Amrita switched on the bedside lamp as soon as Neil fell asleep. She picked up a book when Daniel walked in and snuggled beside her. “Time to go to bed dear. You have to catch a flight tomorrow, remember.” he said as he took the book from her hands and put it back on the table. Amrita smiled and put her arms around his shoulders. “Do you think I have done the right thing by accepting their invitation? I have never travelled without Neil. Do you think he will take it well or should I cancel my trip?”, she said while moving her fingers through the soft hair of their four-year-old son. “I will manage everything here. You must honour your commitment and stop worrying so much. It is good for you, trust me”, Daniel assured her as he turned off the lights.
Amrita worked as a Professor at a college in Lucknow. She had been invited by Banaras Hindu University, her alma mater, for a guest lecture at a symposium. She accepted the honour out of excitement though now she was dreading it for more than one reason.
Next morning she kissed Neil goodbye as she boarded him to the school bus. Giving Neil’s babysitter a list of instructions for the next two days, she hugged Daniel and left for the airport. The one hour flight passed in a blink and she found herself standing under the Banaras sky.
She hailed a taxi for the university and as they left the airport, she rolled down the window and inhaled the air to let go of her nervousness. She had come to her home city after a huge span of ten years. As the hot air singed her face, she rolled it back up and started going over her schedule for the day. Her lecture was scheduled after the lunch break so she decided to meet the principal and her old teachers first. Day after, was the Felicitation ceremony, where the distinguished alumni were to be honoured. The university had also arranged her accommodation for the night.
The college was special to her. She and Daniel had studied at the same college. They shared their bus route and it was during one of those journeys they had become acquainted with each other. He was one of the most brilliant students of her class but never tried to impress this upon her. She had fallen for his kind nature and humility. A Christian by religion, he belonged to Jharkhand and was staying here with his uncle for higher studies. Amrita, on the other hand, belonged to a staunch Hindu Brahmin family of Banaras.
She was jolted out of her thoughts by the loud honking sounds and she opened her eyes to look around. It didn’t take her a second to recognize the street, the one she knew like the back of her hand. Disturbed by the emotions it invoked, she shouted at the taxi driver,
“Why did you have to pass through this narrow lane, couldn’t you have taken the outer road?. I will get late now.”
“I thought it is a short cut, Madam”, the driver replied sheepishly.
Why, he wasn’t wrong at all. She knew he was right but she had been away too long to have remembered to tell him not to come this way. They were caught in the disorderly traffic and there was no turning back now. She studied the place with a newfound curiosity. The zig-zag web of tangled electric wires hung across the buildings. Colourful posters of local politicians adorned the walls, fresh red coloured paan stains highlighting their saffron backgrounds. A cow crossed in front of her taxi and she couldn’t help smiling. Nothing much had changed in ten years in this part of the city.
Her taxi got stuck at the crossing and instinctively, her eyes started searching for familiar faces. On her left side, was the famous sweet shop. The aroma of fresh pedas and laddoos permeated her senses tantalizing her taste buds. She thought of Neil who also had a sweet tooth like her. Just when she considered getting down to buy some sweets for him, her eyes recognized a frail old woman walking on the pavement. On a sudden impulse, she handed money to the driver and got down from the taxi. It was her mother, Urmila, with a small basket in her hands. Small handpicked flowers peeked from its corners. It was her regular time of going to the temple where her father used to work as the head priest. As she looked at her from behind, her heartbeat got faster and eyes flooded with a stream of uncontrollable tears. She just stood there numb.
The past flashed before her eyes.
When Amrita had first confessed her feelings to Daniel, he had been apprehensive. Though he liked her too, he never approached her, considering their extremely different backgrounds. Despite the doubts, their love blossomed into a beautiful relationship over time and they decided to marry each other. After months of contemplation, they had mustered the courage to tell her parents and ask for their blessings. Her father, a respected and renowned priest of the community was shocked at his daughter’s audacity to ask for marriage to a low-caste Christian and forbade her to marry him. Soon, the news had spread and apart from her father, objection also started to come from the members of extended family, neighbours and community.
Amrita had taken up the job of a Lecturer in Lucknow to avoid the humiliation inflicted on her. The star crossed lovers were united again when Daniel also got a job in the same city. After hopelessly trying to convince her family, she and Daniel had gotten married in a church as per Christian customs. Despite repeated requests, her father hadn’t agreed to come to give her away. Instead, her elder brother had come, that too, only at the insistence of her mother, who in turn, had promised her father never to see her face again.
When they came to know that Amrita had converted to Christianity, it had come as a final blow that broke her ties to her family forever.
After her marriage, her brother’s family also shifted to Kanpur where they were permanently settled now. Somewhere, in her heart, she had been blaming herself. Her father, though conservative, had always encouraged her to study and become independent even though girls of her community were used to dropping college to get married. In the kind of locality they lived, it was not at all common for girls to go for higher education. When people came to know about her marriage to a Christian, her father was squarely blamed for giving her so much freedom. She believed the family faced isolation in the community due to her. She wanted to meet her parents, take care of them but the fear of their rejection always stopped her from contacting them.
Today destiny had given her a brush with her past. Wiping her tears, she tried to regain her composure. Her feet turned in the direction of the house which was once her own.
She had reached the lane of her parents’ house. The bright and colourful paint on the façade was now faded and scratched. ‘Isn’t it like life, everything that was bright once, fades eventually? Just like the love of her parents for their daughter’, she sighed. As she faced the door to her old house, she noticed it was latched. Assuming that nobody was home, she hesitatingly unlatched the door.
Memories rushed to her as she observed the surroundings. Everything was just the way it used to be, as if frozen in time. She looked at the Tulsi plant in the frontyard that bore witness to the religious sentiments of generations of their clan. She felt hesitant again, before the scent of her childhood pulled her inside. An outdated calendar with a picture of Lord Krishna hung on the wall alongside a family photograph. ‘Just like the calendar, nobody has bothered to remove it’, she thought. Holding the frame in her hand, she slumped herself into the tattered sofa and felt an overwhelming sense of comfort. The kind a child gets in her mother’s lap. Her gaze fell on the pair of round glasses on the table, her father’s trademark accessory. She picked it up and wore it on her nose, nostalgia overpowering her as she visualized her younger self doing the same to imitate her father. A tiny giggle escaped her.
The sound from the living room awakened Shyam Narayan from his sleep. “Urmila, is that you?”, he called out. “Please bring me a glass of water and my glasses.” She recognized the voice of her father even though it was decibels higher the last time she had heard it. “What is he doing here at this time? Shouldn’t he be at the temple? His voice sounded so feeble.”, she wondered. She went to the kitchen to fetch some water and took it to his room. In her nervousness, she had forgotten to take off the glasses which still hung on her nose as if asking for her father’s forgiveness.
She saw her father on the bed, he looked weakened and grim. She wondered what had happened, is he suffering from a serious disease. Sitting by his side, she gently took his hand and helped him get up. As she handed him the water, he gulped it like a child. She could feel his high temperature. He gestured his hand towards her and she instinctively placed the glasses on his hand.
As he put on his glasses and looked at her without saying anything, she felt as if he did not recognise her. She was wrong. “Amu”, he mumbled with an affectionate smile. His tears were unstoppable as she hugged him and asked for his forgiveness. The emotions locked away in the depths of their hearts had finally found a release.
Their spell was broken only when her mother entered the room. As she witnessed the father-daughter duo, she couldn’t stop her own tears. “You are finally home, my darling”, she said as Amrita turned to hug her. Amrita immediately asked her mother about her father’s health. “Nothing to worry, it is only a viral fever. He will be better in a few days.”, she said, dismissing her fear. Amrita heaved a sigh of relief and her smile returned.
The unspoken words said it all. All these years, they missed her as much as she had missed them. But they close to suffer in silent guilt, the guilt for not respecting her daughter’s freedom to choose her life partner due to the burden of long-held mindset. She felt guilty too for adjusting to her new life devoid of her parent’s blessings. Today however, she felt that her life came full circle as time became the bridge that connected their hearts once again.
Thinking of time, she looked at her watch and told them the actual reason for her visit. “I have to go now, Ma, Baba but I promise, I will come in the evening and spend the night with you. We have a lot to catch-up”, she said and left for the university.
At her opening speech for the guest lecture, she quoted a famous line,
‘The greatest journey is the one that bring you home.’ Though for her, it was a short cut that did the trick.
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