Girls Come Home
“Then, what happened?” I asked.
“What should have, ten minutes ago. I did it. In the lift. With six people in it,” Ritu, my younger sister, said.
Saupi and I laughed our butts off. The “it” in the lift was a reference to the incident when Ritu broke wind, apparently, in a lift with half a dozen people in it.
“Oh Lordy! As if the sound wasn’t enough to embarrass me, the smell was awful too,” said Ritu.
“Poor you!” Saupi, the eldest among us, said with compassion.
“And what did they say?” I asked.
Ritu fell silent as though mulling on this aspect for the first time since the unfortunate incident had happened.
“Nothing. Isn’t that strange? I mean, there were six people in it. Not one said anything. They decidedly stared into space.”
“Oh dear, how, how ...” Saupi fumbled for the right word.
“But then again, I guess none of them was shocked because they didn’t expect anything else from me, you know? I mean, anything better. What with my dark skin, weird hair and all.”
“Screw them all. Screw the white,” I said.
“Why thanks sis. Let’s screw them.”
Ritu had not had it easy in the US of A. She went to pursue her graduate program much against the advice of our parents.
“I don’t need the safety of an Indian degree. I will earn a degree as well as money and my freedom too.” Ritu had raved and ranted and cursed all things Indian before packing her bags off to the US through a student exchange program. Typical teenager.
“I am working my ass off to make ends meet. What college?” She had written me in one of her mails. I couldn’t share any of those with the people at home because that would have broken them completely.
But, Ritu was a gutsy woman. She worked her way through night college, obtained a degree in Nursing and also a citizenship. We all laughed some more at our crude jokes and bitchy impersonations of people who did not fit our idea of “friendly”.
“Look at us, laughing like nothing happened ...”
“Manny, don’t be tedious. We need it,” Ritu cut in.
The sun was forcing himself towards the land of shadows and the whole garden was dripping in pink light. We were all seated on the stone benches with the huge house in the backdrop. Mother birds were urging the young ones to return to the nest. The young birds dropped a couple of ripe guavas in their scuffle to snuggle in. The garden was filled with the sharp smell of guavas, the mild fragrance of frangipani shrubs and wet grass.
“I can actually smell the hot ovaltine we used to have as kids. Here, sitting on this bench ...” said Ritu, taking in a deep swig of evening air.
“And you burping like a buffalo.” Saupi was in good humour.
“From above or below?” I asked.
Our vulgarity was interrupted by the loud meowing of a cat. That was Meenu, my mother’s pet cat.
“I will see what he wants.” Ritu got out of the couch and headed to the back door. Ritu was still athletic. 31 years, of which the last decade had been rather unkind, had not diminished Ritu’s joie de vivre. She was tall and lithe with small breasts and butt. The pixie haircut added to her boyish charm.
We were three sisters. Ritu was born Rituparnika, Saupi was Sauparnika and I, Manny, Manikarnika. My parents were quite the people obsessed with words. Especially my mother. She was the one you could always find with a mythological or historical book perched on her ample bosom; with steaming hot coffee by the bedside. My father supplied her with her poison.
“The poor chap was hungry. I gave him some cat food,” said Ritu.
“You actually took the trouble of finding the cat food?” Saupi smirked.
“Finding your way around the kitchen, the house, is it outer-space-science?” Ritu retorted. She had to, because that was who she was.
Sauparnika had taken after my mother in a lot of ways. She was horribly efficient around the house. A pucca home-maker, house proud and had a matronly, condescending air about her.
One regular; the other a rebel.
“So, when is this lawyer going to call on us?”
“I don’t know Saupi,” I said.
“But you were here,” she went on, “close to mother I mean. You were the one they first informed. Right?”
This had to come. We had spent three days in this house and put away, until now, discussing all topics unpleasant. But trust Saupi, as I said, for her terrifying efficiency and pragmatism.
“He said he would meet us after a couple of days.”
“Could you not have asked for the specifics?” Saupi complained.
“What’s the hurry?”
“Unlike both of you, I have a family to return to. That’s the hurry.”
“Saupi, your children are all grown up now. Your parents-in-law have been waiting at the gate of heavens to receive our beloved mother for many years now. Can your husband not manage by himself for some days?” Ritu pointed out.
“You wouldn’t understand ...”
Ritu was about to fire back, when I cut in and said, “Let me find out. I will call him now.”
I was dying to talk to Chandra, with whom I shared my life, and I wanted a break from the easy-now, awkward-now company of my sisters. We were together, under one roof, after eight years. The last reunion was because of our father. Rather, his passing away. Not that we were not in contact with one another, but over the phone or emails you don’t have to see the other person.
Chandra answered my call after a good five minutes. That is Chandra for you. Infuriating.
“What’s up sweetheart?” I could actually see the mouth smiling even as the question was asked in a drawl.
“Nothing much. I guess Saupi is onto starting the nasty thing. You know, property and that shit.”
“But it had to come.”
“Yes, I wish it hadn’t. Not this early.”
“Remember. You don’t have any designs on those things. Hence no decision or demand will hurt you. Yes?” said Chandu.
“And don’t come back without your favourite kanjira; your mom’s. We have everything else.”
“Thank you, thank you so much Chandu.” I was overcome with emotion. That is also Chandra for you. Undemanding, generous, loving and indulgent enough to make me feel like a princess even in my rags.
“Now, now. Cut the drama, my queen. Face the shit. I will call you in the evening. I can also come over if you want.”
“Not now, we can’t accommodate one more character in our drama. Not yet.”
We hung up after a few more feel-good sentences. When I re-entered the house, I could see Saupi sobbing softly. These two were always like this. Easy victims to tears and laughs.
“You cannot expect us to respect you just because you came out of mother’s womb some years before we did.” Ritu’s nostrils flare in a funny way when she is pissed.
“After everything I have done for you two ... Mother couldn’t even hold a ladle because of her arthritis. Who played the nanny then? Stupid Sauparnika of course.” The matron was incensed.
“Look! We are aware of all that you did for us. But there can be no forced-loving or forced-respecting just as there cannot be any forced feeding. We are adults now.”
Ritu had indeed grown. Such wise words from a girl who was obstinate enough to kill the pet guinea pig because her sisters wouldn’t let her hug the animal for long.
“Remember this. I am the oldest among us three. You bear in mind all things I had to forego to make life easier for you two.”
Saupi hadn’t. Grown, that is. From our early teens she had never let either of us forget her sacrifices. How she had to discontinue her education to care for her younger sisters, how she had to stand in for our mother when the latter was incapacitated due to a certain affliction or how she had to marry a man with limited social and emotional capabilities just to please the parents. She never forgave us our lack of gratitude for the multitude of things she had given up for our sake.
My entrance to the tense dining room caused them to stop momentarily.
“Why don’t you speak anything, haan? She goes on and on about having made sacrifices for us. Why don’t you say something?” Ritu shouted at me.
“Why would she? Unlike you, there is still some sense of gratitude in her.” My eldest sister spoke. I was taken in by how much she resembled our mother. The huge torso, short limbs, thick neck and puffy cheeks. And an ever-present look of dissatisfaction in those small eyes. She was my mother alright.
“Now she is talking of selling this house. The only thing to remind us of our parents, our childhood.”
“Childhood? Remembrance? Look here, Miss-foreign-returned. You ran away from all of this because you couldn’t stand any of this, remember? “You people, this house, everything is so stifling; it’s choking me.” Saupi imitated how the youngest of us had berated us and flown away towards wider horizons.
“I was young, I was foolish. Now I have changed.”
“We must not sell the house,” I said in a colourless voice. I was never much for sound and fury like the other two.
“You too?” Saupi started with a line that sounded as wounded as “et Tu Brute?” and went on and on to describe the present and perceived slight with varying emotions and unvarying monologues about.
“I don’t need the money. Neither does she, I don’t think you do either. Why sell now?” I persisted.
“I have responsibilities. If you had children you would understand.”
“Oh, she will. Very soon. Won’t you Manny? Then she will use this house for vacationing,” said Ritu.
“Guys stop it; I am dying for some tea. Who will join me?”
“I will make tea.” Ritu sprang to her feet. Did she want to show us that she had changed so much or was just rubbing in the fact that she was young and sprightly?
Ritu brought in three mugs of steaming hot tea and some biscuits on a tray. I realised that the tea had a generous amount of ginger. Just like how my mother liked it. Just like how Saupi made it for years after mother took ill.
The crunch of the biscuits was the only sound to be heard for a while.
“Where do you work now?” Ritu asked me.
“At GenTree. I told you when we spoke the last time.”
“Gentry?! Are you techies so short of words that you cannot even come up with a sensible name?” Ritu laughed.
“Is there a man in your life? Are you still with ... Who was that? Chandra? ”
“Yes, we are still together.”
“Why don’t you get married? What is this live-in, live-out relationship?” Saupi asked with disdain.
“What marriage? Why do you need a seal and a sindoor to live with somebody? To legitimize sex?”
When Ritu started on her favourite topic, there was no stopping her. It gave her immense pleasure to make uncomfortable statements knowing very well, the conservative mindset of her eldest sister. And the stupid matron never failed to rise to the bait.
“Then how should it be in the opinion of Her Royal Shameless? No proper relationships? Copulate in the open like dogs or make it out like monkeys on trees?”
Ritu and I fell down laughing, spilling a little of what was left in our mugs as we pictured men and women making it out like monkeys on trees. I guess Saupi also captured the graphic content of what she said and laughed with us.
“It has to be a giant Sequoia to support you and your husband, Saupi,” Ritu shook with laughter.
“We don’t have sequoias here. It has to be a giant rain tree or a bed of banyan trees,” I piped in.
“And you, even a shrub will suffice for you to grope and gasp with white-skinned monkeys.” Saupi alluded to Ritu’s affairs with her non-Indian partners.
“At least, now she doesn’t bother you with questions about sounds coming from rooms,” I pointed out.
Ritu had been hell-bent upon discovering the source of sounds at night. A matter too delicate to discuss with a 6-year-old. When we finally stopped laughing, after we had shocked the poor cat out of his deep slumber, we had quite some moisture on our cheeks.
“When are you going back?” I asked Ritu.
“I am not.”
“What do you mean I am not?”
“I got a job offer here. In amchi Mumbai,” she said.
“What about your home there? Those people ... partners?” Saupi exclaimed in disbelief.
“No real ones. Some were time pass. Some were like buses to take me to the next stop. I have come back for good.”
“Hop on, hop off?” Our next bout of hyena-ish cackle was brought to an end when Mr. Murthy, the lawyer, announced his having arrived with a loud knock on the door.
He was always a reedy one, this man. Now, he was a bent reed, rendering his 5ft 9 inch frame shorter than its actual length. His face hadn’t changed much though. Fleshless cheeks, thin lips, a hawk-like nose and grave eyes. Maybe he hung up his smile the day he wore his lawyer’s coat.
I let him in. After he seated himself on the couch, he observed.
“Your mother has left everything in such good condition. She valued and preserved everything. Such people are rare.”
“Would you like to have something? Tea? Coffee?” I said.
“Coffee. No sugar. I am glad I can meet all the three of you. That way, there will not be any misunderstanding. Your mother always spoke highly of all of you. Alas! She was so lonely ... but who can foresee these things? My own sons are settled abroad. One in Australia, the other one in UK. We are all alone when we go.”
The lawyer slurped his coffee, placed the cup on the edge of the centre-table and said, “This document I am about to disclose has two parts. The actual will itself is in the office. This is the letter she wanted you all to read after her demise. After you reach a decision, you will be required to stop by at my office and we can complete the formalities.”
Mr Murthy took out a sturdy brown envelope from inside his small valise. He placed it in Saupi’s hands and exited the room.
Saupi opened the envelope with neither decorum nor disdain. She silently handed it to Ritu who read it aloud for the benefit of all of us.
My mother’s letter read thus:
My dear children, Sauparnika, Manikarnika, Rituparnika,
This is my last letter to you all. I have missed you so much in these last few years. Not that I blame any one of you. I do understand you are all caught up in your own worlds.
You have been good daughters and have brought me so much joy. I should have liked to see Manny and Ritu get married and have children before my meeting with the Creator.
It was difficult for me to say some things when you were physically present. So let me try through this letter.
Thank you for taking my place for so many years, for nursing me through my illnesses, for taking care of your younger sisters. There was a role reversal in your case, wasn’t there? Who could tell who the mother was, and who the daughter? I have wished so many times, in vain though, that you should have lived your childhood a little longer. God has rewarded you with all the love one could hope for. I am happy for you.
I did not spend much time to understand you or figure out the kind of person you were. You were, on your part, busy with helping your elder sister or trying hard to not get into people’s way. Actually, I have not heard you sob in all these years. Only your tear-stained cheeks used to betray you. In your case, the adage “Crying child gets more milk” came so, so true. You were not the crying child. I hope you will find love and happiness in your life.
My dearest little child, what a tempest you were. I do hope you have calmed down over the years. Human nature doesn’t change much. Whether it is India or US or Timbuktu. We all laugh, cry, cough and fart. These basic functions cannot be different for people of different ethnicities. So, were you able to avoid all things that vexed you here and find all that you hoped for? I do hope so. I wish you find yourself a good man. I am afraid I am too old-fashioned to disagree with your “A lifetime with one man?!” opinion. My dear, one or a hundred lives; one or tens of men, your search will not end unless you know what it is you are looking for.
Now that this old bat is done with her ranting, let me talk something of value.
With respect to the property, that is, this house, it is my wish and my decision that the house be sold and the money divided among the three of you. A small portion of it is to be given to Chaaya, my faithful help of 10 years. She is also entrusted with caring for Meenu, after my death. The details of the division of money (percentage) are listed in the will.
Be good all of you and laugh. I made the mistake of sulking through the best part of my life. By the time I had realised the importance of laughter you were all grown up and gone. I wish I could reverse those years. I wish I had filled this house with laughter. Perhaps that would have drawn you all, often, to this beautiful dwelling. My love and blessings to you all.
“So, there is not much we have to do. Just follow her instructions,” Saupi said. “Yeah,” I said. “Yes,” Ritu echoed. For all my apprehensions about the topic, I was relieved I did not have to have a say in the decision.
“We need to make three copies of this letter,” I said.
“Yes, we will. Valuable things are so easily lost,” Ritu spoke with feeling. I understood she did not mean the letter alone.
Perhaps Saupi wanted to enliven the room the old lawyer had exited and hence asked me, “You will invite us for your wedding, no? What does your fiancée do? Do you work together?”
“Yes, yes I have been dying to have some decadent wedding spread. What is this Chandra like? Tall, dark, handsome and all? Do you have a picture of him?” Ritu smiled.
“Hmmm, you will have to wait. I am starving, who wants some food?”
I spent as much time as one could possibly spend toasting bread and sprinkling it with salt and chilli powder. All of us were hungry. We dug into the pile of toast. Some perfectly done, others, somewhat burnt.
“You cannot escape me so easily, you know? Is everything alright between you two?” Saupi asked with the helpless compulsion of an elder sister.
“Yes ... Everything is. I am very happy in this relationship.”
“Then, where is the problem? Doesn’t he want to get married?”
“Chandra is not a man.”
Expectedly, Saupi reacted with a “Huh? How not a man?”
Ritu’s reaction was mature with a slow “Oh!”
I focussed on the remaining piece of toast, fully aware of two pairs of eyes trying to see into me.
“We understand each other. She understands me so well. It is not necessary that you have a man....” I knew I was blabbering shit but I had suddenly become too conscious of the silence after Ritu’s “Oh” and wanted to fill in that space as I was not ready for questions from either of them.
“ ... it is the love and affection two people share for each other ...” I went on.
“Is that all? What about sex?” Ritu pitched in cheekily. She was smiling.
“Is that even possible?” Saupi widened her eyes.
“Would you like to see? I can show it on my mobile.” Ritu winked.
What a few moments ago was the ‘dynamite-will-blow-now’ situation had been beautifully diffused by my younger sister. My eyes conveyed my gratitude. A few minutes later, Saupi was complaining about how little she got ‘it’ these days.
“No drive, and look at my body. All that fat and dryness ...”
“That is easily resolved.” Ritu lectured her about the array of products available over the counter that guaranteed restoration of lost pleasure.
“Thank you. Really,” I said.
Wiping her mouth on the back of her hand, Ritu let out a sigh. “How we screw up ... I had several miscarriages. No, I willfully aborted unborn babies inside me. I let myself be cheated so many times ... I mean, I am a children’s nurse for God’s sake. I don’t know what is bad, me being a woman and having killed those unborn babies, or me being a children’s nurse and yet killing the very babies I was meant to protect.”
“A foetus is not a baby,” I offered.
“That’s how I cheated myself too. It worked for a while. The fact is, it is a baby; a life.”
Saupi was too shocked to react to any of this. The mother in her made her agony and sorrow known on her transparent face. Yet, she was silent.
“So, I came back before I lost my mind, myself. God knows I have suffered, cried for months for my sins.” Ritu wiped her eyes with the back of her palms.
As the evening sulked away into a moonless night, our light-hearted banter and talk about our love lives and physical and psychological problems also died down.
Saupi turned on the television. We watched an old, feel good but impossible to believe movie with fitting reactions where required.
“Are you girls ready or what? I can’t, for the life of me, imagine seeing you as family people, running your own houses. At this age, I am quicker and ...” Saupi was waiting for us on the porch and was off with one of her fine, high-energy monologues.
Oddly, it did not draw any sharp-witted reactions from Ritu. The taxi driver was impatient and honking to make his displeasure known. The three of us deliberately slackened our pace until the gate.
When we turned to look at the old house, we knew we were looking at it for the last time. It was home. Home to beautiful memories. Home to caring and selfless acts. The place that made us safe and loved, and had tried hard to instil in us the sense of right and wrong. Home was mother; and father. Home was unconditional love.
We had decided to visit the lawyer for our shares of the property another day. Ritu clutched the piece of concrete she had painstakingly chipped off the old kitchen platform. Saupi hugged the pot with the Tulsi plant whose continuation of progeny she would ensure. I had my mother’s Kanjira. We all sat in the stifling silence of the Taxi when we should have been chattering away or cribbing.
“We will never come back.” Saupi reaffirmed what did not need any reaffirmation. “We will meet in Mumbai, won’t we?” she asked plaintively.
“Yes, if you will have me and Chandra.” I said.
“Yes. But don’t rub it in your Jeeju’s face. He is not as open-minded as I am.”
“We must keep in touch. I don’t think mother and father would have wanted anything more.” Ritu stroked her packet of chipped concrete as someone would their child.
As we passed the fields of sugarcane and maize, at 200 metres from us, the lake on the outskirts of our town shone.
“Remember? The swimming race we had with Baba?” Ritu asked. Baba. That’s what we used to call our father.
“Remember how your pants came loose and we had to protect you from the vile eyes of lads with our dupatta?” Saupi asked.
“Oh yes! And that it was torn into shreds when we ventured into the sugarcane fields. She was always immodest, this chimpanzee,” I added.
“Come now, Manny! You devils had a good many laughs at my expense.”
We had. I could still remember me and Saupi teasing her rough for many years to come. We used to call her “Miss Bottomless”.
We laughed hard at that memory. We were passing by the lake at a steady speed. The car would leave the water body behind in a few minutes.
“Stop the car!” Saupi screamed.
The startled driver took a sharp swerve and pulled along the narrow kerb of the muddy path.
“What, did you forget something?” Ritu asked.
“Yes. I did.” Saupi lugged her heavy body out of the car and walked towards the shining lake.
“Nature calls! And you call me Miss Bottomless.”
“Shh! Don’t be mean. She is old. Maybe she has a problem.” I said.
“Manny-goody-shoes.” Ritu mocked.
When we got out of the car, which took us awhile because we had assorted pieces of souvenirs from our home resting on our laps, Saupi was squatting by the lake and peering at her reflection. She scooped the water in her palms and washed her face.
“Eeek! Is it safe? I heard the cowherds and goatherds wash everything. I don’t mean their cattle alone,” Ritu exclaimed, alarmed.
I just dragged her away by the hand as an answer.
“What is it, big sis? What ails you?” Ritu always had a flair for a bit of drama.
“What this? I don’t see anything.”
“Come closer, you will.”
Ritu walked around the clump of Euphorbia plants, stood beside Saupi and peered into the water.
“Okay, what is it?” Ritu whispered.
Saupi put her plump arm to the latter’s back and pushed her into the lake with all her might.
“This, ha, haha ...” Saupi broke into wild peals of laughter.
“You ...” Ritu flailed her arms until she found her footing. There was a childlike glee on our eldest sister’s face. The one we had never before seen. An irate Ritu and a surprised me joined in after a few moments. Taxi driver be damned. He anyway couldn’t drive off without collecting his money.
We were three women playing in the lake without a care. We were three sisters willingly making an effort to come close because the forces that did it for us were no longer there. We were three girls come to life on account of their mother’s death.