Thursday, June 18, 2009

A love for bubbles

But what will you take for her?” Nitin asked me.
He seemed almost as anxious as I was on this occasion. Okay, so that’s what friends were for… but right now he was not helping me at all.

What would I take for her? The instant answer was “Myself” but I thought it was safer not to say anything. Nitin was the earnest type and he would not like me making light of the situation. The situation? My planning to propose to Richa. Big momentous occasion on the cards. All planned by the small guy.

Did I say ‘small’? I didn’t feel that small. I felt like I owned the world. After all, Richa was almost mine, so to speak. And who wouldn’t be happy with a girl like that. She was everything I wanted in someone I was willing to spend the rest of my life with. She was fun, witty, charming and the best part was she understood me.

Well, over the last couple of months, I too was faintly beginning to understand her. Nitin’s verdict of Richa being a “good girl” notwithstanding, I knew there were many times when I could have torn my gelled hair in despair trying to figure out what was it she wanted to say when she clammed up and said, “Nothing”.

There were times when all she wanted to do was tell me about her day. Which was fine as long as she did not ask me about mine. I mean work was work, what else did one say about it? Then there was a time when she picked up a bottle of bubble liquid from a man selling balloons on the road. “Grow up”, I told her laughing, yet somewhat embarrassed. People on the streets were staring at us, though they were all smiling indulgently at her. “Why should I?” was her quick rejoinder. I had, as usual, no answer to that as a bubble settled on my nose.

But over time, I think I can understand her. No, maybe I understand myself better. I know for a fact that we are definitely different. And understanding that itself is a big step. I know that I need to lend her a listening ear time and again. She simply just wants to be heard. And I have told her that I really do not need to share every office issue with her.

I know that when she gives me space to have my night out with the boys, she is expecting that one-minute phone call to say that I still think of her. Easier said than done when you are in the middle of a heated football discussion, but I can do it now.

So what are you going to get her” Nitin interjected into my thoughts. “Do you know what I suggest?”
I smiled. I didn’t want to know.
This momentous occasion would be ours. Richa’s and mine. I was going to propose to her. The setting would be perfect. And I was going to take a bottle of bubble liquid for her.

(c) All rights reserved. Vaishakhi Bharucha

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Happy List

The doorbell rang. Two short buzzes, followed by a gentle knock. I smiled. This had to be Mrs Nair, my neighbour. We had this little code between us so that you could open the door on an 'as you are’ basis. Considering that we were two single women, each of us living alone, it worked out best for us.
While I had moved out of the comfort of home and hearth in the North to strike out on my own in Mumbai, Mrs. Nair’s solitude was not chosen by her. Her two children had grown and migrated abroad and about two years ago she had lost her husband. Although desolate for a few months, Mrs. Nair soon began to adjust to her new single status. Part of a reading club and several other senior citizen’s associations, she kept herself in good spirits, soon becoming the one person everyone turned to for help. Me included.
They say, God gives us relatives but we choose our friends. I’d go a step further. I think God even decides who our neighbours will be. Heaven knows, the Almighty was in a generous mood, when He deemed that I move next to Mrs Nair. A day after I moved in, the doorbell rang. Tripping over cartons and bundles of mattresses, with my hair full of cobwebs I opened the door expecting the carpenter. Outside stood a small, frail woman in a silk saree, holding a bowl covered with a napkin.
“Mrs. Nair”, she said smiling warmly, “I am your neighbour. I just made some hot idlis and sambar. I thought since you had just moved in you mustn’t have had time to cook.”
The rich smell of South Indian sambar wafted into my nostrils, and to me that small dark lady seemed to suddenly grow wings behind her back. That was the beginning of our relationship, strongly based on a variety of South Indian ‘tiffin’. With the aroma of upma and idlis, our relationship grew stronger. We came to depend on each other for a variety of small and big things. My Saturday morning breakfast was with Mrs. Nair. She’d thoughtfully allow me to sleep in late then ring the doorbell: two short buzzes, followed by a gentle knock. Then she would quickly step in with freshly prepared breakfast, whiz into my kitchen, take out the plates and lay the table. My part of the deal was to get the coffee maker on. She loved the filter coffee that my coffee maker made. To me it was the laziest way of making good coffee. She thought every South Indian family should have one, and give away the traditional decoction utensils.
I really admired Mrs. Nair. Although she was my mother’s generation, and a retired school principal, she was amazingly modern in her outlook. I felt that we shared a bond more as friends than neighbours, and never did the age gap seem to come in our way.
Then one Saturday morning, the doorbell did not ring. I got up at about 10:30 realising that it was way beyond Mrs. Nair’s time. Alarmed I rushed next door. She opened the door tentatively. Her eyes were swollen like she had been crying. “NairAuntie!” I exclaimed, “What happened?”
“You remember the doctor’s appointment I had?”
I could have kicked myself. I had known she was going during the week. But the weekdays had flown by so fast, it had just completely slipped my mind. Now my heart sank.
“What did the doctor say?”
She broke down now. Between sobs I heard the dreaded word. “Cancer.”
I put my arms around her. That was all I could do at the moment. Then regaining my composure, I straightened up. It seemed the right time to take charge.”NairAuntie, what’s for breakfast?”Quickly wiping her tears with the end of her saree, she looked embarrassed, “Dear, I haven’t made anything today. I just could not think straight!”
“Fine then,” I said, “today we’ll have a lavish breakfast of burnt toast, butter and your favourite brand of coffee.”
Over coffee, Mrs Nair told me that she had noticed a small lump in her breast a couple of weeks ago. Thinking it would go away she had ignored it. But later decided to go to her family doctor, who had immediately asked her to undergo some tests.
“Why didn’t you tell me this earlier?” I asked indignantly. But she just shook her head. “You have so much to do, and you are so busy with your work.”
I sighed. For once, I wished I had not been working and had been by her side when the cruel diagnosis was disclosed to her.
“Ok… what’s next”, I asked.
Step by step, I went through the next few procedures that were required. A biopsy, more reports and maybe surgery. Chemotherapy, radiotherapy. The best part was that the doctor said that the prognosis was good.
“But,” she exclaimed, shaking her head in confusion, “there’s so much to find out and whenever I go to the doctor, I forget everything that I wanted to ask him.”
“List” I said absently.
“What?” asked Mrs. Nair, puzzled. Somewhere at the back of my mind was this article I had read about cancer and how to cope with the diagnosis. One of the things suggested in that was to go to every doctor visit with a list of queries one might have. “Everything you want to ask the doctor, goes into a list. That way you don’t forget anything and you make the most of your time with the doc.”
Over the next few weeks, I made it a point to come home from office and check on Mrs Nair. And her list. She seemed to be doing well. Our Saturday breakfast sessions were restored. But over a couple of weeks, I saw a change in Mrs Nair. She seemed to be sinking into a depression.
I set up internet chats on my computer so that she could speak to her children more often. We started going for an odd movie together. And sometimes our breakfast would extend to a lunch or an evening snack together. But nothing seemed to help. I often wondered, what made her happy. What could I do to cheer her up?
“A happy list” I said, one Saturday morning over a plate of kancheepuram idlis.
“Happy list?” Mrs Nair had been very successful with her lists on her doctor’s visits. “Yes, yes” I said, snapping my fingers, thrilled with my idea. “That’s just what you need, a list of all the things that make you happy. Let’s start right away”.
Mrs. Nair gave me a bemused look. Every day, Mrs. Nair was to pick one item from the happy list and do it. I would help wherever I could. The idea caught on. By next Saturday, the list was a page long. Chatting with her children, going to the reading club meets, even the movies we went for together found their way on the list.
Saturday morning. The bell rang. I opened the door. Mrs. Nair walked in with a mischievous smile on her face. On a pretty silver tray was the most lavish South Indian breakfast I had had in ages. On top of the lace napkin was an envelope with my name on it.
I looked at it. As Mrs. Nair watched, I tentatively opened the envelope. Inside was just one sheet of paper. Titled, “the Happy List”
The entire list of twenty items consisted of just one thing: a cryptic, ‘Saturday morning’.

(c) Vaishakhi Bharucha June 2009

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Something inside me...

“The project”, she said in a weary tone, that children sometimes use when they know their parents are not going to comply.

“Oh yes”, I said, somewhat absently. School homework was something I was trying to put past me for many years. Unfortunately it had reared its ugly head again through my children. This time it seemed that there was no escape. Eight-year old Niyati had a science project on butterflies. To be submitted the next day.

But principles were principles. I drew myself up to my full parent height and said, “It’s your project. I can help you with it, I cannot,” I emphasized, “do it for you”.

“But all mothers do it”, she said petulantly. Then with a huff she stomped out of the room. I was familiar with the eerie silence that would follow. The flinging on the bed. The tear-stained pillow. The refusal to eat. And the constant muttering about how “other mothers weren’t like this”.

By evening, the project was more important than either of our egos. And soon I was helping her get material on different butterflies. It was difficult drawing the line between what was legitimate adult assistance and downright cheating. Every time, ‘other mothers’ were placed before me. I still held my ground.

We finished late in the night. A completed chart with, what we had discovered was the “Painted Lady”, a brilliantly coloured butterfly found almost the world over. The next morning, she left with the project in sullen silence. I knew I had not been forgiven. It hurt. Then I remembered something I had read. A magazine article that had talked about being a patient parent. I smiled inwardly, knowing my turn would come.

By evening the project was submitted. And forgotten. Or rather simply not mentioned.
Come Sunday and we were off to the nearby lake for a community picnic. Racing ahead with her friends, she was as excited an eight year old as you could get.

The sun was warm and flowers seemed to bloom everywhere. I too was welcome for this change of scene. Suddenly I felt relaxed. Something inside me told me everything would be alright. And then I saw it! The Painted Lady! I raced to Niyati’s side, and excitedly pointed it out to her. She jumped up and down with glee. Rounding up her friends, she animatedly explained to them what the butterfly was all about and all the scientific data she knew about the little creature. When she finished holding her little educational conference, she looked up at me. And smiled. Finally, I was better than the ‘other mothers’.

Secretly I thanked the ‘Painted Lady’. A butterfly responsible for parent-child bonding! Finally, I had got a good grade in my project.
(c) Vaishakhi Bharucha 2009

Monday, June 1, 2009

Many lives, many stories

It's not impossible. Sometimes you can reduce the largeness of life to one single word :relationships. The characteristic way in which each of us deals with people around us - those we love, those we know, even those we hate. A mother and a daughter. Two colleagues. Neighbours. Somewhere within these relationships is the real -albeit simple - meaning of life.I started to portray one little glimpse of someone else's life.
The first one was easy. The butterfly story came from a picture. The characters came from life. As more stories developed, the line between fact and fiction slowly started blurring. There were incidents from real life that got woven into the fabric of the story. But where the warp of the fabric was reality, the weft was fantasy.
Each character got a texture of real life and yet was not someone that I knew. Each story said a little bit about a character but a whole lot about life.
Each relationship explored brought out a new meaning into my relationships with others.
Each time I was a different character and yet each time I was the same.
And every time a new story fell into place and got completed, I had opened another door into a new relationship.
Now that I think of it, the relationships that I can explore are countless, the stories that emanate from there are limitless.
Something inside me tells me life has many more stories to tell.