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 SWEET DISH

 
(Published in Why we don’t talk, Rupa, 2010)
(Published in Why we don’t talk, Rupa, 2010)

Unquiet nights invite me in. Nights like this one, wet, windswept, shifting. I never go far, just on a walkabout. This is a residential locality; at this hour, the lanes are empty except for the occasional cyclist hunched up against the rain and silent except for the wind in the coconut palms. Streetlamps cast pale pools of light that underscore the depths of the surrounding dark.

Keeping to the shadows, I stop now and then to peer through a gap in the hedge. Framed in the windows of homes are pictures of domestic life: a woman stirring a pot in the kitchen, a man and a boy playing a board game, a girl in pigtails packing her schoolbag. Everyday images, but as I watch riveted, they become extraordinarily beautiful, rich and pulsating, radiant with an inner glow. I am careful not to linger – these are dangerous times. Sociologists have glib phrases for them such as ‘sudden wealth and conspicuous consumption’, and ‘the collective itch to grow rich’.  Are they saying that greed is no longer a bad word?

`Ma, Rohit is a greedy pig.’

`Shalu, don’t use such words for your younger brother.’

`But Ma, he finished the whole packet of Gems! Didn’t give me even one.’

`Listen, bitiya. I’ve made kheer today. I’ll give you an extra helping.’

`You’re only saying that because you know Rohit doesn’t like kheer.’

`What nonsense you talk! Go, set the table. Your father will want his dinner as soon as he comes home.

How old was I then? Eight or nine? And why did we have kheer? My mother’s diary has no record of that day. What I remember is that kheer, thick, creamy, garnished with nuts and raisin, was a sweet reserved for special occasions. For Diwali, for Report Card day and for the days Father would bring home his paycheck – there were a few occasions like that, I remember.

To the world at large, father was the ne’er do well. In her diary, my mother calls him sapnon ka saudagar, a peddler of dreams. Yes, my father’s head was big with dreams. They were always about money. Not in the few hundreds that we needed for rent, fees and food. No. Father dreamed of crores, of empires. Remember, to reach your destiny you have to start with a dream, he would often say. Once Ma retorted, I’ll settle for a second-hand car. Father’s eyes turned flinty; he hated to be reminded of the things we could not afford. We’re not poor, he’d tell us. We’ve come down a bit, that’s all. Go back a generation or two and you’ll find that our family owned hundreds of acres in the Doab region. Go back a century or two and there are rajahs in our family tree; palaces, royal elephants and servants holding up white umbrellas over our heads; harems filled with beautiful women. He’d add with a grin, yes, we’ve come down a bit – I have to make do with just one woman. But she is the fairest of them all. Then, even Ma would find it hard not to smile.

Ma had the girl-next-door look popular in the Hindi films of the seventies. A heart-shaped face, a clear skin, a snub nose and wide set eyes. Vikasnagar, where she was born and brought up, was a small agricultural town in the Doon Valley. Her name was Rukma. She came from a family of three sisters and two brothers. Their father was a munshi, an accountant. Rukma was the only one who inherited his aptitude for numbers. She attended classes in accounts and bookkeeping, acquired a basic skill in typing and found a job for herself in Dehradun. Apart from her father, she was the only one who earned anything.

It was around this time, when she had just started working, that Rukma also began to keep a diary. She chose a hardcover single-lined notebook, the first of sixteen similar notebooks. The paper was thick and rough, but she made it beautiful with her script – neat, bold and rounded. She wrote in Hindi of the journeys she made. The daily commute to the city was a ninety-minute bus ride past orchards of mango and litchi trees, silent forests of sal, a dry riverbed and a brick kiln. She’d cross tiny thatched huts and catch brief glimpses of the lives of those who lived in them: skeletal women who slogged in the kitchen and the yard; barefoot, unclad children who rolled discarded tractor tyres through the dusty village lanes; old men who sat at the chai shop staring at nothing. The scene never changed. Rukma traced in it the bleak pattern of her own future: an arranged marriage to someone who would accept a small dowry, motherhood many times over, a lifetime of slavery in the kitchen, slow-festering frustrations that would, every now and then, burst into virulent domestic quarrels. The distance from Vikasnagar to Dehradun was only thirty miles, but on those daily journeys Rukma dared to travel further. She began to dream her own big dreams. Then she met Father.

His name was Vinod Baijal. He was thirty-five, the friend of her employer’s son. The employer, Seth Puran Chand Mittal, had a medium-sized timber business. Like many self-made men, Sethji was thrifty by nature, but he gave his son Murali all the advantages of money, starting with a public school education. It was at this school that Murali had struck a friendship with Vinod, the son of a senior police officer.

Vinod was tall and fleshy with an air of suppressed aggression in his quick, loud speech and impetuous manner. He was briefly in the army but finding its discipline too hard to bear on a daily basis took a premature release. Subsequently, he tried his hand at a number of businesses: garments, computer hardware dealership and event management. Every time he managed to put together the necessary capital for his ventures through bank loans and money borrowed from friends. But there was such a rush in him for quick gains that he would expand too fast, hire the wrong people, splurge on overheads. Soon, the daily grind would get to him, he would be unable to meet his commitments, the suppliers would stop giving him credit and the debtors would hound him for money. He would lose credibility and friends. Finally, he’d go bankrupt. Then his mother, Punita, would plead with his father to use his connections to get Vinod a job.

Dhanraj Baijal, my grandfather, was known for his incorruptibility; he wore it like a crown of thorns. For such a man it was anathema to have to ask an acquaintance – he had few friends – for a favour. Yet, hounded by Punita, he would swallow his pride and approach his contacts for a job for his son. Vinod rarely stayed in a job beyond six months. The reason could be anything: a real or imaginary slight, boredom, inadequate salary, better opportunity. He’d quit without notice. Before long, some new scheme would fire his mind.

It was one such scheme that took him to Dehradun. The Doon Valley was a hub of the timber trade. Vinod decided that he would make a foray into the furniture business. Naturally, he went to Seth Puran Chand Mittal’s office. From my mother’s diary it appears she met Vinod several times. At Sethji’s request, she explained to him how the business was run. Vinod asked questions, first about the business and then about herself. One day he asked her whether she would move to Delhi. She agreed immediately. The diary does not give any reason, but makes it clear that it was her decision alone to leave her job and her family. She packed an overnight kit, left for work as usual and did not return. Her letter to her parents only said that she was going to Delhi where she’d been offered a better job.

The furniture business developed the usual troubles. Within eighteen months it was grounded for good. Next was the filmmaking venture. Vinod had met a scriptwriter who made a tenuous living by writing scripts for corporate promotion and training videos, but dreamed of writing a TV serial. Vinod decided he would produce this serial. He scraped up enough money to shoot a pilot episode. For months he made the rounds of television channels, trying to sell the serial. At the end of another wasted day, Vinod would come back to his office, a room above the garage of his father’s house. He’d kick off his shoes and plant his feet on the table. Rukma would go to the market and buy him something to eat: a bun omelet, bread pakora or samosa. At that time Vinod was still living in his father’s house, but the two men had stopped communicating with each other. Vinod’s interaction with his mother was limited to the subject of food. Did he want breakfast, Punita would ask. Would he be back for dinner? No. His answer was always ‘no’. Though Rukma came and went freely, Punita never exchanged a word with her.

Soon, Vinod could not afford to pay even Rukma’s salary. She found another job in a ceramic factory in Gurgaon. At the end of her first day at work, she stepped out of the office at seven-thirty in the evening. She had started off towards the bus stand when someone emerged from the shadows.

“I’ll drop you,” said Vinod, sitting on his motorcycle. He took her out for dinner at a wayside dhaba frequented by truck drivers. Another six months were to pass before Vinod married Rukma. And that happened only because I was on the way. In her diary, she wrote: A wisp of desire. Who can guess its power? No matter what we believe of ourselves, our actions are based on our desires and dreams. But with that partial vision unique to dreamers, we are strangely blind to circumstances. Finally, reality compels us to rearrange our dreams.

I know now that my mother had wanted to abort. But, for some reason, my father would not hear of this rearrangement. Instead, he drove her to a temple and married her. There is a photograph of them, taken in a studio after the ceremony. They are side by side, they have fresh flower garlands around their necks. There is a hint of a smile on Ma’s face, just a tiny spillover, as if she’s holding her happiness very tight within herself. Father looks faintly irritated. There is another picture. It was taken on the day I was born. Father is holding me in his hands, gazing down at me with a strangely perplexed expression. At the time this picture was taken, Father had a job in a firm that provided security guards to factories. He had moved out of his parents’ house. Dhanraj had made it clear that he had washed his hands off the relationship. But, when my brother Rohit was born, two years after me, my grandmother began to visit us.

I recall her visits to our house in Gurgaon. After ordering the driver to park the car at the beginning of the dirt track that serviced our neighbourhood, Punita would get down, raise the hem of her chiffon sari and petticoat, hold a handkerchief to her nose and, with a disgusted look on her face, negotiate her way past cyclists, vendors, children, pools of dirty water and street dogs to our door. Ma would offer her a nervous welcome, run about fetching a glass of water and a cushion for her back and apologise for the cramped space. Punita would listen to her twittering with disdain writ large over her regal features. She would make it clear that she had come only to see her son and grandchildren. Before leaving she would place a sealed white envelope on the table. After she’d gone Father would pick it up and slip it into his pocket.

The job in the security firm began to pall. Father identified fitness as a sunrise industry. He got into a partnership with a friend who put up the money to start a gym. The deal was that Father would run the place. At that time I was eight years old. Sometimes, Father would take me to the gym. I remember the mirrored walls, shining steel equipment, loud music, the smell of sweat and room freshener. The place was always crowded. After a while the equipment began to give trouble. A man working out on the bench press had a heart attack and died on the spot. The gym was shut down due to mismanagement. It turned out that Father’s friend had taken huge loans. The banks began to foreclose. The friend vanished, leaving Father to face the debts and court cases. By now, Father was forty-six, grossly overweight, suffering from ulcers, his teeth rotten. The years had taken their toll.

It may appear from all this that I had a miserable childhood. That’s not true. In her diary, my mother wrote: Children have an instinct for happiness. They live only in the present – beautiful or ugly, it is all they know. Every moment is inset with its own sense of purpose. When do things change? When does hope turn its back?  May be when the realisation sinks in that tomorrow inevitably comes…it comes armed anew with its hollow promise. Those legions of empty tomorrows that march relentlessly towards us, they defeat us.

Rohit and I didn’t see that far; we were too young. We saw only the new lightness in the house.

`Is somebody coming to visit us, Ma?’

`No, Shalu… Why do you ask that?’

`You’ve tidied the cupboards and the kitchen shelves. You’ve changed the bed sheets even though it’s the middle of the week. You’ve made kheer today. All this tells me that today is special.’

`What a clever girl you are! Listen, did someone knock on the door? It may be your father. Give him a towel, bitiya. It’s raining. He’s probably drenched.’

How pretty Ma looked that night, how lighthearted. As we sat down to dinner, the four of us were caught up in the gossamer-fine web of our happiness. A web that was easy for them to spin. Father was in a cheerful mood. He hugged Rohit and me several times, kissed us and made little jokes. Every now and then his eyes would alight on Ma’s face; they would share a smile fraught with secrets. Outside the window, a sulphur-yellow moon struggled through a sea of monsoon clouds.

We finished eating. I helped Ma clear the table. Father started an arm-wrestling match with Rohit. I remember it clearly: Father’s arm covered with thick dark hair entwined with Rohit’s skinny smooth arm. Their eyes interlocked in a separate battle of their own. Rohit’s eyes bright with innocent laughter, Father’s eyes dark as an abyss.

Ma went into the kitchen. She returned with four bowls of kheer on a tray. She passed them to us individually. Later, the police said that the kheer was ‘laced with poison’. The news warranted front-page space in the national dailies. A tiny box on the left corner. Family suicide in Gurgaon. The report said that Father’s financial difficulties had led to this drastic step. Father’s name was not mentioned because he was Dhanraj Baijal’s son. My grandfather, though retired, had enough clout to prevent further details from leaking out. This time, he did not hesitate to use it.

The police found the empty bottle in the dustbin. What they couldn’t understand was why Ma had omitted to add the poison in one bowl out of the four. Why had she, instead, just added a dose of tranquilisers sufficiently large to knock out a nine-year-old for twenty hours? They asked me what happened in our house. Did my parents quarrel? Was my father worried about something? Was my mother angry? Was I unhappy? No, I said. We were happy that night. Our parents loved us, Rohit and me. It is true.

` Didi, your kheer has got more kishmish than mine!’

`That’s because you don’t like kishmish.’

`I do! It’s soft and it goes plop in my mouth when I bite it. I love it!’

`You don’t, Rohit. You know you don’t. You just want it because I like it.’

`Will you exchange your katori with mine?’

`And if I do, what will I get?’

`That packet of Gems…I didn’t finish it.’

`Liar!’

`No, didi. I’ll give it to you. See, I’ve kept it in my pocket.’

`How many Gems?’

`Seven.’

`All right.’

Our parents loved us – Rohit and me. But Ma loved Rohit differently. Though she doesn’t say it in her diary, I know. That night before we went to sleep in our room, she came to kiss us. I saw it in her face. Her eyes fixed on Rohit with such tenderness that I felt a hard knot in my chest. I looked away. Goodnight bitiya, she said to me a moment later, as one might say hello to a travelling companion, but I shut my eyes, pretending to be asleep.

Dhanraj and Punita took me in. We left New Delhi and moved to the south, to a quiet, cool city. Punita went through the motions of living: decorating the new house, training the staff to do things her way, wearing pastel chiffons, painting her nails seashell pink, baking cakes for Dhanraj’s bridge sessions. Habit, like water, created channels through which her daily life continued to flow unimpeded. She never talked about what had happened, but sometimes her gaze rested on me. That look of rancour. What are you doing here? Then it would disappear, to be replaced by the firewall of indifference.

It was different with Dhanraj. For a long time he was the only one who provided me with a form of meaningful human contact. He taught me to play bridge. We got into the habit of going for early morning jogs under the gulmohar trees in the park. Though he was a taciturn man, he anchored me in small ways. It was enough to get me through school and college. I did a course in ticketing and joined a travel agency. I moved into my own apartment.

I like my job. I meet all kinds of people: honeymooners wanting the ideal romantic getaway, families on budget holidays, grandparents travelling for the birth of a grandchild. I plan itineraries, make airline bookings and hotel reservations. I never fail to wish my clients bon voyage.

Yet there are nights like this one when I walk through empty lanes, looking into windows of homes at the simple tableaux of life. Sometimes they walk beside me. Vinod, Rukma and Rohit. Sometimes I see them inside the tableaux, looking out the window into the dark and at me. My dead. I hear their lament. I feel their pain, their yearning. For tomorrow, the day after tomorrow.
But tomorrow belongs to me alone.

3 Comments

  1. Sagorika Sarmah

    It was one of the most engrossing stories I have read in recent times. It takes you on a journey through those dark streets and into Vinod & Rukma’s home. It makes you want to barge in to stop the unfortunate mother from serving her family those bowls of kheer. It makes you want to stop by Shalu’s apartment to catch a glimpse of how she manages to cope with her past demons….

  2. What a beautifully well-written story, Madhavi.
    The character feel so real that you sense her anguish, pain and longing.
    I thoroughly enjoyed it.
    Thank you for sharing 🙂

  3. This is a lovely story, very engrossing and I love the detailing. Please write more.

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