Life is a movie. Death is a photograph
Photographs economize the truth; there are always moments more or less illusorily abducted from time’s continuum.
It was late in the day. Technically it was night, but there was still light and it was raining. Summer rains were something to reckon with. There was somewhat of a reckless abandon about them, like a deliberate attempt at flouting rules, thumbing their noses at nature’s policy and procedure manual.
Khushi never liked rain, hated thunder and was downright petrified of lightning. But these sentiments changed after NK died. She became indifferent to the water that seemed to pour and couldn’t care less about thunder. Lightning wasn’t as scary anymore, she thought. What could be more scary than this abyss of silence and loneliness in her head?
The darkening sky turned her window into a mirror. She could see her reflection, a crouched figure rocking back and forth, sitting at her dining table with her knees pulled up and her arms around them to anchor herself. Every time she rocked, she could see the twinkle of her nose pin, a small diamond stud that Amma gave her on the day of her marriage. The day after her wedding she got her nose pierced. It was a secret jaunt to the jeweller’s store, just the two of them, Amma and herself. Little did she know at that time that Khushi had won her mother-in-law’s heart for ever.
NK loved her nose pin. Actually he thought it was sexy! A small smile crept silently on her face to pay homage to that memory. Of all the things, her nose turned him on. She remembered how outraged she was that it was her nose he chose, not her legs, her breasts, none of the usual sexy stuff. It wasn’t right, she informed him with great indignation. She also remembered how he laughed at her outrage and how quickly that laugh turned into the very subject they were arguing about, like it always did with NK.
Naren.. she whispered his name. Her eyes burned and her throat clogged tight. She took a deep sobbing breath and then another and waited for that control to surface. Two deep breaths always did the trick. I am okay. I will be okay. The two short and pithy sentences were her new mantra for survival, moving from one moment to another.
It was time to check on Mira, she thought, her eyes finding the clock on the kitchen wall. It was the wall of photographs that Mira had pointed Arnav to. She had taken every single photograph there. But it was NK who had designed and framed them. It was NK who had gifted her the camera on their second wedding anniversary. They barely had money as graduate students and she was flabbergasted that he would lavish her the way he did.
“But what is yours is also mine, isn’t it?” He pulled her into his lap as he whispered his question into her neck, the camera pack forgotten. His lips traced the curve of her neck as his breath left tickles in their wake. His lips seemed to follow their own path down her shoulder. He had managed to pull her offending blouse down the shoulder.
“I always thought that what was yours was mine and I got to keep mine as well?” she giggled, sliding her fingers into his curls and pulling gently so she could see his face.
“When I am yours, how does anything matter Khush? If you take pictures, you will take of me and Mira. It all comes back to me, doesn’t it? I give you the camera and you make me memories? Fair exchange?” The earnestness in his gaze sliced right through to her soul. All she could do was pull on his curls towards herself and kiss him.
There was nothing fair in the exchange he had dealt her. She sniffed and looked mournfully at the photographs that he had hung on her kitchen wall. All that was left for her were memories that he had created, memories weighed down by deep sadness and what-ifs. Khushi shook herself out of her melancholy and looked at the clock again.
The little one went to bed by herself today. She insisted on sleeping in her own room and bed. “ I am going to be a big girl,” she announced to her Paatti and her mommy. Walking lightly on her feet, Khushi peeked into Mira’s bedroom which was adjacent to her own. The night light was on, which meant that Amma must have turned the study light off after Mira went to sleep. It was a big step for Mira today that she went to sleep without Khushi or Amma next to her. Especially so, considering that Mira couldn’t fall asleep, nor stay asleep for many months after NK’s passing. With tenderness, she ran her fingers along her curly hair and down her back. She slept on her stomach with her mouth open, just like NK. Tucking her forefinger under Mira’s jaw, she slowly brought her lower jaw up to close her mouth. Perhaps it was the touch, perhaps it was the sense that it was her mother, Mira drew a deep breath, almost a sigh and went back to her rhythmic breath of deep sleep.
Khushi would have never guessed that sleep would be one of the many things that left with the person who died. Along with NK’s companionship, she lost her companionship with sleep as well. Insomnia became a reluctant friend on those long dreary nights along with that shrill silence. When she did sleep, it was roiled with dreams, visions that left her feeling empty and dissatisfied when she awoke. That was when she found herself gravitating towards their collection of home videos that she had begun recording after Mira was born. Slowly she walked towards the discs that she had made, slid one into the player and sat on the couch. When she was about to push the play button, she heard feet shuffle and a gentle hand on her head.
“Can’t sleep?” Amma’s whisper made her look up. Manorama stood next to her couch, looking at Khushi as if she understood her insomnia.
“Yes” she nodded. She patted the seat next to her, inviting her to join.
Manorama sat slowly. It looked like her arthritis was bothering her; the rain certainly will do that, thought Khushi. But she was not yet sixty years old. Manorama was life’s foot soldier, trudging across the ups and downs that her life threw at her. She carried through them all with such strength and grace. But today, she looked tired, all of her fifty eight years and then some.
Khushi sat back to gaze at her mother-in-law with new eyes. This was an unusual relationship she shared with her. Manorama was more of a mother than a mother-in-law these days. When NK introduced Khushi to his parents for the first time as the girl he was going to marry, Manorama opened her arms and her heart to Khushi almost instantaneously. She insisted that Khushi call her Amma instead of Aunty. Khushi was not just her daughter-in-law, she was her daughter too, she declared. NK’s father, on the other hand, was more reticent. But there was a polite distance that Khushi and Manorama maintained for a long time. She was an affectionate mother-in-law, but it was Khushi herself, she realized, who maintained that distance between them. However, when NK passed away, everything changed between them. The cordiality shifted to a need and a shared friendship. It seemed to Khushi that Manorama needed them as much as Mira and Khushi needed Manorama in their lives.
Leaning back, Manorama looked at the television and asked with a questioning look, “movie?”
“No” Khushi shook her head. “Videos of Mira and NK.”
There was a look of utter despondency in Manorama as she raised her head to look at Khushi. “Isn’t it strange that things outlast people? And all we are left with are memories.” She shook her head sadly as tears gathered in her eyes. Manorama lost her husband five years ago and her only child in the last two years. Khushi knew what that was like – to be alone, truly alone. Having lost her own parents at the age of twelve, she knew what it was to not only bear losses, but also to be left behind.
“Will it ever go away? This pain and how much I miss him?” It was more of a question to herself.
“No, it won’t. It will never go away” Manorama replied. “But the pain will lessen. It won’t hurt your heart every time you think of him.” She sighed. “You will be able to smile without tears when a memory shows up.” She slowly ran her hand on Khushi’s head and then down her back. The touch soothed and Khushi leaned into Manorama and laid her head in Manorama’s lap. It worked for both of them, to seek and receive this exchange. Manorama resumed running her hand on Khushi’s head.
“Is that what happened to you when NK’s Appa passed away?” Khushi wanted to know.
Manorama’s hand stilled for a moment, but it resumed soon after. “It wasn’t the same. He was not my best friend, like Naren is to you” Manorama said softly. “We were not like you two. He was my husband, you know, that’s all. But you and Naren are more than that.” Khushi noticed her mother-in-law’s usage of present tense when she referred to NK. It heartened her.
“I was so young when we got married. I was not quite twenty and Naren’s Appa was twenty eight years old. In fact, I turned twenty after a few months of our marriage.” Manorama seemed to be lost in her own thought. “We were not friends. We were married, he was my husband and I was his wife, you know? I didn’t know that your husband could be your friend!” Manorama turned to look at Khushi with puzzlement in her eyes. “I think I truly understood that when I saw you and Naren together. Is that strange to you?”
Khushi smiled and said nothing. Perhaps it was her silence, perhaps it was her smile, Manorama continued as if she were asked to. “He was my husband, I was supposed to do things for him – cook for him, remind him of things that were needed in the house, give him coffee when he came back from work, that sort of thing. We didn’t talk about anything else. His parents used to stay with us. There were these unwritten rules about everything, when I could talk, who I could talk to and things that were my business and things I couldn’t talk about.” Manorama’s fingers were now running circles in Khushi scalp. A scrap on the carpet seemed to have her focus as she resumed.
“I didn’t talk to my in-laws much. I used to help Naren’s Paatti in the kitchen, but I never spoke to his Taatha. It was very hard, everything was new. I didn’t have anyone to talk to, to ask if this was how life was supposed to be. I was alone most of the day. I felt very lonely.” Manorama stopped. Her fingers stilled on Khushi’s head. The heaviness in Manorama’s breath traveled to Khushi. “Then I had Naren.” Now Manorama’s eyes held a soft, tender look. “He brought so much happiness into my life. He was my life, my own special toy; he filled my day and my night. I felt like God sent him to me so that I wasn’t lonely any more. I had him for myself, you know?” Khushi could tell that these remembrances were Amma’s treasure. Joy poured out of her eyes as she traveled back into her past.
Khushi knew that NK was very close to his mother, closer to his mother than his father. There was a small sliver of envy in Khushi whenever NK spoke of his home, especially his mother. Initially she was intimidated by their tight knit relationship, but neither NK nor Manorama ever did anything to keep her out of that circle. When Khushi had Mira, it was Manorama who came to help the young couple with their new baby. Those three months of Manorama’s visit helped cement their relationship to what it was when NK passed away.
“So, to get back to your question about NK’s Appa, I don’t know if what I felt for him is what you feel for Naren. I think after living with him for so long, I miss his companionship, his presence. He was almost like a habit for me.” Manorama sighed deeply.
Khushi lifted her head from Manorama’s lap and threw her arms around her. “I am sorry Amma, for everything and everyone you lost.” She gave her a tight hug. They stayed in that hug for long moments. The disc in the player forgotten as images from stories shared took precedence. Just then Khushi’s cell phone whirred indicating that there was a new text message. It must be Lav she thought, checking up on her. Manorama looked at her inquiringly. “It is probably Lavanya, I will text her back later” Khushi said. Manorama nodded as she walked slowly towards her bedroom.
“You know, I see you in Mira” Khushi smiled at Manorama as she gently touched Manorama’s dimple. She leaned and gave her mother-in-law a kiss on her cheek. They neared Manorama’s room.
“And I see you in her sometimes.” She returned her a smile and gently pinched Khushi’s cheek in open affection. “Good night Chellam, sleep well.” Manorama reserved her endearment in Tamil for very special occasions and Khushi knew that this moment was no different.
“Good night Amma.” Khushi walked towards her room. She knew it was going to be a long night with insomnia as bedfellow. Looking down at her cell phone, she noticed that it was Lavanya that had texted her.
All well babe? How was lunch?
Disappointment sliced through her and caught her by surprise. Who was she expecting to text this late? Ignoring her wayward thinking she responded to Lavanya.
Yep, all well. Lunch was fine too. And before you ask, am okay Lav.. ☺ .
She sent the message and got ready for her night with her book.
Propped up against her pillows, she feigned attention to the lines in her book that she tried reading. After her third attempt at trying to read the same sentence, she sighed in disgust and gave up her pretense. Yes, he is probably on his way to the airport. Why should that matter to me? It doesn’t.
The light on her cell phone brightened with another whirr. Another text from Lav, this late?
On my way to the airport. It was good to see you today. Thanks for meeting me. Her heart quickened at the message. It was from ASR.
It was good to see you too. Have a safe flight. Bye. She typed her response but her fingers stalled. Should she respond immediately? Should she wait? Dammit! She sent the message. That’s it, she told herself. He is being polite. Like he was at lunch. Nothing more to it.
Khushi had broken down completely at the restaurant, letting free rein to her tears. He held her hands through it all and she could see concern in his eyes. He was worried for her. They left the restaurant soon thereafter, but not before they argued over who was going to pay for lunch. It brought a smile to Khushi’s face. He won this time and paid for lunch. But she wrangled a promise from him that she would pay next time. And he agreed without a demur. Wait, she thought, next time? Of course that explained his smirk! Another whirr of her phone caught her eye.
Don’t be a stranger anymore. Can’t wait another ten more years for lunch.
Humph! Fingers flew over her cell phone. It takes two to tango. Ha! Now his turn.
Looks like someone has an axe to grind! ☺ That was quick, not even ten seconds..
Let sleeping dogs lie. She knew she was being juvenile, but he started it!
When pigs fly and You started it.
Actions speak louder than words.
Drastic times call for drastic measures.
What is this? A war of idioms? She had to call him on it and where was he going with this?
Touché! But don’t be a stranger anymore please? Can I expect to hear from you when you are in Delhi?
What possessed her to ask that question even though the question plagued her mind since he showed up at her door. Seconds ticked by, she tried not to look at her phone for a response. Seconds turned into minutes. Berating her impulsive self, she picked her book up to try reading it again. She caught herself rereading the same paragraph again and again while her eyes surreptitiously peeked at her cell phone. Giving up on both the book and the cell phone, Khushi walked to the kitchen to get a cup of water. This was ridiculous, it was time she went to sleep. She returned to her bedroom and finally got under the covers when her phone whirred again.
Why for the stranger part or why for contacting me in Delhi? Ps: Had to clear security and immigration.
Khushi held her phone in her hands, her eyes reading his message again and again. Prudence demanded that she cop out of this conversation pleading sleep. Why does he want to have this conversation now? Well, you started it her conscience reminded her. She knew that he was leaving soon. Was she ready to have this conversation?
How long before you have to board your flight? She needed to prevaricate; she hoped he would follow along. She waited.
In an hour. Not going to answer my question?
No. And I asked first. What is it with a phone that makes impossible conversations possible?
Alright then, how about we pick this up when you take me out to lunch or dinner when you are in Delhi? This way you get to pay? ☺
Good move Raizada! Khushi couldn’t help but smile at his message this time. He was going to allow her to get away with her question this time.
You have yourself a deal! And yes, I will call you when I reach Delhi. I believe there is a certain promise you made to an eight year old.
No, haven’t forgotten that. It’s probably late and you should probably be asleep? Bye for now Khushi.
Bye ASR. Have a safe flight. Ps: Will you send me a text when you reach home? Just to let me know that you are safe and okay? Only if it’s not a bother.
Yes, I will. It’s a promise.
Khushi’s hand reached for the ring on the chain. It was going to be a long night thought Khushi, looking at her phone.
It was going to be a long flight, sighed Arnav Singh Raizada.
feel like chatting some more – more than the chapter posted? There is a Chatter’s corner now… find the link to it on top… 🙂 Stories are like magpies – they like forming sisterhood and sisterhood needs a corner for a good chat. 🙂