COLOURS OF LIFE
Where love matters.
It was later that month after days of long conversations with my nana behind closed doors that my mother told me that we were moving to India. There was no saving to fall back on. The money we got from the sale of the house would see us through till we settled down in India.
Biting my knuckles till they bled, I stared at my father’s face. Though I had never seen anyone die before, I knew with a certainty born of instinct that my father was no more. Beside me, my mother gave a hysterical cry and held onto my father’s body, her shoulders heaving as she sobbed. I stood there frozen to the spot, unable to comprehend what had just happened. My father was dead. I could not believe it. The man who had always been there for me through the 16 years of my life was gone forever.
He had lain on the hospital bed, tubes snaking in and out of his body for the better part of a month. He had badly cracked his ribs in the accident, and his right leg had multiple fractures. But that was not what had worried the doctors. It was the injuries to his head that had been a cause for concern. He had been in a coma for a month. He had opened his eyes the day before he passed away, and his gaze softening as he saw me next to the bed. A hint of a smile had played on his lips. I had felt the slight pressure of his hand on mine before he had closed his eyes again. I had been hopeful, of course. But the doctor had been non-committal. Such things happen, he said. Just a reflex. It doesn’t mean anything. That was the last time my father looked at me.
The loving way in which he had gazed at me stayed with me even after the funeral was over. Unable to cry, I went on with my life as if nothing had happened. My mother, forgetting her own grief, was concerned. “You have to let your grief out, Ridhi, it’s not good to let it fester in there,” she said. “I am okay,” I would reply, wanting to be left alone. I knew she was suffering; not only from the blow life had dealt her but also because I had blocked myself from the world. I felt dead inside.
About a month after the funeral, I heard my mother talking to her father; my nana, on the phone. I caught snatches of conversation. I did not pay much attention till I heard my mother utter my name.
“I don’t know how Ridhi will react,” she said. I moved closer to her bedroom door, eavesdropping shamelessly. “India is a lot different from New Jersey. She is not young anymore; she is 16 and this is the only life she knows. She won’t be able to adjust there. She does not know anyone…”
She nodded her head a couple of times, brushing back her dishevelled hair.
“Maybe, I can manage… i could get a job here… sell the house. A small apartment will be cheaper… i know I have never worked here
before… but I will have to start now… oh, papa, I don’t know what to do!” she sobbed. “I am so scared!”
I stood rooted to the spot. My mother had problems communicating with the staff at the local supermarket. How was she going to take up a job? More importantly, who would give it to her? Fear gripped me.
It was later that month after days of long conversations with my nana behind closed doors that my mother told me that, we were moving to India. There was no saving to fall back on. The money we got from the sale of the house would see us through till we settled down in India. I argued. But even as I spoke I knew it was to no avail. My mother did not have a choice. And, two months later, we were on a flight on our way to India. I of course refused to speak to my mother. I hated the fact that she was not educated enough, not confident enough to support herself and me.
Three days later, I was standing on the terrace of the ancestral haveli a few miles outside Rajkot. The house that looked more like an ancient palace was spread out over an acre of land surrounded by open fields. Quaint rooms with arched windows and antique furniture made me feel like I was in a fairytale. The weather was not beyond belief. The scent of coriander wafted through the air titillating my nostrils. I could not get enough of it. I looked across at the plains of the green coriander plants of the stalks rustling in the breeze in wonder.
My mother’s family was large; apart from her mother and father, there were two brothers, their wives, and five children amongst them.
“You will soon get used to it, Ridhi,” said mother, stroking my hair. But I was in no mood.
“I have no friends, no life and there is nothing to do here. The climate is horrible and people are so oldfashioned!” I retorted sharply.
“Hush!” mother retorted. “Someone will hear you! Trust me, things will be okay after a while. There is so much to look forward to! You will be going to NID and living in a dorm in Ahmedabad! You have always wanted to study art and NID is the best in India! And in a week’s time Holi will be here!”
“What’s so great about Holi?” I said. I felt emotion well up in me but was unable to cry. I knew it worried my mother and now my nana and nani – not to mention the rest of the family – that I had not cried even once after my father died.
“It’s much more than sprinkling colours on everyone! It’s a time when the whole family and friends come together to celebrate the festival. The food is delicious and there will probably be a fair in the nearby villages. You can visit with your uncles if you like,” said mom, trying to sound enthusiastic.
Our conversation came to an end when dinner was announced. Getting up from the bed, I headed for the door, pretending reluctance. At home, lunch was a sandwich packed in a bag for school with an apple thrown in; and dinner pasta or a vegetable with roti. We had a full meal only on Sunday. My father, when he was alive, had made it a point to go to the nearby temple and got hot samosas or some mithai once in a while. But it was nothing in comparison to what I saw on my nani’s dining table. There were two to three vegetables, dal, roti, rice, stuffed chillies that were so deliciously spicy, and dhoklas, a steamed savoury that was eaten with chutney. Some or the other homemade mithai always found its way to the table. It was a veritable feast. The fact that the whole family sat together to enjoy the fare was a bonus. In spite of myself, I couldn’t help but be drawn towards the people who were my family. They were loving and friendly, all of them fussing over me to see that my needs were met.
Settling down at the table, I served myself, my mouth watering. I was just reaching for the aloo jeera, when the bowl of stuffed bhindi caught my eye. Stuffed bhindi, my father’s favourite vegetable! My hand froze in place as I stared at the bhindi. Emotions welled up in me and, before I knew it, the floodgates of grief burst open. I keeled over, sobbing, my head resting on my empty plate. As the sobs grew in intensity, breathing became difficult and soon I was in a panic, gasping for air. The family gathered around, everyone trying to comfort me. But this made it only worse. I feebly tried to push people away so I could take in some oxygen.
My nani took charge. Tucking the edge of her sari in at her waist, she shooed everyone away. Talking in soothing tones, she led me to the sofa. Though I had no difficulty breathing now, I couldn’t stop crying. Before I knew it, I was lying on the sofa, my head resting on my nani’s lap. Her gentle hands stroked my hair as she talked to me softly. I wanted my father back. I wanted my life to be the way it used to be. The pain was more than I could bear. As if reading my thoughts, my nani spoke.
“He may not be here with us, but he is in heaven watching over you right this minute. It is causing him pain to see you unhappy. You have to make an effort for him and for your mother,” she said.
The meal forgotten, the
As my mother had mentioned, friends from neighbouring homes had been invited for Holi. It promised to be an exciting day. I toyed with the food on my plate and wondered how I would be able to play with colours when my father was no more.
family gathered around me again. Each had something to say; words of comfort to give. Overwhelmed, I felt my eyes well up again. My nana led me to the table again after a while. To lift my spirits, they began to talk of Holi, the festival of colour. I felt surprisingly better after I had had a good cry. It was as if a leaden weight had been lifted from my chest.
As my mother had mentioned, friends from neighbouring homes had been invited for Holi. It promised to be an exciting day. I toyed with the food on my plate and wondered how I would be able to play with colours when my father was no more. Meeta, my 18-yearold cousin, squeezed my hand under the table.
“It will all work out; you will see. Just give it time,” she whispered.
That night, my cousins dragged their mattresses into my room. In spite of myself, I got caught up in the excitement. They talked about Holi, the bonfire with puja that was there the next day; they told me mythological stories behind Holika and about the cute boys who would be coming to play Holi the day after. We giggled well into the night, till finally I fell asleep with a smile on my face.
The bonfire danced in the breeze, the flames licking angrily at the logs. I watched with fascination as my aunties went around the flames, bursting coconuts and spreading vermillion. For a moment silence descended on the gathering.
Mesmerised, I watched the logs spitting out little sparks of ash. I thought of all the stories about Holi that my nani had shared with us over lunch that afternoon. India was a mystical land, so utterly different from my life in America had been. I breathed in the air as I looked at my cousins. Meeta smiled at me; hugging me to her.
Meeta and my cousins dragged me out of my bed early the next morning. After a quick breakfast, we went to change. I was surprised to see that my cousins, Meeta and 14-yearold Tina too were wearing shorts and T-shirts.
“Are you surprised, Ridhi?” asked Meeta, smiling at me. “India has changed a lot in the past few decades. We maybe miles away from the big cities, but not much is different here. We wear what we like. And, parents willing, we can even marry the person of our choice.”
The courtyard outside resembled a rainbow. Powder colours of all shades were laid out in huge brass platters. Buckets full of water balloons lay by the side. As the sun rose in the sky the guests began to arrive. Each greeted the other with a hug and a smear of colours sprinkled. Meeta had been right I thought as a cute boy I hardly knew tossed a water balloon at me.
Caught up in the excitement, it was a while before I noticed my mother, sitting on the porch, shading her eyes from the sun. It took me a moment to realise that a tear was trickling down her cheek. Stunned, I looked at her. She had changed in the past two months. Her face was thin and drawn, her salwar suit hung loosely on her. How had I not noticed that? How much weight had she lost after papa died? Had I been selfish – thinking of myself, my grief and my needs, while my mother had borne the loss of her husband, dealt with the sale of the house and moving to India? Overcome with concern and shame, I walked to her.
She wiped her eyes and smiled at me, pretending everything was normal. I clutched her hand in mine and rested my hand on her shoulder. There was a lot I wanted to say, a lot that needed to be said. But I felt tongue-tied. She brushed off some of the vermillion colour that had fallen on her pristine white salwar suit. Tradition dictated that widows avoid playing Holi – for how long, I was not sure. But I knew that for my mother, it was much more than that. She did not wish to participate in such frivolity so soon after the death of her husband. Respecting her feelings, the family had left her alone. In deference of her feelings, my nana and nani too sat on the side, watching the festivities from a distance.
“I am sorry, mom,” I said, my eyes watering.
“Why are you crying, Ridhi? Is everything okay?” she asked, wiping the tears from my eyes.
“I have been so selfish, I never realised. I should have been more sensitive to your feelings. All the time I was upset about papa, I didn’t think that you too had suffered a loss. Instead of standing by you, supporting you, I created more problems for you. I love you so much, mom!” The tears finding a path down the smears of colour on my face, rolled down my cheeks, the red blobs of colour mixed with tears falling on my shorts.
“You have not been selfish! You are 16 years old, and you just lost your father! And to top it all, I had to bring you to India to start a new life. I have asked a lot from you, Ridhi. And you have tried your best to adjust. If you don’t like it here, I promise we will go back. We have the money from the house and I will try to look for a job. At a supermarket or something. Everyone has to begin somewhere. I will learn given time. It won’t be easy, but we will make it.”
I looked at my cousins, sitting on the flowerbed under the tree waiting for me, so we could go back to playing. I looked at the concerned faces of my nana and nani as they sat nearby, watching me and my mother. What difference did it make where you were as long as you had such a lovely family to care for you, to love you? I asked myself.
“I want to stay here,” I said, giving my mother a hug. Her eyes glowing with love and happiness, my mother hugged me back.
“You have not been selfish! You are 16 years old, and you just lost your father! And to top it all, I had to bring you to India to start a new life. I have asked a lot from you, Ridhi. And you have tried your best to adjust. If you don’t like it here, I promise we will go back.”
He had lain on the hospital bed, tubes snaking in and out of his body for the better part of a month.