Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Daughter's Daughter

Ragini's grandmother passed away last May. The Headmistress broke the news in her office. Abandoning her usual starchy look, she spokewith gentleness, warmth and sensibility. Conventional, soothing words. When she stopped, Ragini got up, thanked her and left the room. Her uncle would be coming to pick her, she had been informed.
'She went to her dormitory, took her suitcase out and set it on the bed. Her room-mates came in with expressions of awkward sympathy. She looked at them and felt that she did not know them at all. To get away from this world, her everyday world that now seemed to belong to another life, she retreated into the Library. She took a book from the shelf, sat in the quietest corner and opened it. Her eyes scanned line after line, her hands turned the pages, but it was as if the connections between her senses and her brain had been snapped. "Nanima is dead, Nanima is dead," a voice in herbrain chanted meaninglessly.
On the drive back home, Ravi Chacha told her that Nani??ia had passed away in her sleep. It was quick. A single massive heart attack Nanima was all of seventy eight. Like the Headmistress, Ravi Chacha too said all the right things. 'Seventy-eight/ Ragini thought. She had known Nanima's age, but never thought of her as old. By dusk, they were home. Ravi Chacha drove straight to Nanima's house in the suburbs—the grey stone house with white shutters and a red-tiled roof. As always, at the first glimpse, Ragini's heart did a happy back flip. Everything was as it had always been. A white fence with jacquamantia spilling over in a profusion of blue and green.
Plants, greenery, life everywhere! Now, the front door would fly open and Nanima would emerge, a beautiful smile lighting up her gentle, lined face. The special smile she reserved for Ragini. The front door opened. Revant, her younger brother ran out with Sheroo, Nanima's eight-year old Apso. Her parents followed at a slower pace.
No Nani?na. For the first time, no Nanima. To hide her disappointment, Ragini bent to pat Sheroo. Over the next few days many people came to the house. They looked at Ragini's Nanima, now framed in a big garlanded photograph that hung on the drawing room wall. They looked at her unsmiling photo-studio face. Some shed tears, some talked and some were silent.
That is not my Nanima, Ragini wanted to say. My Nanima is not an old lady in a pale sari, staring out of a frame. Her eyes are alive. Her smile is warm. It curls itself around your heart and gives it a tiny squeeze. To get away from the sad, sober faces, Ragini went out into the backyard. Here everything was as she remembered.
Nanima's tulsi plant thrived. Sheroo slept on a mat under the mango tree. The roots of that mango tree went deep into Nani?na's life. Its ancestor had flourished beside the cottage on the mountainside where Nanima had been born. When she was married and moved to the farm in the plains, the first thing she did was plant a mango sapling. When Nanaji had died and the farm was sold, she moved to this house and again she planted a mango sapling.
The sapling grew into a beautiful, bountiful tree. Its mangoes were the sweetest in the world. It bore fruit every other year. And when it did, Nanima made pickle. That year, before she died, Nanima had made mango pickle. And in the hot, mid-day sun in the courtyard, the big, brown and white jars sealed with cloth caps absorbed the slow, steady heat, and the mango pickle in them ripened to
perfection. Somehow, the sight of those jars reassured Ragini.
A week later, Ragini's parents gave her the news. Nanima it appeared, had left the house to Ragini. 'To my daughter's daughter'.
Grand daughter, yes, but 'daughter's daughter'? Why had Nanima phrased it like that? What had she meant?
All Ragini's friends admired her mother. Ragini's mother was smart and polished. She was a successful professional who ran her own advertising agency. In fact, she looked and sounded like an advertisement herself. "Maximise your potential," she would say to Ragini. "You can be anything you want to be. Just do it."
But Ragini, just average in studies and not terribly good at anything in particular, was not sure about what she wanted to be. Her mother, she knew, had dreams for her. A great career, fame, money, success...All the things that she herself valued. But did Ragini value them too? At times she felt she and her mother would never speak the same language, would never understand one another. She said this to Nanima.
"She is so different from you. And I am so different from her. How is she your daughter?" Now in that house, the house that belonged to her, to the 'daughter's daughter' she asked herself this question again. In reply, there was only silence. Not the assuring silence of Nanima's understanding, but the empty, echoing silence of her absence. Her growing absence. The growing, deepening, widening black hole inside Ragini.
The day that was to be her last at nanima's house came. She was going back to school the following morning. By the next vacation, this house would be sold. Her father and mother had told her that. Her share of the money would finance her studies abroad. America, England, Australia...wherever she wanted to go. Wasn't that wonderful? Ragini had not said a word. What could she say? That the house was the only link she had with Nanima. And if that link was snapped, what would she have? Would they understand? She doubted it very much.
So it was that on the last day, Ragini woke up with a heart so heavy that she wished only for the day to end. When she went into the dining room for breakfast, she smelt alu parathas. Who was making them? Ma? But Ma was not one to spend a precious Sunday in the kitchen. Usually, she slept late. And Ragini and Revant were given their breakfast by the maid.
So what was Ma doing in Nanima's kitchen, at Nanima's stove, spooning ghee over the paratha sizzling on the tava? "Oh, it is you, Ragini," Ma looked up quickly from the tava. Beads of sweat glistened on her face. She pushed back her hair and left a streak of flour on it. "Will you lay the table? I have given Malati the day off."
"Why alu parathas?" Revant asked, looking critically at the pile. "You don't make them, Nanima does...did."
"Nanima made them. Now I do," Ma said evenly. "They may not be as perfect, but eat them all the same."
"But why alu parathas?" Revant persisted. "Because the pickle is ready. You can taste it  today. And achaar and paratha go together, don't they?"
Aam ka achaar. Revant looked interested. So did Papa. For, as she remembered, the first tasting of the Mango pickle had been a family event. It had become a tradition. With Nanima's passing away it too would pass... Ma passed the glass bowl with the pickle. Ragini took a piece and kept it on her plate next to the paratha. For a long moment she looked at it.
The oil it had been steeped in, spread in a golden puddle around it. The aroma rose up to her nostrils. Her eyes blurred. 'Never again,' she thought bleakly. 'No one to make aam ka achaar.' No Nanima. No grey house with white shutters and a red roof.
She tore of a bit from the paratha, put it into her mouth, then nibbled at the achaar. It was perfect. Amazingly it was as wonderful as it had always been. She looked up. She looked straight at Ma, as if seeing her for the first time. Ma was looking at her, her face a question mark.
Her face that suddenly seemed so like Nanima's face. The same expression. The same eyes. Light brown. Nanima's eyes. Ma's eyes. Ragini's eyes.
Suddenly Ragini knew. Yes, Nanima was there with them. In the colour of their eyes. In the colours of their memories. She was there. Connecting them, binding them though they were so different. Even though they would continue to argue and believe that they would never understand one another— she and her mother.
Nanima had passed on, but she had not left them. How could she, when she was in them? In her daughter. And in her daughter's daughter.

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