Raindrops

The old woman lay on a cot of wrought-iron, her eyes fixed on a spot outside the window where green life sparkled from the fresh rain of a few minutes past. Her face was expressionless. A young girl of twenty three stood by the foot of the bed, silently weeping. An older lady, identifiable by her face as the mother of the girl, sat in the cane chair by the cot, her face set. Her eyes were wet, her whole aspect that of one who had cried for hours together and was too exhausted to emote any further.

The girl paused to wipe her eyes.
“Is he sure?”
“Yes, dear. He said anytime now. ‘Nothing more I can do’, he said,” Her mother’s eyes squeezed tightly shut.
A tear rolled down the girl’s fresh cheek, coming to rest at a spot on her chin. Absently wiping it with the heel of her hand, she leaned back against the wall, her head raised, eyes closed.
“She must be in such pain…”

On the bed, the old woman lay, her mind dulled to most of the outside world. She knew she was dying. What she did not understand was why her daughter and her child were crying incessantly. The sound disturbed her. Why, if she had stood around fussing like this, her mother would have had sharp words to say! Her mother had been a fine woman, bringing her children up as best she could. Slowly, the old woman’s thoughts began a silent flashback, moving past seventy six years of a long life to her childhood, slow motion black-and-white memories of a small child in pigtails posing stiffly for a portrait, longing to run away; the girl racing around a tree shrieking like a banshee with her taller brothers in tow, as mother called out from the house; stealing a guava from the kitchen, smacked on her tender pink palm by Father, a stern man whom the little girl hated intensely at such moments and loved dearly at others.

Slightly older now, shyly dressed in a new skirt and blouse, her hair beautifully oiled and plaited, singing for her relatives and family friends who had come home on a holiday. Blushing at the hearty compliments, receiving instant cash gifts; a time when men’s hearts were as large as their fields. Twelve: her first cooking lessons from dadima, measuring spices, laughing whenever the aromatic froth bubbling in the pot turned out to be a tad too spicy or salty, afterwards, lying on dadima’s lap and listening to one of her stories, running her hands over the soft cotton of dadima’s sari.

Fourteen: talk of marriage in the house, instantly protesting, the child in her scared at the forthcoming separation, fits of crying and peevishness. Fifteen years old; the ‘groom’ arriving with his family, her refusal to serve sweets, pushed into the room, sullenly offering the platter to a old man sterner than her father, a smiling woman with a round face, the colorful hem of her pallu covering her head, and then a few other men and women. Then to him, waiting for the sweet to be taken, looking up startled after a few moments, locking gazes with a pair of merry, brown eyes in a rather handsome face, catching her breath. Her first full, warm blush – knowing laughter from both families; mortified and excited all at once, she had run off into the kitchen and fiddled with something or the other, checking for whether the well-warmed lunch was hot enough, until the laughter she had left behind her had subsided. The young woman in the child suddenly prodded to unknowing life.

Marriage. How it had felt to slip her hand into his, sure and strong! Like warming her hands over a coal fire in the middle of a winter night. The old woman shifted, her eyes glazing over ever so slightly, the slightest semblance of a smile on her parched lips. The marriage itself had been almost terrifyingly quick, a series of rituals that she barely understood. All through, she had been grateful for the pressure of his hand on hers from time to time. She had not dared to look at him again, even when she knew the liquid gaze was fixed on her face- what if the entire hall burst into laughter once more?

Leaving home: the tears they had all shed! Even Father had cried, his black eyes softened, his face at once full of pride and joy and sorrow. She had gone off with her new husband in his shiny car, an Ambussader it seemed. Her first ride in any vehicle at all. Things ran dizzying fast backwards outside the window and she had clutched his hand tight. The wedding night: nerves, her mother in law trying to explain things to her, patting her reassuringly. More nerves as she sat waiting with the glass of milk, the fruits by the bedside. Relief and inexplicable disappointment when he had just smiled and patted the bed by his side, and asked her to talk to him. Talk? This was what happened? Why had mother been so worried for days earlier?Apparently, as she discovered the next night, that was not all that happened; her husband had been a decent, caring man, giving her a day to get to know him. She had grown rosier in the weeks that came, slightly plumper- and her mother in law was well pleased.

Her first child- the suddenness and joy of conceiving; how startled she had been at the natural way she took to pregnancy! Growing closer to her husband than ever- long conversations by night, discussing their beautiful baby boy or girl, secretly wishing for a girl. Finally, a little over nine months later, a small, pink baby girl, her own child. The family had rejoiced, but she had sensed the tiny sighs wishing for a boy- who came along the very next year, joined by three brothers and a sister.

Motherhood- parenting, the joy of holding her babies, suckling them, growing adept at doing a thousand and two things at the same time. Watching her children grow up at a frantic pace, one of them-the first one- die of fever at the age of two. The worst time of her life- having to carry on for there were five more to care for. The pain had never quite left her, she had wept hot, inconsolable tears over the pale body of her tiny daughter. Her husband had been there to help her tide over the worst, but a mother’s pain, the emptiness, the ache in her breast…

The pranks her boys used to play! The old woman’s hand moved slightly, as if she were asking one of her sons to climb down the tree in the vivid memories swirling around her head. Her daughter’s brow furrowed.

“She’s having dreams…”
“Perhaps she’s trying to say something!”

The two women stared at the figure on the bed, hope warring against reality.
“No”, the girl conceded disappointedly after a while. “She must be dreaming. I wonder what she’s dreaming about…”

Watching her first son get married had been beautiful, choked her throat, her little boy old enough to marry and take care of his own family! One after another, all of her sons had been married- three sons to girls whom her husband had chosen; her last son married against her wishes – the neighbours’ daughter, a demure good-natured girl. Her husband had sent him out of the house.

The world around her had changed too. They could now copy memories onto a black and white card and now even a colour card- a phuttograph. She was scared of the box that made them, though- she had once fiddled with something and a very bright light flashed onto her face, scaring her into dropping the box. Her son had been kind and made little of it, though her daughter-in-law muttered all through in a nasty undertone. The girl was not to her liking, but she had come from a good family… Sixty sovereigns of gold, too. Unfortunately, they had not known how to bring the girl up; she was forever rubbing creams from boxes onto her face and buying, buying, buying! Something or the other. And watching all these serials on the TV day in and day out: girls cheating on their husbands, girls no older than fifteen falling in love in schools! The old woman did not approve, either of the love or the schools. She had gone to no school after she turned eight. And she was none the worse for it.

Her husband had died when she was sixty. A dirty fight had broken put between her sons, and she had had no place to go. She had had a small room to herself in her son’s house, then she had shared the room with a grandchild, looking after the wee girl of six. Now, while they battled over snuff boxes and handkerchiefs, they had no place for their aged mother. Mercifully, her youngest son had taken her in, his sweet-faced wife was now a capable, strong woman with good sense and a better heart. And here she had stayed. She had spat on her sons’ faces when they came shamefacedly later, to ask her if all was well. She had stayed until her accident with her youngest son, slightly embittered, mostly vague, worried and unsmiling.

Life had come full circle for her… from child to girl to woman to wife and mother to grandmother now. And she was well content. She would never know how the different boxed plugged to current worked that the entire family used now. She knew of the TV, the radio, the phuttograph box with a unusual name. She had no idea of what other places there were in Bharat – she had lived all her life out of two neighbouring villages. She had never gone out of her home much, and in the last few years, almost never. But she had never longed for much. She had always been content with three meals a day and caring for her family. Not for her these powders by the mirror or the colourful bags her grand daughter carried each day to her school. She had lived all her life with two necklaces her father had gifted her, never more than four sarees and a smile. They had been enough then, and in her opinion, were enough now for any woman, old or young. The more they bought, the less space the had for themselves, these children of hers! More money, more this, more that – and what would they carry with them to the gods? Jewels? A new house?

Contentment, a gift she had in plenty, came from the mind. And she knew that- oh, yes, she did. Today, they pressed a button and a voice sang children to sleep! Then, she had sung herself, her voice sweet and clear and the child had slept to the sound, the timbre of her mother’s love.  Then, they had had no machine to grind grain – she and the other women had ground them themselves, the rhythm of the pounding a familiar background to their chatter and laughing gossip. She had lived a real life with hands, fingers, caresses, mind, heart and soul, no buttons or boxes. And she had been happier than the children today were. There were uses for the boxes – they could move up and down floors without moving a muscle, but then they would pay thousands to go to a place where they could move their muscles! She would have chuckled, but her head felt woozy…

She had left the two necklaces to her grand daughter, a sweet child of fourteen with ample good sense and a wisdom beyond her years. And now she was ready. To let go of it all, to rest. Enough. It had been a long life… and a good one. Simple, and content.

It was becoming harder to think by the minute… What had she wanted to tell her daughter-in-law? Let it lie… She wanted to clear her head a little. The pain was getting worse, yet it seemed as though it were coming from far away… from another world… images of her grand daughter merged with those of her mother… the same smile… what if they-

The doctor came in and examined the reclining figure for a few moments. The girl studied his face silently, a line between her brows. He lifted a frail, wrinkled arm and studied the pulse. Then he let the arm drop gently and looked up at the women.

And they knew.

Confessions

The rain beat down relentlessly, and to my eyes, each drop that struck the earth seemed like an indictment, an accusation. My mind accepted the punishment, as if each punishing splash of water would erode my guilt of seventeen long years ago. One hand tracing the familiar pattern of the zari on my pallu, I stood by the window, waiting. Somehow, I felt I would be more prepared to tell her if I could see her walking back, watch her every step until she reached the rusted iron gate. Today of all days, she was slightly late, and my mind continued to register the furious patter of the rain as it pelted against the window, on the ground- everywhere, it would seem.

In a bid to relax, I moved away and came to stand in front of the mirror perchance, though my ears were still attuned to the front door, to when her foot steps would come into hearing range. As I looked up idly into the mirror, I noticed the fine lines around my eyes, the fifty or so strands of gray in my hair, the three mild ridges on my forehead, just above my eyes, testimony to years of frowning– in concentration, at my children, over the monthly accounts, while peeling onions for the day’s lunch… When was the last time I had really looked in the mirror? It did not hurt, not anymore as it initially had, to watch my once reed-thin body swell and settle into comfortable middle-aged ordinariness, characterized by rough hands from washing dishes every night after the children were sent to bed, the shapelessness of figure as a result of indifferent fattening meals of often cold dishes after the rest of them had eaten, the thinning, rapidly graying hair, ritually oiled and combed but beyond that, left unattended, the cracked feet. It didn’t matter. Things like these ceased to matter over time, especially when you had to bear the caring of a middle-class family of a husband and two children. There was enough to do without having to waste time in front of a mirror.

The clock chimed four, and died away into silence. The rain had now reduced to a drizzle. My thoughts raced over the past years, and the guilt tied a familiar, hated knot in the pit of my stomach. Everyone was entitled to one mistake, one error, one terrible indulgence- mine had been many, many summers ago. And the thought of it brought fear and guilt and apprehension today, meshed together into a heavy quilt that seemed to suffocate me. Memories do not dim with time- don’t believe what they tell you! At least, the ones that imprint themselves, like one of these new digital colour photographs, onto your memory– they last a lifetime, whether or not you want them to. Some memories sharpen with time… mine certainly had. And what memories they were… of right and wrong, mostly wrong, it seemed to me…

When I heard her footsteps, I sighed as relief quietly claimed me for its own, delivering me from unwanted memories. I straightened from where I had slouched against the almirah, and went forward to catch sight of her. She was turned, her back to the gate, fastening the door. My daughter. Pride usually came to the fore. She was tall, lissome, her hair long and jet black. She turned and I watched her move slowly, her measured tread bringing her closer to me, to the truth.Today, I was distracted. I prayed briefly for strength. I had decided a week back that I would tell her today, after three hesitant years of dilly-dallying and false promises to myself. She had a right to know..

I wondered how she would take it, beyond the initial shock and disgust. Oh, they had all been disgusted- my husband, who let me know just how much every day, in every spoken word, every unspoken syllable until he had died three years back; my mother-in-law- in the contemptuous jingle of her colourful bangles, even now.

And now my daughter. What would she say?

She walked into the house, graceful as always. I sat down against the almirah, unable to wait, to act, any more than I had in the last half of my life. It was as though the strain had finally began to snap me. I heard the water running, as she washed her feet in the bathroom, then silence. She walked out a few minutes later, changed now into a fresh salwar. I gazed at some spot in the distance, fidgeting with my toe-ring. She sat down so quietly next to me, it startled me when I tuned my head and looked straight into her perceptive gaze, the brown eyes silent, mildly questioning. She scared me sometimes, my daughter, with her beyond-her-years wisdom, her shrewd assessment of people and events.

How would she assess her mother?

I blurted it out. Six scattered sentences, a quick summary of that summer seventeen years ago, her father’s official trip, Rajan’s visit, that fateful night, the next morning, being discovered in bed with him by my husband and mother-in-law. It was over that fast. The story of my life, the shame, the guilt, all compressed into six sentences. In any other circumstance, it would have merited a laugh, the irony.

She had stilled.

I looked away, past tears. I had cried enough to last a lifetime. Oddly enough, I felt calm. No recrimination could sway me now. I had passed judgment on myself, on my character. She could say or do nothing that would move me now.

After what seemed like an eternity, she spoke.

Why? she asked me.

I told her. About the hundreds of official trips her father used to take. I wondered if, and if so, what she would understand. I talked about the loneliness night after night for nine long years. Loneliness is a dangerous thing. It can sap your judgment. It had sapped mine. I had waited and waited and waited. My husband had become a rare commodity. I had forgotten what it was like to watch him, even, as he moved or talked or dressed. The feel of his skin. What had he been like? And Rajan had come along. Silent, understanding. Smile, talk, take a walk, hold hands, go to bed. It had been that easy. And that insane.

I had asked myself why a million times.
Some questions have no answers. So I told myself.

Better no answer than a soul destroying answer.

She said nothing, my daughter, my offspring. And so I sat in the silence and waited. Waited for her anger, her sorrow, her disgust. To hear her denounce me. I got silence in return.

The seconds stretched into minutes. Twenty minutes, perhaps. I felt as if she was burning me with her silence. The spot I was gazing at was fast becoming a blur.

When she spoke, the sound startled me.

And father has made you repent it ever since, day after day, night after night, each minute of your life, amma? she asked.

My head swerved so fast I caught a crick in my neck. Stretching my neck, I stared with disbelief at her, at the tone of understanding in her young voice. Her eyes were filled with tears, flowing down her cheek. She reached out a hand, and I flinched, but the hand touched my cheek, gently caressing the skin.

And she simply said:
How much you must have gone through in the past seventeen years, amma! How much!

And she got up and put her arms around me.

I sat there, stunned. For several minutes, I sat as if carved out of stone, as she sobbed quietly, her arms circling me. In the seventeen years past, I had received- from the wise and old, neighbours and friends, relatives and strangers alike- words. Words of contempt for my lack of character, anger that I had deceived, disgust at the kind of upbringing I must have had, wonderment at my shamelessness, curses that I never live a life of normalcy or happiness for evermore to come, pity at my uncontrollable nature.

But in all of those moments and days and months and years, my twenty-year old daughter was first one to understand me. To weep for me, to hold me, to become one with me. Young, new to the world and its ways, her environment upset forever because of my one act, awareness that I had betrayed her father. And all she said was, How much you must have gone through in the past seventeen years, amma!

All those years had I sought understanding, yearned for it, and here was my child, and she understood. Unmarried she was, and only a child, though a wise one, and she knew.

It was too much to take. I cried, and the sound of it tore through the pain in my soul. I wept, as the pain and the guilt tore free in the face of that unqualified understanding- like a shower of sweet rain drenching the parched earth. The sobs rocked my body, and she tightened her arms around me, soothing, accepting, understanding.

And suddenly, the rain pelting the door transformed and poured its acceptance from the skies onto the washed earth.

And in that moment, my daughter became my mother.