A briny fragrance wafts in through the windows. It’s pleasant and familiar, embracing me with nostalgia. Unlike the tiny tear drops falling from my eyes – they are familiar, but discomforting. My eyes follow the frothy waves playing hide-and-seek with the sand. Their mellifluous whispers are music to my ears as I spend my days and nights admiring them. I have nothing else; just the waves and this photograph.
This 10×10 room is my sanctuary. The room is familiar, but certainly not my own. A young girl had held my hand and led me here. It feels as though it happened just yesterday, but the calendar fluttering in the breeze reminds me I came here 20 years ago; on the day when everything changed.
“Good morning, aunty! How are you feeling?” A cheery voice greets me.
It’s the same girl, but she’s all grown up. There are streaks of silver in her hair and crow feet around her eyes. But her voice and smile are still the same – kind and welcoming.
“Breakfast is ready. Do you want to come out?” I know by the look on her face – she’s expecting an answer, but for some reason the words are stuck in my throat, lost in oblivion. “It’s okay. I’ll bring it here!” She squeezes my hand, kisses my forehead and leaves.
The waves are calling out to me, and I hear a singsong voice, “Amma, catch me!” Kannan is running on the beach. He’s wearing his favourite blue Donald Duck t-shirt and brown shorts. His jet-black hair flies against the wind, and he asks me again, for the millionth time, “Can we eat bajji* later? I want chilli bajji!”
The lady enters the room once again, and my Kannan vanishes before I can answer him.
Where is my Kannan? Why has she separated me from my son? Am I her prisoner? Will she ever let me go?
I have so many questions, but again, my tongue fails me.
I glare at her, but she smiles unperturbed. “Let’s eat.”
She drags a chair and sits near my bed. In her hands are two round stainless-steel plates. The aroma tingles my taste buds, but I have no appetite. Hot idli and sambar. My Kannan’s favourite.
She offers one plate to me and starts eating from the other. Munching loudly and talking, she finishes her breakfast in no time, while mine remains untouched.
“Aunty, please eat while it’s still hot.” Her eyes twinkle like raindrops. “I’ll come back in a while. The maid is not coming today, so I have a lot to do.”
I let the plate sit on the side table. I cannot eat till I have seen my precious child’s beautiful face. Where is he?
“Aunty, the packet is under your pillow. You kept it there last night.” She calls out from a distance. How does she know what I want? Has she been watching me all this time? Can she… read my mind?
Swallowing the rising lump in my throat, I search under the pillow. Yes, I’ve found it. You cannot keep me away from my son forever. “I’m sorry, Kannan. You told me to wait, but this lady forcefully brought me here. I know you are still searching for me… I will come to you soon.”
Rathi tip-toes towards the corner room and observes quietly. The old woman had found her treasure. Rathi knew the next steps by heart, but still lingered on; the way she had witnessed this every-day routine for the past two decades. The routine was familiar and disheartening, “I wish I could make things better for you, aunty.”
With trembling hands, the old lady opens the packet and lines up the contents on the bed. A passport. A photograph. A floral handkerchief. A small talcum powder bottle.
Her lifeless eyes brighten up. She holds the sepia tinted photograph and caresses it. Her withered hands rest on the photograph. Rathi knows what follows next. As expected, the old lady kisses the photograph, and wipes it with the frayed ends of her saree. She gazes into the passport; the yellowed pages, a reminder of the time gone by.
I’m glad you remember little. The memories are nothing but a garland of thorns.
Rathi waits for a few more moments till aunty has packed all her belongings and has turned her attention to the breakfast – the sambar not piping hot anymore, the idlis cold and dry.
The chill breeze flowing in reminds Rathi of a similar day from ages ago – the day their lives changed forever. One phone call was all it took.
In no time, the painful memories come rushing into her head, sucking her in like a cyclone.
“Madam, there’s an old lady sitting alone in the airport. She has a paper with your name and telephone number. She’s not giving any other details, but her name as per passport is Parvathy Narasimhan.”
A shocked Rathi had driven at break-neck speed on receiving the call. The police had found Parvathy aunty, her mother’s friend and neighbour, in the airport.
A moustached inspector had taken Rathi into a room, where Parvathy aunty sat huddled on a chair – rocking herself back-and-forth, and mumbling in monotonous whispers, “Amma, you wait here. I’ll get your boarding pass. Amma, you wait here. I’ll get your boarding pass. Amma, you wait here. I’ll get your boarding pass.”
She had been repeating the same sentence over and over, her pale face devoid of any expression. On her lap sat a packet.
Rathi shudders as she remembers the quiver in the inspector’s voice. “Madam… We checked the CCTV footage, reservations, and flight records before calling you. She came in with a young man. I think it was her son,” he had checked his notes, and continued, “Yes, son only. He checked in and boarded the flight, but left this poor lady behind.”
Rathi had checked her watch, and then screamed at the inspector as her emotions got the best of her. “You mean she has been sitting alone in the airport for 14 hours now?”
“Madam, no point screaming at us. We are just doing our job…” With a nonchalant shrug he had asked, “You want to take her or should I arrange for her to be sent to the government home for the aged and abandoned?”
I’m sure there’s some mistake. Kannan can never abandon his Amma.
Her thoughts had wavered to the previous evening when Aunty had dropped in. “Rathi, I’m leaving for America. I’ve sold the house. Kannan took care of everything.” Aunty had been brimming with excitement at the prospect of living with her son once again, and now she sat drained and lifeless.
Angry and desperate, she had tried Kannan’s number; but on reaching his voicemail had left a string of hateful messages.
“Madam, I understand you are upset, but we have other cases to handle. Are you taking her or not?” The inspector had shuffled awkwardly.
“Yes, I’ll take her.”
Rathi had completed the formalities, while the old lady sat mumbling to herself. “Aunty, let’s go home.” Vacant eyes had met Rathi’s. There was no hint of recognition, “I’m Rathi, your neighbour?”
Parvathy aunty had said nothing, but clasped her hand like a lost child. Holding hands, the duo had stepped out of the room. The sympathetic glances were fueling her fury further.
As they had left behind the city lights and tall buildings, Rathi had thought about the days gone by.
Kannan was her childhood friend. They had grown up together. From a shy kid, he had grown up to be a confident man. Being the only son, Parvathy aunty pampered him a lot. Belonging to a rich family, she had no dearth of finances.
She had even resigned from her teaching job, devoting her entire life to her son – feeding him, taking him to all his classes and activities. She had taught him cycling, and played football with him!
She would stay awake late into the night, helping Kannan with his homework and projects. Later, when he wanted to go to the US for higher education, it was Parvathy aunty who had researched colleges and courses. In fact, she had helped him fill his visa application too.
Rathi recollected how the mother and son would be together always. Kannan had lost his father when he was a toddler. And from then, Parvathy aunty had adorned the hat of both a mother and a father.
Her entire life revolved around her son.
How did it come to this Kannan? How could you do this to your mother?
And then one fine day, just like that, all there was left behind was a space. An empty space, and a sense of nothingness. Just plenty of questions, and a long, never ending wait.
Initially, aunty would often break down; blame her for keeping her away from her son. She had even called Rathi a jailor, and her home a prison. Rathi understood her pain and continued to be supportive, but in the last few years, aunty had snuck into a shell. She had stopped talking to others. Her silence became her haven. It pained her to see aunty suffering in silence, living in denial.
Parvathy aunty was like a granny to Rathi’s kids. Her husband treated aunty as his own mother. But nothing. No amount of love could fill the vacuum Kannan’s absence had created.
How could he abandon his mother? Aunty deserved better.
She had asked herself this question every day, ever since the time aunty’s life had meshed with theirs, but had found no answers. All her attempts to reach out to Kannan had failed. He seemed to have forgotten his mother.
The day he left her at the airport was his last time in India. There was no communication from him, except for an email. A single email sent 6 months after he had abandoned his mother.
Rathi sighs and switches on her laptop, reading the mail once again. Anger, sadness, pity, confusion – a pot-pourri of emotions stirred in her every time she read the contents of the decades old mail. How can love be both a nectar and a poison?
I’ve listened to all your voicemails and read your long hurtful emails. When I left your number with her, I was confident you’d jump right in, like always!
You are free to form your opinions, but you should know my side of the story as well.
To the world, she’s a loving mom, but to me, her love was a shackle. She is a control freak. A dictator. She made my life a living hell, controlling and commanding every moment. No friends, no freedom. Only her! I didn’t even realize how suffocating her presence in my life is till I experienced freedom.
Do you know how I staggered and fell when I landed in America? You’ve no idea how it is to be the only guy who doesn’t know how to fill forms, make noodles, or even ask for directions? She made me dependent on her for every goddamn thing.
Wouldn’t be wrong to say she is a narcissist!
The biggest blow came on the happiest day of my life. The day I found true love, my first love. In all excitement I called her and told her about Monika. Can you believe what she said!? “Doesn’t matter, just forget about her… You are to marry Rathi.”
You’d be surprised to know (or not – I’m not so sure anymore), she had always imagined you as the perfect daughter-in-law. You might be perfect in her eyes, but never in mine. My every achievement, every success, every failure was compared to yours. I was fed up of hearing Rathi this, Rathi that! I was never good enough for her. You were the coveted star, placed on a higher pedestal. You’ve got no idea how much I despise you. I’ve hated you every single day of my life. Not just you, her as well.
In fact, many nights, I wished how different and nice my life would’ve been if instead of Appa; she had died.
You’ve cursed me enough over these past few months. You think I’ve wronged her, by selling the ancestral bungalow, by leaving her there. But let me tell you, for the first time in 28 years of my life I’ve felt free. For the first time, I’ve chosen myself.
Well, the house belongs to me. So why should I wait to reap the benefits until she dies?
I knew I could trust you to take care of her, after all you were always the daughter she never had!
I have no regrets.
Hope I never have to hear from you, ever again.
P.S – I am happily married. We are expecting our first child soon. I’ll never smother my child, the way she smothered me.
Rathi’s eyes well up, blurring the screen.
It was time to reply to his mail.
In the last twenty years, I’ve read this email a million times. But never replied, because I couldn’t find the right words ever. Today, I’m forced to write to you. Desperate times call for desperate measures…
I know every story has two sides to it. And in your case, love has two versions. Aunty’s and yours…
I don’t know whether to console you or side with Aunty. From where I stand, I just see two lost souls. A desperate mother clinging onto thin threads of hope, waiting to see her son one last time. And a son living in the past, seething with anger and fury.
I’ve no hard feelings towards you. I had always thought of you as my best friend and brother. Never knew Parvathy aunty harbored such dreams.
Aunty has been with me since that day. Unfortunately, she’s just a shadow of who she was. She hasn’t spoken a single word to anyone since then, but talks to your photograph when she is in her room. She hasn’t come out of the trauma, despite innumerable visits to therapists. Doctors said it’s a defense mechanism. She doesn’t want to accept the truth and prefers living in denial. She believes it was her mistake that she lost you, and that you are still searching for her!
She spends her entire day staring out the window. I’m sure the beach reminds her of the days she spent with you.
Kannan, if only you had opened up in front of her. I’m certain she did not intend to make you feel this way. She just wanted to love you. After uncle’s death, you were all she had.
Your love was the elixir of her life, and it still is. She still loves you the same, despite everything.
I hope you remember how she always preferred dosa, and upma to idli. Last two decades, every day she has eaten idli only because they were your favorites. (were, because I don’t know what you like anymore.) It actually feels like I never knew you at all.
Aunty is inching towards the end of her journey. Her cancer has spread, she’s in the last stages now. As per the doctors, she may not survive for long. Considering her age, radiation and chemo are ruled out.
I’ve seen her suffer enough. She has lived with abandonment, but does she deserve to die abandoned as well? I’m not undermining your feelings, but I hope in some corner of your heart, you will find love and forgiveness for your mother.
Aunty doesn’t have much time. Meet her once before it’s too late. Don’t live the rest of your life in regret.
Please call me immediately.
With a silent prayer, Rathi clicks the send button.
*Bajji – deep fried fritters.
Connect with Penmancy:
Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!