Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Far and Near

Eight of them sat huddled around the small dining table. Of the eight, four silver heads, barely moving, pored over the cards their hands held. The eyes shone with enthusiasm. Most of the time, the lips were firmly sealed lest an unnecessary word slipped out. They could not afford to break the thick wall of concentration they had built around them.
Mrs. Dey noisily pushed her chair back, and rose hurriedly, oblivious to the seven pairs of irritated eyes, including her husband’s, looking at her accusingly. The feeble rings of the phone had reached her through the open doors of her bedroom. Seconds later, she was in her bed room, a thousand bulbs lighting up her face as Siri’s voice came floating from oceans away.
“Solving Sudoku or playing cards?”
The minutes flew away like a dream - a dream that Mrs. Dey dreamed everyday and that came true every alternate day. Siri called routinely once in two days. Ten minutes later, she had taken refuge in the kitchen. As she poured milk in the cups, she felt something salty in her mouth. Tears were streaming down her cheeks. Coffee spilled in the tray as her shaking fingers stirred the brown powder in the white milk. To buy some time, she added some more powder. After a few minutes, her fingers were not shaking any more. The brown liquid in the cups kept getting richer.
When she returned to the dining table, all eyes got riveted on the cups sitting on the tray her now-steady hands held. Her red eyes and pale face went unnoticed by all, barring one. Mr. Sen threw a quick glance at her before picking up his cup. The game was stopped and noise of animated conversation began filling up the room slowly as the coffee went down the thirsty throats. Only one heart could not resonate with the happy sound of the laughter during this evening.
The sun shone through the big window. Mrs. Dey went to the balcony to check on the birds. A bowl of corn sat on a hanging flower-pot. It was an open invitation to the birds to come and nibble at the corn. The feathered creatures sensed the Dey couple’s discomfort during lonely afternoons and obliged them by flying back and forth, chirping all the while. Of late, some afternoons came with soaring temperatures that confined the Deys and their friends to the solitude of their own homes. Today was one such day.
The balcony kept getting hotter, but Mrs. Dey did not budge. Her husband’s snore kept reaching her from inside the small bed room. The birds were not to be seen anymore. Finally Mrs. Dey walked back to the hall and slowly pulled out a white album from the book shelf. Flipping through the pages, she stopped at one. Ten-year-old Siri was looking at two pigeons eating grains off a plate kept on the window-sill of the small study adjacent to the same balcony. Forty years spent in the same house. Siri had grown up here, bagging her first job, making two job-switches, growing career-wise, when young and dashing Vikram came her way very suddenly. In a year after their quick marriage the two had flown off to USA to settle there. And life changed all of a sudden for the Dey couple when week-ends changed into week days without a warning. The week-end visits of Siri and Vikram were over forever. That was the turning point. The Deys changed their way of life quickly, this time on their own. Neighbours turned into friends and friends turned into daily visitors. Far way in a busy city of USA, life was about to change forever for Siri and Vikram too. Little Nyasa was on her way to fill their few empty hours, spent in nostalgia and guilt for having left their motherland and folks, with cheer and relief.
Fifteen years have passed since then. Enough time that has gifted the Dey couple with an ever-expanding circle of friends and acquaintances, increasing joint pain as well as greeting cards from USA from which photos fell out regularly. Infant Nyasa taking her first steps, toddler Nyasa growing up into a school-going kid, seven-year-old Nyasa’s first summer camp and lately teenager Nyasa surrounded by her closest friends....
Durga Pooja has just got over. The Dey house wears a festive look. Rich aroma of chicken keeps floating out from the kitchen. The guests would soon begin pouring in. It is forenoon. Mr. Sen walked in slowly.
“Where are the carrots and cucumbers?” he asked.
Mrs. Dey came out with a tray of the salad materials, smiled weakly at him and hurried back to the kitchen. Her face looked unusually pale. Mr. Dey, seated on the sofa, looked up and stared at him. A bee came in buzzing and hovered around his balding head precariously, but he did not seem to care.
Mr. Dey had bumped into him in the mall close by months back when Mr. Sen had just arrived in Bangalore and moved in with Ron and Rashmi, daughter-in-law of two years. That afternoon, Mr. Sen’s hands were holding two jute bags that had a famous Kolkata shop’s name scrawled in Bengali script. Mr. Dey’s alert eyes had not missed it. That was the beginning of a warm relationship between a reticent, lonely widower feeling like a fish out of water in a new rapidly-growing city and a garrulous Bengali, who had allowed his attachment for Bangalore to keep growing uninhibited for decades but was nevertheless in love with the city that was still ‘Calcutta’ in his mind.
A man of few words, Mr. Sen finally broke the uncomfortable silence.
“Everything fine, Mr. Dey?”
A startled Mr. Dey cleared his throat and spoke softly and haltingly.
“Siri was thinking of visiting us with her family next month. Only yesterday she got a new boss at her workplace; he is sending her to a conference in Australia at the same time. So her plans of an Indian vacation have been shelved for now.....She just called hour back.”
After a pause, he said, “We have zeroed in on a house to spend the rest of our life there. It is a little away from that horrible mall and a little closer to the new multi-speciality Care hospital. We were counting on her to have a look at it...Long back Siri had told us she would finance it. She has already sent the first few instalments in advance the moment she knew we like it. She does not want us to dilly-dally about this matter. We are growing old and we might need emergency help at any time of the day; it has been in her mind for years. We don’t have enough savings that could buy us a house half as that big in such a strategically located area. In fact, ....”
A loud knock on the door stopped him.  Neighbours stood in a huge group. Someone shouted, “Shubho Bijoya, everybody!” The next second, they were all pouring in. Mrs. Dey came out of her room quickly, her lips curved in a genuine, wide smile, her face having gained colour in the meanwhile.
Mr. Sen stood looking at the huge glass dining table. Chicken and fish delicacies sat in two big bowls next to the rice and vegetable soup. Ron was supposed to come back from office by mid-day to welcome his wife after a month. Rashmi was residing with her parents in another part of the city after her miscarriage six months back. “Her doctor has advised her company of her parents for her emotional health,” Ron had briefly said when Mr. Sen saw the two packing her keyboard a few days after Rashmi’s return from the hospital. When Mr. Sen had looked on questioningly and Rashmi had gone inside for a while, Ron had said, “She has taken up a job that allows her some time to pursue her passion. She would take keyboard classes for a few poor children of an NGO school during the evenings after her return from the workplace.” The tinge of pride in his voice could not be missed.
“Why couldn’t she be happy with her regular job like the others? Why does she have to teach skills to kids whose parents can’t even pay her?! Why don’t you explain to her?” Mr. Sen had blurted out in exasperation. He always guessed that Rashmi was different and at that moment he knew he was right. What he did not know was that Ron had silently decided right then never to discuss his wife with his father. Ron was glad that Rashmi was far inside and his father’s outburst had not reached her.
“Dad wouldn’t listen....he won’t understand....ever....Mom would have tried to understand at least. It’s a pity God took her away so soon!” Ron had told Rashmi later. She had noticed her father-in-law’s silence during her departure and had asked Ron to explain her decision to his father.
Somebody was thumping on the entrance door. The door moved slightly and then swung open. “Hello Mr. Sen! How come you are right there and did not hear us banging your door for the last five minutes?” Mr. Dey said loudly as he walked in with his wife behind him, both grinning from ear to ear. “Forget his jokes, Mr. Sen! He knocked only once right two seconds back!” she said.
“We came to have lunch with you. Ruby, take out your fish dish for Mr. Sen to taste and comment.” As Mrs. Dey kept her big bag on the table, Mr. Dey said emphatically, “I swear that Mr. Sen will visit us daily in our new house just for dishes like this! Here, Sen, this card gives the address. By the way, you must come for the house-warming ceremony on the 19th. “
“Siri advised us to go ahead with it,” Mrs. Dey said happily.
“Please sit down. Ron and Rashmi too would join us for lunch. I have got lunch and dinner home-delivered from the restaurant today.” Mr. Sen was suddenly looking very cheerful.
“Wonderful news!  And you never told us Ron’s new house looks so commodious!” Mr. Dey said cheerfully and then added with a pause, “A hanging balcony and that too nestled right in the middle of a forest!” There were at least a score of deodars and more eucalyptuses adorning the front garden of the house. Mrs. Dey immediately went to the balcony and said excitedly, “What a beautiful feeling to sit here and sip tea in a cold winter morning!”
Mr. Sen squirmed and said softly, “But it’s very lonely here.”
“What, Mr. Sen?! You have your son staying with you off and on. Rashmi comes down sometimes. Look at us! One daughter, one grand-daughter and one son-in-law! All of them away, oceans away!”Mr. Dey said matter-of-factly. Strangely, there was no sadness in his voice. He felt proud for having rebuilt his life and having helped his wife rebuild hers after Siri left India many years back.
“Five bedrooms! It’s a palace!” exclaimed Mrs. Dey as her eyes scanned the house.
“More rooms than people here.” Mr. Sen said slowly. There was sadness in his voice.
“Did you ever share your thoughts with Ron? Do they chat with you?” Mrs. Dey asked softly. Mr. Sen turned his face towards the trees. He cleared his throat and opened his mouth to say, “Well....well...” and then fell silent. Mrs. Dey waited and then after a few moments’ silence said, “Is Rashmi still very sad? I miss her sometimes. She is quiet, seems soft but is strong inside. When are they coming, Mr. Sen?” Mrs. Dey asked slowly but eagerly. There was a kind of warmth in her voice that made him turn towards her. Mostly a listener and large-hearted, her eyes always said much more than her voice. She seemed to read people very well without their knowing it. He knew at that moment she wanted to help him open up. She seemed to know that he had a lot bottled up in him just as she knew Rashmi liked her very much. The two women had met only once in the hospital where Mrs. Dey had gone to visit Rashmi hearing about her sudden miscarriage. That was just a few weeks after Mr. Sen had become an addition to the Deys’ huge circle.
Mr. Sen did not know Mr. Dey too was waiting for him to say something. “We shall come closer to your place in a few weeks, Mr. Sen. You can stay with us sometimes when you feel like it,” he said and added jestingly, “We too would like to use your children’s palace as a resort sometimes!”
“Children?! I have only one son!” said Mr. Sen.
“Er...I meant Ron and Rashmi. Just like Siri and Vikram are our children.... By the way, when are the two coming? I am hungry already! Would you keep your guests waiting forever?” Mr. Dey was back to his jovial form.
In the far end of the house, the phone rang. As Mr. Sen went towards it, the Deys quickly exchanged glances.
Ron’s voice came floating from two miles away.
“Dad, Rashmi called me to say she is unable to come home today. Her kids are putting up a programme for the founder of their school who is flying down from Kolkata. Rashmi has suddenly got very busy training the children. .....I’ll be with her for a few days. Let me know anytime if you need me. Bye.” Ron had hung up even before Mr. Sen could say anything.
When he was walking down to the hall, Mrs. Dey’s cheerful, unusually loud voice was reverberating in the huge house.
“What? Nyasa feels that we are the best grandparents in the world?!” After a few seconds, she said excitedly, “Yes! Yes! We received the photos last Friday. Nyasa is looking so gorgeous! How did the audience respond to the song she sang that I had taught her over the phone?”
The proud grandmother was busy on the phone for the next ten minutes as the happy grandfather kept glowing.
Mr. Sen stood alone in the balcony. The Deys had left an hour back. His eyes looked strangely bright. A few crows went flying far away into the twilight sky, startling him.With quick, short steps he went towards the far-end bed room, murmuring “Ron may still be in his office. If I ask him to come now, he may be able to come here tonight.” Then he whispered to himself, “I’ll say, ‘Just for a day, Ron. I am not feeling well.’”
He dialled Ron’s number. It was switched off.
Outside, the red-and-orange sky had turned into black. There was no hint of silver in it. The deodars swayed in the cool, light breeze. It was autumn but a sudden gust of wind brought the fragrance of wet earth. It had rained somewhere close by. “Where is it raining at this time of the year?!” Mr. Sen thought, breaking from his stupor. An hour had passed as he sat in the dark and he had not realized it. A deluge of thoughts began to stir him.
Did the Deys ever feel like he felt now? Ignored, forgotten? Was their daughter really so far away as he made it out to be? Were Ron and Rashmi really so near him as the world thought? Who is far? Who is near?
Then they began falling – the tears, as Mrs. Dey’s words rang in his ears.
“Did you ever share your thoughts with him? Do they chat with you? Is Rashmi still very sad?”
He didn’t know when his own thoughts had turned into words. They were ringing loudly in his ears now.
“Did I try talking with Ron ever in my life the way Mrs. Dey was talking with her Siri? Did I even think of talking with Rashmi to find out how she felt when she lost her baby? Isn’t she trying to forget her pain through the keyboard classes with the children? Were the two as far from me as they are now? Can I ever reach near them?”

The drizzle was turning into a downpour. Inside, the tears were streaming down faster. The shaking fingers began dialling a number as a trembling voice kept saying hoarsely, “Come home, children. Please....”

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