Raaga’s phone, that was resting face down on her table while she worked late into the night, pinged. A message from Varen made her switch onto FaceTime with him.
“Were you still up?” Varen smiled through the screen that made Raaga beam. “Just… working.”
“I thought I’ll call… hope you’re okay.”
“It’s been quite hectic with all the relatives around and so much to do. Was checking the expenses right now.”
“She’s asleep. Her sister is here but she’s going to leave tomorrow evening as well.”
“Did you speak to aunty about what we discussed the other day?”
“I did. But she seems reluctant. It has only been a year since Appa passed away. I think she’d take her time.”
“Of course. Let me know when you’re ready and I’ll make the arrangements for you. Okay?”
“Thanks.” Raaga considered his words amid a brief silence from both sides.
“I am sorry I couldn’t be with you on your Appa’s death anniversary,” Varen’s voice was heavy with remorse. Raaga knew too well it was not in his control to have flown all the way from the US mid-session. Especially when he was only a semester away from completing his PhD.
“You don’t have to be… you’ve been supportive and that matters the most.” A diminutive smile played on her lips, despite herself.
Varen blew out a kiss from across the screen, “Always!”
Bionk! The FaceTime got over.
Raaga sat contemplating her previous conversation that she’d had with Varen. His suggestion for them to take off for a few days to his aunt’s homestay at Coonoor seemed like an ideal getaway. This could help her mother take her mind off from the mundane. She looked at the clock; three hours until her mother would wake up. I’d speak to her about this again in the morning. With that on her mind, she dozed off.
Raaga woke up to the mellow hum of the veena that emerged from the corner most room. Her mother’s melodious voice accompanied the music resounding the whole house. Raaga looked out of the window as the warm November sun peered through the lace curtains unfurling in the gentle breeze. The mood created by the harmony assured her that it was ideal to broach the subject about a getaway with her mother, yet again.
When they met for breakfast, Raaga looked at her aunt who was busy gobbling down the fresh appams made by her mother. She joined her as her mother brought a warm batch of appam and ishtoo.
“Amma, I’ve something to discuss. Sit.” Raaga held her mother’s arm and directed her onto the table. Her aunt lingered for a bit awaiting what was coming next. “Let us take a vacation for a few days.” Even before Raaga could continue, her mother started shaking her head. “Amma, at least hear me out.”
“I don’t want to go anywhere. I told you that before. I don’t feel like it right now.”
“A few days away would do you good, Radhika.” The aunt added. Raaga was grateful that she had someone to back her up.
“Not sure, Akka. I have never traveled without her Appa, and I am not even comfortable being away from home.” Radhika presented an unconvincing justification.
“Not too far, Amma. Coonoor. I have a friend whose aunt has a homestay there and we can stay for a while, enjoy the weather and the sights. We will return if you’re uncomfortable.” Raaga pleaded.
“Go on, Radhika. Coonoor is a nice place. You’ll get some rest for your mind and body.” The aunt pitched in.
Radhika sighed. “Okay.”
A reluctant nod was enough for Raaga to cheer.
“But if I miss home, we’ll return.”
“Yes. Promise!” Raaga got up from her chair and planted a kiss on her mother’s forehead.
The weather was perfect for a long drive from Bengaluru to Coonoor. Away from a city to the cooler climes of the verdant Nilgiris, Radhika fell in love with the place in an instant. Her initial broodiness and the complaints about the long drive gave way to a pleasant smile. She discovered the small cottage nestled behind a tiny hill. The passage that led to the reception was lined with pruned hedges and hydrangeas blooming in the winter sun. Meticulous, manicured trees and plantations were a quick mood lifter.
As they approached the main hall, Shobhana, the owner of the homestay greeted them. Raaga identified her as Varen’s aunt. A slender frame, clad in a saree wrapped around her, hair partitioned in the middle- long and plaited, her big brown eyes lined with heavy kohl. She wore the most cheerful smile that they had received on their way here. After the initial pleasantries they were directed to their room.
Late evenings are the best in Coonoor. That is what Radhika observed as she wrapped her shawl around herself and inhaled the freshness in the garden air. She smiled, secretly chiding herself not to have agreed upon this trip before. The setting sun was melancholic indeed, but Radhika felt a tinge of hope. She turned towards a nearby bench and sat soaking in the nature.
A distant murmur of a conversation ensuing between some guests and Shobhana caught her attention. The easygoing mannerisms of the hostess were not reserved only for a few to be charmed. She had a way with people- relaxed and congenial. Radhika continued to look around, observing the meticulous attention tended to every nook of the lodge with precision and sophistication. She reflected that the outdoors were a stark contrast from the bustling city that she had spent 28 years of her married life in.
“Are you liking it here?” Raaga joined her, hoping that a nod from her mother would help her feel relieved.
“So far, so good,” Radhika exclaimed, flashing her dimpled-cheek smile. Raaga squeezed her shoulders and sat beside her; arms entwined.
“You are going to fall in love with this place,” Raaga surmised.
“I hope so too,” Radhika approved, scanning the nature’s bounty around her.
The mornings are as exquisite as the evenings in Coonoor. It took Radhika a few steps out of her garden view room to discover that. As she strolled through the morning mist, she heard a distant tinkling of the salangai– the ankle bells of a dancer. She inched towards the clinks and discovered Shobhana who’d broken into a Bharatanatyam routine. Radhika looked around to see who she was performing for. Surprised that there was no audience, she stood by the window. Spellbound by the delicate gestures that Shobhana synchronized with the music playing from a music system, Radhika watched her with rapt attention.
Even before Radhika could know any better, she got lost in the bhaav (expression) and abhinaya (act) of the performer. Shobhana seemed to have strayed onto a trance like daze. From whatever little Radhika understood she noticed Shobhana in a varnam (main recital). With every extended mudra (posture), with every swift footwork, with every facial expression, Radhika got drawn. Soon the surrounding sights and sounds diminished into a blur as Shobhana whirled and tapped concluding her act in a crescendo. Radhika’s reverie got broken with the click of the music system. Shobhana was about to exit the room when she noticed Radhika moving away from the window.
“Did you come to meet me?” Shobhana called out.
“…did you come to watch me?” Shobhana’s interjection made Radhika let out an awkward smile. She felt the blood rushing to her cheeks on being caught snooping around. Shobhana’s winsome and confident smile eased her a bit.
“I was …I was…only strolling, when I heard the sound of your salangai.” By this time, Shobhana had stepped out to join her and they began walking towards the garden.
“I practice each morning to stay in shape,” Shobhana chortled at her own silly joke, feigning a model-like pose with hands on her hips. “Actually, this is my way of beginning the day on a happy note. I have been doing this for years. It helps me stay on my toes all day.”
“Of course. You do seem to have a vast space here to manage all day.” Radhika swept her glance across as they came and sat on a bench in the yard. The mist was still alive in the air as they watched the sun appear from behind the hills.
Away from the garden, Raaga sat on the desk beside an open window, working on her laptop. She watched the two ladies in an animated conversation. Shobhana’s head would often lob in a careless cheer as the ladies chatted. Even though Raaga could not understand their conversation she could hear the soft murmur and lively giggles through the breeze. She sighed, mighty pleased with how their trip had begun. Looks like Amma is going to feel better.
For the next few days, Radhika and Raaga began their day with breakfast accompanied by Shobhana. Upon their return from sight-seeing they’d witness her vibrant conversations with the all the guests in the cottage. The day would almost always close with a dinner together. Raaga observed the joy return in her mother’s days. It was not only the lips that upturned but a gleeful light also shone in her eyes.
Added to that Shobhana had begun sharing her Bharatnatyam skills with Radhika. Radhika was pleased to revive her childhood passion, that had got squashed in its prime due to her own insecurities. Though she’d resorted to learning veena instead, yet she always deliberated on resuming dance. With every move and every step together that kissed the ground, they made beautiful melody together. Radhika realized this passion was always kindling somewhere in the dark recesses of her heart which now flared with unabashed vivacity. Added to that, bonding with Shobhana over common interests opened the floodgates for her self-discovery.
How strange it is that when life seems to have arrived at a dead end one realizes that it should have been the beginning in the first place. Radhika was soon to discover that for years what she had made peace with was an abysmal reflection of a person who compromised her dreams, passions and life for a lost cause. Though her marriage had always been pleasant, her companionship with her husband had wound up soon after Raaga was born. It was too heavy a baggage to lug around after all. Raaga and music gave her hope and kept her afloat when her marriage was confined to serving meals and shopping for groceries until the husband passed away.
That was in the past, it seemed. Here she was dancing to the tunes of Shobhana and all too happy about it. The proximity seemed familiar and the nervousness gave way to succor. Discussions on music and literature, ruing the past and opining on course correction, all done while gazing towards the rising sun sitting on the bench facing the hills. One fine morning, their physical accessibility gave way to a seraphic kiss as the night and day merged in a beatific unison.
Beside the window sat Raaga, as usual, busy with her work when she saw her mother leaning on Shobhana’s shoulder. Her smug smile at the warmth emanating from them acknowledged their vibe. Even before she could consume the affability, she noticed them kissing which led her to swivel her maelstrom towards Varen.
“I can’t believe this!” she motioned her head in mechanical disbelief over a FaceTime call that day. “Does she even know what she is doing?” Not that she was expecting an answer, but Varen waited for her to vent it all out.
“She had a marriage of 28 years! 28 YEARS! That can’t be a farce.
She was always so loving and available for me. She is my mother. She taught me to be independent, have a voice, carry an opinion, be my own person. She was so transparent.
“Has she been living a lie? Everything is false, Varen. I never knew.
Did she never trust me?” she fell silent for a while.
Even before Varen could pick up the conversation, she began again, “We’ll leave tomorrow… and I am going to wipe it from my memory like a bad dream…or something. I am going to treat it like something that you watch in a movie and then forget about it once you’re out of the theater. I am going to…”
“…this is not about you, Raaga.” Varen paused for her reaction. Raaga’s wandering eyes froze on the screen for an instant. “Please consider that this is not about you. It is about your mother. It is about her life, her choice, her happiness.” Varen reasoned.
“Yes, but … but… ugh!” Raaga threw her hands in the air and jumped out of her chair in exasperation, pacing the room. “Why now?”
“…and why not?” Even though Varen realized that he was looking at the situation from an outsider’s point of view, he knew Raaga all too well to give in so soon. “Come back here and sit down. Have a glass of water.” Raaga’s pacing steps led her back to the screen. She grabbed a glass of water from her table and took a swig.
“Look… you wanted to see her cheerful. You were the one who wouldn’t leave her side because she was sad. You came here looking for happiness for your mom, Raaga. Possibly, this is it. And this is what you must settle with too.” Varen came closer to his screen. This was the only way for him to comfort her.
“…nothing. She is all that matters. She’s all that must matter to you. Don’t think about anything or anyone else.”
“And your parents?” Raaga was finally able to lay out her biggest concern.
“They already know about Shobhana aunty. That’s why she lives her bohemian life here in the wild, away from prying eyes.” Varen chuckled, bringing the mercury down around Raaga.
“You could have flagged it to me…”
“…it was inconsequential.”
“Wouldn’t this be a problem?” her eyes melted.
“Never. I’m there for you, always.” Varen blew out a kiss across the screen. “Now stop being so self-centered. Your world is intact. It won’t collapse because your mom found love. Okay?”
Raaga nodded. How is Varen’s sky so spotless blue? She sighed and smiled at her good fortune.
Despite all the comfort provided by Varen, Raaga was unable to speak to her mother about this. Unaware, Radhika went about her last day in the cottage spending as much of her morning with Shobhana. Soon it was time for them to return. The journey back home was a stark contrast to how it had been two weeks earlier. From the glum complaints to singalongs with the radio, Radhika had come a long way. From coaxing her mother on giving herself a chance to accepting the truth about her, Raaga’s world was witnessing fresh blooms.
A few days later, it was time for Raaga to return to her studies and leave her mother back. The difference between the previous times and now was that she did not wish for her mother to remain alone. At tea-time in the evening, she raised her concerns.
“Amma, I am going back to the University soon. And I know you have been living alone for a year and managing quite well…”
“… you don’t have to worry about me. I know how to get about.” Radhika assured her.
“It is just that, you must have someone around you …you know…like a companion. So that you have someone to talk to you, amuse you, be with you…” Raaga was unsure if she was making any sense to her mother “…someone you care about. Maybe call Shobhana aunty over for some time.”
Radhika looked up over the brim of her tea-cup. She placed the cup on the table realising that she no longer had to clutch on to her truth. “You know.” It was more of a statement than a question.
Raaga nodded as she extended her hands to place them over her mother’s, across the table.
“I am sorry. I wanted to talk to you before, but I didn’t know how. And I only want to see you happy and smiling. I never understood the sadness in your eyes even though you’d smile. But now I do…and…” Raaga looked up at her mother. Radhika’s proud smiles beamed through her tears. She seemed to have been absolved of the only lie that she would have possibly told her daughter. She closed her eyes as if to let out a silent prayer to thank her good fortune. She could now make peace with herself.
“…why didn’t you ever say anything, Amma?” she finally said.
“Look back at your life and assess if things would have been different for you, for me, for your father…”
“…did he know?” Raaga realized that she had not considered this before.
“Yes. And we managed to negotiate that fact.” Radhika got up to place her teacup on the kitchen counter. “We resorted that we wanted the best for you and I hope we managed to be good parents…”
“Please Amma, I could’ve asked for any better. Even though I could never understand the long silences between you two.” Raaga concluded.
Radhika smiled, “I guess your father was more resilient. He could have left me upon discovering, but he did not. He accepted me with love and I led a dignified life.” Radhika extended her arms and Raaga ran into them. For a long time their embrace froze in time as if to unify them at a higher ground.
As they pulled away Raaga asked, “What about Shobhana aunty?”
“I don’t know,” Radhika considered her response, “maybe I will go and meet her someday.”
“Or call her here.” Raaga giggled.
“Yes… maybe.” Radhika’s eyes twinkled.
“Does she love you?”
“There’s only one way to find out.” Radhika raised her eyebrow in mirth. “I’ll ask her.”
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