Raising a kid in US with a demanding job and an even more demanding husband has not been easy. Last time I had gone to India, Prateek was seven years old. He got rashes all over his body and developed stomach flu and I decided not to go back for a while, at least until he was grown up enough. Now, he is twelve. With the holidays in his school and my need for a break, one Sunday morning,at the breakfast table, I confided to my husband Amit that I'd like to visit my parents in Delhi.
He nodded his head in his characteristic style without raising his head from the newspaper and grunted an inconclusive "Hmm". When we had been first married, I'd snatch the paper away and demand that he paid attention to me instead. Over the years I have realized that it was of no avail. He'd be as lost without his matinal dose of news scraps as he was with it. It is curious though, how a man who is so inquisitive about the affairs of the world is so disinterested about the events of his own house. But when I ask him the same question, he replies nonchalantly "But you are there to take good care of everything." And then he goes on to say, "Wish there were more world leaders like you. The world would have been a better place"
It is difficult to judge from his impassive countenance then whether he is kidding or is serious. Initially, I'd hold a grudge against this half-baked attempt to pacify me. But then I started believing in what he said and breakfast on weekends became a peaceful, bloodless episode. I could have retaliated by saying that if all the people had learned to yield like me, the newspapers would have ran out of business. But I have wisened up to the fact that dead walls respond better than reading husbands, hence, I channelize my energy into slicing apples instead.
I have been in India since the past two weeks and Prateek has not complained for once about anything. Though, why the houses here don't have central heating is still an enigma for him. We were at a shopping mall that had recently opened in the NCR. A lot had changed since I had last remembered. But change was the only certainty.
I sat in the food court outside Funky Orbits with my mother, while my father and Prateek teamed up to have a look at some "guys' stuff", or at least that's what they said to us when they winked at each other and bade us goodbye. I asked Dad not to buy him another Playstation , as he already had one and had been urging me to buy him the new version. When I asked him: What's the difference? He said Mom it's so uncool to be playing an old thing ! When I thought I'd ask him how can one summer session of playing network games can make it old, Dad bailed him out by asking me if I had forgotten my gaming days and those DOS based games I used to drool over. Prateek almost shrieked with delight : Mom, you played Doom??? The thought of his mother playing as a first-person shooter probably amused him. I said: "Oh it was a long, long, long time ago." Prateek: 'But it came out in 1993. Not that long ago. Of course, it was before I was born, but not that loooong as you put it." I gave up and let him have his way, and with a defeated smile I watched as Granddad and Grandson walked together- Prateek almost hopping with anticipation.
Mom put her hand on my shoulder and brought me back to the cup of coffee I was trying to sip. It was too sugary for my taste. I had a sweet tooth before, but my calorie-conscious husband had changed my habit of putting half a mug sugar with a full mug coffee and had visibly changed other aspects too. I sighed at the thought of Amit and Mom probably guessed it, 'cause she asked, "When did you say, Amit would arrive again?"
"On 24th, the day before Christmas. He has a guest lecture in a university in New England, will need to wrap up some of his work then, attend a conference in Brussels and should be on his way after that."
She asked me if I had contacts with any of the older friends from my undergraduate days and I nodded in negative, almost with a feeling of guilt. I knew that some of them were probably still in Delhi- working and settled in life, but somehow it never crossed my mind to think about them. The greetings in the online communities were perfunctory and a busy schedule at work kept me from reaching out to them. Then my Masters in US, then my wedding, and job again. And then Prateek happened. I often wondered if my concern about only my immediate task list was out of choice or imposed. There was little time, if any, for social interactions other than your immediate circle of acquaintances. Weekends and weekdays seemed one long stretch of to-do lists. Recently, even our vacations seemed like a critically planned thing. Executed till the last full stop. Leisure was a serious business.
I looked at Mom across the table and beyond and suddenly a head full of wavy hair came into my view. The face looked similar and when I tried to remember where I had seen it before, the figure walked towards our table and gleamed a smile at us. She said: I'd not have recognized you , if I had not seen aunty too. Her melodious voice and green eyes brought back memories and I realized it was Aditi from my undergrad days. How long it had been? Twelve years? I really don't remember seeing her in person after the farewell except at a wedding we had attended. And then she had inevitably become just another profile on my friend list on my online communities.
I smiled with a genuine sense of surprise and welcomed her at our table. It seemed a bit odd that she was still very warm and I was trying to be formally polite. She smiled and said, Oh Ari, come on ! You still not are Miss Nice, are you? I blushed at her words. She was the maverick in our college. She rode a bike in the campus and hit the guy she borrowed it from and giggled. She stole into the hostel at late hours through the open window in the kitchen where she had made acquaintance with a kitchen boy. She smoked bidi with the cleaning lady in the basement and offered me one once to get rid of exam jitters. And yet she topped class. I shuttled from home to hostel and preferred to stay at home and study during exams. She hailed from another state in the east of India and stayed perpetually at the hostel. She hardly went back home for even vacation like Holi or Diwali. When I asked her why she never visited her folks, she said very mysteriously that she had learned not to care for those who didn't care for each other. It was not a mystery when she had told me later that her parents were living separately in the same house and she hated to go back to see a family which didn't exist anymore.
My mother had serious concerns about a girl like her being my roommate in the hostel and asked why I needed to be in the hostel in the first place. I reasoned: But Ma! College is two hours from here; it doesn't make sense to be a day scholar. And anyways, she isn't as bad as she seems- she tops the class you know. I knew my mother. According to her, anybody who tops the class can't have vices. And even if he/she had any, it were nothing compared to the dedication displayed to his/her education- the primary duty, the worship of Goddess Saraswati - the deity of knowledge, etc etc. I didn't think it was necessary to mention that Aditi had the least reverence for her text books. She threw them aside and read mostly novels everytime I saw her. Even when the professors gave lecture, she would sit in the last bench and make caricatures of them. Later, she would tell me "Did you notice that Sharma was wearing a golden frame today?" or "Chaki seems to have forgotten his blue pen somewhere " and things like that which I never noticed. She had an eye for details.
How it worked for her I 'd never know, but I couldn't afford to spend a whole lecture dreaming about the fate of my professor's favorite blue pen like she could. I slogged hard and I never had enough time for anything. And I can say without guilt that I was a little jealous of her ability to take things so casually. Specially her exams. I got the exam phobia from my mother, I believe the X chromosomes were the carriers. 'Cause dad would always say to mother: "Spare the kid!" when she sat next to me while I studied for my exams. She would reply "Spare the rod, and spoil the child" for no apparent reason and as one of the very rare instances when she spoke English. I'd smirk and Dad would wink at me and I would get back to studying until Mom dozed off and started snoring and I'd have to ward her off to her own room.
Sometimes, looking back at the differences I had with my mother, makes me understand the relationship I have with my son. He is not exactly the way Amit wanted him to be but I believe that he has turned out fine. I don't mind if he plays the soccer or joins music classes. But Amit is particular about his grades. I don't give a damn. Honestly. My books never taught me the things I needed to know. I learned them much later. But Prateek understands his father's expectations, and though he's still a kid, he knows how to differentiate his playtime from his work. And I , unlike my mom, never resort to sitting next to him while he prepares his lessons. The most I’d know about his course is if he were to do an assignment that needed me to provide the resources; and that too if it is a physical model, visible when he takes it to school. Otherwise, I am blissfully unaware about the progress of my ward. Except that I really appreciate his talent at the piano and I hope that he never gives up his passion, like I had to.
Mom had let go off all her past ill feelings and had joined Aditi in a conversation when I heard her ask about Sunil. As far as I recollected, Sunil was the name of the guy she had got married to. I heard her say he’s in Bangalore. Mom concluded knowingly: Oh business trip! She said: No, we don’t live together anymore. We separated before Shana was born. Mom valiantly tried to hide her disgust, but her feelings contorted her features. In a frantic effort, she said to me: Let me have a look where your father has gone with Prateek.
I nodded and acceded but I sat listlessly on my chair. Of the very few people I shared a vulgar curiosity about, Aditi was number two in a list of three. It probably was born of my secret wish to be like her. To have freedom. To do what I felt like. To say what I wanted to. Wouldn’t it be great, to be myself. For once? I looked at her inquiringly and she flashed her thunderbolt smile and said: Oh you can ask.
Encouraged, I queried: What happened?
She said very matter of factly : We fell out of love.
I stammered: I…I don’t understand.
She said honestly: I didn’t either in the beginning. But now it all makes sense. I never thought I would marry until I met Sunil. And then I never thought I would have to leave him until I did. I was pregnant when we separated. He didn’t know. He got to know much later, after Shana was born.
-You have a daughter?
-Oh yes, she is five now. Fortunately, she has brown eyes. They called me cat eyes at college, didn’t they?
-I thought you never cared.
-I did. More than you'd ever know. But I pretended not to. The world is not kind to the one who’s different.
-But I always liked you.
-It’s not about you Ari. You always see what the best in others. I am talking of the majority of the population. If you have a visible tumor, they will stare at it and point at it and sigh and heave and make you wish you were dead, even if the tumor weren’t malignant and it didn’t kill you.
But you can always get operated- I suggested
It isn’t about tumors – malignant or not.
I saw what she meant and kept quiet. Then, I wondered aloud if it was difficult being a single mother in India. She said: Not really. But there are disturbing elements everywhere. Single definitely doesn’t make someone available or desperate to go to bed with just anyone" she finished almost angrily.
I tried to imagine a recent incident that might have triggered these emotions but I preferred to listen. She continued: I have lived my life in a house full of strangers. I didn’t want my daughter to be brought up the same way.
I was jealous of her more than I was ever before. I was married to a man I was never in love with. I was in a job which gave me no time to pursue my passion. And though, I had grown up being the perfect daughter for my parents and an ideal wife for my husband, I had lost myself somewhere in between. Someday, Prateek would grow up and leave for Grad school. Then, I’d have almost nothing to look forward to at the end of the day. Nothing to come back home to. My husband, virtuous as he was, lacked the passion I had dreamed of in my days of youth. A prince charming was not necessary. Only if it didn’t felt like I was going to bed with a stranger every night. It was not the physical aspect that was missing in our relation. It was the connection. We made love like routine. I took care of him because it was my duty. I really don’t know if I had ever been in love. We were just habits for each other. I felt a sting of pain somewhere.
I suddenly wished I hadn’t met Aditi after all these years. The shallowness of my existence, the meaningless pursuit of nothing seemed to hurt me more than ever. And yet, unlike her, I had not given up. I was ready to hope that eventually I would love my life, love the person I was . Even if I were molded by the desires of others. Even if I asked myself often- 'Where is the freedom I seek?' I wanted the liberty to paint the sky red again and to fill in the earth with purple color. Everything has been dictated unto me. And I had obeyed. But now I was feeling the desperate need to break away.
My mother came in with Dad and Prateek was holding a wrapped box with a triumphant smile. I instantly knew what was inside. I looked at Aditi again. But she didn’t appear to be the demi-goddess I had imagined her a moment ago. I respected her opinion and her strength to live life her way. But what was best for her child couldn’t have been directed by her private demons. Could it be? Or maybe convention had taught me to think only in black and white.