Frida Kahlo – “I drank to drown my sorrows, but the darned things learned how to swim.”
Nayantara looks at the message on her phone again.
“I am sorry. I have to leave town for good. Please do not wait for me tomorrow.”
The words glare at her from the screen glowing in the darkness. She knows the message by heart, she has read it a thousand times in the last three weeks. Only when the words flicker and the screen goes black, disappearing into the shadows of the night, she realises that she has been staring at the screen for too long.
Nayantara leans back on the bench and shuts her eyes. Her eyes have started to burn. Now tears spill out as her eyelids close. No, she is not crying, she tells herself; the tears spill because she has been staring too long at the screen without blinking.
In the corner of the park, a fire burns. A family of three sits huddled around it. The mother pulls back the child as he tries to get too near the fire. “You will burn yourself, be careful,” she admonishes as she pulls him towards her. The child tries to break free from his mother’s embrace. A five year old boy has enough energy to escape his mother’s embrace, but the mother of an unruly child knows when she must act with love and when, with the power of her fist. It only takes one tight slap on his bum for the child to surrender and settle at his mother’s bosom. The mother draws her son closer to her, as if someone will snatch him away from her if she is not careful.
Ramesh has been eyeing his wife and son, not saying one word the whole time. He is the caretaker of the park. Now he gets up and limps towards the woman sitting on the bench at the other end of the park. Come winter, his limp always gets the better of him. As he hobbles away from the fire, the coldness of the night makes him shiver. He pulls his thin shawl tighter around himself.
Nayantara hears Ramesh approach but does not open her eyes. Only when he speaks does she look at him, slowly opening her eyes as if she has never done so before, as if it is costing her great efforts.
“Baideo…sister, it’s time for me to close the park,” Ramesh says, his voice so low that the night steals them away as soon as they leave his lips.
But Nayantara does not need to hear the words to know that it’s time to leave. Since the last three weeks, this has become a routine. She knows it is futile to hope. Still, every evening, she comes to the park and waits. When the caretaker tells her that it is time for him to close the park, she leaves, only to return the next evening.
Nayantara rises from the bench and without saying a word, slowly makes her way towards the gate. Ramesh follows her to the gate, his limp ensures that there is a respectable distance between them.
When Nayantara reaches the gate, she halts. Her hands grips the rusted iron gate, as if drawing strength from it for the journey ahead. The gate creaks. In the pale moonlight, the veins of her hand looks even more pronounced then they usually do, making her hand appear thin and frail.
When Ramesh’s eyes fall on the veins, he quickly moves his gaze away, as if chastised for looking at something that is private, not meant for his eyes. Trespassing on another’s grief is unbecoming.
Suddenly remembering something, he reaches inside his shawl and brings out a handkerchief. He has been carrying it around for the past three weeks. He shows it to Nayantara.
“Baideo, is this your handkerchief?”
Nayantara examines the crumpled cloth. Tears threaten to well up in her eyes as she reaches for it. She has been desperately looking for the handkerchief. She always carries this handkerchief with her, it being one of the last gifts from Arin. Losing it has been like losing Arin all over again. After all, now these small titbits of the past are all she has of Arin.
She mumbles a ‘thank you’ and rushes out of the park, scared of succumbing to tears in front of the caretaker.
When she reaches the fork in the road, Ramesh’s eyes turn to the pond. In the moonlight, the pond seems to have come alive.
Andre Breton – “Tell me whom you haunt and I’ll tell you who you are.”
Three weeks ago.
A cloud passes over the moon, turning the dark sky even darker. Ashok’s face too take a darker turn. Nayantara has left more than an hour ago but he is still in the park. He fumbles into his pocket and takes out a handkerchief. The white fabric turns pale in the gentle moonlight. It is neatly embroidered with three tiny purple flowers. They stare at Ashok from their corner in the handkerchief.
Ashok looks around to make sure no one is watching him before lightly brushing his fingers across the flowers in the handkerchief. He feels like a thief stealing flowers from a garden in the wee hours of the morning while the unsuspecting owner sleeps peacefully inside the comfort of their home. Ashok feels disgusted with himself and hurls the handkerchief away from him.
He sits very still for a while. Then, he pulls out his phone. He takes a long time to type a short message. Just a few abrupt words to wrap up a farewell for eternity. In the light of the phone’s screen, his face looks ghastly, devoid of life and hope. Ashok sends the message and gets up from the bench. He walks out of the park in quick, uneven stride. He knows he will never come back again.
Like discarded leftover, the handkerchief remains on the bench. Its tiny flowers try to entice the moon with their stories. But the moon does not even blink, it continues to stare at the night with its trademark indifference. The fig tree towering over the bench sways in the night wind.
After Ashok disappears into the night, a curtain falls down to its full length again over the dark window of the park caretaker’s house. Then a door creaks open and the moon sees Ramesh limping towards the other end, slowly making a beeline for the bench where Ashok was sitting a while ago. When Ramesh reaches the bench, he picks up the handkerchief and starts limping back to his cottage.
Stephen King – “People think that I must be a very strange person. This is not correct. I have the heart of a small boy. It is in a glass jar on my desk.”
From the window of his room, Ramesh sees Nayantara enter the park with a young boy. The boy follows her to the bench by the pond, his eyes fixed at the glimpse of the slender waist peeking from the folds of Nayantara’s saree, his firm, young stride measured to a slow pace so that Nayantara does not lose the lead. The sun is about to set.
Ashok looks at Nayantara. She’s looking straight ahead. In the light of the sun, Ashok notices the grey roots of Nayantara’s hair; inside her home he has never noticed them. These tiny silver specks remind him of clouds in a beautiful autumn sky.
The sun on his face makes him squint. He notices how Nayantara’s face glows in the fading light of the sun. The sun does not make Nayantara wince. As if in revenge of this defeat against a woman, the sun reveals thin creases of wrinkles around her mouth, lines which remain hidden in the evening light inside her home. But the sun again loses yet again, thinks Ashok. The thin lines make Nayantara look even more attractive, just how the pencil shading brings out the depth in an art sketch.
The wooden bench rocks in protest as Ashok keeps tapping his right foot to the ground. He stoops down and picks up a fig leaf. He starts pulling at the leaf, shredding it to tiny pieces as he continues to tap his foot. There is a gentle breeze in air. When the wind changes its course, more fig leaves fall on the ground.
Ashok was delighted when Nayantara asked him to meet her at the park. Taken aback but delighted. It had become increasingly difficult to have any private conversation with Nayantara; her maid Ranu was always around, her eyes and ears always alert to every gesture and sound. Ashok suspected that Ranu even eavesdropped.
Ashok recalls his first visit to Nayantara’s house, the house in the corner of the street with bougainvillea crawling all over its majestic gate. A dream house where Nayantara reigned as the queen of dreams. The assured manner and grace with which she treated him made him feel like a king.
Usually, it was Ranu who fawned over him in the house, as befitting a maid, piling his plates with food after food. However, he didn’t like the look in her eyes, she was too interested in him; she cut into every conversation between Ashok and Nayantara, who mostly chose to observe him in silence, while Ranu cracked silly jokes and drowned the room in her boisterous laughter.
Even though it was raining, the next evening Ashok had found himself knocking Nayantara’s doors. He wanted to spend more time with Nayantara.
“Did I leave my employee card here by mistake?” he asked when Ranu opened the door.
“Yes, and you cannot leave without tasting the lemon cake I have baked,” Ranu replied with a big smile.
The smile made Ashok uneasy.
When Ashok praised the lemon cake baked by Ranu, Ranu insisted that he take some home as well; Ashok could barely supress his smile as Ranu rushed out to the kitchen to pack some cakes for him, telling him that needed to return her Tupperware containers soon. Now he had another pretext for visiting Nayantara. In his mind, Ashok praised himself for tricking the maid to dance to his tune.
It was then that Nayantara had hurriedly sidled over to the sofa where Ashok was sitting.
“Tomorrow, let’s meet at the park. I want to tell you something without Ranu hovering over us,” she whispered to Ashok, taking him by surprise. Their proximity made him heady; at that moment, that sofa became his entire world.
“She’s too intrusive. We must not let her boss us,” Ashok had whispered back, happy with himself for easily slipping a ‘we’ into the conversation to refer to Nayantara and him, and happier to notice that Nayantara didn’t mind the ‘we’.
Instead, Nayantara smiled and saying, “Ranu cares for me, sometimes too much. She has been with me for a long time. She is the only person who calls me Tara maa now, these are words of affection.”
Nayantara hurried back to her chair, leaving Ashok alone and forlorn on the sofa. But it could not be helped. When Ranu entered the room again, they were discussing the weather and global warming.
Now Ashok finds himself alone with Nayantara in the park. He is curious about how they appear to others. He inches closer to Nayantara and stops fidgeting. The only thing in the space between them is her handkerchief. He pockets it with a swift, light motion of his hand, but then, does not dare to close the distance by moving closer to Nayantara. His toes wiggle. He starts drawing imaginary circles on the ground with his right feet. To his left, sits Nayantara.
“Why did you want to meet me here?” he finally asks Nayantara.
“To show you this,” says Nayantara, and hands him her phone.
A young boy in his twenties smiles at Ashok from the screen of the phone.
“Who is he?” Ashok asks.
“Does he not look like you?” Nayantara asks him, instead of answering his question.
Ashok scrutinises the photo.
“We seem to be of the same age. But I don’t see any other similarity.”
“Ah, because you are not looking with a mother’s eyes,” Nayantara says. Her eyes shine with moistness. “He is my son, Arin…Arindam. God took him away. I thought I could never forgive God for this cruelty, but then he sends you my way. God is not cruel, he is strange. He takes away, to again give back. In you, my son has returned to me. It took three years but God finally listened to my prayers.”
“I never thought of you as my mother!” Ashok blurts, his breath fast and heavy, his small eyes wide open as if very scared.
Nayantara does not notice the distress in Ashok. She only hears him, and sees in his face the face of Arindam, her Arin, her son. “Now you can start calling me Maa, if you want,” she says, and places her hand over his shoulder, drawing him closer to her.
Ashok can feel his heart racing, against his wish. He bends down to pick up another fig leaf from the ground, and in doing so, intentionally moves a bit away from Nayantara. But this time he does not pick at the leaf, he places it in the space he has created between Nayantara and him, and asks her, “Your son died three years ago?”
Nayantara takes her hand off his shoulder and presses it against her chest. He tries hard to not follow the movements but he could not help himself. Her breasts heavse as she lets out a sigh. Ashok looks away.
“My son did not die. He disappeared. He was last seen in this park. Ramesh, the caretaker had seen him sitting on this very bench. His wife says, she had seen Arin going down the steps to the pond. But she was not paying much attention, so she could never say it for sure. She was busy playing with her son. But probably she was the last person to see him. No one saw him after that.”
“You searched the pond?”
“You think he committed suicide? He was happy. There’s no reason for him to commit suicide. I told the police so, but they didn’t believe me. They searched the pond, saying he might have slipped. But Arin knew how to swim and this is a shallow pond. I told the police that they were wasting their time, and I was right.”
“You must accept the reality. Maybe your son is alive. Maybe he will come back one day. But I am not your son, and this is also a reality.”
“What we lose always comes back to us, only if we know to recognise it again. In you, I see my Arin.”
“I am not your son,” Arin says. The words come out ruder than he would have wanted.
Nayantara is too lost in her euphoria to hear him. “Then, my tarot reader had told me that if I keep the mother in me alive, Arin would come back to me in three years. At that time, I did not understand her, and thought she was just trying to comfort me with meaningless words. But now I understand her.”
Emile Zola – “Blow the candle out, I don’t need to see what my thoughts look like.”
Finally, it rains. Nayantara sighs, letting her breath fog the glass of the window that looks out on the garden from the hall of the house. Of its own, her hand moves up to draw stars on the fogged surface; it’s her childhood habit to doodle stars when anxious.
Just then, a streak of lightening parts the dark sky. She pulls the shawl tighter around her slim frame and watches, as slowly the fog dissipates on its own from the window. Outside, leaves and flowers weep monsoon tears under an evening sky that has turned dark before its time.
“Tara maa, switch on the light in the hall, don’t keep standing in the dark,” Ranu yells from the kitchen. She is busy baking lemon cake.
Nayantara says nothing and walks away from the window. She opens her slippers before crossing the carpet to reach the switchboard. The light floods the room with a brightness that forces her to shut her eyes and go back to the comfort of darkness once again. Just then, the doorbell rings.
Nayantara dreads the quiet that descends her heart and home every evening. The doorbell promises an escape from this emptiness.
Ranu opens the door, letting in Ashok. Despite the heavy shower, Ashok has turned up at her door. As Ranu had promised, he would. Nayantara hears them talking at the door.
The rain enters the room in Ashok’s wet footsteps.
“Smile like Arin,” Nayantara wants to tell Ashok as he keeps fumbling about himself at the doorstep. Instead, she asks him to come in and take a sit.
Ashok sits down on the sofa, his legs pressed against each other, as if to stop them from shivering. Is he cold?
“Are you cold? Ranu, bring a glass of warm milk for Arin…I mean, Ashok. And some lemon cake, of course.”
“No, no, I am fine.”
“You look like a wet cat.” Nayantara laughs.
Franz Kafka – “I am a cage, in search of a bird.”
It is an April evening. Summer is hovering in the air, its head bowed down as it strains its ear to hear the last whispers of a receding winter. Nayantara feels one with the beat of the haat-bazaar, the weekly local marketplace as she walks through its narrow lanes where the vegetable and fruit stalls threaten to spill over, making the narrow path in-between them, narrower. Yellow bulbs hang over the stalls, their heat and light spreading out their invisible arms to invite dark moths into their orbits. The shopkeepers, mostly old men and women are busy trying to lure customer to their wares, reasoning out in loud, sing-song voices why people should buy this ripe pumpkin or these fresh tomatoes from them, and not the next stall.
“These are the sweetest oranges in this haat–bazaar. Eat a piece, and you will believe me. No need to buy without eating.”
“These oranges have so many brown spots!” a voice protests and Nayantara turns to find a boy, who looks exactly like Ari haggling with a woman.
Those are the exact words Arin would say! Just to get her boy the oranges the way he liked them, Nayantara used to explore stall after stall, looking for speckle free oranges. She still buys only spotless oranges. Sons go away, but mothers left behind do not know how to not do things their sons loved. Ask Nayantara!
“These brown spots are the tell-tale signs of how sweet the oranges are, young man,” the shopkeeper protests. She lifts the end of her thin scarf to wipe away the betel stains spread out at the corners of her lips in crimson lines, a gesture that signals that the shopkeeper is getting ready to bargain with her customer in full force.
“I have spotless oranges at home, and they are the sweetest,” Nayantara blurts out before she could stop herself.
The shopkeeper stands up from her stool, rising to her full height, towering over Nayantara.
“Do you? And are you gifting them to this young man? If not, let him buy from here.”
“I am getting late, I don’t need the oranges. I should leave,” the boy mumbles.
Nayantara cannot explain what comes over her. Probably the boy reminds Nayantara too much of Arin. He is Arin’s height; he even looks the same age. The way he was looking at Nayantara reminds her of the beseeching looks that Arin directs her way whenever he wants to persuade her or convince her. The boy even likes oranges the way Arin likes them.
In a desperate moment, she imposes on him to come to her home. Now she does not know but soon the boy will leave her in tears, as did Arin. But Nayantara would never regret her decision of inviting the boy to her home. After all, it is a mother’s fate to keep pining for her son.
That day, leaving Ashok seated in the hall of her house, Nayantara runs to the kitchen to fetch some oranges for him. There she confides in Ranu, “Ashok reminds me of Arin. I need Ashok to ring my doorbell every evening.”
“Yes, he does look like Arin. Don’t worry Tara maa, I will make sure he rings our bell every evening,” Ranu assures her. “But don’t tell him about Arin, it will scare him away.”
“I will not,” Nayantara promises Ranu.
But promises are meant to be broken. As are hearts. No one knows these better than a mother.
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