COM­ING HOME FOR DI­WALI

Storizen Magazine - - Cover Story - By Shob­han Bant­wal

I step out of my sis­ter’s car and take a deep breath be­fore I study the house. The spa­cious brick colo­nial looks ex­actly like it did the last time I saw it. This is the first time in nearly six years that I’ve set eyes on my par­ents’ house — my child­hood home.

Most of my early mem­o­ries are wo­ven around this house. I hear a fa­mil­iar voice and look up. My mother! I has­ten to meet her and get caught in a tight em­brace. “Mom!” Hear­ing her voice, smelling her fa­mil­iar scent, bury­ing my face in her neck, and

feel­ing the com­fort of her arms around me re­duces me to tears.

“Sarita! It’s so good to have you home, baby,” Mom mur­murs on a snif­fle. There are tears run­ning down her cheeks. Mean­while my lit­tle sis­ter, Kavita, has parked the blue Nis­san in the drive­way and is drag­ging my suit­case into the house.

I dry my eyes and nose. “Mom, Kavita tells me poor Dad is sick.”

Mom nods. “But your Dad’s anx­iously wait­ing to see you.”

I can’t wait to see him ei­ther. He’s the best fa­ther in the world. I’d never be where I am with­out him and my mother. They’ve en­cour­aged, in­spired, and prod­ded me into be­com­ing a suc­cess­ful neu­rol­o­gist in San Fran­cisco. Twenty-five year old Kavita is headed for a sim­i­lar ca­reer in medicine.

I find him cov­ered with a blan­ket, re­clin­ing in a chair by the fire­place. “Dad, what an aw­ful time to fall sick,” I ad­mon­ish him in jest be­fore bend­ing down to give him a hug. The odour of Vicks Va­porub as­saults my nose.

The stub­ble on his face is at least two days old. His eyes look glazed with fever. I start to get teary-eyed once again at the sight of my big, in­vin­ci­ble fa­ther look­ing so vul­ner­a­ble.

“No cry­ing when you come home,” he says with mock stern­ness. But his lower lip is trem­bling with sup­pressed emo­tion. Dad, the ma­cho Dr. Ramesh Chawla, never ex­poses his emo­tions to any­one.

Mom walks in with a tray of my favourite snacks: be­san lad­dus, na­mak paara, samosas. My empty stom­ach rum­bles in re­sponse to the min­gled aro­mas. Kavita fol­lows with a big teapot and four cups. In the next five min­utes we’re all sit­ting around the fire­place drink­ing hot tea and munch­ing on Mom’s de­li­cious treats. God, how I’ve missed this!

Things have changed very lit­tle in my par­ents’ warm co­coon of a homestead, I con­clude silently as my eyes wan­der around the fa­mil­iar fam­ily room. And I’m glad for it. I need the com­fort of monotony. Af­ter run­ning away as far as I could from New York, I have now come back to my fam­ily—for a ther­a­peu­tic dose of Dad’s lec­tures, Mom’s cod­dling, and Kavita’s brash­ness.

Five years ago, the lights were ex­tin­guished abruptly from my per­sonal life and to a large ex­tent my fam­ily’s. Arun, my hus­band, was killed in an air crash, only a few weeks be­fore Di­wali. The love of my life—a kind, cheer­ful, witty and in­tel­li­gent man—snuffed out like the danc­ing flame of a Di­wali lamp be­fore its time. We’d been mar­ried less than eight months. As a med­i­cal pro­fes­sional it’s sim­ple enough to an­a­lyze my emo­tions as I’ve pro­gressed through the var­i­ous phases of griev­ing for Arun, but it doesn’t make it any eas­ier. The empti­ness still lingers.

The door­bell rings, in­ter­rupt­ing my glum mus­ings. I see an alert look pass be­tween my par­ents. “Are you ex­pect­ing some­one?” I in­quire.

“Uh…yes…sort of.” My mother hur­ries to get the door. My fa­ther’s eyes are trained on the en­try foyer, his ex­pres­sion one of tense an­tic­i­pa­tion. A sec­ond later, Mom re­turns, with a tall young man in tow. As he comes closer, I no­tice he has an ar­rest­ing kind of face, with high cheek­bones and

dark, twin­kling eyes. He’s dressed in jeans, sweat­shirt and denim jacket. Who is he?

“Sameer’s here,” Mom an­nounces. My fa­ther’s face splits into a wel­com­ing grin, putting some cheer in his fever­ish eyes. My mother is gush­ing over this guy. Kavita pokes her head out of the kitchen and waves at him. “Hi, Sameer.”

"Hey, Kavita," he chirps.

An un­ex­pected wave of jeal­ousy strikes me as I ob­serve this Sameer walk­ing so con­fi­dently into the midst of my fam­ily, claim­ing them as if they were his own. To add to my ir­ri­ta­tion, my folks seem ea­ger to roll out the red car­pet for him. Dammit, it’s my day! My home­com­ing. My Di­wali.

Mom ush­ers the man for­ward. “Sarita, you re­mem­ber Sameer, don’t you?”

I try to scru­ti­nize the smile and the lu­mi­nous eyes. Have I met him be­fore? Every­one in the fam­ily seems to know him well. Why don’t I? Sameer of­fers me a firm hand­shake. “I’m Sameer Dalvi. Re­mem­ber me?”

I give him a puz­zled look. “I’m...afraid not. Sorry.”

Kavita snickers and Dad bursts into rau­cous laugh­ter. Mom looks amused and says, “The Dalvis used to be our neigh­bours when we lived in Florida, dear. You and Sameer used to play to­gether as kids.”

The light dawns on me in the next in­stant. “Oh! That Sameer! Never thought I’d see you again.”

“When my em­ployer trans­ferred me to New York last year, my par­ents asked me to look up your fam­ily.” He grins. “So here I am.”

“Sit down, Sameer. Have tea with us.” Mom of­fers him a plate and cup.

“Thanks.” Sameer helps him­self to a gen­er­ous mound of snacks and starts to chomp. “Umm…the taste of Di­wali! Fab­u­lous, Aunty,” he says to my glow­ing mother. I re­luc­tantly ad­mit to my­self that Sameer has a cer­tain boy­ish charm. From his easy fa­mil­iar­ity with every­one and ev­ery­thing,

and my folks’ de­meanour around him, it ap­pears he’s al­most part of the fam­ily. He chats with Dad as if they’re best bud­dies; he treats Mom like she was his own mother; and Kavita could eas­ily be his lit­tle sis­ter. So where does that leave me?

“Sarita, while Kavita and I get din­ner ready, why don’t Sameer and you set out the Di­wali lamps and the akash-kan­deel?” my mother sug­gests, point­ing to a card­board box in the cor­ner.

Set­ting out the lamps around the front porch and hang­ing the akash-kan­deel sounds like fun— some­thing we used to do be­fore Arun died. Sameer gal­lantly of­fers to carry the box to the porch for me. I kneel down to sort through the box while Sameer goes back in and re­turns with a multi- coloured akash-kan­deel.

Sameer and I work to­gether, com­pan­ion­able chat­ter ac­com­pa­ny­ing our ef­forts to light the ter­ra­cotta lamps and hang the pa­per lantern. I learn that he has an MBA from Har­vard and works as a Vice Pres­i­dent at a ma­jor in­vest­ment firm. He’s ob­vi­ously done well for him­self. “I’m sorry about Arun,” he says un­ex­pect­edly. “Your par­ents told me,”

It takes me a sec­ond to re­spond. “I see.”

“It must have been hell for you.” His voice is filled with quiet sym­pa­thy.

“I’ve learned to cope with it over the years.” I won’t ad­mit I’m lonely.

A vel­vety dark­ness be­gins to set­tle around us as we light the lamps. They lend a sur­real glow to our front porch, trans­form­ing it into a mag­i­cal place. The lantern sways in the breeze, its tis­sue pa­per mak­ing crack­ling noises. My spir­its rise.

“It looks lovely, doesn’t it?” I look up at Sameer and catch him study­ing me with a cu­ri­ous look in his eyes. I’ve no idea how long he’s been star­ing at me. In the golden lamp­light I re­al­ize he’s a rather at­trac­tive man. And nice, too. My con­ver­sa­tion with him has been in­ter­est­ing, stim­u­lat­ing. I re­al­ize I haven’t had such a pleas­ant time in quite a while.

I shiver as a cool gust of air chills me. Word­lessly Sameer slips off his jacket and of­fers it to me. I

drape it around my shoul­ders and mur­mur my thanks. The jacket is warm and smells of a pleas­ant af­ter­shave. I re­al­ize with shock that I’m be­gin­ning to feel some­thing strange—the same kind of tingly sen­sa­tion I’d ex­pe­ri­enced the first time I’d met Arun—an emo­tion I haven’t al­lowed my­self to feel since my heart shat­tered some years ago.

The door opens and Mom steps out­side. A de­lighted smile spreads over her face. “Nice work, you two! The lights looks beau­ti­ful!” Her as­tute eyes don’t miss the jacket around my shoul­ders, or the ex­pres­sion on my face. She looks from Sameer to me. “Din­ner’s ready. Let’s eat.” She ush­ers us in­side the house. “Sameer, to­mor­row’s Di­wali, so you should def­i­nitely spend the day with us, dear.”

“I'd like that, Aunty,” he replies. “Thank you.”

“Isn’t it nice to come home for Di­wali, baby?” Mom asks me.

I lift my eyes to meet Sameer’s over my mother’s head. His arched eye­brows ap­pear to be ask­ing me the same ques­tion. I squeeze Mom‘s arm. “It’s bet­ter than nice, Mom. It’s won­der­ful. I'm so glad I came

Shob­han Bant­wal is an In­dian-Amer­i­can au­thor of six nov­els and co-au­thor of two an­tholo­gies. Her ar­ti­cles have ap­peared in The Writer, Ro­man­tic Times, In­dia Abroad, Lit­tle In­dia, New Woman, Storizen, The In­dian Trum­pet, and In­dia Cur­rents. Her short...

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