A week before Diwali.
“The hot oil welcomes the uncooked chakli in its unctuous folds. It is satisfied when the chakli goes belly-up. The skimmer spoon swoops in to rescue the chakli, not bothering about its own safety. The mission is successful. The boiling oil hisses, desolate as the chakli departs, further and further away from it. Its sadness is soon dispelled by the arrival of a new uncooked chakli. And the story continues.”
My 10-year old precocious daughter, Varahi perches on the kitchen platform. At a safe distance from the stove, she provides a running commentary about my actions. It is Diwali time, and like every year, I dedicate it to frying festival delicacies. It is her favourite time of the year.
The aroma of the cooked chaklis bulldozes its way into every corner of the house. They tickle the nose of my indolent husband, who makes his annual visit to the kitchen. The invisible strings of the aromatic chakli-pied-piper have reeled him in!
“Are the chaklis done? I have been waiting for them for ages,” he exclaimed.
“Papa, there is still some time left. Mama has only finished half of the dough,” said Varahi, putting down her pretend mike.
“Aha! That means I can target the output of the first half!”
Varahi rolls her eyes as her father gobbles up four in quick succession. Another victim of the chakli-greed.
“Papa! At this rate, you will finish it all. Please leave some for us!” she cries.
“Arrey! your awesome mother will make some more.”
“Stop fighting. There is plenty more. And there are other sweets on the table, Vishal,” I say.
“Ooh! Joys of Diwali!”
“Mama, let me finish off this commentary, and then I need to protect the food from papa and his insatiable tummy.”
Putting on a formal voice, she speaks into her ‘mike’.
“And this is how the oil sacrifices itself by offering fried snacks for humans. It is an example of a situation where human selfishness comes at the cost of a life. That is all from me, Varahi. See you next time.”
I watch her with affection as she flurries across the kitchen to prevent the food drought.
Our house is gleaming and full of festive fervour. Each year as I labour over the eatables, I am reminded of my childhood. I have always believed that Diwali holds more appeal for a child than an adult. The promise of no-school days, delicious snacks, and the endless opportunities to run with friends and cousins complete the circle, only drawback is to avoid the toppling of the clay diyas. The firecrackers and Diwali are intertwined, though my childhood house never experienced bursting of many crackers as I was not very fond of them. But I did like the occasional firecracker, and the apple does not fall far from the tree. Varahi is not very fond of them, either. Though the sparklers bring out the giggles, the bombs propel her into my arms.
Work-life imbalance, coupled with my concerts, delays my entry into the kitchen this year. So I have loads to do before the big day catches up with me.
I take a short break, wiping my forehead. Frying is such a sweaty job.
The bell tinkles, its voice is sweet. It intends to cleanse the house of the evil spirits and help the mind to concentrate on the deity. Away from all the distractions, and it succeeds. We close our eyes and pray to the goddess to bless our house and our loved ones.
Once the aarti is over, Varahi claps her hand, excited, “Mama, it is time for your performance. I am going to set the music up.”
We watch as she skips to the media room and literally and figuratively sets the stage for me.
On every Diwali day, during my week-long break from the concerts, I present a short dance recital at home. I pay abeyance to the higher powers by invoking Lord of Bharatnatyam, Shiva’s name. It is through my dance, I express my devotion, dedication, and gratitude to him. Over time, these performances have brought Varahi and me closer. Using the nuances of Bharatnatyam and the language of dance, I have been teaching her about the influence of god in our lives. It is the greatest pleasure of my life to see my daughter take after me when it comes to dance and rhythm. Varahi is very fond of it.
She is a quick learner, I hesitate to use the word prodigy, lest I be accused of being blinded by motherly love, but she is good. Much better than what I was at her age. And, if her potential is fulfilled, her fame will exceed mine, by far.
The media room.
I sigh with pleasure. I have been waiting for a year for this day to arrive. The moment I would witness the lithe, graceful lady lose herself in her musical movements. It is the high point of my existence. I wait with bated breath, hoping she would start soon. Yet, I am unwilling to part with the feeling of anticipation. Euphoria will follow it. And I would, then, crash land into the disappointment of waiting another year.
Ah, she is about to start.
I lose myself in the flow of her dance – it is hypnotic, like a warm tide that kisses your feet and retreats. Only to do it again and again.
As the soundtrack reaches its crescendo, she experiences a frenzy. Her movements are lissom and mesmerising to watch as she pirouettes. Her rhythm is infallible, her face expressive. It is akin to attaining nirvana.
This is how a Sufi poem would have danced if it ever came to life.
When the music ends, there is silence as each one of us tries to come to terms with what we have seen, a slice of heaven, a glance at its angel.
“Bravo! Mama, you danced so well. Promise me you will never give up dancing. One day, I am going to dance like you! We will dance together on a stage, mama,” the child said.
“Varu, very soon, we will dance together. Grow up fast, my little munchkin,” the lady panted, spent but smiling.
I have attained moksha.
In the evening, Vishal takes us to Burj Khalifa for an outing. The world’s tallest building is resplendent with the Indian tricolour. Magical fireworks light up the sky. Experiencing the evening breeze on my skin, I almost do not miss home. Almost.
Silly, Dubai is your home now. It has been for the last eight years. Accept it and move on.
The homesickness bug raises its ugly head each time the festive season rolls in. Despite being in Dubai for several years, my heart still belongs to Bombay. But when my family – my raison d’être is in Dubai, I can manage it. Bombay was where I grew up, met Vishal, and conceived Varahi. It will always have a special place in my heart. Dubai is wonderful, but no Bombay, it is.
We reach home quite late. On route, Varahi falls asleep in the car, Vishal carries her home in his arms. My heart takes a snapshot of the two of them, father and daughter, silhouettes against the night skyline of the skyscrapers.
My cup runneth over. Thank you, Lord Shiva.
A few months later.
Am I lost? Where am I? Gone to the place where dreams go to die, where happiness commits harakiri.
The last few days – or was it months? – have passed in a haze. Grief strips off everything you hold precious and stomps on it while mocking you. It crushes you in its stronghold, like a cobra, squeezing you.
That one phone call changed my life, shattering it into pieces. I was due to go on stage, waiting in the greenroom when my manager approached me, looking grim. The greenroom was a witness to my complete breakdown.
When I reached Dubai and was taken to the morgue, I fell apart, afresh. My family – my raison d’être lay on the sterile slabs: dead, their expressions, frozen in time. When I caress my daughter’s cheeks, instead of finding it sticky as it usually is, it is so cold, so very cold. I clutch at Vishal’s hand, seeking the warmth it always gives, but I find no response to my touch. The ice permeates into my heart. It freezes everything.
The accident that stole my life happened on the day Vishal and Varahi were out shopping for the approaching festival season. They were hit at an intersection, where a car, on the wrong side of the road crashed into them. Everyone involved in the accident died on the spot. I often think about what must have happened on that day. Did Varahi cry out for me, cry for her mother, who was out dancing?
I blame myself for not being there when the accident occurred. I blame myself for choosing to honour the contract when I should have been in the car with them. I wish I were in the car with them. My anger had found an outlet – my dance. I vowed never to dance again, as long as I lived.
Many Diwali days came, and many Diwali days went, but I do not budge. I stay back in Dubai, continuing in the same apartment. How could I leave when my family is still here – in my memories and in the places I haunt. Looking for them – for that one glimpse. To hold them in my arms, just one more time, one more hug.
The media room.
The pall of silence continues in the house. Where there was once music and laughter, now, stillness reigns. After a while, it starts to get to you. The quietude gnaws at you, bite by bite, bit by bit. Till you start to bleed. Once you start, there is no stopping it. It does not give up till it is inside you – it becomes you.
I waited year after year. Waiting to witness the miracle again. But it did not happen. The house feels empty – it is empty, like the lady who lives in it alone.
She is a shadow of herself and hardly ever leaves the house. She watches their home videos on the television, on repeat. Watches and cries. Her sobs tear me into pieces. I wish I were human enough to put my arms around her so I could comfort her. She cries like she is tearing up inside. Maybe, she is.
Grief does that to you.
Huddled in the media room, I watch endless reruns of our home videos. I see myself getting married, getting pregnant. Each month as I blossom, I marvel at the feelings I felt. I watch Varahi when we bring her home, a little pink fluffy bunny. I weep as she grows – year after year. Stopping at ten. Never to go beyond it.
Today, I dare to watch the video of our last Diwali together. First time since the accident. Before this day, it had felt too raw, too soon, but today I feel I am ready.
I see myself dancing on the screen, watch Varahi’s rapt expressions while her eyes never leave me.
She loved dancing, that girl.
My feet, without me being aware, twitch to the music. On the screen, I finish the recital. Varahi runs into my arms, holds me tight. My arms move into position, anticipating her arrival.
I pause the video as I cannot see anything. My tears block my vision.
Maybe I am wrong, and I am not yet ready for this. No. I must carry on.
I take a deep breath and restart the video.
“Bravo! Mama, you danced so well. Promise me you will never give up dancing. One day, I am going to dance like you! We will dance together on a stage, mama,” says Varahi, on the screen.
I am dumbstruck. Stunned. I had made a promise to Varahi, and in my grief, I forgot all about it. I did not remember it while making my other pledge, the one to myself, of no dancing as long as I live.
How could I do that? I have dishonoured and broken the promise I made to her. Not only have I broken my pact of not dancing, but I have also not fulfilled the one where we were to dance together. Varahi is gone, but she will always be in my heart. She goes where I go. We will dance again. She is within me. On the stage, we will dance in unison. And we will continue to do so.
The media room.
The lady totters to her feet. Shaky, she holds onto the sofa for support. She ties her hair in a loose bun. Hitches her trousers up. Closing her eyes, she takes a deep breath, opening them as she exhales.
She turns on the music, chooses a soundtrack. And then she starts to move. At first, her rhythm is slow, misplaced, even. Her muscles protesting their disuse. Her motions become smoother, began to flow. She moves faster and faster to the escalating music. Her feet start a movement of their own. Through her dance, I experience her anger, her pain. Her survivor’s guilt is drowning me. Drowning her.
Suddenly, she stops. Takes a shuddering breath. The song is over. I did not realise it, so lost, was I. The next song, devoted to Lord Shiva, starts. It is an ode to him by his wife, Parvati. The air in the room hums with positivity. Like an invisible, inaudible ringing of a temple bell, it dispels the negativity – its reverberations, stirring. Peace reigns.
Her feet began to move, her hands, join them. Her misplaced rhythm comes home. She had lost something important. But she has found it again, and she has found peace, again.
Love does that to you.
With a start, I stop dancing as I hear the firecrackers go off, somewhere over the horizon. I peer out of the windows to see lights everywhere.
Today is Diwali! And my homecoming. Varu baby, I am so sorry, beta. I forgot about our pact. We will meet again, but before we do, I need to fulfil your dreams and my promises. Please wait for me, my little one, wait for your mama. And watch out for me as I cannot do this without you. Together, you and I, we will dance. On the stage, in the house, on the roads, everywhere. You loved to dance, and I will dance for you and with you. Please stay with me. I love you more than life itself.
* Prompt: Library, Misplaces something important, Middle East.
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