I do not wish to repeat ‘The Road not Taken’ by Robert Frost. But one part of the poem keeps coming to my mind every day. Here it goes-
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
This part of the poem has done several reruns in my mind because of a personal experience. And before you say, ‘O Gosh! A sob story, not again……’, let me assure you that it isn’t one. My story or experiences are very unlike the one the poet probably had but it does relate to the crux of this stanza. This personal experience is more a result of the connection I had with a beautiful, vivacious and adventurous person, Juhi.
You may ask, ‘Was she your sister? Or best friend? Perhaps, your teacher?
I am unable to answer your questions truthfully. There’s still a lot of ambiguity within me about my relationship with her.
Juhi was an enigma to all of us who spent our childhood and teenage in Ramner village, Nashik town, Maharashtra. She had a voice of her own. She spoke freely, fought for what was right, and participated in ‘male-oriented’ games. We used to attend the same elementary school and studied in the same class.
‘Same section? Did you ask?’
‘Well, there were hardly any sections for a particular class like they are now.’
I also remember that Mr. Gaitonde, our class teacher, used to teach us all the subjects. His voice resembled that of old-time news readers- loud, cheerful, pitching at the right places, in the morning which turned monotonous, raspy towards noon urging us to switch off mentally to all that he had to deliver beyond lunch hour.
Every day, I, Juhi, Raju, Meera, and a few others ran home from school, threw our bags, gulped down the milk, and scurried chatting excitedly to the riverside to indulge ourselves in Gilli-danda or climb the mango tree on Dina bhau’s farm, much to his annoyance and play hide and seek, hiding behind Ramnik kaka’s lazy, static buffaloes. We used to come home tired and sometimes dozed off without having dinner. We hardly studied!
But these are all childhood indulgences common to everyone in that phase of life.
I never knew that time had wings and could fly away taking our most carefree days with it like the crow that grabbed the rice fritters kept by Aaji on the veranda of our home to dry, never to return even though she raved and ranted about it.
Soon, I was 15 and found myself cycling to Nashik Government High School for Girls, 25kms away from home. I was thankful that my parents had allowed me to study further unlike Meera’s parents who forbade her from engaging in any of these ‘useless’ endeavours.
‘How is this going to help you in family life?’ was the oft-repeated question. It was the commonest thing parents said those days, they thought it was practical wisdom. Meera was trained in household chores and managing a family.
Meera was my dear friend. We shared the same likes and dislikes, be it food, games, etc. Meera was meek, obedient, and homely. My parents liked her. And I was comfortable with her.
So, her gnawing absence got the better of me sometimes. I could not finish my lunch at school, nor concentrate on my studies and I hardly went out to play.
The last thing I mentioned in the previous sentence made Aaji very happy.
‘There’s no need to roam around with these good-for-nothing kids after you attain puberty’, she told me sternly.
Phones were a luxury in those days. Hardly anyone in our village had it. I slowly lost contact with Meera.
It was then, I vaguely remember, that Juhi started visiting me.
‘Namaste Aaji! Namaste Kaka, Kaki’, she would chirp happily as she plonked herself next to me.
‘See, Nisha… did you hear?’ Her voice would trail off but unlike Ghairtode Sirs.
She would tell me stories of successful women throughout the world, businesses that were taking the world by storm, and India’s development in various spheres.
I was amazed by these stories but was hardly interested in her rants. I never invited her, but she didn’t need an invitation. I thought that the real reason she was trying to stick on to me was one, all the boys she played with earlier, had now started ignoring her and secondly, she was getting free tiffin in my house every time she came as my mother was a wonderful cook.
At first, I wondered about the truth in her information but later her diverse knowledge left me wonderstruck. She was a great orator.
Juhi used to stay with her stepmother a few streets away from my home. Her father had died of an unknown disease a few years earlier. He had a provision shop, which was now run by her stepmother and the business was good enough to sustain them. Her stepmother was not like the one we come across in fairy tales. She worked hard to provide all basic necessities to Juhi and her younger brother, Mihir, and support their education. But how far she could support Juhi’s high-flying dreams, was a debatable question.
Soon, her visits became a ritual. I slowly found myself getting involved in her chatter.
‘Where did you read this? When did this happen?’ I would ask.
Sometimes, there were authentic proofs in the form of a newspaper article or radio news to support her statement but mostly there was no evidence.
I never bothered about the lack of proof. I soaked in the interesting tit-bits like a sponge in water.
What should I do after passing out? Should I become like Mary Kom? No, I hardly knew anything about wrestling or any other sport for that matter. Or who was the lady Juhi recently mentioned? Ah, yes, Neerja Bhanot, the air hostess who saved hundreds of lives?
But no, I did not want to die. And not at this young age, please.
I shared these murmurings in my head with Juhi. She laughed out loud.
‘Nisha, do you know what it takes to become a great personality?’, she asked.
‘Yes, Either I or Aaji must leave this village forever.’, was my thoughtless reply.
My answer had her in splits of laughter.
‘No, no…’ she said, clutching her small stomach. ‘It takes a lot of courage and determination. And you must know to take the right ‘turn’ in life. The right direction always leads you to your chosen goals.’
‘Did you know?’, she continued, ‘My stepmother always tells me that every ‘right path’ can have a ‘wrong turn’, so beware!
I listened to her monologue in rapt attention. I couldn’t make head or tail of it though. All the ‘turns’ only made my stomach churn!
‘Ok, tell me, what is it that you want to be or what is it you want of life?’ I asked mainly to change the topic.
‘Well, I want to be a fashion designer. I am looking at the colleges to apply to in Mumbai after graduation. I know that it may be a long haul. Aai (she called her stepmother that) also said I may have to continue my studies on loans. So, I don’t want to make any mistakes. Aai has warned me not to say this anytime, ‘How was I to know this was a wrong turn?’ said Juhi.
Soon, we completed high school. My mind was full of dreams, whose seeds were sown by Juhi. I could not decide quickly what to do next unlike Juhi. However, I was firm on my decision to continue my studies.
‘What’s the use of sending a girl alone to Mumbai?’ Aaji argued.
‘But Aai, Dinkar bahu will take care of her. And I want her to get a degree.’ My father stood his ground. I was happy to have his support.
‘How many times should I say that let us get her married to Dinkar’s son, Ajay? He is twenty and has a spare parts business already. They will let Nisha continue her degree course.’ Aaji muttered. She, however, never forced her opinions on Dad.
The day of my departure arrived. My mother hurriedly handed me a ‘potli’ that was to be my lunch. As the train chugged out of the station, I bid everyone a tearful farewell.
As I looked out of the window, in addition to the trees and fields running past me, I saw several paths diverging and disappearing. I thought of Juhi and wondered which path she had taken.
Where do all the paths lead? Will they take one to their chosen destination? If not, can one come back?
I optimistically guessed I could. After all, except Aaji, no one had forced me to take up something according to their wish and stick to only one profession in particular.
Ok…let’s ignore Robert Frost and Juhi’s Aai for a moment!
Mumbai is a city of dreams. You could venture into any profession, paint the town red and live your life to the fullest. You could find that everyone right from Shah Rukh Khan to an Uber driver fulfill their dreams in this mega city. The lights of the city attracted me. The fashionistas inspired me. The tall, majestic buildings invited me to enjoy their cool interiors. I was understandably dazzled and dazed all at the same time!
I hardly thought about Juhi. But I hoped she would have gotten into a suitable fashion design course and was on the right track!
BKC College was in Dadar, a suburb close to Dinkar kaka’s home. I put my heart and soul into my studies. I enjoyed my college life thoroughly, pushing all my memories of Ramner to the back of my mind and beyond. I went out with my friends on weekends to the beach or shopping. I hardly missed my pestering Aaji and thanked my stars for being able to come to Mumbai.
Time flew by. I thought a lot about future plans. I never took a calculated decision, but I knew I wanted to study criminal law. Somehow, my contribution to putting criminals behind bars excited me! And it was not something that many girls of my age and background wished to pursue, in those times, so I loved that adventure!
But it was not that easy. After what seemed like ages, I somehow managed to scrape through the law course. The fat law books and case files intimidated me. I only got as far as preparing case files for my seniors. Sometimes I even prepared tea for them! My job was nothing like what I had imagined. Even my salary was meagre! Not enough to support my lavish dreams. All the advice Juhi or rather her stepmother gave came rushing back! Perhaps I had taken the ‘wrong turn’.
My parents added salt to my wounded ego by reinforcing the thought and asking me to get married. Juhi was perhaps, very mature to understand what her stepmother said, ‘Life never gives you a second chance.’
I wanted to meet Juhi and my parents badly.
I called home, ‘Aai!’, I cried, ‘I am coming back home.’
I resigned my job and landed in Ramner the following weekend. It had been so many days since I tasted Aai’s rice and dal, sabudana khichdi, and bhakri! I toured the nook and corner of the village aimlessly. But I hardly met anyone. I knew that many jobless villagers would have a lot to gossip. Most of my old friends had left the place to make their dreams a reality, like me! How stupid they were!
Aai and Baba tried to divert my attention with some lively chatter. The only person who was really happy was Aaji.
‘Don’t worry, beta. You can get married and stay close to us. We are always there for you.’ she said, looking at Baba sarcastically.
One day, as I was lolling on the sofa with my head rested on my mother’s thigh I asked, ‘Aai, any news of Juhi? Where is she in Mumbai? There was no way I could contact her there. I do not even know which college she got into there.’
My mother looked at me incredulously, ‘Why, didn’t you know? Juhi is very much in this village now. As far as I know, she never went out of this place. She is married to a distant relative, probably from her stepmom’s side and is having a kid.’
I jumped out of the sofa in shock. ‘But Aai, her dreams…. fashion designing…. how?’ was all that I could say.
My mother looked at me quizzically.
I hurried to Juhi’s place. I found her at her provision shop attending to a few customers holding a dishevelled crying baby in her arms. I only managed to stare at her.
Where was the Juhi who spoke so eloquently?
Where was the Juhi who inspired me to find my passion?
That mature, knowledgeable, dependable Juhi… an ordinary housewife?
It was something I couldn’t fathom. I started walking back. Suddenly, I didn’t have anything to say to her.
What could I ask her? Had she taken the ‘right turn’? Was there any form of coercion from her stepmother? But her stepmom was an understanding person, or so I gathered from Juhi.
I didn’t want to hurt her in any way. She was my beacon of light! That thought made me smile even in such grave circumstances.
I was so lost in thoughts and in shock that I jumped when a hand rested on my shoulders.
I whirled around to face a smiling, lovely as ever, Juhi. It took me only a few minutes to hug her tightly. Never mind if her baby got squashed between us!
‘My dear Nisha’, she choked, ‘How are you? Did you come today from Mumbai?’
‘Juhi, come home with me, please. Aai has made your favourite vada-pav.’ I was surprised that I could speak so calmly.
Juhi guessed that I had a lot to ask her, a lot to converse, so she closed her shop and came quietly with me.
We sat enjoying the evening breeze on the veranda, munching vada-pav slowly. Juhi’s son played with some toys near us.
It was an hour before we could finally break the heavy silence between us.
‘Nisha… when are you going back?’ Juhi asked finally. ‘Your Aai said that you are a lawyer now.’
Tears flowed unabashedly from my eyes. Juhi hugged me tightly. No questions were asked!
She knew what I had to say, I think. But I badly wanted to get things off my chest! To tell her that I had taken the ‘wrong path’. How right her advice had been, but I lacked foresight!
Juhi spoke like an understanding mentor, ‘Nisha, what you chose to do was your passion. You knew you could become a famous criminal lawyer. Yes, it is the ‘right path.’ You must understand that it will not be easy. You will excel, my dear. Give it some time and be determined to continue your efforts. But quitting is the ‘wrong turn’ you have taken! As my Aai said, there’s no use lamenting over your ‘wrong turn’ later. No one can rectify things for you. Neither your Aai, nor Baba! Go back to where you belong, dear.’ She patted me.
I looked up to see her beautiful face withered by time, worry and responsibilities. Her eyes, however, reflected the calmness within her.
Again, without my prodding her she said, ‘My life has also turned in the right direction, Nisha. Yes, fashion designing was my passion. But I could have pursued it, only if had taken an education loan. And you know how difficult it is to live in big cities without a source of income. My stepmom couldn’t have supported me that long. It would have taken me ages to repay everything. Even Mihir had to be educated. I just acted according to the circumstances and I am not a wee bit sorry for that. I wouldn’t say I have sacrificed my dreams totally. I have started a small tailoring unit and plan to launch my designs online.’ she said excitedly for the first time that day.
I packed my bags within a week to take up a new job in Delhi. I even thought that Juhi had involved me in her chatter those days just to help me understand my passion. I never met Juhi again before I left. Sometimes, memories are more precious than meetings. They can last a lifetime!
That brings me back to the lines of the poem I mentioned at the beginning whose meaning was redefined by Juhi. We had both taken the ‘right path’. And it was indeed ‘the less travelled one’. I had followed my passion, whereas Juhi had taken the difficult decision of sacrificing her dreams, when necessary, which anyone else of her age wouldn’t have done that easily. Another person I revered was Juhi’s stepmom for obvious reasons.
Yes, I do agree with Frost, we can’t start afresh and our choices make all the difference!
Aai, Baba- Terms used to address mother and father respectively in Marathi.
Aaji- refers to grandmother in Marathi.
Bhau, Kaka- refers to brother and uncle in Marathi respectively.
Gilli- Danda- a street game that children play using sticks.
Sabudhana kichdi, bhakri, vada-pav- Maharashtrian delicacies.
Potli- a small cloth bag/basket.
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