The whole day Neela was busy with the architect to finalize interior work. Her sojourn this time was full of varieties of tasks. From taking stock of the backyard, where they had coconut plantation, flowering plants, a small lawn, a pond that offered a soothing sight with an array of lotus in pink and white hues, to supervise construction of boundary wall and pruning of lawn. She wanted a makeover of the place as a mark of tribute to the memories of yore.
She and Nitin had spent most of their holidays here. Nitin used to arrange his official tours around this place often and the house was all smiles under his supervision. It was his wish to spend the last days here, and she had honoured his wish. He passed away peacefully here, a year ago after long battle with cancer. The first death anniversary, she had planned to solemnize at his cherished place and wanted everything from décor to ambience to be perfect, for Nitin preferred it this way.
She could manage only one day leave this time as examinations were drawing near. The school authorities had made it a point not to allow teachers to go on leave as revision classes were made compulsory to elicit good results. With barely two days on hand for setting things ready for the ensuing occasion that was less than a fortnight away, she was not satisfied with the kind of progress.
The tedious sixteen hour journey, she had undertaken to reach, was well compensated by the spread of vintage delicacies during lunch. “Homecoming is worth the pain” …she muttered. In Mumbai, she hardly had chance to savour such mouth watering dishes. She never even tried to have, for she was afraid of being bugged by haunting memories. Nitin was a foodie and like a cat easily traced the place where good food was stored. She hated to order food from her favourite canteen too, as she would be reminded of him.
Having travelled all night, she wanted to relax. In fact, had dozed off, after spreading herself on the couch. The heavy meal had smeared magic on her tired self. She opened her bleary eyes when the cat, all seven pounds of squirming flesh, climbed onto her belly. Squinting into the sunlight streaming in from the open window, she discovered that she was now the weary possessor of a pounding headache, and at some point, had managed to lose both a tooth and a spouse. Losing her nap after a heavy meal was something she abhorred. She cursed the cat, for having snapping ties with longer napping session. She wished the sun was a bit weak and could only illuminate curtains and not disturb her sleep till it was dark, but it was not to be.
“Have I not been punished enough? Do I not have right to do things as I intend and wish?” She asked herself. But then, forcing a smile on her parched lips, she began to consolidate and got up.
The creaking sound of the couch, as she was about to alight from it, made her agitated self all the more distressed. She called out for Raman, the caretaker, as evening was descending on the horizon to take the Sun along. “Serve me, hot coffee and some snack…O hello! Are you listening?” "Yes Amma! I am carrying them for you, coffee is brewing, I have added some flavor too, and you would love it. Just wait for five minutes."
Raman served her coffee along with lip smacking onion fries and chutney. She travelled back in time as her taste buds started appreciating the platter. Nitin’s thought kept pouring in... How he slurped and splurged on evening snack with a loud vacuuming sound, when they visited the place. He was all praise for home grown herbs that the back yard supplied and was very liberal in granting tips to Raman who would cook and serve meals as per wish of his master.
Neha, their daughter was settled in USA and son Naman was having his final year course in psychology in London. Her children visited once in a year, as per their leave schedule and convenience. Till Nitin was there, she did not miss them so dearly. She did now. She had no idea whether her children would make it this time - the first death anniversary of their father. "Well, they are at liberty to decide," she said, hiding tears.
Her rented apartment in Mumbai had only one occupant i.e herself, since eleven months, after sudden demise of Nitin. Her job kept her occupied during week days. Weekends were empty and dreary. She hated to be alone and often took small trips to places for sightseeing. When not going out nor visiting friends, she went to the nearby park, fondly watched children taking rides, playing hide and seek. The very sight reminded her of Raja, her grandson. His pranks and funny ways kept coming to her, and she fervently wished to be with him. Her heart and mind did not work in tandem then, but, she was adept at swallowing sobs. Life to her was an edifice of intrigue, and ran in scampering motions. Open ruminations were a big “No”. She needed to pose brave as she had to manage things by herself in a big vast place called Mumbai.
For the two principal meals every day, she relied on dabbawalas, lifeline of any metro for that matter. Being a professional, she was used to the set pattern of leaving home early, commuting by local train, coming back late in the evening. The routine left her with no time to cook. But, when Nitin was there, she could make time somehow. Watching him savour his favourite dishes was purely a delight. Most of the time, he would overeat like a glutton and would fondly chide her "How can you be so perfect, dear chef? You have almost forced me to have plate full of stuff, have some mercy on me, I beg of you". To this, she would giggle and say, "Next time, I shall make a mess of dishes for sure, so that you will lose your appetite."
She was a bundle of energy too, when her children came home. From cooking their choicest dishes to helping them pick, choose and shop, she did it all sans getting tired. She wondered sometimes, when alone, why she became weak and pale on her indulgences! Perhaps, she knew well the answer. Doing things for self, was boring and lacked excitement. Doing things for others, was always a pleasure and gave a lot of satisfaction. Bold splashes of hues of life stirred energy bank for sure, and she was no exception to it.
It was evening by then. Raman had switched on lights. Chanting from nearby temple could be heard. The whole atmosphere was charged with spiritual fervor. Neela, sat still with her eyes closed, asking God, why has he been unfair to her?
After serving her coffee, Raman was back in his favourite place i.e the kitchen. The cat, sensing some nice meal had started purring. Preparation for fish curry with coconut milk and tamarind paste, raw banana fry, jeera rice, bitter gourd stuffed with mashed potato had already begun. She could hear sound of vessels in the kitchen. Raman was like a family member. Having lived there, serving the family for more than three decades, he was more than kith and kin. He knew how to gauge mood meter of a person and wielded the oft quoted formula - "Way to heart is through a person’s stomach". His culinary skills supported the adage.
The old TV set, being the only source of entertainment available; she decided to watch and sat on the sofa. The sofa was sturdy but, the covers were tattered. “Raman, could you get me a bed sheet to cover the tattered sofa please” it smells horrible. Raman at once obliged. Nitin’s obsession with cleanliness had kept things in spic and span condition. Every nook and corner wore a smart look as he personally and periodically supervised. But, now it was difficult. There was a big pause, when she spoke next, her voice was soft and matter of fact. “I am not getting the remote of this TV set, could you please find it for me. I want to watch some musical programme.” There was no response from Raman as her voice was overpowered by hissing sound of cooker.
She got up and walked towards kitchen crossing the courtyard. Aroma of night queen had filled the entire corridor with soothing fragrance. She decided to slow down and inhale it for a longer period, as no perfume would offer such divine experience. She walked into the kitchen repeating “Could you get the remote of the TV set for me?” But, Raman was entirely engrossed in his act, humming tunes of popular Marathi numbers and chatting with the cat. The cat seemed to be ecstatic and added variety to her purring, each time she responded to Raman. Her nimble movement around the pot filled with shallow fried fish, majestically wagging her tail, expressing utter joy, was a sight to behold. "No no Pari, you will not have even a morsel of the platter that is cooked today. Sit there quietly. You have been disobedient since morning." Pari, the cat obeyed her master’s instructions. Neela was amazed to find the two friends intensely engaged in bantering, sharing feelings, their moments of happiness. She could not but mutter "What a bonding!" Her nerves, frayed at the edges, had started losing crease looking at the intimacy.
"Raman, can you hear me, I need the remote to watch TV, and could you please?" "Oh yes madam, I have kept it behind the set. The battery is a bit weak and you may have to hit gently to get it started." "Ok, I shall," said Neela.
She came back to the drawing room to take stock of the remote and the TV set, and regale her distressed soul. As she flipped through the channels in her bid to have something interesting to watch, she halted at evening news. "There is going to be a 24 hour bandh due to a riot near Mumbai. No bus, train would ply during the period. Shops and establishments are to remain closed".
The news brought her a mixed bag of feelings. She was sad for not being able to return in time as per her promise to school authorities. Happy for the fact, she would be able to spend one more day to supervise the work. In two days time, she had forged a peculiar bond with the house, the flora and fauna, culinary skills of Raman, purring of the cat, the out of fashion TV set and the remote that needed constant hammering to deliver goods. No wonder, Nitin came here as often as he could to savour the earthy and the divine. Her nostalgia provided much needed relief like that of a smooth caramel pudding melting in the mouth. She felt, she belonged to the cherished realm of happiness and joy.
Raman was ready to serve as it was dinner time. He had neatly arranged all delicacies on the dining table. Her phone rang as she was to take the first bite. "Must be Geeta, wanting to know how I am to travel back during bandh and hartal. I shall surprise her by saying, just do not want to go back". Lol! It was Neha on the other side, wanting to know the itineraries of the function to be held in memory of her father, so that she could book her tickets and plan things. "Are you sure, you can travel? Raja will miss his classes no? Is Somesh coming?" "Of course Ma, he is quiet by nature that does not mean he has no sentiments. He loves Pa so much, how can he miss this occasion? We all shall be there and make it grand, don’t you worry about it."
"Oh God! Such good news is in store for me, can’t believe this. Raman, feed the cat her favourite dish, she has been sitting here with her eyes glued to the food, and you too, keep enough for yourself. I shall take very light dinner, I am almost done." "Amma, you have not even tried bitter gourd, the stuffing is really good, and you have only taken a spoonful of fish curry. Every time I prepare, you always have three to four servings. What has happened?" "Nothing dear, the evening snack was heavy so cannot have more. Early breakfast tomorrow…mind you, I need not tell about my preferences. You know me so well. Good night."
"Sure mam, anything for you. Good Night."