COMING HOME FOR DIWALI
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...