Thursday, June 09, 2005

It's Where We Left It

I had forgotten about the tree. The mango sapling had taken root in the midst of all the banana trees that filled up the small plot of our garden. Sighs were let out. It would never make it. But it continued to grow, slowly, torturously. A few more leaves on a new twig every year, while the banana trees that had given fruit were cut down to make room for the new shoots that sprouted regularly. Then one day, we spotted a tiny mango hanging precariously from one the branches. That was when I fell in love with it. By the time we moved out, the tree was still only giving a few mangoes each year. Now, it stood proudly up to the sky.

I had thought I would never come back. Then, Jay’s mail came. Arul and he wanted to sell the house. Jay sent the letter to my office. He must have read my bylines in the paper. I read the mail a few times over. Though it was brief and terse, I would like to think it took him a long time to write it, struggling to find the words to fill up a void of 15 years; failing; then giving up.

It’s a beautiful house – a two-storey bungalow from where you can watch the sea. We had all run away as soon as we could. Jay took off for the Navy after he finished his 12th. Arul stayed till he was 22, but he was never around much anyway. I was the last to go and with me the last ties that held ma and appa together.

It had never been an easy relationship between ma and appa. I was five when I walked into an argument they were having; the first I remember. They were screaming at each other. I didn’t know what they were saying. I curled up against the leg of the dining table and looked on in terrified bewilderment.

The walls are dusty now. They’ve soaked up the essence of the lives we lived here for 20 years and have aged like wine. I can still make out the coffee stains on the wall. Accusations of lives ruined and dreams trampled upon flew frequently along with plates and coffee cups. Now a new coat of paint would wipe away all the memories.

All the furniture is still there, smoky with dust. Neither of us had come back to take away anything after appa died two years after ma, leaving their legacy of anger etched deep within the three of us. Our dreams of escape were solitary ventures; bound together in an understanding that none of us dared to voice.

The door of the balcony that opens out to the sea is crumbling. The sea is my solace. Leaning against the railing, I can feel the salt on my tongue. The sea looks calmer now.

Arul, Jay, and I would fight to sit there in the evening to watch the sunset. Whenever Jay lost to Arul, he threw a tantrum trying to pull out Arul out of chair. Arul merely gave him a bemused look and continued to watch the sun. When I got the chair, Jay would simply pick me up and drop me to the floor.

Appa never sat in the balcony. He had his own old-fashioned easy chair that looked like a hammock supported by wooden frames. He had bought it when he first came to Bombay, 35 years ago. The nylon sheet has faded into an even brown now. He’d sit there with his eyes closed listening to music (Sade, The Carpenters, Dire Straits, The Beatles). I’d sit besides him watching the sun’s rays slowly slip away from the floor into the water.

Ma’s kitchen looks eerily empty. Sometimes, when we called it that, ma would erupt into righteous outrage. She hated being enslaved by the kitchen. As with everything else, she blamed appa. And us too. But she was a fabulous cook. Ketchup, jams, juices and ice creams – she could make almost anything. Eventually, however, we stopped eating together as a family.

Arul and Jay shared a room. Jay loved to read. His books were strewn everywhere, irking Arul who was very territorial. Once he picked up a stack of books Jay hadn’t cleared from his table and threw them out of the balcony. They nearly killed each other that day.

The knob of Jay’s book cabinet is missing. It takes a little effort to get the door open. There are still a few comic books lying inside and a mangled edition of Somerset Maugham’s The Human Bondage. I had taken it without asking Jay and then accidentally spilled water over it. I never told him. I put it back in his cabinet once he left.

Appa and I had our own rooms. Ma would sleep in the hall. Appa’s room is bare except for the furniture and a few LPs in a shelf by the window. He never accumulated anything except for his music. He played LPs on his record player long after people had forgotten what they were. My room is bare too. I cleaned out everything. It was my way of purging the past.

When I moved out, the bitter recriminations between ma and appa stopped. They lived out their last days bent down with the weariness of a past they had no energy to fight anymore. Arul and Jay never called any of us. My telephone conversations with ma and appa once a month lasted 10 minutes, always awkward with the embarrassment of a forgiveness that none of us dared asked.

I hope they’re doing okay now. The tide has to turn sometime. I breathe in the freshness of the mango tree. The sky is blue and beautiful. I sent a long reply to Jay’s mail this morning.