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“Maybe when we think she is daydreaming, is just her pausing to see the beauty in the routine, mundane things around her!”
The Muse of the Month is a monthly writing contest organised by Women’s Web, bringing you original fiction inspired by women.
Shalini Mullick is one of the winners of the December 2020 Muse of the Month.
It was unusually silent.
“Rayna, you should have opted for the upper floors. None of this noise there.”
The chatter of children playing, walkers on their mobile, sounds from the laughter club, everything that could add up to a cacophony on the first-floor balcony was missing today.
Shashi sipped on her tea, ignoring the Marie biscuits.
Rayna reached for a biscuit to dip into her tea. A part of the soggy cookie dropped inside the warm brew. She immediately fished it out with the spoon she had brought for this purpose. A few small pieces were still left, leaving tiny clumps that would settle at the bottom.
“Those tiny bits will spoil your tea. That’s why I never dip the biscuits in, even though I like the taste. Do you want me to strain it for you?”
“No ma, it’s fine. They will add sweetness to my chai.”
Rayna did have a striking resemblance to Shashi, but only in her looks.
Her laughter was exactly like Vishal. So was her laid-back attitude towards life, Shashi reflected, observing her daughter’s loosely tied hair, chipped nail paint, and a t-shirt with Haldi stains on it.
“Do you really think you should quit, Rayna? You could take a leave of absence.”
Nihal was joining a new position that needed them to relocate from Hyderabad.
“Ma, corporate life is draining me. The kids are growing up so fast and I feel I am missing out on all their important milestones. I want to take things slow for while.”
Slow didn’t get anyone anywhere in life.
“Rayna, I can understand. I have also faced the challenges of balancing work and family. You wouldn’t want to miss out on professional achievements would you?” I managed everything, and so will you”
“Yes, mother you did it perfectly. As for achievements, maybe you have enough on your list for both of us!”
Rayna had blown kisses into the phone.
Shashi had a distinguished career in corporate banking. The awards and accolades had continued after retirement.
She had planned her trip to Gurgaon to help Rayna with the move.
The sudden lockdown had upset most of their plans, though.
The new school Navya and Yash were to have attended was streaming on the laptop and iPad.
Flights were suspended. Nihal was stuck in Hyderabad, and Shashi unable to return home to Bangalore.
“How will we get all this done?”
“Little by little, mother. Don’t stress!”
Unpacked cartons, piles of clothes to be put away, the dining table looking more like an attic…
Yes, little by little they would get things done, she hoped.
Like she would try whenever she visited Rayna’s home in Hyderabad…
She had been surprised that the children were allowed to paint on one of the walls.
The tiny garden at the back ensured that moist soil accompanied the budding gardeners into the house.
There would always be grocery to put away, and the living room looked really lived in.
“Rayna, the showcase could be closer to the window. The crystal pieces would reflect the sunlight perfectly.”
“Yash, why don’t you keep that stuffed doggie in your room? This shelf is for papa’s books!”
“It looks pretty there, grannammma; and doggy is learning to read.”
“Grandma” she had corrected him.
She loved her grandkids. If only Rayna would be a little strict with them.
The world today was so competitive and to succeed they would need to work extra hard.
But Rayna never seemed to realize how much more she could get done if she was more focused and organized. She could have the perfect house and career if she worked just a bit harder.
Shashi was as proud of her Bangalore home as she was of her career. Recently featured in a lifestyle magazine, she had been asked a familiar question.
“Ma’am, how are you so successful in all areas, your home, career, family?”
“Success comes with hard work and continuous striving for the next level.”
“It is also never stopping to enjoy and appreciate this level” Vishal had thought as he saw her picture, immaculately dressed, posing against the pristine white furniture.
It hadn’t been easy. She would have to put in long hours at work, attend training sessions, travel for meetings. All her time at home was devoted to Rayna’s studies and activities. Once Rayna would be asleep, she would attend to the chores and the preparation for the next day, week, and month. Shashi had kept everything running smoothly, like well-oiled machinery, bending over backward to ensure it never broke down. Balancing work and home, doing justice to the job and the home was a tight rope and she had walked it well.
Rayna was a perpetual dreamer. She would be analyzing the symmetrical patterns on leaves and trees in biology lessons; in chemistry experiments, she would be enjoying the mixture of colors and not the chemicals. Immersed in her theatre practice and art, she would forget her assignments. Studying at the last moment, she would do well in her exams.
“I wonder what she daydreams about all day. She can be at the top of her class if she works a little harder. An intelligent child with her head in the clouds”.
“A happy, easy-going child.” Vishal would remark.
“Maybe when we think she is daydreaming, is just her pausing to see the beauty in the routine, mundane things around her. She is finding joy in the moment, in the things around her; not in what she may or may not have later, Shashi.”
“That beauty is not going to make a successful life, Vishal. She will not be a child forever. How will make choices related to her career and studies like this?”
“Hmm, you do realize, she is very young. Do you feel she should burden her present with these thoughts of the future? Isn’t living in the here and now more important?”
“Vishal, the here and now will become the future. We must be clear about what we want.”
Vishal had got used to her preoccupation with planning and structuring their lives, always to the smallest level.
He wished she would relax, breathe and just let herself be, at least sometimes, if only for herself.
Rayna meanwhile had charted her course. Blending her eye for aesthetics and creative instinct with the technology boom, she majored in web design and marketing. She had interned and worked at some of the best firms.
“You have your tea. I will start folding the laundry.”
This was the only time of the day when they could get the house in order. Once the kids woke up, there would be so much to do.
“Ma. This is the only time of the day when we can relax a bit, Let me play some music for you.”
The strains of ‘Zindagi dhoop tum ghana saaya’ began to stream from the iPad.
Jagjit Singh’s music was a common passion for Shashi and Vishal. Shashi would reward herself with her favorite melody at the end of a day when she had finished all the things on her list. Vishal could listen to stirring music all the time. Even now, he had the maestro’s soft, soulful music on loop in his studio.
Vishal had always been a keen photographer. His hobby had turned into a full-time pursuit some years ago. He had set up his studio in a small bungalow on the Bangalore Mysore highway where he now conducted photography courses and workshops.
The studio was small, run-down, and cluttered, with photography magazines, lights, tripods jostling for space.
“Vishal, all the big magazines and newspapers to which you could submit your work are in Bangalore. In a small place, how will your work be recognized? “
“Shashi isn’t the countryside beautiful? And peaceful too. Recognition will find me when it has to.”
“Vishal, you see enough beauty through your lens. You need to be pragmatic. The real world can be quite ugly with its pressures and demands it makes on you.”
“The real world and what it offers is quite beautiful, Shashi, if you stop to look. My lens is just capturing an image, and it’s details. Beauty is something that we will see only when we pause to appreciate it. And that applies to life, as much as it does to pictures.”
Just two songs, she told herself, before she went inside to fold the laundry.
Four songs later, Rayna’s phone rang.
It was Vishal.
Shashi hadn’t realized when Rayna had handed her a second cup of tea.
Rayna switched to speaker.
“Good morning papa”.
“How are the kids? School has started?”
“Yes, everything is fine. The kids are getting used to online classes. ”
“I hope it is not difficult for you to manage.”
“Yes, it is difficult without help, but I am trying out new dishes.”
“Look at the bright side. Maybe the kids will start helping out with the chores!”
“Yes, that would be good!” Father and daughter laughed together.
Rayna continued, “You had to cancel all your workshops. This was to have been your favorite travel photography tour. How disappointing. How are you keeping busy?”
“I am discovering things, Rayna. Like, yesterday I learned that half-boiled eggs don’t work well in curry.”
This time, Shashi laughed too.
Vishal could make a mess in the kitchen and laugh about it! Trust him!
“On a serious note, I started a new series of photographs. This portfolio will be about capturing the stillness of the lockdown.’ Near, yet far’. The pictures will be of things around me, simple daily objects which we hardly notice in our busy routines.”
“That’s a lovely idea, papa!”
“It is a reflection on how we are focussed so much on things that are far and distant that we want or believe we want, that we miss what is right next to us. Simple, intangible things like beauty, happiness, and joy!”
“Looking forward to this collection, Papa. I need to wake up the kids. You speak to mama.”
Shashi took the phone. “Is that Jagjit Singh I hear?”
“Yes, We were having tea in the balcony.”
“You must have been up all night working hard if you are listening to Jagjit Singh”
She could feel his laughter as he chided her.
He waited for the rejoinder, which didn’t come.
“I think your idea of the lockdown portfolio is great!”
Shashi reached for the biscuit and dipped it in her tea.
Jagjit Singh’s magical voice filled the silence that she craved for; and which she had found jarring when it finally happened.
Vishal and Rayana did have a point about living in the moment.
She had spent a lifetime looking for the next step, planning for the day, week, or month to come. She was always controlling what she could and preparing for what she couldn’t.
Right now nothing was the way it was supposed to have been, and it was uncertain when things would go back to normal.
Yet, the biscuit soggy with the tea it had soaked, the songs that she was humming along, and the lovely view of landscaped gardens below made everything just right. These were moments that she would have found slow, almost wasteful. Now, she suddenly found herself savoring them, wishing she could extend them just a little more before the April sun made the morning warmer.
How many such tiny perfect moments had she missed while trying to create the perfect life?
It didn’t matter. What mattered was that it wasn’t too late. That she was finally present in her now. She could stop rushing, and slow down to find beauty in things that she hadn’t ever noticed before.
Editor’s note: “Ideas are kind of magical. Sometimes I get them from reading or listening to people, but at other times, they just appear mysteriously,” says Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, bestselling and award winning author published in over 50 magazines, in over 50 anthologies, and having written several award winning books.
Her characters, as she says in this interview, “go through their difficulties and come out often stronger, wiser and more compassionate. I think they give hope to readers who are going through their own griefs. Perhaps that is why people – men and women – relate to my books. The characters’ sufferings make them feel that they are not alone.
The cue is this quote by her: “But maybe as I get older, I begin to see beauty where I least expected it before.“
Shalini Mullick wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
Image source: a still from Hindi short film Methi ke Laddoo
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