A Story Of Loss
A Story Of Loss12 mins 22K 12 mins 22K
She was sleeping in the bigger of the two bedrooms in the house. One of the old style houses, built several decades back, when houses had gardens, people had time and Bangalore was slow. The house was now empty save for her and Kumar, who was here for a few days - and her memories. Every room had curtains a shade of dark red or green, in order to keep the sunlight out and room cool. The furniture was old, antique. ‘You would get a good price for these now”, Vimala Akka, her neighbour’s mother-inlaw had told her during one of her morning coffee-and-bonda visits. She had been resentful of the comment – it was none of Vimala Akka’s business, surely- but had smiled politely and changed the topic. It was not done in her generation to challenge someone older than you. She became aware that she was thinking as sleep dissolved and she became aware that it was 6 am. It was the first thought that came to her as she woke up. He was gone. And, soon, this bedroom, the house in whose eastern corner it sat, and the tiny garden outside with its gnarled old red hibiscus and the half-grown mango tree they had planted together, all those would be gone as well. It was the strangest feeling ever.
It had been thirty years since they married. Their parents had lived close to each other and while Subhash and Nirmala were never very close to each other before marriage, they knew each other from family visits and the occasional conversation around films and music and the like. He had asked his parents to talk to hers about marriage. All the common sense criteria were met: same caste, horoscopes matched, similar income levels, similar education levels of both the couple and their respective parents. The marriage was duly solemnized. Subhash worked with the State Ministry of Health – putting his graduation in Pharmacy to good use – while Nirmala worked with a computer company as an accountant after completing her B Com. She had been keen to continue working after marriage and Subhash had no objection. Often, they would take a walk around Brigade Road, chatting and stopping for a masala dosa, bantering with the grey-haired vendor who had been running the stall for over 30 years already. Times are good, he would say. More people coming to Bangalore, and more people willing to try different food. When I first came here, very few people ate outside home. But now, I sell about 300 every day.
They had then discovered a common passion for plants –she never knew she had it, but loved planting and nurturing them! Every year, they would find an unusual plant and try to grow it. Most years, they succeeded. One year, they found hibiscus, another, jasmine. Then it was mango, and later, even a simple vegetable creeper like snake gourd. They could never plant anything that needed a great deal of water, because there wasn’t very much of it in the area they lived in. The mango tree was an indulgence that took root, the year Kumar was born. A lucky omen, they said to each other delightedly. He will study and do something different.
Her parents died soon after Kumar was born: they were old and while they did not have any particular health complaint, their health had been steadily declining. They died within 6 months of each other and Nirmala became aware of a sense of loss, for the first time, as the foundations of the structures around her became less predictable. She was reminded of all the times her father had discussed her career prospects with her, encouraging her to go out and do something with her education; her mother, fretting every time she came back later than expected; her teasing frustration at Nirmala’s attempts at cooking (“ayyo! Will this girl never learn! Only your mother-in-law can come and teach you, it seems!”). Even the quarrels and disagreements they had seemed insignificant; what remained was the sense of loss. Subhash was supportive, listening when the occasion demanded. There wasn’t too much time for that either, because Kumar was growing and making more demands on their time.
He was an intelligent boy: while both of them indulged him, she was realistic enough to realise that he wasn’t exactly a genius. His optimism, sense of humour and sociability ensured that he was always well regarded by all and she set up a disciplined schedule for him and ensured he stuck to it. He was especially good at Maths and the science subjects (‘just like me’ remarked a proud Subhash) and enjoyed reading and learning languages, which both of them assumed he had inherited from either set of grandparents, they didn’t know which. Subhash got a promotion at work around the same time, which he promptly attributed to divine blessings; Nirmala changed jobs and joined a better-paying MNC which was closer home. Being more practical, she attributed this to common sense and an understanding of income and expenditure.
Subhash’s parents would often help out with child-minding: when Kumar was a baby both would be fully occupied with him; as he grew older, schooling was also full-day, which meant that he did not require as much childcare as he used to.
Her little world grew more stable, till the day she got a frantic call from Subhash’s office: he had simply fallen over his desk an hour back, they had rushed him to the hospital. Would she come? Not knowing what to expect, she had informed her boss- who had immediately arranged an office car and colleague to accompany her – rang her in-laws along the way, and when she saw the silent faces in the hospital corridors, the eyes averting contact, and the look on the doctor’s face – she knew. The words registered in a kind of blank way- ‘heart attack’, ‘genetic predisposition’, ‘physical exercise and diet’ – but of course their meaning would sink in much later, after the funeral. Life seemed to slow down suddenly and she felt alone – more alone than she had ever before. Her initial reaction was self-pity: ‘why couldn’t I have gone instead of him? Why couldn’t we have gone together?’ till her close friend Gayatri, gave her a firm talking-to. While Nirmala’s initial reaction was of bitterness (what, after all, would Gayatri know of her situation?) it soon gave way to the realities of making life work, if for nothing else then for Kumar’s sake. He had become quiet and withdrawn, trying to make sense of one parent being physically absent and the other being absent in every sense but physical. She took a few days off from the office, rested and re-established her relationship with her in-laws. Kumar was a different matter, she had to spend time with him, take an active interest in his studies and sports and reassured him that he was still important to her, and that if he did badly in his academics that one year, it did not matter. The boy had grown into a man and responded with tears in his eyes. Despite all the turbulence, his academics were not too off the mark that year and he determined to better himself the next year.
And she had her plants. The mango tree had grown taller, it’s dark green leaves offsetting the brown of the trunk. The hibiscus with its profusion of light pink flowers, looking like an absolute riot in bloom. The dark red roses, looking up at her every morning. All these added meaning to her life.
Until then, she had looked at work primarily as a diversion, some pocket money to subsidise her hobbies and passions. Now, she saw it as an important source of satisfaction and growth: while the money was an important supplement to the widow pension she received from the government, her salary represented her worth to her employers and ultimately to herself. She took on a project to implement accounting software and was promoted when it was executed flawlessly. She discovered what could potentially be a fraudulent contract and tipped off her employers, resulting in an audit that prevented a loss and earned her employers’ gratitude. Her salary increased and so did her confidence.
So when it came to a question of what Kumar should do after his graduation, she was in no doubt: study abroad. He applied to universities in the US and UK. His scores had improved tremendously by then, and he did well in the entrance exams as well. While the best universities offered him admission without a scholarship, the second rung offered him a scholarship and they confidently chose a university that offered a scholarship as well. Her employers were delighted and offered her a loan to make good the difference between the scholarship and the balance of the tuition and living expenses. Her in-laws were considerably less pleased at the prospect of their only son’s only son being far away from them and voiced their concern (‘Isn’t St Joseph’s good enough for a post-graduation?’, they asked, in all innocence). She explained patiently to them that Subhash would not have wanted it any other way and that Kumar would come home every year or two at the most.
Her heart broke to see him go, but she knew it was for his good. She spent time every morning talking to the mango tree, every evening to the hibiscus and every night to Kumar on Skype. Over months, she noticed the change in him: more confident, yes, but also more contemptuous and dismissive of India. You ought to see this place, Mom, everything here works. 24 hours water and power. And public transport, too. Soon, Kumar, soon, she responded. All in good time. Let’s see you settled in first. It’s only been less than a year now that you left.
The years passed by. Kumar was now enrolled for a PhD, a longer program in the US. Her father-in-law was the first to go, with his Parkinson’s getting exacerbated with the effect of age. At least he saw Kumar before he died, during the summer vacation. A sixth sense had alerted Nirmala that she should try and get him across this year and she had asked her employers for a loan to finance the tickets, which they promptly granted. Her mother-in-law moved into her house and Nirmala sold the in-laws’ place (too difficult to maintain, plus she was nervous that they were now two old women living in a place and trying to manage two, in a society increasingly lawless and apt to take advantage of the women’s ignorance of land-related matters). She actively sought out contacts in the real estate business (Gayatri’s nephew Raja had by then set up as a broker and he was of great help). At least she didn’t need to worry about being cheated! Of course, any price you sell land at seems low, because two days later you hear of a deal at a bigger price – but that was the reality of the game, as Raja explained, it is best to decide what your asking price is, the one that will satisfy you and do the deal at that price. The good part of it of course was that she was able to pay off all her loans from the office, leave a substantial amount besides, and still take care of her mother-in-law.
Kumar completed his PhD and got a job with a bank. He had decided to live in the US and started processing his immigration. She didn’t quite understand all the terms, but grasped that he was settled, was doing something he liked, and was looking forward to what life had to give him. Characteristically, she recognized that her strength did not lie in his actions, wished him the best and enjoyed the relationship with an adult son as only a mother can.
Her mother-in-law was getting more obstinate- did it happen with age, she wondered – and insisted on doing some basic work herself, like shopping, gardening, managing the domestic help. Nirmala was torn between the desire to help her keep a sense of normalcy and balance in life (which she knew the old lady craved) and worrying about her safety. It was nevertheless a shock when a motorcycle struck her mother-in-law when she was crossing the road. She was in a coma for several weeks and Nirmala was torn between home, office and hospital – everything seemed to blur. It barely registered when her mother-in-law died in the hospital.
It was still as she stepped out: only the pink bougainvillea was in bloom, that hardy tree with its thorns, tiny leaves and ability to survive anywhere. She thought to herself that she had come a long way from the widow who wondered why her husband had passed on without her. Right down the line to her absolutely independent, yet lonely, existence at this point in life.
As the only surviving male member, Kumar came to perform the last rites. Her mother-in-law had made it clear that she wanted the last rites performed by her grandson. Nirmala saw no reason to dishonor that wish.
She overheard some conversations that Kumar had with the doctor, some in person, most over the phone. quiet.. withdrawn.. reclusive ... these words went around ... needs some caring for, stressed out … it appeared they were discussing her. So she was not altogether surprised when Kumar gently broached the topic that she should accompany him back to the US and live with him, perhaps split her time between the US and India. Definitely sell the house and give up her job. Put the money in the bank – in her own name, not a joint account – and rent or buy a small apartment for use during the time she was in India.
In a moment of weakness, she agreed. She was also feeling very lonely and the thought of going it alone for the next 30 years, or however long she would live in the normal course, was frightening.
And so she was looking at the mango tree, the hibiscus and the bougainvillea, the snake gourd creeper and the jackfruit tree, the rose and jasmine bushes and wondering at the course her life had taken. She had been completely dependent on Subhash and when he had gone, she had initially spiraled into despair and helplessness – until Gayatri had jolted her back to her senses and she had discovered her own resources. She had been aware of a sense of loss and in the course of the last few days had become aware of a sense of strength. By moving to the US with Kumar, was she giving up one sense of loss for another?
By the time Kumar had woken up, she had made up her mind.
Over their filter coffee she explained to him why she had changed her mind. He wasn’t convinced and their discussions continued late into the night.