By Manish Ranjan
I make my way through the darkness, one careful step at a time. My hands lightly brush against the side walls; a habit acquired long back has stayed put. The staircase turns right, so do I. The darkness thins. I am surrounded by a dim incandescent light originating from an orb hung in the air. Its thin filament flickers, making shadows dance on the ceiling.
Moving closer, I notice the wire from which the bulb hangs. It has become thick with grime settled over the years, giving it a blackish tint. Attached to the wire, an array of cobwebs hangs all around it. With the bulb at the center, the entire assortment appears like a crude chandelier. It hangs from a high ceiling. Over the years, a few desperate attempts were made to tidy it up. A long stick with a cloth tied to one end of it was thrust upward. The cobwebs were gone, momentarily. But they always returned.
The crude chandelier has borne witness to my early childhood days. Along with dirt and dust, it has accumulated a thousand stories. It glows the entire day whenever electricity is present. I see myself, as a toddler, crawling till the stairs fascinated by it, only to be seized in between by some uncle or aunty. Under its dim glow, I watch a little older version of me being chased by my cousins up and down the stairs. The other parts of the house have changed over time, a CFL here, a tubelight there. But this lonely corner of the staircase has stayed untouched. The dwellers don’t find it worthwhile to spend their succinct resources here since the bulb sustained a sufficiently long life. Thus, this lonely corner of the house remained frozen in time as the years passed.
Only if that were true for life, moments and people could be preserved in some dusty corner, unaffected by time.
Reaching the landing, I turn right into an open space, into the aangan. It is filled with the cascading rays of the sun coming from a barred opening in the ceiling. I remember whenever it rained, someone made an announcement in a loud voice which was followed by hurried footsteps and metal screeching. The aangan slowly immersed in darkness as the opening was shut. The pattering of the rain against the metal became pronounced in the closed space while everyone fumbled in the darkness, the electricity already out due to the rain.
Twenty years have passed since that uneventful day I was born. This aangan constitutes a major portion of early days of my life. When I look back through the shades of time, I find that a mist has settled over everything. Things from the past appear hazy and unclear. Right there, I see a baby crawling on all fours, only to end up in those welcoming arms of his mother. I see my mother understanding my every desire through a wordless communication of cries, chuckles and giggles, as if connected by an invisible string. I watch my mother withstanding all of my tantrums. I observe the arrival of that tiny ball of menace, my sister, three years younger than me. I look at my younger self, contemplating about being replaced, as my sister hogged all of my mother’s attention, keeping her occupied, all the time, with her crying and whining. I see the frustration in my eyes, of losing my regime to a tiny baby in arms.
The gas stove in the corner of the aangan was just an earthen stove, back then. The cooking was done with dry leaves and wooden sticks. One day, many years ago, I was sitting by its side, all furious and fuming at my mother. She didn’t have time for me anymore. I felt discarded, all the time. In such perilous times an angel came to my aid: Dadi. She was old of age and just as wise. Her face was a confluence of wrinkles which only deepened every one of her expressions.
She came and sat beside me, quietly. She had some sweets in her hand. She offered them to me. I hesitated then picked one up.
‘What’s wrong,’ she asked me, while I chewed. I didn’t reply. She obviously knew what was wrong.
‘You know, she’s your baby sister,’ she said after a pause. ‘Why don’t you like her?’
‘Ma loves her more than me,’ was my quick rebuke.
‘No, she doesn’t. Your mother loves both of you, the same. But your sister is only a baby, now. She’s delicate and has special needs. She needs all the care and attention in the world. You might not remember now but when you were a baby, your mother showed the same care and affection towards you. You’re the older one. You always have to be the sensible one. In the coming years, she’ll be your responsibility too. You’ll be the one she’ll look up to. She’ll expect care and guidance from you. Promise me, you’ll live up to her expectations.
I gave a brief nod.
That day was the first time I held my sister. That tiny ball, I realized, no matter a menace, belonged to me. That day Dadi taught me a very important lesson — to treat my little sister as a responsibility rather than a rival — one of her many lessons to come.
Dadi packed a bundle of affection with rugged strictness. While my mother remained preoccupied with my sister, Dadi was happy to take care of me. Every day at dusk, she got me ready for my evening stroll with my father. She bathed me, dressed me in my nice clothes, oiled my hair and combed it gracefully. After applying powder on my face she tried to put kajal in my eyes. This was where I threw a tantrum, every day. But through her gentle cajoling and persuasion, she always completed her task.
Afterwards, I ventured out into the village streets, straddling my father’s shoulders like a newly crowned prince. People passing by waved at me and called my name. I greeted them with a smile. My father stopped at several places to chat with his friends and I found myself surrounded by people. They pulled my cheeks, making my head sway left and right. Moving further, my father bought me toffees. I liked a small round one. It came in different colours and flavours. I used to get a handful. This business of getting toffees was how Dadi had persuaded me to accompany my father on his evening stroll. From then on, all of it used to turn into a dull affair. My father joined his friends for a game of cards, while I chugged the toffees one by one into my mouth, a fest for my taste buds. Eventually, my stock ran out and I turned all grumpy and sullen, goading my father to take me home.
Reaching home, my lungs filled with an overwhelming aroma of onions being fried. My mouth watered in anticipation. I stood by as my mother prepared the curry and Dadi prepared the chapattis. I remained there observing Dadi, how she flattened the small piece of kneaded dough with a rolling pin into a perfect round shape. I was mesmerized by how deftly she removed the pan, letting the chapatti fall on the bluish-yellow flame.
‘Dadi, how do you do that?’
She just smiled.
She left the chapatti on the flame to inflate and then with a quick hand motion deposited the chapatti in a container nearby.
‘Dadi, will you please teach me how to do that.’
‘Sure, when you grow up.
Many years later I tried the same stunt and ended up burning my fingers. Dadi always made me eat the first chapatti that was prepared. She said that by eating the first chapatti I would be blessed with prosperity. Once the meal was prepared, we all ate together in the dim light of the lantern, our shadows thrown at the wall. Electricity was less frequent in those days.
I cross the aangan and reach the room at the other end. It is a small room; most of it taken by the bed. A mosquito net hangs over the bed. In a tiny alcove in the wall decorated with decorative paper, sit a god and a goddess and two half burnt incense sticks standing in a holder. Dadi’s gold rimmed glasses are placed in one of the shelves. I feel her scrutinizing gaze on me, scolding me, demanding of me why I never come to visit anymore.
Following a satisfied tummy, the night always found me in this very room, listening to the many tales of Dadi. I always had this hunger for stories; the stories and the lessons attached to had a certain intrigue to it. Every word Dadi uttered, every character she introduced, I pictured them in my mind with utmost clarity. I went on the same journey the characters did, learnt the same lessons the characters did.
All those tales she told have faded over the years to be replaced by facts and figures of the mundane world. What remained with me as a remnant of those tales was a phrase which, somehow, had stuck to this day.
Saatho milke kauniya khainu Hum parnu fandva, Rova hote more bachwa, Tun tuniye tun tuniye!
The phrase roughly translates to:
A hoard of grains, together we fed Unmindful of the trap, the hunter laid Before I knew, away everyone flew Stuck all alone for the hunter’s delight Cries of my children echo into the night My teeny tiny tots, my teeny tiny tots!
This phrase always came to my mind in form of a melody, voiced by Dadi. I can only remember tidbits of the story it was a part of: the plight of a sparrow, ensnared in a hunter’s trap longing for her children, all alone. There must have been a lesson attached to this story; a lesson I’d forgotten.
The wheels of time rolled on. My parents, my sister and I moved to town, to our newly built house. The sole aim of my father behind this was to provide a decent education to my sister and me. There were better prospects for us in the town than in the village. The wheels of time rolled on a bit more. I turned eight. I got admitted into a residential school, away from home. Whenever my parents visited me they always carried with them a boxful of snacks: namkeen, gujia, thekua, bhunja, prepared by Dadi. She always checked with my father about my approaching vacation, when I would be home.
The year of my Board examinations, immersed in my studies, I hadn’t been home for quite a few months. As soon I was done with it, I took a leave and came home. And the first thing I did was to visit Dadi. On my way there, people passing by gave me a smile of recognition. I barely recognized them. Oftentimes, I was asked, ‘Do you remember me?’ or ‘Where’s your home?’ To each one of them, my reply remained the never changing smile of mine.
‘You should come visit your old Dadi, sometimes, you know,’ Dadi said with a hint of disappointment.
‘Dadi, I had my exams. I was busy.’
‘Okay, okay…,’ she replied. ‘Well, now you are here. Wait, I’ll get you something.’
And she returned with a plateful of all types of my favourite bhunja: rice, wheat, maize, chana, daal. Everyone in the family knew about my love for bhunja, prepared by Dadi. Later on, she urged me to stay the night. I did. I owed her that much. Next morning brought forth a delight. Dadi knew a unique way of preparing paranthas. The paranthas prepared by her were fluffy and multi-layered. She served them with aalu bhujia and pickle — best breakfast ever.
I feel a presence behind me. Turning back, I find a humped slouched figure, approaching me, a stick in hand, for support. My grandpa has reduced to a hanging mass of skin on bones. If possible, he had grown even thinner.
‘Do you miss her, Dada?’
He doesn’t reply. He has grown hard of hearing. I repeat the question, this time, louder and slowly.
‘Ha, beta,’ his voice is uneven. ‘But I can feel her around, sometimes. She’s watching over all of us, looking out for all of us, from up there.’ He points upward.
I was in middle of attending an important lecture, when the calls started coming. This was quite unusual. Normally, my mother gave up after a full ring and waited for me to call her back. I got a little worried. Impatiently, I waited for the class to break.
I was surrounded by my friends sipping coffee and gossiping among themselves. The corridor adjoining the classroom served as a good hangout spot. A cool wind blew as I called my mother. She picked on the third ring. She was in a rush. There were no greetings or pleasantries, this time. She didn’t ask me how I was or what I had for breakfast. She came right to the point:
‘Beta, Dadi is no more.’
I was sucked into an internal vacuum. My friends were still gossiping, unperturbed. But I couldn’t hear them. Their words seemed distant. I didn’t know how to respond as my mother kept on speaking about the proceedings and the arrangements going on back home. All I could manage was an ‘Hmm’ at regular intervals.
My parents had mentioned Dadi’s illness some days ago. But the precipice of life which my Dadi was at, an illness was a regular occurring. She had come back stronger so many times before. To me, she has always been old, all my life. Her features, wrinkled face and grey hairs had remained the same over the years. She was a tough woman. I had seen her, as a child, chugging bucketful of water from ground floor to the first floor. Even at such an old age, she cooked the three meals and took care of my grandfather, all by herself. All this time that she aged and got sick, the idea of death as an end to her life occurred to me not once. She was such a strong soul.
‘She was asking for you, beta.’ My mother said to me.
That was a huge blow. My mother shouldn’t have said that. I was miles away. Even by flight, I couldn’t have reached home. But that wasn’t the point. She was gone, already. I did not get to say one last goodbye. I wasn’t there for one last life lesson. She had passed away while I was engrossed in chasing deadlines and submitting assignments. She was gone. And with her, she had taken away a large chunk of my childhood.
All my childhood days, I had urged the wheels of time to run fast, so I could grow up; grow a little taller and a little stronger; grow up to enjoy the freedom the adults did. I didn’t realize then that growing up meant losing the people you loved.
I wish I could turn back the clock and bring the wheels of time to a stop. I wish to frolic in the muddy rains, only to be scolded later. I wish to lay my head in Dadi’s lap and listen to a tale, learn a life lesson or two. I want to drown in those childhood lullabies of hers and taste her fluffy paranthas. I wish to give her one last hug, thanking her for the love and care she bestowed on me. I want to let her know that she was, and forever will, an irreplaceable part of my life.
‘Beta…’ I hear my grandpa calling to me.
‘Ha, Dada,’ I replied, collecting myself.
‘You will stay tonight, won’t you?’ he asked me. ‘You’ve come after so many days.’
I take a long look at him. His eyes, sunk into their sockets, have turned greyish yellow. There’s not much light left in those eyes. I see the evident loneliness of losing a life partner lurking there.
‘Of course, I’ll stay, Dada!’ I replied with a broad smile.
About the Author:
Manish is from the batch of 2016–18. He was the Senior Cell Coordinator of Literary Cell IIFT.