I woke to the sound of the main house door closing at six in the morning. I had been aware of my husband’s movements from early morning. His jumping-jack exercise on the blue mat, walking up and down the wooden stairs, sun salutations, and at the end, the exercise he did to ease his bowel movement. He had chronic constipation, his digestive system as rigid as his habits, if not more.
I made ginger tea fretting about the mess he must have created in the bathroom.
The newspaper vendor had yet to arrive. I finally caught a glimpse of his silver-grey bicycle and white shirt from the end of the street when I was dialing his boss’s number to complain about him.
“You don’t value others’ time. Do you? In an hour, I’d be up making lunch for my family. Next time, you’re late, I will ask your boss to get rid of you.”
“Sorry, Auntie,” he said holding his bicycle from one hand and throwing newspaper in our neighbor’s garden from the other.
“Wait. You forgot to add the supplementary addition of the English newspaper?”
“Sorry, sorry, sorry Auntie. I was in hurry this morning. It won’t happen the next time.” He begged.
I remembered to soak green gram in water. I called out my son from the kitchen to check if he was up, then went back to the garden and resumed reading the newspaper by the side of aloe vera, basil and chilli pepper plants. We had decided to grow a few herbal plants two years back to use in the kitchen. Only recently, my daughter started applying aloe vera gel on her face and hair. She had been even drinking aloe vera juice first thing in the morning. An hour later, my husband walked back from Upanishad class and sat on his carved wooden chair with the picture of a blooming plant and withering plant showcasing vicissitudes of life, the line underneath reads: You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action. He had liked the chair at once and we had brought it from all the way from Madurai on a train, ensuring it didn’t break in the hands of the porters.
He started reading a newspaper as he read the scriptures, with all his attention. He had been attending these lectures on Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita for over a decade. With more time on his hands now, he had recently helped the Ashram organizers to evaluate some twelve thousand essays written on Learnings from Bhagawad Gita just as he reviewed manuscripts of his friends from literary circle. The white cat jumped on the dark-purple money plants from our wooden gate as soon as it saw my husband. These money plants created an oval boundary for the garden. The cat as always sat by my husband’s side.
He went inside the kitchen and brought milk in a bowl. The cat guzzled it in less than a minute and basked in the sunlight as it awaited a glance of approval from my husband.
“Finished. Good. Go now,” my husband said as if he was talking to a child.
The cat was never overwhelming and exhibited just the right amount of emotion – the way my husband preferred.
“I haven’t seen the black one for a while. These two have been irregular these days. They didn’t come yesterday. Did they?” my husband asked.
“They must have gobbled up a pigeon or two. Did you read that there was a theft in our neighborhood in the middle of the day? You can’t trust anyone these days.” I waited for him to say something but he was engrossed in the Gujarati newspaper.
I went to the kitchen and started preparing breakfast. My daughter came in, wrapped her hands around me, and took a cup of ginger tea. She headed back to her room as soon as she gave a cursory glance to the English newspapers. I had never seen her wasting her time. To the only girl who came to play with her in her childhood, I used to throw a barrage of questions, ranging from her score in the recent examination to about how long she intended to play with my daughter. My daughter was a homebody from the start, preferred books to friends.
Just then my son came back from his soccer match sweating heavily. Tanned, exhausted and bruised. I saw him putting on some ointment on his foot.
“What happened?,” I asked.
“It’s a minor injury. It will be fine.”
“How do you get hurt every other day? What kind of barbaric friends do you play with? You could go for cycling and jogging instead. Or at least take care of yourself, if you must play”, I said giving him a fresh towel to wipe off his sweat.
“Okay Mom,” he said, drinking his glass of milk and staring at the newspapers. “Did you do yoga today? Don’t complain about your knee and back if you don’t take care of yourself”, my son said chiding me.
“I don’t have time for Yoga in the morning, don’t you see? Who will make lunch for you?”
“Do it later.”
He left for the office and I started pacing the house, thought about the extra work I should get done from the maids to make up for not cleaning the first floor today. One of them didn’t mop the area around the garage yesterday. I should get the kitchen ceiling clean too. It was already ten in the morning.
The housekeepers came fifteen minutes late.
“Just work on the ground floor today. We don’t have to go upstairs. Didi is taking some tests and won’t open the door. Please clean the kitchen ceiling and all the glass windows and mop the garage area. They look like they haven’t been touched for the last six months.”
In between managing the maids and preparing lunch in the kitchen, I got calls from my sisters. They lived in the same city, within a radius of seven kilometers. The middle one always called around eleven, the younger one around noon, and the elder one in the evenings. We talked, we fought and we made up regularly. We vied against each other to prove our superiority. That’s how we made sense of our lives, in relation to those of others.
“What are you cooking today? I am inviting my daughter’s mother-in-law and father-in-law for dinner. I have to get the house cleaned as well.” The middle sister said in an anxious voice.
“Why do you need to call them for dinner?”
“You wouldn’t understand. When your kids will get married, you’ll know. You have to maintain a good impression throughout. I am thinking of making samosas, paneer chili and grilled veg. sandwiches. They eat at ten at night, can’t serve heavy food. Have so much to do today. My mother-in-law fell down again from her bed at night. We saw her head bleeding early in the morning and took her to the hospital. The whole day she keeps pressing the bell her son has handed her. I am the one who ends up running around. I have no life until she passes away. The nurse is fed up too I guess. She was telling me that while she was scrubbing her back, she asked her to wash her buttocks. That’s not her job. And it’s not like she can’t wash on her own. This is the third nurse her son has found from some online source in the last six months,” she said without stopping to catch her breath.
I didn’t tell her that it was because of her mother-in-law that they could live comfortably. She had given all of her gold and properties to them, to the son who had incurred significant amount of debt in his business.
“Anyway, I have to go out with my daughter for shopping, She is buying new clothes for her Europe honeymoon,” the middle one declared.
“Good, she’ll have a good time. How much did they pay for the trip?”
“It was nine lakh rupees for a one-month trip. It included all the expenses they would incur in five countries in Europe.”
“I need to answer the door,” I said, putting down the phone. I opened the door to collect posts and couriers from the postman and called up another sister before she called me.
“The middle one was bragging about her daughter’s Europe trip. What amount did she tell you of the Europe package?”
“She told me eight lakh rupees,” said the younger one.
“She told me nine. They live in debt but don’t mend their ways. They won’t cease to be pretentious. Anyways, we are happy her daughter has been married in a well settled family. But at the end of the day, she would be a housewife. My kids are different. Education is the priority at our place, you know. My daughter is dogged on pursuing a PhD next year and my son doesn’t have time from setting up his company. Let others do what they want to do, I haven’t raised my kids to do ordinary things,” I said to relieve my deep-seated anxieties.
The pressure cooker summoned me and I had to put the phone down. The black radio was no longer playing the mellifluous sound it always played. As I tried turning it up, it screeched louder and I had to turn it down. It must have run out of batteries. I like playing the radio when I try to sleep in the afternoon. If I don’t, I worry about my children’s marriages and husband’s pension. After his retirement, my husband has continued to work as a Professor Emeritus in the same University. Had he not been absent minded and known how to get his work done from his colleagues and subordinates before retirement, we would have received all the pension money by now. I could have had another air conditioning for the kitchen and a bigger car. These days people see all these trappings before they marry their daughters. We should even get the house painted soon.
My husband has been absentminded all these years, even at home. Only writing got all of his attention and got him a national award for Gujarati translation of Tagore’s Geetanjali.
I called up my husband to inquire if he had spoken to the University authorities and had the files cleared. He told me that he was still waiting to meet the Vice Chancellor. I told him to stay there until the matter is resolved. At least ask them firmly the reasons for the delay in pension. We can then think about ways of getting things done faster. We shouldn’t hesitate in hiring lawyers to expedite things. I asked him to bring batteries for the radio. In the afternoon, my sister in law called.
“There is an exhibition at Kashmir emporium. They have a range of Kashmiri products including beautiful Pashmina shawls”, my sister-in-law said.
“Who is going to wear a pashmina in forty five degree Celsius?” I asked. “And besides, I don’t have money to squander on things I don’t need. My husband and son have given me credit cards, my daughter writes me checks but I don’t splurge on such things. They work so hard and have saved up from a young age. Both of my children have invested a good chunk in stock market and gold. You can’t get such kids these days. Look at the middle sister’s son and daughters. She was complaining on how much money he spends. It’s natural. They have never worked in their lives. How could they understand value of money? We can’t tolerate this at my place. It’s a parent’s responsibility to discipline a child from young age. She was asking me to interfere and speak to her son. First you gave them everything they demand and then suddenly you want them to realize value of money and be all mature.”
“That’s true”. Sister-in-law said.
“And besides, mother is sick. She wouldn’t like to be alone.”, I said politely suggesting her to stay back home for my ailing mother.
“She wants someone to attend to her all the time. That’s not possible. We can’t pause our life and continue to sit by her bedside all day long. You won’t believe what she did yesterday. She managed to get on the elevator, went to the ground floor and walked all the way to the main entrance of our apartment. Luckily the watchman saw her and called us.”
I didn’t believe in her story but refrained from saying anything because whenever one of us retorted she harassed our mother that same day by taunting her or by giving her spicy food she could not eat. How is it possible for my mother to walk so much when she can barely reach the washroom?
I couldn’t sleep. Instead I thought about my daughter turning thirty in a year. She had worked in various corporate roles in past four years and was doing well in her career. But now she wanted something different. I had a hard time understanding the need for change at this age when ideally she should get married. My thoughts wandered from one concern to another and suddenly I heard my daughter’ steps. She came downstairs for lunch. I went out of my room, searched my glasses and sat across her.
“The chhole in the white bowl is for you. Have made it somewhat spicy with the least amount of oil, the way you like it. How are your GRE mock tests going”?
“Good,” she said quickly eating rice and chhole.
“Don’t you get tired of studying? Are you sure you want to get into a PhD program? You know about Mr. Verma’s daughter, Anjali. Her brother met me yesterday while I was shopping in the mall and we had a long chat. Her PhD advisor at Urbana Champaign is an old guy. He even forgets what he told her in the last meeting. She is stuck in this PhD program for six years now. Her husband is back in Bangalore for a new job. Are you ready to commit for five-six years? What about enjoying life and getting married?”
“I love learning. That’s how I enjoy.” She flipped the channels on the TV.
“Looks like you have spoken to your sisters,” she said observantly. “Please don’t let them perturb your state of mind. Can’t you learn to live on your own and for your own self? Take up some hobby. You always loved singing. You remember, how you used to tell us about you winning some silver glass in a music competition in your high school. Why don’t you start singing again? I could get you a list of classical music classes around our place.” My daughter went in the kitchen and poured herself a glass of water. The glass is dirty. Ask the maid tomorrow to clean up properly. I am putting away all the dirty ones in the corner.”
“She was late fifteen minutes today and refused to do any extra work. I should fire this maid.”
“She was late fifteen minutes? That’s bad. You must be running late to present a budget in the parliament”, My daughter said giggling. “And about getting more work done from less money, I don’t know how you fed us for free so long. If you can be selfless with us, why do you have to be shrewd with the outsiders?”
The middle one called early in the morning. “It’s a one year death anniversary of our mother. We should do something.”
“Let’s go to the temple and feed the cows.”
After feeding the cows, we sat on the bench outside the temple under the shade of a banyan tree.
“Remember, how our mother used to forget our names at the end? She thought I was her elder sister.” I said turning on the little electric fan my son got me from his China trip.
“Who knows what will happen to us in our old age?” The younger one said shaking her head. “The old age is too bad.Doesn’t spare anyone.”
“Our mother is happier where she is. And our sister-in-law must be happy to get rid of her. She was the worst with her in her last days. It’s not just that she shouted at her when she forgot to flush the toilet or ate an ice-cream but she constantly criticized her. I was even afraid to bring her favorite delicacies after she taunted me that feeding her is not a problem but getting a bathroom cleaned after she goes to the toilet is. She was never affectionate with her. Mark my words, she will pay for it.” I said pointing my finger at the clear blue sky and wiping my tears with the same hand. We sat there praying for our mother.
“It’s your turn to treat us.” I said to the middle one.
“Okay, let’s go for a movie. The recent one in which Amitabh Bachchan falls in love with Tabbu who is half his age in the movie. It released a month back. What’s the name? Yes, Cheenikam.
“Get the details on your phone and let’s go to the nearest multiplex. We reached the multiplex and ate burgers and fries in lunch.
“I think I have only Rs.1000 note.” The middle one said.
“Give it to the waiter, he’ll get you the change.” I said laughing with the younger sister. The middle one was notorious for bringing Rs. 1000 notes to avoid paying. Both of us had learnt not to fall for this anymore. We let go too many times in past.
We settled in screen number three. The movie had already started as we were five minutes late. We waited for the entry of Amitabh Bachchan. It was already fifteen minutes in the theater. Still no Amitabh Bachchan. I whispered in my younger sister’s ears, “There is something wrong. This doesn’t look like Cheenikam.”
“Sshhh. Wait and watch. Amitabh Bachchan will pop out of the ocean in a bit”, the younger one said in her usual confidence.
“This is some Hollywood movie.” The younger one said seeing Johnny Depp emerge from the ocean. “Let’s go ask the in-charge outside.”
“Madam, it’s a hindi version of Pirates of Caribbean.”
We looked at each other and laughed and vowed not to tell our husbands and children about the gaffe. It happens.
I came back home with fresh spinach, tomatoes, lettuce, broccoli and lots of ginger and mint. The neighbor saw me coming out of the auto and came towards me.
How are you? She said kneeling on our white-Maruti Swift parked outside.
“It’s our mother’s one-year death anniversary so my sisters and I went to the temple.” I did not say that we also ate junk food and went to the movie.
“Are you going to do any ritual for her?”
“We fed the cows.”
“We haven’t met for a long time so I thought I should ask if everything is okay.” The neighbor said.
“I thought you must be busy with the house renovation.” I did not tell her that I find her too self-absorbed. Once when I went to her home, she continued to talk to someone on the phone for ten minutes while I was there. That was insulting. Since then I decided to keep some distance from her.
As I walked inside the home, my daughter came to the family room and inquired about my day. I told her about watching Pirates of Caribbean movie, the incident we were not supposed to tell anyone. She laughed hard and made fun of us. I told her not to tell this incident to anyone.
“You’ll tell everybody yourself”. She said giggling. “It’s not in your blood to keep a secret.”
“How is George?”
“He must be fine, haven’t talked to him in a long time.”
“George was good. He could have tolerated you. You’re difficult like your father. You need someone mild.”
“Someone as mild and manipulative like you. No, thanks I love you but I can’t take another one in my life.”
“You want us to be married so you can talk about it in your social circles. If our happiness means anything to you, please let us make our own decision.”
“What’s up buddy?” I can hear my children talking in the next room.
“Nothing much. Just been struggling to get the funding for my start-up. Nobody wants to take risk. I think I’ll have to get the pilot project up by my own money.”
“You’re quite patient that ways. You’re working in the same place for five years. You can take the risk now. I can’t imagine myself doing it. I have changed five jobs in past four years. And now going the PhD way.”
“It’s easier for women I think. Men just have a lot of pressure to prove themselves in our traditional society.”
“Don’t give me that crap. You know you’re wrong.”
“It’s not about society. I am just more comfortable being disobedient than you are. It takes courage to stand on your feet and to do what makes sense. You care a lot more for our parents’ approval. I don’t need that. Although at times, getting validation feels good. But I am not going to build my life around that.”
“Our mother is a woman who makes highs, higher and lows lower. But she has blind love for her sisters.” I hear my son speaking these words.
“And for us.” My daughter said. They don’t know I am in the next room half the time to clean the bookshelves and talk to my sisters in private.
“No matter what I say about our mother, the problem is I love her too much. And she drives me crazy with her ideas about the ideal life.” my daughter said.
“Maintain limited contact with mom. I am not clingy like you. I say hello, eat on time and I am off to my room. You are the one who needs to go chat with her, cuddle with her. Why do you need that?” My son is almost chiding.
“She uses her devotion to emotionally blackmail us. It’s as if she will not waste a single tear if it cannot get her what she wants. She is so goal oriented. She manipulates me because, I absorb her negative emotions. You don’t. You’re so good at snapping her and just shutting the door. I can’t do that. I almost cried the day before yesterday. She tells me first thing in the morning that she can’t sleep because we are not getting married. That’s a pure torture.
“People who for some reason find it impossible to think about themselves, and so really be themselves, try to make up for not thinking with doing and that doing could be worrying. They try to pretend that doing is thinking. Mom falls in this category.”
This is what my children talk about me behind my back. Is it wrong to expect them to get married when I can still enjoy their weddings?
“It’s Sunday? The office isn’t opened yet.” My daughter said pinpointing why I am not on the phone with my sisters. I do not respond.
“What happened? Why ain’t you talking? Did you hear our conversation last night?”
“You poison his ears, I don’t like that.” I told my daughter firmly.
“You shouldn’t be angry. You should feel good about it. Your children have spine and are not afraid of talking their minds. The truth is, because all that you do and perhaps despite of everything that you do and say, we love you the most.” My daughter said kissing me on my cheek.
“Mom, I never thought I’d ever say this. But it’s nice to have a sibling. It’s fun to gang-up on parents together.” My daughter said going off to the garage.
“It’s been two years since the retirement. Maybe we should find a lawyer and seek help.” I said as soon as I see my husband enter the living room.
“I am meeting other colleagues to discuss about it.”
“Discussion won’t do anything. Let them move at their own pace. We should get this done on our own. Look at Kajal Joshi. She had the same problem but her pension started the next day she retired. She bribed every officer she came across and got her papers sorted before her retirement. We need to get this issue resolved at least before this Vice Chancellor retires. You don’t want to start the procedure again with the new one.”
“We are doing what we can. What can you do, if they don’t release the funds? This is the bureaucracy of this country.”
“Why is there a delay?” I ask offering a glass of lemonade.
“Because I did not let them pursue corruption while I was in charge. Because they have done enough laundering of funds and they want me to sign the papers so that they can get out of trouble. I won’t sign. I did not sign earlier. I will not sign now.”
Your kids are on you, I thought. They want to be true to their own selves and pursue their dreams. They won’t budge. They won’t get married when I still have all my teeth intact. We won’t get the pension. This is my life. I retreated to my room, put down the curtains, reached out to the black radio and let it play old Hindi songs with a screeching sound, for they were better than the noise in my head.
Kruti Brahmbhatt is a Young India Fellow and a World Economic Forum – Global Shaper. She has been educated in the US and India and currently lives in Ahmedabad. In former lives a development professional in India and an entrepreneur in the US, she divides her time now between teaching and writing. Her writing is published in the Forge Literary Magazine, Canyon Voices and others. She has also received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers.