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Fugitive

"My husband never cared much for eggplant." she added as she served a generous helping onto my plate. “This isn't really breakfast food," she shrugged, “but like I said I don't follow rules much when it comes to food."

“My husband never cared much for eggplant.” she added as she served a generous helping onto my plate. “This isn’t really breakfast food,” she shrugged, “but like I said I don’t follow rules much when it comes to food.”

I poured out the freshly brewed coffee into a mug, blew into the rising steam and took a tentative sip as I turned on my laptop. As the system purred into life I gazed out of the bedroom window. It was seven in the morning. The sun was hidden among the clouds shedding a bleak light all around, as if still deciding whether to wake up or go back to sleep into the snug folds of the clouds. Summer was gone, but monsoon had not arrived yet. The weather was cool but laden heavy with grit and grunge, waiting to be washed clean by the absconding rains.

My email server popped up. Five new emails. One marked red; High Importance. I clicked on the one email, my eyes skimming across the letters. Ignoring the other four emails, I punched the laptop back to sleep mode.

“Yes Ma, it is a big deal… no … No, you need to trust me. This promotion means much more than that…but why? … Of course… let me at least give it a shot…stop it Ma, everything doesn’t have to be about you. I have to do this. No Ma, I don’t want to come home…”

It’s been five years since I moved away from my family, settling in a new city, living alone, struggling to be independent, and working hard at a job as a data analyst for a multinational financial company. Numbers scare me. But as fate would have it, I punch in digits day in and day out now. Given the promotion I just received, I seem to be have become quite good at what started out as a part time job; a job to support a dream to pen my own book.

Unlike numbers, alphabets are a friendly lot. The letters hover around me all day; they buzz over my head like mosquitoes buzzing in the ear at night. I want to grasp them, squash them and splatter them against a paper. Create stories with their splayed bodies. But they elude me. The numbers drive them away.

That’s why I had to quit my job. I couldn’t accept the promotion. It would mean I betrayed my alphabets, chose the scandalous numbers over them.

But Ma didn’t understand.

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I never realized how many things I had accumulated in my tiny rented flat over the past few years. As a temporary arrangement I had started out with just the basic household things required for an existence. Over time, as the numbers slowly crept in and took over, so did many of these useless bric-à-brac. I had them all packed and sent over to my friend’s apartment.

“Are you sure you’ve thought this over well?” her concern was genuine.

“Yes. I want to travel. See things for myself. Create my own experiences. And that’s how I will write my masterpiece.”

“How long…?”

“I don’t know. Three months to maybe two years! I assume that’s how long before my savings run out.” I put in my bravest laughter. “Keep a look out for my book.” I chirped in.

“But where are you headed?”

She sensed my hesitation over the phone line.

“Yaar, I need to know.”

I told her. “Please. Please… don’t tell Ma.”

I stared at the white fluttering piece of cloth held barely taut by the bamboo wedges sticking out from the sand. The tarpaulin cloth seemed to be dancing to the swaying beat of the wind, sometimes shivering at a sudden gust. The sea was inching towards it with each crashing wave, threatening to drag it into the cold waters and into the dimness of the setting sun.

A woman walked out the tent and strolled towards the water. Bare-feet, she hitched up her flowing skirt above her ankles and let the waves crash over her feet. Watching her from behind, I imagined her eyes closed as she devoured the sensation of the water frolicking around her ankles, as she herself stood completely motionless.

With a sudden burst of energy she turned around and ran to her tent, dismantling it by tugging at the pegs. She gathered the tarp in her arms and grabbed her rug and other belongings just in time, as the salt water flooded the place. I was sitting higher up on the beach at some distance. I couldn’t hear her, but somehow I imagined her to be giggling.

I watched her walk away. Slowly. Sometimes turning back to look at the sea behind her, as if to bade goodbye one more time. She had her arms full or else I suppose she would have actually waved out to the waves.

I stood up and started at a jog after her.

She must have sensed me approaching as she stopped and turned in my direction. There was a remnant of a smile on her face as she watched me jog up to her.

It wasn’t much of a distance, but I was panting slightly having run with the weight of my backpack weighing me down. She waited patiently to let me catch my breath.

“I was wondering if you could tell me where I could get a tent like yours.” I pointed at the bundle of cloth in her arms.

She looked much older up-close than I had supposed. If I could hazard a guess at her age, I would put it down to late forties to early fifties. Her hair bounced in the wind about her face in loose strands and I could make out streaks of grey peeping just out of sight. Her face was handsome, her skin slightly pale. But it was her eyes which sparkled unusually, like a child’s who is up to some mischief.

She told me that there was a hardware store in the town centre where I could get all sorts of tents and accessories. Then she looked out at the sun as if deliberating and added as an afterthought that all the stores would probably be closed by now.

“The townsfolk here aren’t very business-minded you see”, she added with a smile.

“Oh, that’s… oh”, I put down my bag on the beach. “Thanks for the information anyways.” It was almost dark now, the red tinged tip of the sun fast disappearing below the horizon.

She continued to look at me, the faded smile still on her face, as if expecting me to continue. So I told her.

The lodge where I had made my bookings over the phone had given away my bed to someone who had arrived earlier and paid the full rent upfront.

“Miss…,” the manager of the only lodge in the town had explained, “we can hardly trust reservations over the phone. You see, we don’t get many tourists in this town and we can’t take chances letting a bed get wasted. It’s just your luck miss, we never get all booked up in this season.”

I had wandered about the town looking for any kind of boarding houses, but this tiny sea-side village seemed quite suspicious of strangers. Walking along the beach, looking at her tent had given me the idea to camp on the beach for the night and look for a better option the next day. But it seemed like I was really out of luck. Could I perhaps borrow her tent for the night, I enquired of her.

The beach isn’t very safe at night, she said. Also, the high tide drives the sea quite high up on to the beach. It would be very risky. She suggested that I try the train-station instead. They have a waiting lounge where I could spend the night.

Looking at her kind face, I ventured my last attempt at securing a safe roof over my head.

“If you don’t mind me asking, do you live nearby?” With the sun having set by now and the moon still not up, there wasn’t enough light to see her face very clearly.

“Yes…”

“Oh. Could I ask you if you would be so kind as to put me up…?”

“I don’t think that would be a very good idea”, she cut me off mid-sentence. “I don’t have a very big place, there’s not enough room. I’m sorry.”

“I will hardly take up any space I assure you”, desperation and helplessness mingled in my urgent pleads. “I have never travelled alone, and I have absolutely no idea what to do in a situation like this. I’m really in a tight-spot, if only you could help me out. I am absolutely harmless if that’s what you are afraid of. Here, you can check my passport,” digging into my travel pouch I fished out my passport, PAN card and other papers I had and held them out to her. “I may be stupid, leaving my house, my job, and setting out on this silly journey, but you see I want to be a writer and I thought that this would be a good idea, but how was I to know? I can pay you. Here…” I yanked out some money from the pouch. “See, I will pay for the stay… double the rent at the lodge.., I…” Perhaps my eyes had become accustomed to the dim light of the stars by then because I suddenly realized that the smile on her face had been replaced by a full toothed grin, a silent laugh, like she was giggling without a sound.

Perhaps it was the animated silliness of my face or perhaps the desperate plea for help, I’m not quite sure which finally convinced her to risk letting me under her roof, but I found myself washed clean and snuggled in between warm sheets that night.

It wasn’t a very big house, but not as tiny as the lady had suggested, and as it turned out, she lived alone. It was a two-storied house, with the ground floor accommodating a tiny kitchen with an attached dining area and another adjoining room with a couch and a TV. Up the stairs, there were two bedrooms and a small balcony facing the open sea at a distance.

The next morning when I woke up, the sun was already high up in the sky. I bounced out of the bed, straightened the room and freshened up. Collecting my bags I tiptoed down the stairs.

She was tinkering about in the kitchen, and on hearing my steps she turned and smiled at me.

“I had meant to head out earlier, but I overslept.”

“You must have been tired, tottering all about the town yesterday.”

I smiled sheepishly as a deliciously warm aroma wafted through the kitchen. She was cooking breakfast. I decided to leave before my stomach began its offensive rumbling. I already had my purse in hand and I tried not to look at the bubbling pan on the stove as I stretched out my hands to give her money.

“It’s not much, but I can’t thank you enough for your kindness. Never before had I realized the importance of having a roof over my head as I did last night. I quit the one I had so easily that it is almost ironic.”

She waved away my hand and when I insisted she gestured that I didn’t have to pay her anything.

“What do you intend to do now?”

“Well, honestly I’m not sure.” The silly animated expressions were creeping back to my face. I hadn’t truly thought out this whole idea of adventure. Standing there in her kitchen the idea did begin to look extremely loopy. “I had imagined myself settled in this town by now and dishing out pages after page of wonderful stories, but the twists in the stories have cropped up earlier than I expected. Now I’m this homeless, clueless, out of luck, miserable…”, her eyebrows were rising up slowly as I was ranting on, so I checked myself and added in quickly, “I should of course let you get back to your work and not bother you further.” I hoisted my backpack on my shoulder and turned towards the door.

“I really like to cook”.

“Oh…” I replied, slightly taken aback, “is it?”

“Yes. Mostly I experiment with food. Not the most conventional cooking methods.”

“That’s wonderful…I mean, that sounds interesting.” Judging from her wonderfully scented kitchen the experiments couldn’t have been all failures.

“Would you like to try some? Have breakfast with me?”

“Really?!” I couldn’t believe my luck.

She smiled back, her kind smile. “I’d like to make it up to you for being so uncordial yesterday. I wasn’t exactly honest when I said there wasn’t enough room for you here.”

“Oh that’s no big deal, you shouldn’t worry about that,” but I had already put down my bag and seated myself at the table, lest she should change her mind. “It’s not easy to let a total stranger into your house.”

She let out a short laugh and went about setting the table for two.

She explained that a moussaka was a Mediterranean baked dish made of layers of meat, potato and eggplant topped with generous dollops of Béchamel sauce.

“My husband never cared much for eggplant.” she added as she served a generous helping onto my plate. “This isn’t really breakfast food,” she shrugged, “but like I said I don’t follow rules much when it comes to food.”

The whiffs rising up from the plate tickled my nose as I tried to identify on my plate the ingredients she had mentioned. It smelled so nice that I couldn’t wait to plunge my fork in, but I resisted and waited politely for her to serve her own plate and be seated at her place.

But she put down the casserole and urged me, “Now go on, eat it. Tell me what you think.”

So I dug in. I don’t think I spoke anything until I finally put down my fork and looked up to see her staring at me, that faded smile she had on the beach now once more on her lips.

“Ah… I…so hungry…delicious…” I couldn’t even frame my sentences properly.

She broke out into a broad smile and said, “Some more?”

I was so embarrassed by my crass table manners that I refused sheepishly claiming that I was completely full. But she didn’t seem to find me rude. On the contrary she seemed quite pleased that I had wiped my plate clean within seconds. She didn’t seem to expect any verbal compliments. Instead she served her own portion and pushed the casserole back towards me with a wink and a slight flick of her head.

I burst out laughing. “You are an amazing cook”, I said, as I helped myself to some more.

“I know.” She took a mock bow and joined me in the laughter.

And sitting there in between savouring mouthful of moussaka, I felt a camaraderie grow in between two strangers. We talked for what seemed like a very long time.

She talked about her love for food, literature and music. The living room had more than just a couch and a TV. She showed me the wall to wall shelves stacked with books from the floor up to the ceiling. She had a large collection of old books handed down from her mother, who was an ardent reader too and she herself had added a lot more to it over the years. She spoke about her dream to be a musician as a youngster and she had tried, although in vain, her hand at multitudes of instruments, until she realized that even though she appreciated music she wasn’t much of a musician. She laughed out so loud when she shared the story in which out of frustration one day she had loaded her grand piano, guitar, violin and even her music system on the back of a truck and taken them to a junk dealer and sold them all at a bargain. She had cried for days after that, inconsolable. Her husband seeing her state had tried to retrieve them, not before castigating her for her impetuous behaviour, but by then they had all been sold off to other people by the dealer. She had almost given up on music at that time.

I couldn’t help but ask her about her husband and the rest of her family, seeing that she lived all alone.

“We separated some time back”, she mentioned.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.”

“That’s alright. It was a mutual separation. We were childhood sweethearts and at that time it seemed only probable that we get married to each other. Our parents on both sides knew each other well and they approved gladly. But it’s only when you live with someone that you get to really know the person, the nitty-gritty of the persona.”

I helped her to clear the table and wash and dry the dishes as she continued.

“In my case, I was beginning to know myself intricately, and ironically, it was through my husband’s eyes. Every time he disapproved of my thoughts or contradicted my decisions, or criticized my actions, I got to analyse how different, perhaps unusual my thought process was. My husband was of a practical lot, there had to be a strong logical reasoning behind his every action. For me, it was more imprudent, like the selling of my music to the junk dealer. It seemed the right thing to do at that time. I needed to vent out my incapacitation. And I cried thereafter to pour out my grief at the loss of something I valued immensely. I do not regret both these actions. But he did not approve of them. To him, these just indicated that I was losing my mind over silly matters.”

She handed me a steaming cup of flavoured tea and we moved out from the kitchen and onto the porch where she had laid out bamboo chairs and a low table. A slight drizzle had started and the sea had turned a dull grey in the distance.

We sat in silence for some time imbibing the rich salted breeze which we could taste on our lips in contrast to the saccharine laden brew. I wondered if it sometimes made her sad looking out at the bleak sea with its crashing waves sitting all alone on this porch. I wondered if behind the facade of her hesitation to give me shelter here, she actually craved for my company. Perhaps that was the reason she offered me to stay on for breakfast which although being long done over with, it didn’t feel like I was overstaying my welcome.

Taking a sip from my cup, I stole a quick look at her from the corner of my eyes. There was a faraway look on her face, as if she was reminiscing some moments fondly. Not wanting to intrude in on her thoughts I contented myself with watching the rain.

“Back in the days I hated being in the kitchen.” Her sudden words jarred me out of my own thoughts.

She looked at me and then back at the sea as she continued. “The daily routine of cooking the mundane staples; pulses, rice, curries, tempering them just the way my in-laws had taught me, which if altered didn’t go well with the family.” She turned to look at me, “the moussaka you relished so much, it wouldn’t have been even touched by him, for the sheer reason that I had used eggplant, which for no reason he detested. He wouldn’t even give it a try. My two kids would perhaps have had it just for the sake of it. As long as their stomachs were full, they never complained. I could never get them to appreciate the burst of flavours in all the different kinds of ingredients, they just gobbled it all at one go and washed it down with water.” She shook her head ruefully, “That wasn’t my idea of cooking, just filling up stomachs.”

“Your children, do they live with your husband?”

“No, they live on their own. Their houses are within the town, as it is more convenient and closer to all amenities. My husband takes turn living with them, sometimes he stays with his sister’s family in the next town, and on occasions they all visit me here.”

“Your family, they live so close by and yet they let you live here alone, all by yourself?! Isn’t that…,” I hesitated before blurting out, “…rude, almost cruel?” I couldn’t hold it in. “How could they be so irresponsible?”

She smiled at me calming me down by squeezing my arm.

“I…,” I bit my tongue. A sudden qualmish wave washed over me as I scratched the floor with my toenail absentmindedly.

Who was I to judge her children’s actions when I was no better than them? I had abandoned my mother in much the same way. My father had died when I was just a toddler. Being the sole reason for my mother’s existence thereafter, she had made my upbringing her goal. Every step I took was carefully gauged and ascertained by her. It was almost like she was living her life through mine. All through school I led a very sheltered life, my mother even choosing my friends. Even in college, she had me enrol for a subject in which I had no interest, in fact one which I almost abhorred; statistics. She had mastered in the same subject so she thought it would be right for me too, as she would be able to guide me through it if I struggled. Struggle I did, although I made through it alive. I even got a job. But I took it out on her in my own quiet manner. I chose the city farthest from home. And I had no plans to move back.

I had ditched her. And now that I was out of her grasp, I defied her at every chance I got.

I craved to become an author, because she drove me away from literature. I quit my job, because she told me not to. I left my apartment, because she warned me against being a foolhardy. I even kept her in the dark about where I was going, just to torment her for being over-protective.

“Would you like some more tea?”

“Huh?” I looked up at the kind face and wondered if she had forgiven her family and accepted the abandon as inevitable. Mothers do that. They absorb everything within themselves. Maybe it pained her immensely but she did not show it. Maybe that’s the reason she always kept a smile on her face. Had she learnt to live with it?

Will my mother learn to live with it?

“How do you always smile?” I asked her taking her hand.

She looked at me questioningly, even then with a crooked smile hanging on her lips.

“Maybe because I’m always happy.” she replied.

“But how could you be? Don’t you feel angry? Don’t you want to question the way your family treats you even after everything you have done for them?”

With her free hand she covered my hand which was holding hers and patted it affectionately.

“The rain has stopped, would you like to take a stroll by the beach?” Without waiting for a reply she dragged me up by the hand started walking. I followed her without a question.

We walked some distance without speaking. My own conscience keeping me preoccupied as it was trying to reason with my behaviour towards my mother.

She was the one to break the silence. “What do you want to write about?”

I shrugged my shoulders. “I was hoping I would find my inspiration here.”

“Why don’t you start by writing about yourself?”

“Myself? Huh.” I made a face “There is nothing interesting about my life.”

“Why is that? You don’t think this moment, us taking a walk together, talking, sharing stories, is interesting?”

“Yeah…,” I fumbled, “it is…actually it is quite interesting.”

“It is the little things that add up to a great story,” she looked into my eyes as she spoke “tiny morsels of interesting flavours which add up to create a great gastronomic fare.”

I couldn’t help laughing, “You somehow manage to relate everything to food!”

“Well,” she shrugged, “food is my storyboard. I express myself through my recipes. Did you know that I have an ingredient for each feeling? Before I step into the kitchen I sit down for a while figuring out my feelings and then picking out each corresponding ingredient I chalk out a recipe. And then I set about cooking. So you see, you have to come to terms with your emotions to deliver your masterpiece.”

Standing there looking at her ecstatic face talking about her passion, I was reminded of my mother, the look on her face when I had walked in through the front door of our home and told her that I had been selected for the job. It was as if she had achieved her most prized possession. In her happiness she had hugged me so tight that I had to remind her that I couldn’t breathe. I am my mother’s passion. And she was smothering me.

“…try the spinach gnocchi, I have a very interesting variation of the original recipe…”

Her words flowed on even as I was lost in my own thoughts, sometimes her face being replaced by my mother’s, and her words changing into my mother incessantly praising my every quality to the next door neighbours. I pushed the thoughts away and focussed back. I realized that she had stopped talking and was looking at me with her head tilted.

On a sudden thought I asked her, “What would you think if I were to stay with you while I work on my book? Or even better, we could travel places together. I would gather material for my story and you could get ideas for new recipes! What do you say?” I was almost holding my breath waiting for her answer.

“Why me?”

“Why? Because you live all alone, with nobody to take care of you. Because I’m running away from my life in search of some meaning. We could become companions. Help each other in realizing our dreams. It would be perfect.”

“And what are you running away from, my dear?” she looked at me with concern.

“My mother.” I couldn’t look into her eyes when I said this. I didn’t want her to judge me wrongly, so I told her, why I had to run, why I couldn’t let my mother’s dream overtake my own.

“You pity me, don’t you?” she asked, when I had finished. “When you look at me you see a wretched lonely woman abandoned by her family.” Her eyes had narrowed. “Just like you pity your mother. You worry about letting her down in her high expectations from you. You want to detach yourself from her. You are not running away from her, you are just trying to push her away. Rebelling against her, so that she gives up on you. But deep down you know that she never will.”

I was so stunned by her words that I had no reply.

She continued walking. I gravitated towards her. When she spoke again her voice was softer.

“I don’t live alone because my family left me. I am alone because I moved away. That is how I could choose to be Me. And I am happy.”

I looked at her quizzically, unable to grasp at what she was saying.

She said, “You asked me how I always smile. I smile because of the happiness I feel in my own space. where I live my dreams, where I sing aloud my favourite songs and have no one judge me, read surreal books all day long if I want, pitch a tent on the beach and watch the sun set, cook meals without worrying about who would like it, where I do not have to pretend to be anyone else, nor live up to anybody’s expectations. Here, although away from my family, I’m actually at home – with Me.”

She looked at me, “You can’t run forever dear. If you want a story, write one about the real you. The ‘You’ you would like your mother to see, the ‘You’ you would like her to accept as her daughter. Give her passion back to her, not like the mirage she has imagined, but like the reality that you are. Let her see who you are, and you wouldn’t have to run anywhere. Because then you both too would be home to each other.”

I felt myself sinking into the depth of her words. We sat on the beach looking at the fishing boats in the distance, bobbing up and down on the waves. The sun had climbed up to mid sky and was beating down upon us. The pinching heat of the sun felt good on my skin, the tingling waking me up from a deep slumber and revealing things clearer in its glare.

I felt a sharp poke to my side. “How does some spinach gnocchi for lunch sound to you?” she was grinning.

*

The white fluttering piece of cloth was held barely taut by the bamboo wedges sticking out from the sand. The tarpaulin cloth seemed to be dancing to the swaying beat of the wind, sometimes shivering at a sudden gust.

The young girl inside listened to the rat-a-tap of the rain drops on the tarp and turned her attention back to the letter she was writing. “Dear Ma, it’s time I came back…”

The day before she had received a package at her hotel’s address. It contained a preprint draft, a collection of all the letters she had written to her mother on her journey over the past year. Her mother had given her, her Masterpiece.

Image source: Engin_Akyurt on pixabay

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About the Author

Sugandha Mallik

Thinker. Dreamer. Writer. I Am. read more...

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