Seething in anger and disgust, he pumped his fists hard against the wall. Wincing in pain, he screamed out loud. The burden of the recent discovery was taking a toll on him. “I have to tell them, else I will go crazy. I cannot deal with this by myself”. With trembling hands, he typed a message in the “Cousins” WhatsApp group.
All of you MUST come home for Christmas this year. I need to tell you something. It is essential that you all are here.
The “Cousins” group comprised of Rita, Richard, Peter, Nancy, Brian, and himself. They all responded immediately, bombarding him with questions. He had only one reply, “please don’t ask me anything, I won’t be able to answer now. Trust me, it’s critical. Just come home, it’s my earnest request to you all”.
Their arrival confirmations were a big relief to him. Thank God, I won’t have to be the sole guardian of this dirty secret for long.
Anxious and worried about reading the message, she immediately rang up George. She sighed, relieved to know that their octogenarian Paati was fine, but his refusal to divulge any more details troubled her.
Like the rest, she too made arrangements for her family to travel.
That was two months ago and today she was on her way home.
She lowered the windowpane of the taxi and instantaneously relaxed on inhaling the sweet-scented air of the Nilgiris; her home, her world. She stuck her head out, closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and smiled as the nippy airbrushed her face. The sweetness of Pine combined with the intoxicating scents of Podocarpus and the fresh, lingering, sweet fragrance of Cypress were fascinatingly mystical. The mountain range journeying along with her was a spectacular beauty, her slopes painted with varied hues of green played “Catch Me” with one’s eyes. Sometimes the highlands looked inviting as they welcomed all to frolic on their gentle slopes and at times dared one and all to stay away with their craggy steepness.
I missed you, my childhood friend, she placed a flying kiss.
Her last visit had been five years ago with her husband Adrian and twins Noel and Luke.
She peeked in and found all three of them dozing. Having been deeply engrossed in admiring nature’s beauty, she had forgotten about her fellow companions. The stress of travel had taken over their excitement and their bodies had given in to tiredness. Even though she was exhausted, the powerful call of her Nilgiris had kept her slumber at bay.
It was 12 years ago that she had first left Coonoor. First, higher education, later job and finally marriage had taken her away to London, far away from home. The infrequent trips back home always seemed too little. She had settled down there fairly well but it would never really be “home”, for there was a place for only one home in her heart, and it belonged to “Brent’s Cottage” forever.
A feverishly intoxicated Rita reminisced about her childhood days spent in their familial home. Just the thought of their home and it flooded her with sweet memories of days gone by.
Brent’s cottage and John family
Brent’s Cottage, a 200-year-old distinctive Colonial Era cottage set on a sprawling area of 5 acres was their gorgeous family home, which had been in their family for around 120 years. Her great-great-grandfather Prabhakar John had bought it in the early 1900s from a British Colonel for a paltry sum. Every generation of John’s family had grown up hearing stories of the beautiful friendship between Col Brent and John in an era when it was unheard of “Whites” being friendly towards “Browns”.
As a mark of respect towards Col Brent, the cottage had not been renamed. Thus, he continued to be a part of their lives, even generations after. Her great-great-grandfather had fathered three sons, who grew up and lived together in the same house till the Second World War when the two elder sons were tragically killed in action. Her great grandfather was fortunately not called to the front as his polio-stricken legs rendered him ineligible to fight.
The large Victorian cottage, with its steep gabled roofs, tall towers, and dormers was an exemplary beauty. The wide wrap-around porches with decorative railings enhanced its vintage charm. The outer structure was mainly white interspersed with various shades of grey, the melancholic hue broken by the stained-glass works, which added an element of mystery and accentuated the beauty of their home.
Though Coonoor had an abundant number of colonial-era cottages, the fact that it was the only cottage which was still family-owned made it unique.
Prabhakar John’s one and only grandson was Dominic. He was the first member of the John family who went to school. Being the only one who could read and write, he was entrusted with the additional responsibility of being the “Official Letter Writer”, a job which he thoroughly enjoyed.
Rita choked up on recalling the way Thatha would lovingly talk about their home. His eyes would glow with excitement as he would reminisce about his childhood and growing up years. He had been pampered a lot by his family, especially his grandparents. Their lives revolved around him, as his around theirs. His grandparents meant the world to him.
Brent’s Cottage was the only “home” he had ever known. It was the house where he was born, grew up, entered holy matrimony, had children, and was fortunate enough to relive his childhood with his grandchildren. Her grandparents had always found comfort and joy at the sight of their sons, their spouses and grandchildren living together as “one happy family” under the same roof. “Family first” was Thatha’s motto.
It was also the home where he passed away and was now resting in the family burial grounds, along with his ancestors.
Home, at last
This Christmas is going to be special, mused Rita. Though she had been perplexed by George’s message, she decided to put aside those nagging worries and enjoy her time with her family.
Her eyes glistened as she could make out the silhouette of the cottage from a distance. “Wake up you all, we are home”, Rita squealed with delight, much to the chagrin of her husband and children who were woken up rather rudely. As the taxi entered the driveway, Rita felt tears trickling down her cheeks. “Amma, wow! This is amazing” Luke cheered. She couldn’t even wait for the taxi to come to a complete halt and jumped out of the decelerating vehicle, to the excitement of her family who were joyously waiting in the porch. There were lots of squeals, cheers, hugs, laughter, and cries. Rita, Adrian, and her boys had been missed.
Richard, Peter, Nancy, and Brian had already reached along with their spouses and children. The house was overflowing with people!
Adrian looked around bemusedly. The pandemonium felt surprisingly comforting. There were a lot of cross conversations, nobody could actually hear anything over the exchange of loud and happy voices, but no one seemed to mind the cacophony.
Rita paused to inhale the familiar smells and sights of their home. The cottage glowing under the sun’s rays streaking through the high ceiling was comforting. As she felt the walls and the ancient wooden railings, a familiar calmness blanketed her. “I am home” she smiled.
Nancy and Rita held hands as they stood near Thatha’s photo. Their eyes glistened as they prayed silently. Richard, Peter, and Brian joined them in prayer. Surprisingly, George did not join in the prayers.
The delectable aroma wafting through the house welcomed them. Bored with the uninteresting flight meal, Rita, and her family pounced on the food like a ravenous tiger attacking its prey. The treasured dining table bending under the weight of the vast spread was a treat for all. Noel and Luke’s eyes lighted up in excitement, “Amma, you never cook so much” both squealed in unison.
After loading their stomachs full, the big group split up into smaller ones. The kids sauntered away to play while the elders decided to take a siesta. It left only the “in between” group. The cousins and their spouses relaxed in the lush green lawns. Chatting and laughing, they had a lot to catch up on.
A week later – The meeting
Another message in the “Cousins” group from George reminded them of the purpose of this sudden visit.
“Meet in the family room at 3 pm. Only the 6 of us.”
The message surprised them all, George was becoming more secretive and serious.
“I was waiting for Christmas to be over. I didn’t want to dampen the festivities” with a heavy heart he addressed his cousins.
“Isn’t it nice that we are all here together again, in Brent’s cottage?” He smirked as he mentioned Brent’s cottage. “We have such wonderful memories of this place that we are proud to call “home” isn’t it? Anecdotes shared by Thatha always made us feel this house was not an ordinary house made of just bricks and mortar, but is a part of us. Remember, how he would emphasize that it’s our love that makes this home special” he looked around at the walls in the room as he spoke abrasively. His voice laden with contempt and disgust was unpleasant.
The family room, a part of the original construction, was a well-lit room with bright furnishings and loads of history. They still had quite a bit of the antique furniture including Col Brent’s writing desk. The walls were filled with black and white portraits of a stoic looking Col Brent, their Great great grandfather and Great great grandmother sitting meekly besides him, another huge portrait with their three children. The rest of the walls were adorned with photographs of the next generations. Somewhere over the ages, colored portraits and photographs had outnumbered the monochrome ones.
“What do you think of when you look at this portrait of Col Brent with our ancestors? Have you ever wondered why he sold this cottage at pittance?” He asked scathingly which startled the rest, as everyone had been engrossed in looking at the photographs and reliving the memories of days gone by.
“What do you mean?” Richard and Peter questioned him at the same time. “I don’t understand what you are hinting at.” Nancy spoke hesitantly, looking at the equally confused expressions around her. She was abruptly cut off, as he started speaking vehemently, spitting fire.
“I have recently unearthed some deeply disturbing information and I believe you all should be privy to this as well. Do you all remember, I have been busy since the last few months with restructuring the cellar and attic”, he continued while ignoring Richard who was trying to interject. “Along with these, I also wanted to refurbish the outer cottages and get the pond spruced”. He continued, as his audience listened with rapt attention, “one day while cleaning the outer cottage, my workers found an old trunk buried in the garden behind the cottage. I got them to take it out carefully. It was rusted and dilapidated. I opened it cautiously and was surprised to discover that it belonged to Thatha. The trunk had a photograph of him with his grandparents, few world war memorabilia, some medals, and other small items which probably had been dear to him. What caught my attention was a sealed plastic packet which held one handwritten paper. There were more papers but most of them were faded beyond reading though I managed to salvage quite a few.”
“Here, read this out loud” he barked fiercely as he gave a paper to Nancy, the eldest amongst them.
She was excited at the discovery and got up to read the paper. Unfortunately, she was not carrying her reading glasses so the onus of reading it fell on Rita.
Rita took the paper wondering about the contents which had disturbed George so much. She held the paper close to her heart and heaved as she could feel Thatha’s presence. His trademark cursive handwriting inked on the paper, made her miss him all the more.
Her voice choked as she started reading,
“This letter is being dictated by my Paati. I am the letter writer.
Though it is your hands that are writing this letter, you yourself are too young to understand the weight of these words. You may think of this as my confession.
I came to Coonoor after my marriage. We used to live in Gora Saahib’s outhouse since your thatha worked as his driver. Married at the tender age of 13, I was too young to understand the meaning of marriage and did not find anything amiss when your Thatha told me to sleep on a separate mat. It was about a year or so later when he told me the reason. He and Gora Saahib were fond of each other. I did not understand how two men could like each other, it was beyond my comprehension.
It was about 3 years into my marriage, when one day Saahib called me and informed, “Three children will be brought to your house today. You will be their mother henceforth”. I meekly nodded and returned to our outhouse. Nobody told me who their parents were and I didn’t ask either, as I feared I might lose them by being inquisitive. I loved the toddlers from the moment I saw them, for they were now my own. They were too young to understand anything and gradually accepted me as their mother.
Your thatha and Gora Saahib continued with their relationship, hidden from the eyes of the world.
Only the three of us were aware of this secret.
Gora Saahib was distraught when it was time for him to leave India, but before leaving he gifted this house to his friend, your Thatha.
I have lived my entire life with this burden on my heart. Now that it is time for me to face my Creator, I don’t wish to carry it on my soul. This is my confession for having partaken in a shameful relationship. I was selfish and kept silent for the sake of my husband and sons
Dom, I am sorry to leave you as the custodian of this secret. You are entitled to deal with this secret whichever way you feel is right. I pray and hope that you will understand the circumstances which forced me into silence. This was the only way I could protect my husband. This was the only way I could be a mother.”
Tears were flowing down Rita’s cheeks as she finished reading the letter and looked at her cousins. A deathly silence had blanketed the room. A seemingly shaken Nancy spoke first, “I can’t believe Thatha lived with this secret and never shared it with anyone. How burdened he must have felt his whole life. I feel so sad for him”
George thundered, “How can you feel sad for him? I feel cheated and disgusted. This home that we are so proud of, is sinful and reprehensible” he had hardly paused to take a breath when Richard spoke authoritatively, “I understand your emotions George and I am sure he had his reasons to keep this a secret and we owe it to him to let this be a secret forever. This was what he desired or else he wouldn’t have buried it.”
“I agree with Richard. Let’s not dig further into this” An emotional Rita quipped, “We all know how much he loved his parents and grandparents, it is because of this love and loyalty he might have decided to take the secret with him to his grave. He had sealed his lips and I feel we have no right to unravel his secret”
“That might be your opinion Rita, don’t you think our children deserve to know the truth, else they will end up feeling cheated as well” Brian’s elevated voice boomed in the room. Nancy cried as she asked, “Do you think Paati can handle this information, at this age and with her failing health? We don’t have the right to put her through all this.”
A lot many heated discussions ensued but ultimately a consensus was arrived at.
The cousins held hands bowing down in prayer, as a glorious sun rose from behind Thatha’s grave. Their faith and resolve in “family first” stronger than ever, as they stood in unison near the freshly dug plot of land, underneath which the secret lay buried forever.
It was a new morning, a new beginning.
Glossary of non-English words
Thatha – Grandfather
Paati – Grandmother
Gora Saahib – a term used by native Indians to address the Colonials
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