Yellow Hues of Autumn

As Sanjay opened the door of his home, a cool draft of air greeted him. Come October, and the mornings would turn colder. As if they weren’t cold already! But who could blame the weather? His town Kullu lay beneath the shadow of an enormous mountain which bordered on the east side, and which, thereby, effectively shut every way for a single ray of the sun to fall over the town. The only time when Kullu enjoyed some sun was at 4 o’clock in the evening when the star slowly meandered towards the west. Those were some precious minutes of golden sunshine. People thronged on the streets hungrily soaking in the warmth of the setting sun that would last all for about half an hour or so. As the sun began its slow descent, the rays would be withdrawn and soon, Kullu would be the cold zone again that it always was.  Sanjay locked the door of his home and descended through the steps that led him to his book store. It was especially during autumn and winter that he felt all the more grateful that he did not have to go far to work. His book store Kitaabein was on one side of a lane which had, over the years, turned into a shopping area. His house was just above his book shop. It had belonged to his great-grandfather, so had the book store. Sanjay was the fourth generation in his family who had inherited it. It both amused and worried him that he was the last generation in the family, considering that he had never married. Now, at 45 years of age, he had no inclination to do so. He enjoyed his solitude and the quiet pace of the town.  He opened the door of his shop and inhaled the leathery scent of books. It invigorated him always. Opening his shop was his most loved ritual of the day. His shop had taught him everything there was to life. Here he had learnt to read and write under the watchful eyes of his grandfather, his father and his mother. Here he had learnt to read not just books but people too. Here, he had got acquainted with most of the natives of Kullu and also got a chance to meet new people, the tourists, who often dropped by into the shop.  Although the shop was spic and span, Sanjay lightly dusted the counter. He set a kettle of tea on the induction cooker. Very soon, the group would be here, demanding hot tea while rubbing their hands vigorously. @@@ “It is only October, and already it is so cold! Sanju, I hope my cup of hot tea is ready!” Mishra walked into the shop, rubbing his hands.  “Yes, it is. Where are the others today?” No sooner did he ask this, the rest of the group walked in, talking boisterously and rubbing their hands. Sanjay hid his smile watching the group break the last ounce of his solitude and noisily drag chairs near the heater that he had switched on. It always amazed him that he had managed to find such a wonderful group of friends, if he could call them so. They all had been his father’s friends and upon his death, had unasked taken up Sanjay’s responsibility, allowing him to grow freely under their benevolent guidance and care. If anyone asked, Sanjay would proudly say that he was the reason that the Kitaabein Book Reading Club had been founded. The seniors would assemble at his store every day, saying they were ‘just dropping in casually’ but he knew they were there to keep him company. To pass the time, they had started reading books and having discussions about the same. Gradually, this turned into a formal yet informal book club. For now, there were 12 members of which four were Sanjay’s father’s friends.  At 80 years of age, Mishra was the eldest. He had been a doctor but nobody dared to refer to him as ‘retired’. The old man still sat on a chair outside his home on cold, dark evenings and offered medical advice to anyone in need. He was famous throughout the town and many people dropped in just to consult him or talk to him. Mishra refused to charge them.  There was Shailaja, a very formidable and enthusiastic 58 - year - old who used to run a bakery in the lane. With the appearance of a new-age café just opposite to her bakery, she had slowly backed out. Now she prepared muffins and cakes on special orders from the people who contacted her. Her baked delicacies were famous throughout Kullu and a large number of people who had been her regular customers, still contacted and referred her for birthday party orders and other special occasions.  Kavita was a retired professor and the chief instigator of the reading club. It was on her recommendation that the club was formed. She possessed a gentle and homely aura and one couldn’t help liking her instantly. At 55 years of age, she possessed and exhibited a maturity that came from leading a disciplined and routinely life. Last, but never the least, there was Nair, a retired general from the Army. He had taken a bullet to his leg in a war. The bullet tore through one of his tissues, forcing him to end his decade-long experience in the army. He had to retire at the age of 36 and now, 20 years later, he was very much a regular visitor in the book store and an invaluable part of the book club.  *** A delicious aroma of pineapple wafted from the casserole that Shailaja placed on a center-table. All the men, including Sanjay, gathered around it, as if some invisible string had pulled them.  “Well, what is it? Open it!” Mishra said, impatiently dancing on his toes. “Wait! Let the book club commence its session today. Only then will I open it.” Shailaja said, smirking slightly at Mishra’s crestfallen expression.  “So, today we are reading, ‘Chase A Yellow Poem’ by Gregory Golden.” Sanjay said as all of them sat around the heater. For the current month, they had chosen a book of poems. But that was not all. “Hope everyone has brought their yellow with them.” Sanjay said and smiled when the elderly group muttered in a low voice. It had been mutually decided to bring some yellow-colored object that meant something to each one. Also, everyone was supposed to talk about it. “Great, so I will start the poem.” I caught a yellow poem in my hands,  and it fluttered like a frighten flock of butterfly wings; Spreading its yellow bright wings, Then gliding across a sea of gold, we landed gently as a ripple on the pond. If yellow is the brightest color in the rainbow,  then, let me chase a yellow poem through your candlelight; If we land with both feet on the ground,  I wonder, why we could not catch a yellow butterfly smile today! “Mishraji, let us start with you today. What hue of yellow have you brought, and what does it mean to you?” Sanjay asked. Mishra squirmed in his chair in discomfort and then huffed. “I guess there never will be a good time to do this.” Shaking his head, he took out a yellow sweater from his bag and wore it over his shirt. He glared at every one. “Nobody dare laugh at me.”  “As if we would!” Shailaja remarked sharply. “Don’t we know that this was a gift by our dear friend Rajshri?” One of the members of their group and Mishra’s wife, Rajshri had left the mortal world seven months ago. She had a temperament and personality matching Mishra’s, and the couple, although constantly at loggerheads with each other, had been a perfect match.  “I remember that you had specifically told her that any color would be fine for the sweater she was knitting for you, except for yellow.” Sanjay said, smiling at the memory. Mishra nodded. “And yet what did the female do? Exactly what I had told her to not to. She dared me to not to wear this sweater, can you imagine?” His voice broke slightly. “I never wore it in defiance.  Now I wish I had. What difference would it have made if I had worn it to please her? She spent many days knitting this. The least I could have done was wear it and show it to her.” He ran his hand over the sweater lovingly. “She never saw me in this.” “We miss her, Mishraji.” Kavita said. “She was a wonderful friend to all of us. You are not alone. We are here with you.” Mishra nodded. Clearing his throat, he said. “That’s enough nostalgia for my old heart. It is someone else’s turn now. Please share something happy. I do not want this book reading club to become a therapy session.” This elicited a round of laughter from everyone.  *** “Then I guess it is time to present my Yellow Happiness Hamper!” Shailaja said and with a flourish, she opened the lid of the casserole. A collective gasp resonated inside the store as each one took in the beautiful muffins adorned with pineapple slices, a frosting that looked golden yellow and was sprinkled with tiny edible stars. “Pineapple muffins!” Sanjay exclaimed. Everyone literally dived to grab a muffin. Shailaja watched with unbridled joy as the group munched happily, giving delighted expressions. She had brought enough for more helpings and soon the casserole was emptied with not a single crumb remaining in it.  “This was so good. Can we expect more such treats from you henceforth?” Mishra asked as he carefully wiped his hand in a tissue. Shailaja had thought about everything – from paper-plates to tissues, she had placed them all beside the casserole.  “Sure! The delightful way in which you all finished off the muffins motivates me to bring more of them.” Shailaja said with a warm smile. “I feel like I finally succeeded.” She said. “What do you mean? We all love your delicacies. The entire town is fond of them. If this is not success, then I don’t know what is.” Nair said, eyeing the empty casserole longingly.  “I am grateful. I have much to thank for. But there came a time when I was at my lowest.” Shailaja said. “When the new café opened in front of my bakery, I wasn’t much worried. I had after all carved a name for myself and I knew that my regular customers would never ditch me. But one day, I saw a few of them go inside the café. They did not even try to hide. I mean, I know that no one is obligated to be loyal to me, but it was disheartening for me to see them go there. I saw on the café’s board that the special on the menu was Pineapple Muffin. My pride took over and I decided to prepare them that day. After all, how difficult could it be to prepare them, right? So I mixed all the usual ingredients, prepared a batter that smelled delicious and after pouring it into the muffin-tray, I kept it inside the oven for baking. In my over-confidence, I also directed my assistants to put that day’s special on the menu board as Yellow Happiness Hamper and display it outside.” She inhaled deeply as the memories of that fateful day took over. “Needless to say, it was a disaster. The muffins did not turn out right. That I had displayed them on the menu already, made matters worse. I had to apologize to the customers who had come there expecting the muffins. That was the day when I realized that my work which has been my passion all these years was slowly turning into something competitive. I did not want to reach that stage. Hence I decided to shut down the bakery.” “That’s why you did it?!” Sanjay said, shaking his head.  “I do not regret it, Sanjay. When your passion which brought only happiness in your life, suddenly turns toxic and starts hurting you, it is time to step back and slow down. That’s exactly what I did. I enjoy my retired life. I enjoy preparing the special orders that I receive. I bake those with love and joy. There is no feeling of competition or rivalry. Today, I tried making these pineapple muffins.” She smiled at each one of them. “Thank you for giving back my confidence. Not that I will be reopening the bakery, but that I could prepare this has helped me to put behind the painful memory of that day when my pride took over and I was humbled.” Everyone clapped and all eyes automatically drifted to Kavita who squirmed in her seat. “Why me? Why not Nair Bhaisaab?”  It was Nair’s turn to get flustered now. “Ladies first!” He said, eliciting laughter from everyone.  “Look at this man – he has been a soldier and has come through some of the toughest moments of life, and now he hesitates to speak in front of a group of friends!” Mishra said, gently slapping Nair’s shoulders.  *** “All right, when you put it like that…” Nair grumbled, taking out a yellow scarf from his pocket. “Okay, so this is my yellow for today.” He smiled in amusement as the whole group slightly leaned forward in their seats, anticipating his narrative. Shaking his head, he lightly ran a hand over the scarf. “The bullet pierced my leg and pain, like I have never felt before, crippled me, not even giving me enough time to understand what had happened.” Nair’s voice automatically lowered as he recounted the details of that fateful day. “I could see and hear firing all around me but I was unable to do anything. Pain - it was all that existed at that moment. I saw a dear colleague fall down beside me. I could see that he had died the moment he hit the ground. The gaping wound on his chest showed that the bullet had hit his heart, giving him no hope to make it alive.” He looked at all of them, his face a kaleidoscope of pain and grief. “Before I could feel grief for him, do you know what I felt? Relief, that he had died before the pain took over. My own pain was befuddling my thoughts and rendering them incoherent. I did grieve for him. The tears I shed – they were not just out of my own pain but at the pain of losing a friend.” Mishra patted his arm comfortingly. Nair went on. “I think I lost a lot of blood. My vision started darkening. Suddenly, it was as if I was watching everything in hues of black and white. I felt cold and desperately longed for the sun. Before I knew it, I had lost consciousness.” When Nair regained himself, he saw that he was in a camp that the army had created temporarily to tend to the injured soldiers. A blinding yellow light shone upon his eyes and he closed them immediately. The sun! he thought in giddy happiness.  “No, it is not the sun. It is night, soldier.” Nair didn’t realize that he had spoken out aloud. When he opened his eyes, he found a lady smiling at him. She was wearing a yellow scarf over her head. Nair did not ask her name. He did not ask her why she was there. He only asked for her scarf, because in a world that had gone monochrome on him, her scarf shone like the sun, giving him hope and a new life.  “She readily gave the scarf to me.” Nair said. “I clutched it like my last life-line. I do not know what happened thereafter; the details are blurry. But I never got to meet her again. Later on, I came to know that she was a civilian who had got caught up in the tussle between the two armies and who had taken temporary refuge in the camp. She had assisted people in her own way by talking to the injured soldiers and keeping up their spirits, my army brethren said.” Nair softly folded the scarf and kept it back in his pocket. “This scarf is a reminder to me of sunshine, and the warmth of human spirit that brings comfort to a weary soul facing the coldest night.” *** It was Kavita’s turn now. She sighed in defeat and gestured to herself. “My saree. That is my yellow for today.” “It is indeed a pretty shade.” Shailaja said.  Kavita smiled. “This is the first saree that my husband gifted to me. I had got married into a large family. The days were rushed and chaotic with no chance for spending some alone time with my husband. But it was a happy household and I had nothing to complain about. Everyone cared for me and I was well-looked after. My husband gifted this saree to me on my 25th birthday, the first one after my marriage. It is still his favourite, and mine too.” Kavita looked outside the glass door of the road, lost in a time that only she knew. “Most of the days, he doesn’t recognize me or anyone else. Alzheimer’s has robbed him of every last ounce of his memory. But when I wear this saree, I see him look at me with a shine in his eyes. He smiles at me and tries really hard to say something. When he is unable to, he gets frustrated. Sometimes he cries. I think those are the times when his memory plays tricks on him, coming to the edge of his consciousness but withdrawing immediately before he can latch on to the thought. This saree brings us both grief and happiness. I wear it every now and then to make him happy. It makes me feel as if he still remembers me. I have seen the tiny glimpse of happiness that comes into his eyes when he sees me in this saree.” She looked at each one of them, as if seeking their approval. “As long as he feels even the slightest bit of happiness, I do not mind him going through the misery too, which doesn’t last for a long time either. I just want him to feel something and not to draw a complete blank.” “You know him best.” Sanjay said gently. “You have given your everything to take care of him. Nobody has a right to judge you for anything you do. As long as you both get your moments of happiness and grief, everything is well, for it is better to feel both rather than feel empty.” Kavita nodded gratefully, wiping her eyes with her saree.  *** Sanjay got up from his chair and proceeded towards the shop’s counter where he had kept a beautiful bouquet of yellow flowers. He brought the bouquet with him to the group. “I cannot wait to hear this one!” Mishra said, rubbing his hands in glee. “My yellow for today is this bouquet which is a reminder of my spectacular failure.” Sanjay said with a chuckle. “Do you remember Dr. Sinha? At one time, he was the only cardiologist that our town had.” “Oh yes, a wonderful man! He was a good friend to me. Pity that he decided to relocate to New Delhi.” Mishra said. “Yes. His daughter Preeti used to visit my bookstore often. I was 21 years old then. I… well, this is embarrassing for me.” Sanjay laughed lightly. “Okay. I had a huge crush on her. But she was so out of bounds for me! Daughter of the town’s most celebrated cardiologist, a topper in her studies and already on the way to becoming a doctor herself....”  “Please tell me you at least made an attempt to get to know her before assuming that she was out of your league!” Shailaja said. Sanjay smiled sadly. Today he would give the bouquet to her at any cost. Sanjay had come prepared. He was wearing his best clothes. He kept combing his hair frequently, because you never knew when the crush of your life would walk into your store.  Although, could he really call it as just a ‘crush’? He had been fascinated with her since three years. Every time she came into his shop, he would rush to her in the pretext of helping her search for a book. Their interactions were always very casual and lasted for just few minutes but he literally lived for those minutes.  Even as he was lost in his dreamy world, he heard the sound of her bangles as she came into his shop. As usual, time stood still for Sanjay. Everyone and everything around him stopped existing. When she smiled at him, he felt as if he was the luckiest person on the earth.  “Hi.” She said as she stood before him. “Hello.” He said formally, mentally slapping himself. Why couldn’t he just say that she was looking very pretty today?? “I wanted to return the discount-card. I am moving out of town.” Sanjay shook himself out of his reverie, sure that he had misheard her. “Sorry?” “I am moving out of town. My entire family is heading to New Delhi. I have enrolled for further studies in the university there. I will be leaving day after tomorrow. I just wanted to return the discount card. May be someone else can use it now.” Sanjay nodded slowly. This could not be happening… “It seems very sudden.” How he managed to say this with a straight face, he would never know. “Not so sudden. We have been wanting to move out of town since a long time. When the time for my admissions came, it felt right to make our move.” She smiled and looked around the shop as if taking it all in for one more time. “Thank you for everything. This shop was one of my favourite places in the town.” “Do you think you can visit again?” He asked, hoping that his voice would not show his desperation. She laughed. “I don’t know. I mean the entire family is shifting as well as my friends who have enrolled in the same university. There doesn’t seem to be any reason to come here.” Come for me, he wanted to tell her.  “Okay then. Thanks for everything.” She said. Sanjay nodded. “You take care. Wish you all the best for your studies.” As he saw her walk away, Sanjay’s heart broke and he knew that his life would never be the same.  “Your father should have gotten you into a co-ed school instead of the Boys School that you attended!” Mishra remarked in frustration.  “Even that would not have helped, Mishraji. I was in awe of her. She was like a princess to me - beautiful beyond words and distant beyond my comprehension. She was always cordial to me and never acted entitled because of her father’s fame and her family’s status in the society. It was her humble nature that drew me even more towards her. I simply could not find the courage to approach her for any kind of relationship. I am not even sure that the elders of our families would have approved it. It never came to that. I have a deep regret that I could never present the flowers to her. If I could get one more chance…” The door of the shop opened. Sanjay stood up in silent disbelief. There she was, the girl of his dreams, now a woman still as alluring as she always had been. She smiled uncertainly at him and moved to a side as a younger version of her entered the bookstore behind her. “Hi.” She said as he went and stood before her, still wondering whether he was dreaming. “Hello. It is great to see you after such a long time.” He managed to say. He looked at the girl standing beside Preeti. She must have been in her early teens and looked like a younger version of Preeti who had walked out of his store that fateful day for the last time. “Your daughter?” Preeti smiled and nodded. “I had come here on a tour with my husband and daughter. She likes to read books.” She turned towards her daughter and said. “This is where I bought all of my books for my studies.” She looked around the shop. “I am glad it is still here.” Sanjay nodded, nostalgia striking him hard. He waited as the mother-daughter duo started perusing the book shelves. The elderly group, seated in the center, looked on in silent curiosity.  “That’s a good collection.” Sanjay smiled as he saw the girl bring in a basket full of books on philosophy. “So, how is life in city?” He asked Preeti as he billed the books one by one.  “It is good. I work in a corporate hospital there. Life is chaotic and busy but no complaints as such!” She laughed lightly. “Although, I have to say that one is always partial to the place of their origin.” “Very true.” Sanjay said and presented the bill to her. Before he ran out of courage, he brought the bouquet of yellow roses that he had left in his seat and handed it over to her. “As you can see, my book club is celebrating Yellow Day today.” He said, feeling awkward. He wished he could say something more but he was already flustered. He felt immense relief when Preeti accepted the bouquet with a wide smile. “Why, thank you so much!” She turned towards her daughter and smirked. “See, this is the charm of my town! Can you see this happening in any store in your beloved city?” The daughter merely raised her eyebrow.  Preeti turned towards Sanjay. “Thanks again. It was great meeting you after such a long time. We are leaving today.” She looked around the store happily. “I am glad I came here.” “Me too.” Sanjay said. “Take care.” With a wistful smile, he saw her leave his shop, bringing back painful memories of the time she had left him broken-hearted. He slowly walked to the group who had put two and two together.  “Well done!” Mishra said and soon the entire group broke into applause. Sanjay smiled at them and as he looked towards the reception counter, he got a vision of his younger self leaning enthusiastically over the same and giving him a thumbs-up. He knew that a part of him had finally got a closure that was long overdue. This autumn would be a yellow one, promising cold days and also moments of sunshine, hope and warmth of caring friends.       Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!