumbled for a response but couldn’t come up with any.
“I’ll tell you why. Because it’s scary to leave the comfort of your well-paying job and the hollow life you’ve created for yourself over these years.
If you learn something new now, you’ll have to begin again, struggle through the initial phases of learning, and it may happen that you realize it’s not for you, what then?
Or you may be excellent at it. But the risk is larger than going through the mundane life you live at present. You have built this trap of excuses around yourself and you’re caught in your own misery.”
Riya couldn’t refute that. After taking a weekend course in sculpting, she pushed it aside thinking she would get to it later.
Her work and business travel left her with almost no time to pursue something that gave her joy. And now that she was thrown out of the comfort of her prosaic existence, she was forced to look at the hard truth.
She didn’t realize how much time passed by as she sat there lost in thought. She was startled when nani shook her, “Chalo, let’s go to that Chinese corner for lunch. Your treat.”
Riya rubbed her eyes and laughed. She hugged nani tight and said, “I’m going to write my own story now. However small or flawed, it will be mine.”
This short story had been shortlisted from among many, for the September 2020 Muse of the Month contest.
Featured Image Credit: Photo by David Beale on Unsplash
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Rajni has been writing verses and cooking up stories for as long as she can
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