COLOURS OF LIFE

Where love mat­ters.

Woman's Era - - Contents - Mi­nakshi Desai

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.

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