(Just one of those days when you just want to write for the heck of it - and don't worry how it sounds, or how long it goes!)
I squinted to see the time in my watch under the lone tube light in the entire stretch before me and realized I wasn’t going to make it on time - It was already 9:30 in the night; I was supposed to be there at 9 and given what a stickler to time ~R is, I knew I had to hurry. I broke into a sprint and made it to the house at close to ten. ~R’s mother greeted me – Just as I was looking around for ~R, she told me he was going to be an hour late but he had informed everyone at home about my arrival. She showed me the room I was going to stay in; the bed was made; a couple of magazines were left in the corner; the room was well lit and the mosquito repellant was already on. It was as if, the house and everything in it was an extension of ~R’s personality. It was 10:30 pm.
It was a small house – we had a 3 petite rooms and a huge portico with an asbestos roof. As you enter the house, you feel it’s placed on an elevation because there was a mini staircase of 3 steps starting from the portico, leading you to the drawing room. In the far-left end of the hall were three steps which formed the puja room of the house. Every year, this day this time my mom would be sitting in the kitchen alone, preparing a whole list of sweets for the next day. Nothing about the event changed in so many years – the place, the list of sweets and the diligence with which mom made it. My brother and my dad would be sound asleep in the two adjacent beds placed in right angles to each other. I would twist and turn and in the end, lose any hope of falling asleep, would come and sit next to my mom in the kitchen and watch her cook. I have never been a loving son. But the idea of my mom cooking alone while the rest of us are asleep was somehow not quite acceptable to me. The Ajanta clock that we bought when I was 10 must have stuck 10:30 then.
I didn’t enter the bathroom with the intention of taking a shower. It’s just one of those things that happened; inconsequential, inexplicable decisions that aren’t given much of a thought. The first thing I spotted as soon as I came out was the Lungi, and the flimsy white woven towel with a red streak in the border – two pieces of cloth that are characteristically Malayali. Lungis are always special to me. It was my first sign of adulthood. Wearing it somehow transformed me from a naïve boy to a cynical, know-it-all adult – a transition that I was so keen to make then. Just as I was getting down the stairs, ~R entered with a whole long day written in multiple lines all over his face. He tried doing some small talk – but both of us were too tired to indulge ourselves in something we sincerely believed was a waste of time. We sat there acknowledging each other’s presence through silence, staring through the TV in front of us – like, a 2 year old married couple who have run out things to tell each other.
My mom and I were very similar in many ways – like an unflattering passport size photo showed when I was 14. But the similarities weren’t just skin deep. As my mom always puts it, I have taken up all her bad traits! We are both nocturnal beings, extremely egoistic, think too much, can never talk about our problems to others, are multi-layered and are contrastingly introverted and extroverted. We weren’t going through the best of times then and due to 110 reasons around, our tempers usually used to flare up against each other– so must of the time, both of us sat silently not bothering to do any small talk. But late nights were different – just when the whole world sleeps, both of us open up, talk about her childhood, my school adventure and everything. In 23 years now, these are the only happy conversations that I remember we had in that house of ours.
There’s something extremely rejuvenating about home food (or probably the way it’s served). After 1 whole month, I was having dinner on a working day and in such circumstances (or even otherwise), home food is heaven. ~R and I are not exactly cousins – come to think we are quite distantly related. But he and his wife are probably the only relatives of mine with whom I can have meaningful conversations. As always, family talk went ahead in concentric circles, widening with time in the negative axes of intimacy, information and concern. Things then moved on bio-technology, temples, architecture and personality development courses – my entire day’s work was sitting on my eyelids forcing them to fall with his every word. At close to midnight, when everyone else in the house was inches away from andromeda, we decided to call it day.
I have always had a fascination for nights – during those frequent power cuts we used to have, I used to take every chance to escape into the mud path just outside my house to stare at the moon and the stars, while my mom would light up those kerosene lamps made out of stray ends of old bed spreads, an ink bottle full of oil and a whole bag of soot all around and wave a competition success review at me. She loved quizzing – the asking questions part. She would diligently buy all quiz books available and use every chance to ask me questions. My mom wanted me to be this educated guy they showed in movies. She wasn’t sure how – So, she didn’t spare a single chance. Every evening, I was given the day’s newspaper and a notebook and was asked to write 10 new words into the notebook; She would sit next to me and look at how I am doing my homework even if she doesn’t understand a word of what I write; the punishments were equally harsh – she will hit me with whatever she finds – the broom, a red-hot iron rod, broken legs of old chairs are cases in point. During nights, when it’s just the two of us, she’ll try explaining me why it’s very important for me to study and get the family to a respectable position. I don’t know whether I ever understood. I am not sure either of us believed it will happen – that my brother or I would ever go ahead and earn five or six figure salaries, end family loans and indulge in luxuries was too utopian to be true. At about midnight, she would tell me to go to sleep telling me that I have to wake up very early tomorrow.
It must have been 4:30 when ~R woke me up. Instinctively, thanks to 23 years of experience, I realized I shouldn’t open my eyes yet. I raised a hand of mine for him to hold. He carefully took me down to the ground floor – through the twelve polished steps I had counted last night – left me at the Puja room and walked away. I opened my eyes to see a blue eyed Krishna staring back at my face. I could only smile – I wasn’t sure if I would be able to do it this year. Yet another year – my mom’s going to be proud of me. Yet, there was this inexplicable disappointment; it’s like the second kiss – you are glad it happened but realize it will never be like your first kiss … ever!
There’s something primordial about the way she closes my eyes and leads me to the hall in the early hours of dawn. With half my senses still asleep, my eyes still closed I trust her completely as she takes me to the hall. And that touch – something about the touch of my mother on my eyes. Something that can’t be put to words but I am sure was first felt as she inserted her forefinger into my curled fingers and smiled as I gave her my first toothless grin. She leads me to a small wooden bench, makes me sit there and slowly takes her palms off my eyes and tells me exactly where I have to look. She then takes me through the entire list of things that are placed before the pastel colored Krishna – books, rice, flowers, food, and every other deity who has an honorary presence around him. Then she gives me a minute to pray and ask for what I want (and tells me what I have to ask for!). Once that’s done, she sweetly tells me that it’s too early for me and that I can go back to sleep. I whisper “Happy Vishu” to her and go back to bed.
My mom called me at 7 in the morning. Yes! I did do the “Vishu kani” this year too. I did it by myself during my years in France. So, this shouldn’t really surprise her. But she still feigns it cutely and presses me for details. I leave the phone in the hands of my relatives; pleasantries are exchanged and the phone is put down. 20 minutes later she calls up again and asks me whether I gave Shreya, my 4 year old niece, her vishu kai neetam*. I smile to myself and say yes. She chides me for being tight fisted and doesn’t believe when I say that’s all I had in my hand. Having been with her, I know she doesn’t mean a thing. She smiles and gets back to preparing breakfast for my brother and glancing once in a while at Asianet to catch up the movie gossip as I make my way to my world again.
She’s probably smiling - Somehow, the fact that I take this custom seriously probably reaffirms her faith in the way she brought me up. Probably, the nagging doubt that her son is more a Tamilian than a Malayali and that she’s partly responsible for the same is quelled – I don’t know. But I do know that the reason I do this every year, beyond all the cynicism that is parceled with adulthood and professionalism, is because I want to remember the touch of my mom’s palms on my eyes – the single most beautiful sensation I have retained since the days I could remember.
*Vishu kai neetam is a custom where by elders are supposed to give money as gifts to youngsters