Special mention by Judges of Write & Beyond contest
Abhilasha quietly let herself into their spacious apartment. The door to the balcony was open with the hot air filling up the spaces before moving out through the back door by the kitchen. The heat was already beating down on the roof of the sixteenth floor apartment that they had moved into a year ago. For the last one week the newspapers have allotted more than the usual space in analyzing the unprecedented heat phenomenon in the first week of April. Dropping her bag quietly on the dining table, she quickly moved to the door holding back the billowing voile curtains with one hand while trying to pull the door shut with the other. The hot wind caught her newly shortened strands pushed it back from where it framed the almost oval face with an abruptly ending chin and tousled it around her head before letting it go. Latching the door firmly, she looked out of the glass door at the rows of rectangular buildings indifferent sizes arranged in a neat order like obedient ranks waiting patiently for an order to follow. And that’s how they would stay forever she thought. Waiting for something to shake them, shatter them and bring them down. But the wind- it moved around exploring every nook and little cracks from where little plants grew; or rushed down to play in the wide open spaces teasing the leafy boughs.
Securing the door she turned back, almost tripping over Bruno’s back jutting out from under the table.
“Bruno, Bruno, why do you bury yourself here?” she murmured patting the retriever’s head nuzzling her knees.
The house was quiet and she had a couple of hours to herself before the circus resumed. She checked the refrigerator lights. So, the electricity was generated by the society generator. That explained the open balcony door for she remembered shutting it before she left after lunch. Dust settled within minutes of finding a leeway and that meant her dusting every surface all over again. For now that chore could wait.
She pulled out a bottle of cold water holding the chilled glass against her cheeks, forehead and eyes before gulping down a few mouthfuls straight from it. Switching on the fan she sat at the dining table rummaging through her hand bag for a piece of paper and pen. If she didn’t do this now she would never ever get out of this wilderness she helped to create eighteen years ago, even if she didn’t spearhead it. Abhilasha spread out another folded paper and held it down with her palm while proceeding to write on the fresh clean sheet below it. She paused for a minute with the end of the pen against her lips looking at the words scrawled on the first sheet. The warm air from the whirring fan spread her hair over her eyes. She would get used to it and also learn to deal with it, she thought pushing it back. This hair getting into her eyes. She looked satisfied at her muted reflection on the refrigerator steel door. She had always wanted this ever since she could remember. To her young eyes then, women with short hair seemed more in charge of their life. At least the girls in her class in Loreto Convent Shillong were more daring. Once Pubali, Agnes and Mala had spoken out against Sister Martha for piling them with work that would need hours of back breaking writing even when they had to appear for a test the next day. The entire afternoon saw the trio standing outside Mother Superior’s office, the object of every senior, junior and teachers’ questioning gaze. For their classmates however, they were the stars. She had once pleaded with her mother to let her try a short hairstyle. Just once.
“ Good girls from good family always tie up their hair or they end up looking like wantons. And ours is a respectable family. Everyone looks up to your father…” and so followed a long discourse on family honour.
On top of the page in the middle, she wrote down
Below it she wrote her contact details neatly in slants and loops, more out of a drilled habit than a desire to ornament her page. She proceeded to note down the words Mala had scrawled on the sheet above.
How could she summarize the skills honed in the last eighteen years in her bid to hold the fort graciously and elegantly without ruffling a single hair from her thick braided and chignoned hair at the nape? A role she enacted for almost two decades with restrained stirrings in her heart. With experience in managing and multi tasking, customizing solutions for varied requirements, I can contribute to any organization, thought Abhilasha wryly.
Would they consider her two meagre years of teaching middle-school children? She had applied for a job in her alma mater after her post-graduation. There was nothing more respectable than teaching, for girls yet to be married.
“Why would you want to move out and stay on your own in a different city?” her barrister father thundered, “It is not safe for young women. Whatever you have to do, you will do it here till we find a suitable boy”.
And that was the end of the matter.
Abhilasha unconsciously put her pen down and swept her hand from the nape to her shoulder, to bring her braid forward and play with it as was her habit. Her hand stopped abruptly at the base where her tresses ended now. Under the table Bruno put his head on her knees in quiet companionship.
She had liked him from the beginning. There was a quiet strength in the way he dealt with the children in the school. The children loved Shishir, hanging on to his every word, listening in rapt attention and laughing in gay abandon. She found herself drawn to this man with his curly mop and large brown eyes that twinkled when they talked in the staffroom. He asked for her opinion that compelled her to think on matters she had hitherto never noticed. She found she could emerge from the shadows. Her cheeks warmed under his gaze. The only men she had talked to were her cousins and her younger brother. Shishir looked at the world differently. Inquisitive about everything and challenging where she could never find fault with.
“But that’s how it is, isn’t it?” she had protested naively.
The way he looked at her then was how her father looked at her at times with a tiny smile playing on his lips.
“You have been yoked…” sighed Shishir shaking his head.
She understood his words much later. Many years after she had married Mahesh and moved around the country making and keeping a home to perfection. Shishir, she learnt, had soon moved out to a residential school in Panchgani. Until recently she had known him to be in some South East Asian place teaching a bunch of school kids.
The air conditioner came to life with a click and went on to hum its familiar staccato tune. Bruno lay down on his paws to go back to his nap under the table. There was the sound of the flush from the bathroom . She would have to hurry.
Abhilasha had enjoyed every bit of the Metaphysical poets marvelling at how they challenged the prevailing norms. Post-modernist deconstruction had kept her intrigued throwing new light on the way she saw the world. Each time her results were declared, her parents entertained a host of well wishers with a lavish feast. The other children in the family and the neighbourhood were told to emulate her.
“What a fine young lady she has been raised into! Excelling in studies and good in house work too! So decent and well behaved.”
Abhilasha’s sound academic record was the fruit of habits instilled for regular sitting at the study table. Just like all the other habits inculcated for the smooth sailing in domestic life. Waking up early, showering before lighting the saki in the naamghor and the soft strains of the prayers filling up the home, learning to cook meals. Her books and lessons had raised questions in her mind. But that’s how they remained mostly. Unanswered. And then, gradually all of them lay buried under the grocery inventory of turmeric, salt; managing a home; raising children…
Why would anyone want to know about her hobbies? Mahesh had asked her just that one time when they were allowed to talk after their marriage was fixed. She was too naïve then to realize there was nothing common between them. Her dream to travel and see the world remained just that.
All these years she had learnt to harbour herquiet observations. Years of sediments deposited with the flow are known to change the course. They threatened to disrupt the flow, spilling over the banks now.
Suddenly the silence was interrupted and so were her thoughts.
“Abhilasha! Abhilasha! Where did she go now? It has been hours and my throat is parched for a cup of tea!” Her mother-in-law’s voice came through the gap in the guestroom door
“I am here, Ma. Give me a few minutes and I shall brew your tea,” she quietly said raising her voice just that much necessary to be heard.
“Thikase, make it a light brew. The morning cup was very strong. I don’t want to get constipated again.”
Abhilasha sighed and put her pen down. The cantankerous lady had utterly transformed when her daughter was here the last week. She was in the kitchen for all of last week cooking the favourite dishes of the guests .She almost worshipped the ground on which her daughter walked and laughed and smiled when her natinis jumped on the sofa and pulled poor Bruno’s tail. Abhilasha was aware of the dry fruits stashed in the old lady’s wardrobe. Her mother-in-law almost bowed before nibbling the nuts and closed her eyes in obeisance to her daughter, the giver. The minute they left, she took to the bed and back to her old ways whining about the different aches and illnesses.
The doorbell rang with the programmed chimes going off one after the other startling Abhilasha. They are early, she thought looking at the wall clock. She quickly folded the papers and stuffed them in her bag. She nervously got up and opened the door holding her short hair back at the nape.
“Ma! Get me something to eat or I can’t move,” Raktim called sauntering in and throwing his football kit to the corner of the room. The gangly seventeen-year-old turned to her and stopped as though he was stunned by an apparition, “Wha…what! …MA! Whatever happened to you...” Ruby who was close behind bumped into him dropping her phone. The lid flew open and the battery popped out rolling under the table. Bruno perked up, gave a short bark and sniffed at the little metallic thing before going back to his position.
“Idiot!” Ruby, who was two years younger, yelled and scrambled to get the rolling battery. She then turned, her high ponytail swishing, to see why he looked stupefied. She gave a slight gasp and whispered, “Ma!” her thick lashes almost touching her eyebrows.
The air conditioner hummed louder and the fan whirred faster to cool the discomfort spreading in the room.
Abhilasha smiled with a mixture of nervousness and eagerness, “ just …thought…maybe…”
“Raktim! Ruby! Abhilasha! What happened?” called out Abhilasha’s mother-in-law from the next room.
Abhilasha squirmed and held her breath. Surprisingly for her age and tiredness the old lady moved quickly and within seconds was in the room. One look at her daughter- in- law and she almost keeled over cackling. Abhilasha was not sure if it was her new short hairstyle that generated so much humour or the desire to hurt her the most,to hide the fact that the new look made her more becoming. Ruby and Raktim looked on in discomfort.
“Oh! Is this the work that you had disappeared for? Do they have barbers in banks?”
“Ma, you look pretty… and younger too!” said Ruby standing by her mother, “In fact, you should have asked them to streak it a bit.”
“What came over you at your age! Oh! Ho! Ho! If you are done with all that, give me a cup of tea. I have been waiting for it for so long that my throat has dried up” saying this her mother-in-law went back to her room wiping her tears of mirth.
Later that night Abhilasha sat cocooned in the balcony surrounded by the green creepers climbing up the trellis, the araucarias rising up in a row from the planters. Bruno lay with his head on her feet. She had tried simulating the environs of her Shillong home in this arid and hot clime. The urban landscape stretching out in all direction spelt desolation shrouded by the aspiring skyscrapers and the pigeon holed existence of the people. In her balcony, she found refuge letting her mind wander the streets of Shillong; sometimes stopping by at her favourite spot behind Laitumkhra Cathedral ; the cool breeze laden with the misty light drizzle and the smell of the sweet pine needles leaving behind flushed cheeks; walking out with friends while the rain splattered on the umbrellas . The breeze sometimes brought with it strains of a strumming guitar or the hum of a tune, spreading it out gently. From the Cathedral she often gazed down below the sloping hill sides. Sometimes the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas filled her up with awe. And sometimes the Brahmaputra appeared snaking through in the distant horizon. The unrest thrown up by the tussle between what was instilled and the path her heart tugged at, seemed to subside. The view from the hills afforded a clarity of thoughts for Abhilasha. It always did.
It was what she acutely yearned for sitting up here in her sixteenth floor – Shillong. The answers to those questions of so many years ago. No, not the answers really. The answers now urged for vents to realize themselves. Abhilasha looked out at the silent buildings with the dark windows shutting out the tiredness of the day. Who knows what dreams lay stifled within all those windows? Lost in the chaos of the day and buried under the weariness of the night. She searched the dull dark firmament for those little sparkles of light. But a hazy veil thrown up by the city lights had blotted them out from the jagged sky. There was a time when she would gaze at those stars and weave her dreams. They looked perfect then. Her dreams and the stars.
Dinner that evening had been an awkward affair not that it was perfect on other days.
“This masor tenga is too tangy. I’ll get sensitive teeth now” grumbled Mahesh’s mother, “ and this potol bhaja is almost burnt!”
Abhilasha quietly swallowed her morsels wishing this all to be over. Rohan was busy checking the iPad and stuffing himself unmindful of what went in.
Ruby began, “But Aita, it is quite mild actually. And the potols taste the same as always...”
Abhilasha looked at Ruby and held her gaze. Ruby went back to her food indignantly.
Abhilasha cleared her throat, “Ruby, can you type something and take out a printout for me now?”
“Hmmm…but what is it?” she asked washing down the last morsel on her plate with a gulp of water.
“It’s my resume.”
Rohan’s eyes riveted towards her almost startled. He swallowed hard. He was very much like Mahesh.
Ruby gave her mother a blank look. Mahesh’s mother stopped grumbling trying to fathom what was it that she did not understand. Ruby asked her mother calmly, “When do you want it?”
“By tomorrow…” replied Abhilasha gathering the dinner plates cleaning out all the little bits into one bowl.
“ What is it? Will someone tell me what is happening here? “ interrupted Mahesh’s mother.
Abhilasha cleared her throat for the second time.
“I am sending my resume to Mala for a summer job in the NGO that she works for in Uttarakhand. She said they were looking for volunteers and asked if I would be interested. And I said yes” finished Abhilasha in one breath.
She sat through the scalding remarks, bewildered spluttering, appeals of helplessness with an armour of quiet resolve around her. Mahesh was brought into the conversation many times. Abhilasha quietly went about picking the used dishes, rinsing them under the tap before piling them neatly in the sink. She kept the leftovers in smaller containers to be stacked in the fridge. She cleaned the dining table with a damp kitchen wipe and gave out Bruno’s dinner. After her day’s chores were completed and once everyone was fast asleep she went out into the balcony. Bruno followed his mistress loyally.
The warm air brought into her cocoon, the fragrance of the madhumalati’s red, pink and white clusters from where it was steadily climbing up the building. The araucarias swayed. She knew the stars were still out there behind the haze. She would tell Mahesh next week when he was expected to be home. She bent down and stroked Bruno’s muzzle the way he liked it. Mala had said Shishir would join their NGO as an expert for a couple of months .Abhilasha’s fingers glided on Bruno’s smooth coat. She slowly undid his brown studded collar from around his neck and kept it aside.