Once Upon A Time

Once Upon A Time

10 mins

1.     Arunita’s diary– Page 1: People and things

The customary nip in the air around the middle of November always kick-started my festive season each year. While I was a little girl, this used to be the time when the woollens found their way out of the cupboard and soaked up all the Sunday afternoon sunshine on our wide terrace. I particularly enjoyed licking stolen mango pickle off my fingers. To this day, these sweet nothings have the stamp of winter all over them.

When I think of pickles, the face that flashes in front of me is my mother’s and the nostalgic smile spread across the corners of my lips fade away like the evening sun. Over the course of years, I have often felt that certain objects are intertwined with people through the emotions that unite them in the first place.

By the time I started making my own decisions, I had lost the desire to keep in touch with my mother. Whenever I went to see her, everything felt forced upon by a sense of duty. The wry smiles around the tea table, small talk with a million silent seconds in between, it was as if our relation only hung by a sagging genetic thread with all emotions squeezed out of it.

On an ordinary day, life would brush past me like a speeding vehicle struggling to control itself but then there are these days that are worth mentioning, the ones that make us ponder hard over the past, the ones that push us back a step and rekindle everything we have grown up with.

And this is the reason why I am documenting my experience through this recently picked up hobby of mine.

What I am about to tell you has shaken me up so much that I have considered re-validating a few stances in life that I had taken until now.

2.     Christmas Day : Hope and despair

Christmas marked the culmination of my entire festive energy. The excitement leading up to the day passed within me like a current that would not let me rest for a second and in the blink of an eye as the day would draw to a close, the soul sapping nature of the departure left me pretty morose. There was one more thing though which made me wait for Christmas.

I would wait by our balcony each year waiting for my father to come home with the presents he had promised the last time we met. Each day of the year was like a building block of hope that he would come walking past the lemon tree in our garden, the familiar brown suitcase in hand and a bag full of smile that graced his personality. Alas, he never did. To this day, I peep from behind the curtains at the streets hoping to catch a glimpse of him and shivering at the thought of the doorbell spreading out the excitement of his return to the darkest corners of my little apartment.

The mountain of hope crashed like a house of cards only to be built from scratch the next day onward.

Today, however, as I woke up to the dreaded tone of my alarm clock, I was numbed by the sensation that something strange had occurred around me. It took my drowsy eyes a while to realize the rearrangement of my own room. Right next to the alarm clock on my study table was a beautiful miniature model of a Christmas tree. On it was a paper cut design with glitters flashing all over it.

‘Merry Christmas’, it read.

I could not manage to get out of bed. It constantly bugged me that I was in someone else’s room. And then I noticed the cap and everything got a whole new perspective.

The bedroom door was left ajar. On the doorknob was hanging a little ‘red and white’ Christmas cap. I managed to walk right to it, occasionally taking three sixty degree turns, minutely observing every little detail about the room I was in. I smelled the cap burying it on my nose almost.

‘Daddy’s princess’ was embossed on it in white.

My dream had me in my own room from a childhood that was long gone.

3.     The meeting : Bitter and sweet

I tiptoed my way out of the room, suddenly very cautious that I am either intruding or trespassing. There was too much going on in my head to differentiate which one was more appropriate. The corridor only lasted a few steps and ended at a staircase that led to a big hall in the ground floor. The more I looked around I could recognize everything, just like it used to be before. This is where I had spent the first ten years of my life. Strangely, it still smelled of home.

I hesitated midway down the flight of stairs. I could see a man seated at a distance with his back towards me so I could not see his face. He seemed to stare observantly at the fireplace. The small round wooden table on his left had a glass of whisky and a bottle. I could see that the fire had cast a warm yellow glow on the entire space. The ice cubes in the glass were melting away and droplets of water on the outside crawled to find its solace somewhere far away.

For a split second, I thought it would be my father I was going to meet. But that sudden skipping of heartbeat balanced itself eventually when I recognized the man. Colonel Srinivas was my father’s colleague and a family friend, someone I was mostly happy to see as a child. I could feel that he hadn’t aged one bit, the crew cut hair and the broad shoulders that characterized him stood out even today.

Words failed to deliver themselves from my throat. He had probably heard my footsteps and suddenly turned back.

Still retains the senses of a military man, I thought.

“You have grown up so much”, he smiled but wasn’t surprised to see me. The scar on his left cheek remained evident as ever.

“And you haven’t aged one day”, were the only words I could find from my vocabulary closet.

“Why should I? You are the one visiting us.” He said quite casually.

He could sense that I was perplexed.

“Sit down and let me explain.” He motioned to a chair next to his.

4.     One more time – Black and White

“Do you like being back here?” the Colonel asked.

“I am not sure how I should be feeling. But if I can meet my father once more, I think whatever is happening with me could be worth it.” I did not try hiding my feelings.

Sadness passed over the man’s face.

“Your father, unfortunately, did not make it. The extent of the internal injuries was just too much even for a strong man like him.”

I closed my eyes. The Colonel’s arm on my shoulder was a consolation I was not prepared for. Throughout my childhood I realized I had been in constant denial that my father was no more and that I am never going to see him smiling again. The hope, albeit a tiny one, remained that perhaps adults dealt with situations differently or maybe he just left and could not come back for whatever reason. A wall seemed to crash over me and my face was blotched with tears consistently.

“The country has been ravaged by the atrocities of war. Since I have known you this long, this was the best I could do for you.” Colonel Srinivas was polite.

“I owe a lot to your father and probably that led me to break protocol in this case and have you here to properly mourn him. I believe you can only do that when you understand what death truly means.” Colonel Srinivas stopped.

The terror in the sirens of ambulances took over the entire place. Far away, someone gave out thorough instructions over the public announcement system.

“Coming back in time to face your past isn’t an easy thing to do Arunita. I’ll take your leave now.”

So this was not a dream. I was actually back to a different time when I was only seven years old.

I quickly took out my cell phone to check the date.

No service, the device displayed meekly.

I stepped outside to see a few people headed towards the local church. The clock chimed eleven in the morning.

5.     Childhood – Lost and Found

A few soldiers with guns passed by as I quietly went out and glanced at the house. The crux of my memory about this place served me well, I thought. I gasped at the staircase that led to the terrace. It brought back a thousand precious moments along with it.

“Excuse me! Are you looking for someone?” a voice asked from behind.

This was when I could not hold myself back. I will never be able to explain the pain in words.

I saw my mother standing in front of me draped in a white saree with a veil covering her head. Next to her was a seven year old girl.

“I know how hard this has been for your family. But if you could allow me to have a look around the house, it would be of great help. I am a journalist covering the stories of our brave soldiers.” I quickly made up a reason.

Children never stop lying to their parents, I realized.

My mother was kind enough to show me around the house. My father’s medals, a black and white photo of him with the President himself and many other mementos graced the various shelves of the living room.

We live on in spirit, I quietly made a note.

On the way to the living room, my eyes happened to fix themselves on a diary next to my father’s garlanded photograph.

“It belonged to him”, my mother softly remarked.

“Can I keep it?”I immediately regretted the impulse.

 A hesitant look passed over her face.

“He never used it. So I think you can.”

Over the course of the next few days, I met Colonel Srinivas twice and kept coming back to the house as the journalist. I paid close attention to my mother. I saw how she laboured around the house, keeping things in order and looking after her child in tandem. I have quietly (and secretly) cried many times during the course of these visits. I could understand how, at such a young age she needed the support of someone that might have prompted her to re-marry. In another time, this is when we grew apart. Today, I see it from a different perspective and my heart softens for her.

On a certain winter afternoon by the terrace, when I was done playing with the girl (it felt weird initially), I wrote the first words in my father’s diary. Devoid of technology, this had become my hobby now. I could sense my mother watching over me.

“You somewhat look like her, you know”, she remarked once gesturing at her child.

“Mothers always know”. I smiled.

While they both left, I was going to write about perspectives when something else caught my eye.

A couple of glass jars with mango pickles basked in the winter sun. I ensured I was alone and quietly slipped a couple of fingers in. Pickles remained a favorite of mine all along but trust me, none of those bottles tasted like this.

The charm of stealing it perhaps makes it taste better, I smiled to myself.

I had once decided that I would never go back to settle in the small town I grew up in. What I did not feel at that time was, it lived within me like roots that never die.

Colonel Srinivas had told me I need to leave as it upsets the balance of everything. Talking of perspectives, the only way I see this is a balance restored, just in time. Don’t you think?

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