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“Ajji, where are you?”
Kamala looked up from the frying pan bubbling with the jaggery paste, to locate the source of the voice.
No, it must have been her imagination at play, she thought with a wry shake of her head. Surprising, how often she had been remembering her grandson Prashanth in the last few days. As she coaxed the hot, molten jaggery over the roasted groundnuts to make perfectly round laddoos, Kamala missed the way he would sneak up on her, reaching out a tiny arm to grab the tasty groundnut laddoos that were her culinary specialty.
It was Diwali, the day when every household in India shone with divine brilliance and joy. Until this year, Kamala always thought her home must be the brightest. Today, however, was different. It seemed to her, there was nothing but bleakness all around. Every action today – the customary oil bath, tying mango leaves at the door entrance, hanging the lighted lantern in front of the house, cooking the festival lunch, rolling those groundnut laddoos – all were but grim reminders of the happy times from the previous years that she no longer had any hopes of experiencing again.
As she stood despondently at the kitchen platform, her thoughts flew back to the Diwali of the year before. It was on that day that her life had taken a sudden unexpected deviation, one from which she knew she would never recover.
Kamala had been waiting eagerly for her son Sunil, daughter-in-law Megha and grandson Prashanth to return from Megha’s parents’ home where they had gone to convey Diwali wishes. Every time there was the sound of a car stopping on their road, she rushed to the window to see if it was them, leading her husband Girish to remark, “Why are you fretting so much? Didn’t Megha say they would be here by 6 pm? It’s still only 5 pm…they must be on the way.”
Inwardly, he wondered at his wife’s immense capacity for worrying without cause.
At around 5.45 pm, Megha and Sunil had walked in, discussing the rush of the traffic in spite of it being a holiday, prompting Kamala to worriedly demand, “Where is Prashanth? Why isn’t he with you?”
“Oh, he kept insisting that he wanted to stay back with Megha’s parents tonight, so we left him there, playing happily with the neighbors’ kids. I’ll pick him up tomorrow.” Sunil had said.
Kamala felt a sudden frisson of irritation combined with disappointment and grumbled, “You give so much importance to your wife’s parents, but do not bother about your own mother!”
Cringing at the sight of Megha’s unhappy face, Girish tried to make Kamala see sense. “What are you saying, Kamala? The kid wanted to stay there and they let him be! Well, you know how stubborn he can be when he puts his mind to something.”
Well, for Kamala, that had just opened up the floodgates and she began saying one thing after another –how she was always running around doing the housework with no help or appreciation from anyone else, how she was broad-minded enough to let Megha work, how she had given them enough freedom to enjoy their time together as she struggled to take care of Prashanth, how little they cared for her and how she was fed up that everyone put their own desires – even that of little Prashanth – before hers. In reality, she was upset that Prashanth was not home on the festival day but it all came out hopelessly wrong – like a rant against Megha and Sunil.
And no sooner did she stop for breath, that Sunil went on his own trip. Even at the best of times, he and his mother often did not see eye to eye. She seemed to always imply that he was careless and immature; he found her too controlling of his actions, as if he were still a kid of ten instead of a forty-year old adult with a kid of his own. As all the accumulated hurt poured out of Sunil, Kamala could hardly bear the onslaught. All she realized was that her son had always considered her as being dominant; never trusting himself to take responsibility. A lot of hurtful and angry words were exchanged between mother and son that day. Megha and her father-in-law could do no more than just watch their loved ones quarrel like little kids.
But there is one major difference between kids quarreling and adults bickering – kids forget and forgive very quickly; adults, often never at all. The same had been true in this case. Even now, after almost a year had passed, Kamala could still recollect the sense of shock that completely shook her to the core when she heard Sunil say, “I’m leaving with Megha and my child. I cannot bear to live like this, thinking that I have been a major disappointment to you. But, Amma, please realize that I’m not saying this impulsively. It has been on my mind for quite some time. I want to create an identity for myself, prove to you and the world that I can achieve great things without having to depend on you. So please allow us to leave with your blessings.”
Kamala had gone into a state of numb shock. When she got out of it, she almost lived in a state of denial that this could not be happening in her perfect family. She expected some miracle would set things right. Slowly, as she witnessed the activity all around –finding a new house to rent in, transfer of Prashanth to a new school, purchasing new furniture – the truth struck her that they were leaving for good. Once, she tried to speak to Megha about it, hoping she would dissuade Sunil; but Megha sadly shook her head with tears in her eyes, “You know how he is, Amma. I do not entirely agree with him but this is something he is convinced he must do and so, I’m standing by him. I always sensed he had some deep hunger and now, I know it is this – the strong desire to make you feel he is worthy of being your son. I know you don’t look at it that way, but I think we should give him a chance to do what he thinks is right.”
Kamala feelings fluctuated between a sense of betrayal, sadness and a sense of hurt pride. Was it for this day that she had quit working when Sunil was in Class X? Was this all they deserved as parents for trying to fulfill all his wishes at the cost of forgoing their own comfort? But as they say, time is a slow, but steady healer. Slowly, Kamala got used to their absence and began looking for ways to keep herself busy, because those activities helped to keep her mind away from going around in circles over the same dejecting thoughts. She joined one of her close friends, Deepa, in helping out at a school for the physically disabled. As she got more involved with her volunteer work, she began observing things about her students. Many of them nurtured a fierce desire for independence and self-sufficiency. As she empathized with them, she gradually began coming to terms with the same desire that her son had expressed.
Yes, she realized she had often been overbearing, brushing away his suggestions with her supreme confidence. Although her husband never objected, it was she whose say was always final in their household. She could understand now how it must have rankled everyone. As she observed some of the other volunteers who insisted the students to do things in a particular way, without giving them an opportunity to explore the possibilities, she came to slowly identify with the conflicts Sunil must have felt.
Megha called her regularly. She kept her updated with information about how they were doing. Sunil too called sometimes, and once, it was to say he had begun a new business venture with two of his friends. They brought Prashanth over once in a month or so, stayed for a few hours and left. But those meetings only made it even more difficult to bear the days in between.
Anyway, Kamala sighed. What was the point in going over it all? It was all over. Good, she thought, she had gained insight at least now. Besides, they were not entirely ravaged by the kind of hatred that had torn some of her friends’ families apart. Still, Kamala could do nothing to dispel the void within her, and often lay in bed at night, wishing she could set the clock back.
“Ajji, where are you?”
Prashanth’s voice once again broke into her thoughts and she shook her head, chiding herself for her delusions. But the very next moment, there he was bounding into her arms, and stealthily dipping a hand into the plate of groundnut laddoos. Sunil and Megha followed with a box of sweets, chorusing, “Happy Diwali, Amma.”
She came out into the hall to wish them, and saw they had come with a big suitcase.
“I know, I hurt you by leaving that way last year, but I’m on the path to achieving what I set out to do,” said Sunil. “And one thing I realized during this time, is that you and Appa give meaning to our existence and I’m grateful for the way you both have been there for me and all of us, all these years. We couldn’t imagine celebrating the festival without you, Amma,” said Sunil with a strange tremor in his voice, as Megha, wet-eyed, nodded.
And suddenly to Kamala, it felt like Diwali again! She was sure once more, that there was no family happier than theirs in the entire world.