I lost my mother before I was old enough to make lasting memories. All I had were fragmented, disjointed images. A soothing hand ruffling my hair, a whisper of a honey dipped voice- like the wings of butterflies in my ear and a kiss so gentle you barely knew it was there. My father and grandmother tried to be a surrogate mother to a child who couldn’t fathom what she had lost. My father didn’t quite succeed simply because he felt his loss was greater than mine. He did try, but ultimately found solace in going back to his army base where fighting with the enemies of the nation he didn’t have to fight his own demons.
I’m not sure when my grandmother not only became my substitute mother but also my childhood, my loneliness, my friend, my confidant and my biggest critic all rolled into one. She always smelt of coconut oil, jasmine, wheat and something else. Something warm. Something so soothing, true and nostalgic that just thinking about it the entire world feels like home.
When reality didn’t make sense any more or when truth hurt she resorted to magic. The kind of magic that made you believe in life and living. She wove her magic through her stories…each transcendental and yet so very real. Her stories embraced me like the folds of her sari and I was lost in this magical mystical world where almost everything was possible. Her stories made me laugh, made me cry and made me yearn for a world where happy endings were a way of life. Once when a particularly powerful demon in her story could not be killed and I started biting my nails in worry she took pity on me. “The lifeline of this demon was in a little bird that was caged in his home” She said. “Kill the bird…kill the demon” she winked. I clapped my hands in glee. Another resolution. Another story that would end happily and despite my life being complex to say the least …it seemed that all was well with the world.
If she was my solace and sanctuary then my father’s letters to me were my window to the world. When he was home he wouldn’t speak much. His rambunctious laughter left with my mother and his booming voice was a thing of the past. He was often silent and sometimes reticent. He would occasionally gather me in his lap and read a book or we would silently watch the television together while my grandmother bustled around us with trays of food. I could talk about my mother to my grandmother, but even at that young age I understood the subject was taboo in front of my father. If that did happen, he became restless and melancholic. It was almost as though he couldn’t wait to get back to the army base where the memories were not as palpable as home.
No matter where he was stationed my father would write to me once a month. His letters were more indicative of his true nature. At least I thought they were. It was almost like he forgot the trials and tribulations of his life when he wrote to me. He wrote about current affairs, about unusual things he had eaten, people he had met and about his friends. My favourite bits were when he wrote snippets from my childhood. The bitter sweet feeling of love and loss often brought tears to my eyes. He always ended his letters by telling me how much he loved me and how he longed to see me. However, once he was home the silence would shroud us again and he would be withdrawn. As a child I really couldn’t quite fathom this paradoxical behaviour and yet I tried to make the best of a bad situation. I was resigned to the fact that the father who wrote to me was quite different from the father who came home for a few months in a year. It could be worse I told myself and more than his regular visits I came to look forward to his letters. They had more life, more sustenance in them. In the letters I saw the real man …the person who came home was only a hollow caricature of what my father used to be.
I read the letters aloud to my grandmother. She would laugh and pass cynical comments; however, I knew they were a façade for her actual feelings. When she thought I wasn’t looking I had often seen her wiping her eyes with the ends of her sari. “the ways of the Lord are strange” she would often philosophize.
Then suddenly things changed. We heard of the infiltration of Pakistani troops and Kashmiri militants into Kargil district of Jammu and Kashmir and along the Line of Control . The intrusion into the area, that divided the Indian territory of Ladakh from the northern areas of the state, had come as a complete surprise to the Indian army and Operation Vijay was immediately launched to flush the enemies from the Kargil sector. My father’s leave was cancelled and it was decided he would come home for just a few days before going to the war front. My grandmother couldn’t sit still. I sensed the stress; “Nani, why can’t life be more like the fairy tales? “I asked. “Life is a fairy tale child” she said. “Then why are you so stressed and why aren’t we happy?” I ventured. “Because it not ‘the end’ yet” she said.
I smiled. This was a good answer…if there ever was one.
When my father came home, he seemed different. He hugged me more often, smiled and ate heartily. He spoke to my grandmother about legal and financial matters that he had overlooked for long. We would have been happy by this sudden change in his demeanor, if we weren’t so apprehensive. We wondered what had gotten to him. Something just didn’t feel right. Before we could speculate further it was time for him to go. “Will you be able to write to me from where you are” I asked petulantly.
“I will find a way to write to you from anywhere” he said. I was mollified by his response.
No letter came that month. I sat at home, listening to the news on TV, my heart brimming with nervous anticipation. “You know he is a soldier first and a son and father only next…he will write as soon as he can” my grandmother tried to reassure me yet I knew there was always the fear looming at the back of her mind over her son’s safety. She was distracted. The food was often overcooked with some or the other ingredient missing. Her stories lost their usual enchantment. One day I even saw her sitting in front of the temple and crying.
As a child I tried my best to console her even though I shared her concerns with equal fervor if not more. “Remember the story of the demon? Nani” I questioned to which she distractedly replied “Umm Yes…”.
“Remember how his life was in the tiny bird and if you killed the bird you killed the demon”. “Yes…” she finally looked at me.
“In what or whom does your life exist Nani?
“Why?” She asked, “Do you want to kill me?”.
“No Nani” I said “I just want the secret to make you happy.”
Her eyes misted. “You are the little bird in which my life resides…if you are happy how can I be unhappy?” she said. I saw her throat constrain in the effort to not cry.
In two months, the war ended and still there was no letter from my father. It was only my childlike belief and enthusiasm that kept us going during those gloomy days. As if this wasn’t enough, I had to stay with my neighbors as my grandmother went to her village for a few days. I remember crying in frustration as I felt bereft without my father’s letters and my grandmother. I waited with blatant anticipation for her return and when she did, it was almost an anticlimax. It seemed she had shrunk. She looked tired and small and a little lost. I wondered if we would ever be happy again.
The Kargil war ended in July and it was only in September that I got a letter from my father. My joy and relief at that point cannot be described in words. “Nani! Nani!...look…” I screamed as I ran to my grandmother. She simply hugged me. I expected a more intense reaction but my zeal to read that letter made me forget everything else.
“I’m still recovering from the wound in my leg” it began. He mentioned how he would not be able to come home for a while and how he could not say where he was writing from. I was a little bewildered by the tone of the letter yet I was extremely happy that he was alive. I wasn’t sure at what point my father’s letters to me had become a validation of the fact that I had a father who loved me.
My grandmother and I continued with our lives. There were stories that bound us together and stories that appropriated us into our own separate worlds. Every month a letter would come from my father and bring the world to our little home. I would keep it under my pillow till another letter replaced the old one. My grandmother would shake her head at such a silly emotional expression.
Even before I got this particular letter from my father I somehow knew in my bones that my father would not be coming home. That he would never come home. The letter read; “At home, I can’t escape the poignant memories of my life with your mother …I am a man haunted by a past and my present is defiled by the horrors of war. I am not fit to come home. However, at no point doubt that I love you and will find a way to be a part of your life….” I couldn’t read the letter any more as tears blinded me. “I hate him …I hate him” I repeatedly said to my grandmother who crushed me in an untidy embrace. Her anguish was probably greater than mine and yet I was crippled by a pain so absolute that it obliterated every- thing else.
Time is a balm that heals us even when we don’t quite want to be healed. Days became months and months became years. His letters kept coming, and at some point, they became not just letters from my father but an extension of my father himself. I could easily talk to my friends about my father because he was tangible despite his not staying with us. It was amazing how he knew about every aspect of my life and how I came to know about the pertinent aspects of his life.
Eventually, I moved away to the city for higher education. The letters kept coming. It was uncanny how he provided for almost every feature of my life without being there physically. Yes, I missed him but I was also deeply appreciative of the fact that my ‘invisible’ father was more ‘visible’ than most other fathers I knew. He was a pillar in my upbringing just like my grandmother was the cornerstone.
Change is a way of life. Just as life was falling into a pattern my hostel warden rushed to my room late one night; “Your grandmother is extremely unwell. She collapsed yesterday and was rescued by her friends. You’ll need to go immediately. Take the last train tonight and you’ll be home by noon tomorrow” she said in a single breath. I was out of the hostel in 10 minutes flat.
I was expecting to see her resting in bed, however, my grandmother was not known to do the predictable. She was lounging by the lawn in her favorite rocking chair. I don’t know why I expected to see my father beside her but instead our neighbor was sitting next to her in a companionable silence. The familiar disappointment from my childhood rose like bile in my throat. My neighbor spotted me first and gently nudged my grandmother. My grandmother saw me and I saw a single tear roll down her wrinkled cheeks. She silently communicated that my neighbor leave. Just before leaving my neighbor whispered in my ear, “She does not have a lot of time…let her go in peace. I’ll get some tea for you.”
I turned towards my grandmother who signaled me to sit down next to her. As I held her papery hands in mine, my throat clogged up. There was a time when I would talk to and with her constantly and yet at that moment it seemed the words had deserted me.
“I was just waiting for you Mala” my grandmother began and then coughed… it seemed she was having difficulty in talking too.
“I’ve seen you and now I can go with some consolation, although not in complete peace”.
“Don’t speak to me in riddles, Nani and nothing is going to happen to you” I whispered; but my heart suddenly constricted in fear.
“There is no prince charming to save me…and the little bird in whom my life resided has long flown away”.
I was crying in earnest now.
She closed her eyes as if to rest and never opened them again.
I sat there dazed as my neighbor came with a cup of tea. She kept the cup gently on the grass, went close to her friend and wept. I couldn’t move.
She came beside me, put her arms around me and consoled. “…your grandmother died a long time ago child…its only her breadth that has left today” …she spoke with obvious difficulty but a certain finality.
A series of rituals followed. Some of my father’s friends also came for the funeral. My father did not come. However, I don’t have a very clear memory of the days that followed my grandmother’s death. In my zombie like state only the words of my neighbor resonated in my mind. What could she mean?
Just before it was time for me to go back to the hostel I went to my neighbor’s house. She didn’t seem surprised to see me. “Come in and sit child. You don’t know how lucky you are…”
“How can you just say that… and at a time like”? I ejaculated.
After a deep sigh she said “Remember the time when you came to stay with me and your grandmother said she was going to the village …that was the time she went to attend your father’s funeral. Your father passed away during the Kargil war and she died on the inside with him”.
I sat there stupefied.
She continued speaking. “Your father loved you Mala. He loved you so much that he had foreseen how much the loss of his letters would mean to you- just in case he died…especially since you had already lost your mother. He implored his comrades to continue writing to you as though he was still alive, in the eventuality of his death. All his friends were not only fond of him but also knew of his love for you. They have been taking turns in writing to you all these years.”
I still couldn’t speak.
“Your father was a good man Mala and his goodness found grace when his comrades decided to keep the promise made to him. So much love has come to you and from so many people! Always remember how much he…how much both of them truly loved you. Life is an exam where the syllabus is unknown and question papers are not set…and yet I feel your father and your grandmother came out with flying colours. You’re truly lucky to have two such people love you so deeply.”
I lost two people I cherished most that day. My grandmother, my childhood companion and confidant and my father who even in death taught me so much about life and loving. In his dying moment I was first and foremost in his mind! Only a parent’s love can go to such lengths to secure the physical and emotional well- being of a child. My grandmother! Who despite having lost a child protected me from devastation by keeping the loss and pain to herself. Such forbearance! I was humbled. My heart filled with gratitude not only towards my immediate family but also towards all those brave men who in fulfilling their duty towards their nation and their own family did not forget a promise made to a friend. They breathed life in a little girl’s mundane existence.
I felt truly blessed. My pain became my balm. Even when life took away everything from me it gifted me with the most profound message.
Love will find a way.