Winner of Write & Beyond contest
There I was watching my children trailing each other, just being themselves. They are just two years apart and very different from each other, as children are and should be. I think I have been terrible mother insofar as dedicated, mothers go. Otherwise I’ve tried hard to set the right examples, I believe. Why do I then condemn myself and call myself names? Why am I a terrible mother? Well, I’ve lied to them. I’ve lied heaps. I’ve lied tons. I’ve lied repeatedly. I’ve kept many secrets from them, and I don’t sleep well at night. The burden of lies and secrets, it’s a heavy one to carry. I know I gave myself no choice. Providence did not either it would seem.
One doesn’t tell kids things they ought not to know. One doesn’t tell it all, and one chooses which truths are better to tell, and how to conceal those that are best left hidden. I did that. I did that with expertise, and with dexterity, such that I could nigh fool myself. I still believe I’m essentially an honest person.
I hear them now. Halting in my thoughts for a few moments, I take a deep breath and listen.
“No, stop. You’ll trip and fall silly!” Manila is shouting out after go.
“I can’t stop now. I have to keep going Ma.”
“Don’t you dare call me Ma!” she answered, smiling widely now.
Oh how they love teasing each other!
The hill is far steeper than it appears from down below. Manila is breathing hard, trying to appear in control but I can see her heart hurts, from all the chasing. Go is still raiding the lower hills, away from us, but his pace is slackened.
“Man? Mani? Pick one,” Go still attempts to continue the conversation.
“How about the whole darn name, haan?” Manila seems completely exhausted now, and is plonking herself among the tall grass of this prairie. I can’t see her now.
We have emerged after many months, to undertake a longish drive into the hillside that surrounds our little town, Kondaar. This little town lies at the foothills of the Himalayas. I grew up here. I have always loved it as much as I have hated it. I just need to flip my heart to feel either emotion. At this moment, I feel deep affection for these familiar steppes – these hills, the prairie with its tall grass. Once or twice a year I come here with Manila and Govardhan – my two lovely children, and we frolic and chase, we catch butterflies, drink endless cups of tea and buttermilk. We also try and have meaningful conversation. Today, we have yet to begin the ritual of seizing a moment whence exchanges will emerge. Thereafter we will tie up this day in a neat bundle, to be then put away in our golden memory box.
“Mom, can I have some chai please,” Manila has brought herself to me. It must be time.
“Sure baby!” and I pour her out some hot cardamom tea. The other thermos holds ginger tea, Govardhan’s choice. The third thermos has mine – strong orange pekoe, free from any other flavour. I cater to us all. Food awaits too. Puffed-up pooris with tomato chutney and potatoes smeared with seasoned yoghurt. These are our comfort foods. This is the kind of food Govardhan will yearn for when gone. I wish to ensure that Govardhan is drawn back again and again to his home and hearth, whatsoever happens; may he choose any reason to return, I care not. Manila will not go far I know – her weary heart will not permit her to leave for long, leave for faraway pavilions.
She is quiet, observant and thoughtful. I let her be.
Govardhan remains invisible. The hills are his favourite place. Even as a young lad, far younger than today, he would disappear into their contours. Little Manila, his playmate would want to go along, and sometimes he would carry her with him too. Mostly he liked to run away. He knew, we knew, where he would go. His yearning of the mountains was relentless. The day he did not meander away, we would worry. It was rare though. His need for daily meditations by the hills was one that we understood and accepted. When it rained, he would be restless. He was a wild one, he was. At the same time, he was the one who would attend to his little sister if she sought his help to solve a problem, or if she just wanted him around for her own sake. She would indicate to him when she was done, and a tacit approval was then granted. He would canter away to his favourite haunt somewhere in the foothills, not too far from home. The name Govardhan – it suited him well, son of the mountains.
What was Manila's story? Well, the day Bhuvan returned home after disappearing for over two years, he had Manila in his arms. She was his daughter then, and Govardhan’s half-sister. I asked no questions, as he handed over this precious gift to fill his absence. It did, his past absences, as well as his future ones.
My heart accepted this lovely child, however reluctant I may have been to openly acknowledge my attraction for her. The infant was aglow with health and love. She, bright-eyed and oh-so-beautiful, wound her little fist and latched onto me. The meltdown of a hardened me was instantaneous as Bhuvan watched me closely. He knew he had won yet again. His pawn, Manila, and he, the one with the winning streak. I just crumbled and allowed mother Bharini to be filled with insatiable maternal love, the eternal spring.
It would have taken all my courage to reject the baby – I had not then known that this baby’s birth mother had died at childbirth. I reopened a closed heart, and started pouring in new memories built around Govardhan and his new sister – who I named Manila. Her mother was a Filipino, and I smile today at the irony of it. Govardhan has a shock of deep, black hair and slanting eyes. Manila herself could well be my blood daughter – her almond eyes, her gaze, her voice, even her gait are all mine. She is like a shadow, an alter ego of Bharini, the woman – the one who is eternally young and beautiful, the one who knows no pain, the one who loves unconditionally. Bharini who knows that her real beauty shall never fade. Manila is like an evergreen creeper that bears flowers year round. I was Manila – Manila is me, even as Bharini recedes into the background of a sombre palate.
Why did Bhuvan harbour and foster another family? Why did he disappear? How do such things happen to good people? The rejection I faced for two long years and the pain I endured; could Bhuvan make up for it by turning up at our doorstep with a beautiful girl child? Was she a love-child? Was Bhuvan capable of love? How was I to know, and if yes, then Manila was the kind of love-child that can only abet kindness and foster love. I let it all be, and focused my energies on rearing my two children. Bhuvan continued to come and go, while my presence remained as steadfast as the mountains bordering Kondaar.
“Hello there young people,” says Govardhan with his twinkling eyes.
Go’s eyes are not just slanting, they are also wide apart. He is my own son, born of pain and labour, of the union that bears fruit but not out of love. I let go of Govardhan almost as soon as he was born. I nurtured his body but not his soul.
I was angry then – lost and bruised. I had wanted to wait for a union, but Bhuvan – robust and hot for me, would not hear of it. He feared that I may not want children at all eventually lest they interfere with my youth and beauty. So our first union was a rude awakening into the world of men. It resulted in my developing a resistant strain to any physical interaction, and thereby any penchant for intimacy with the opposite sex.
Bhuvan wanted to possess me with such gusto, that no reciprocity was required or solicited. His burning need was more than sufficient to bring about lust and passion in any female; after all Bhuvan was the son of the soil – not some browbeaten labourer. Bhuvan was a man among men – he had taken many a woman and sown many seeds. How could his burning fervour be not responded to? For his sake I tried hard to unknot my own internal barriers, since I had been taught that I would sleep with the man I love and no other. Unlike the stories I had been fed, Bhuvan was chosen for me and I had only spied him at our engagement ceremony. I had found him too short in stature, but not ugly. I believed I would fall in love as soon as we had married, since the witness fire would bless me with what I deserved. So it is, I suppose I did receive what I deserved.
As Bhuvan’s body rode mine, to break into – he held me against the hard bed, as I bit my lower lip till it tore and bled. He held me hard and fast till every cell in my body hurt and every muscle wept for mercy. My entreaties were unheard and silenced. The universe colluded with this man, in his animal instincts, inciting him further to take what was rightfully his. I wondered if this were for real and that the brute force that was upon me was a manifestation of my own fears. And then the pounding stopped. The quiet that hung over me felt like doom. I wished for someone to cling to – to hide behind, to just lose myself so completely that … oh I don’t know, I just wished to return to the Before. I lay there, legs splayed out, in the dark, imagining a deeper gloom than the one I was in. This was the dream I had dreamed? Bhuvan was the man I was to love with all my being? And who was I in all of this? It seemed wrong, it seemed unfair and it seemed then that the one who had sent me out there had known all along. This was larceny. I had been robbed of it all. All in one night- within a matter of, I don’t know, a few hours and which seemed like days, months, years almost.
These things don’t reverse do they, so I lived on.
Govardhan came along shortly afterward. I survived childbirth although I was weak and undernourished. Govardhan’s birth renewed and refurbished my body. I was the cynosure of the family’s eyes having borne a son to the eldest son. What irony! I also forced myself to eat better to breed a healthy offspring. Govardhan was an innocent bystander, and after all a part of my own longing perhaps to survive the onslaught of fate. Bhuvan lived on too, night after night, taking me. I had learnt to play along. I would wait to hear his footsteps. I mechanized and mastered the movements thereafter, and escaped any other need than that of the body.
I did not conceive again. Bhuvan was disappointed. I ensured that I wouldn’t bear another child to this man. I did not hate him. I did not love him. I pitied him.
By day, I would play mother and daughter-in-law to perfection. None could fault me. I had learnt to deceive. I had taught myself the art of artful dodging. I had learnt to smile, to giggle, to flirt with my younger brother-in-law, which is what he expected. I gossiped, I participated in all family activities and outings. The only one I did not play up to was Bhuvan. My body was all he would ever get.
So by the time Manila arrived, Bhuvan’s family were all but gone. My parents in law were dead. His two brothers had decided to start a family business, and their wives were busy with flaunting their wealth and keeping house. I had found a job as seamstress at a tailoring outlet and Govardhan was thriving in a private school, his fees funded by Bhuvan’s youngest brother, who was in love with me. I permitted him to hold my hand every now and then and declare his ever-growing passion. He dared not touch me beyond, since he could sense my strength, and my wintry innerscape. I was fine with his weekly visits and so was his wife (as shared by him, and I didn’t really care much for her acquiescence). I stayed in the family home with Govardhan and a loyal old maid. Life was plain, even if not fair. But then I had redefined fair-unfair, loyal-disloyal, kind-cruel. I was unruffled and i kept out of sight.
“Maa, share your thoughts na,” cooed Manila. I am back in the Now.
“Oh yes, let’s share our thoughts. So Govardhan, how are your preparations for Uni coming along. But wait, weren’t you going to share your favourite memory from childhood?”
“Preps are very good. I am getting six to seven hours of straight practice and the coach is also helping me with old test papers so you have nothing to worry about. You are not a worrier anyway, are you Maa? As for memories, I’ll let Mani go first,” says Govardhan with a flourish, and takes a gulp of his ginger tea.
“Mmmm, that’s very good Maa.”
“Yes, mine too. But shouldn’t we eat first?”
I lay out the food on the aromatic banana leaf plates – taking care to be fair in doling out each one’s share, including mine. We eat with gusto. The meal over, we are relaxed and easy in the company. A light drizzle comes and goes. The sky is as blue as the ocean, and the hills are alive. I hum gently, waiting for one of us to open.
“So I would like to share that the time when it was just the three of us – you know the period when you would drop us at the bus-stop with that stray dog we had adopted, Mowgli; that was one joyous period for me. I think I’ve never been happier.”
“You mean that Mani?” Govardhan says, sounding rather surprised. While I look at her lovely face, as she is taken back in time to that wondrous period. I know exactly what she means. We were happy. It was based upon a lie, since I had told the kids that their father had a good job in the city. In fact, I was clueless of his whereabouts.
“I suppose it was a good time,” adds Govardhan reflectively, straining to return to that time. “We used to run around with Mowgli in the park. We would squabble over who would walk him, who would feed him but then he was given away too. That hurt for the longest time. So no, I don’t think it’s the happiest time for me.”
“Weren’t you a lot more energetic then Mani?” Govardhan muttered almost inaudibly.
“Maa, wasn’t Mani stronger till a few years back? You need to pump iron girl!” Govardhan cries out suddenly more authoritative.
“Who’s asking you – it’s my turn. We’ll come to you silly,” Mani affectionately reminds him.
I recall that period with a quiet joy. It was not the best of times, but it was definitely not the worst. Manila was nine years old, and Govardhan, thirteen. They were absolutely lovely, and Mowgli, this little mongrel had adopted us one fine day. He was a young pup who had lost its way. That is when the lies began, my way of making good any loss that may affect the children. I had told them that Mowgli had to be gifted to a kid with a rare disease, who needed a playmate. Little did I know that lies have a way of morphing into something closer home.
It was after this period that Manila started losing her health, almost imperceptibly. I am her mother, would I not know. She was often breathless. She was never hungry. This went on for almost a year before I decided to share any of this with her father. Bhuvan asked me to show her to the local doctor. They ran a few tests which showed low blood pressure and a low blood count, which they brushed aside. They said women in India are prone to low counts on everything. I accepted their explanation, no wiser was I. What do I know of such things?
Manila, my child, continued stoutly. She had inner resolve and day after day joined the ranks at school. Exhausted later, she would rest in my arms. I knew all was not well. So I talked to my brother-in-law. He advised me to take her to the big city. Despite an increasing inner frailty, she appeared lovely. So I wondered if the Gods were punishing me for my lies, for being who I was. Who was I?
Eventually when she developed a raging fever at age eleven, the doctors put up their hands after a month in our town, and I travelled to the big city with Bhuvan, who knew not to resist. The hospitals were full of sick people and undiagnosed disorders. It was only after much coaxing that Bhuvan revealed that this girl-child was only half-Indian. Then began the series of questions and answers among the knowledgeable medical clan. This unsettling and trying period lasted for six months, while we went back and forth from Kondaar to big city.
“Maa, where are you, did you hear what I said?” Manila pleads for my attention.
“Sorry, love, I was thinking of a bygone era,” I respond feebly. I was perspiring and my forehead was wet.
“Was I really much stronger? Did I eat a lot more and outrun Go?” asks Manila innocently, ignoring signs of my growing anxiety.
“Yes you were.”
Later at home, I find Govardhan lost deep in thought. I hold his hand.
“Listen son, I must share something with you.”
“Is it about my college education? I’m fine to not go to college, Maa, you needn’t worry.”
He knew we were counting pennies. He had seen and heard Bhuvan and me arguing over the paltry sum he would hand over when he would return home. He had seen me bring clothes home, for repair and found me exhausted and bent from labour.
“No my child,” I hug him long and deep with affection, “It’s about your sister.”
I make up another lie about her – unable to spit out the bitter truth about her shortened lifespan. I tell him that she did have a disease which bore her down, and that it may spread and may eventually take her life but in many, many years. He has nothing to worry about but that he should stop teasing her about her frailty. She is a strong girl.
That night he tosses and turns because I can hear his charpoy creaking. I underestimate the power of love, of instinct.
We had been given a maximum of five years. We were told she had some neurological genetic disorder –Seroprevalence of Cysticercosis – I had written it down and can still barely pronounce it. It spells disaster, it spells doom, why would I want to say it out loud? Her mother had passed it onto her, and that it was caused by a tapeworm. Now how that happened was very strange and deeply distressful.
I cursed the day Bhuvan had appeared at our door with this infant who I so profoundly loved. I wanted to hate her then- to destroy any evidence of her in my life. The searing pain in my heart spread cancer – like to the middle of my head, and I wanted to rip it off my shoulders. I shudder at its evil memory. Go tell it on the mountains, said someone to me. I cried out to those heaving shapes out there in the twilight- and they echoed back my agony. At least they shared and it felt right that they should.
The downpour that night was unable to bring me any solace, not then, not now.
I live on, as does Bhuvan. Who’s the sinner between us? Who atones, and how?
Govardhan has decided to forego college. He announces it the following day. On being questioned by his father, he says he is going on a short trip with his friends to decide on his future. We don’t argue with him. Bhuvan and I know when not to stop him. He is so determined, it is better to let the moment pass.
Govardhan doesn’t return. After four months, or so we receive a note in the hands of a ‘trusted friend’. I had waited for this very day, and his note I read out loud now:
18th August 2002
Dear Maa and Pitaji,
Please tell Manila I am fine. I think of her everyday. How is she doing? Is it better not to ask?
Please don’t feel my absence as a betrayal. I am still very much a part of you.
I have found my peace in the mountains. I make enough money by selling beads and necklaces and earthen pots (I am also a potter's apprentice). I am able to keep my body nourished, and my mind is undisturbed. It is only filled with the deepest gratitude for this life. I don’t begrudge it, as you might think.
I live and I live by my own rules. Two other young men like me, Shom and Hari, together we dug a cave on the side of Milika and Tulika hills and have created a home for ourselves. This is the reason why I took so long to write to you. I wanted to present to you a complete picture. It must sound very savage, but believe me when I say, it is comfortable. There are shepherds who come by sometimes and break bread with us. For now, they are our company. I cook on an earthen pot. The food cooked smells fresh, with greens acquired from nearby hamlets, and there is an abundance of milk.
The songs of the meadows and the mooing of the cows are refreshing. My soul bathes in the light of the stars by night, and the sun and rain shower my body with their power by day. How can I ask for more. Today this is home, and I am blessed.
There is no way for you to contact me. I will know when to come down. I will be there when Manila is ready to depart. I will know when – the heart always knows, doesn’t it?
Govardhan, the caveman
Govardhan, a sacred gift to the mountain Gods, whence he came, son of Bharini and Bhuvan.
Manila, a gift from the Gods – born of darkness, returned to Light.