As she reached the lane of her mother’s house in Basavangudi, Vasundhara was amazed at how much Bangalore had changed. She knew it was a cliché she had heard from her friends who returned to States after a vacation in India, but she could not help being disturbed by the noise, the crowd and the traffic and that too, this late in the evening. The putrid smell inside the taxi and the long ride from airport, only made it worse. She was nauseous to the point where she had to stop to get out of the taxi to puke once near Hebbal flyover.
She was both relieved and tensed at the same time when she reached her mother’s house. It was almost 5 years since she had seen her mother. Her mother could never get the hang of skype. And even if she could, speaking face to face with her mother, would not have been something that Vasundhara longed for. Secretly she was glad that her mother could not catch up with technology. Her customary weekly calls to her mother, typically ended with either her mother breaking down about the neglect she had to put up with, inspite of having a husband and 2 children, or they would hang up on each other, not able to tolerate each other’s lack of empathy towards each other’s situation.
It was 10 years since Vasundhara had visited home. The last she had visited was when she had come to visit India after her twins were born. Five years back, both her parents had visited her in Chicago, for a month. That one-month visit had turned out to be a nightmare that she could never come to terms with. Her parents, fought over every tiny aspect of daily tasks and had expected her to side with one of them. Her husband Vijay, not a man to tolerate, noise and bickering, would plan long business travels during that time. When they were leaving States, she had advised them to live separately, for which, her father had replied that her mother should move out, and mother had cried over the fact that she had put in all her hard earned money on that house, and she was being asked to move out. All in all, like many other painfully forbearing couples, they had lived together for 49 years till her father had died last week. She was both sad and happy about her father’s demise. Her ailing father was one thing that her mother would stop complaining about now, but she was sure her mother would find some other sad aspect in her life to whine about.
She paid the taxi driver a 100 rs extra for carrying her luggage till the compound. She looked around at the street that seemed narrower than she remembered. There was a woman in the next door, tying a milk bag to the gate who looked at Vasundhara with a lot of curiosity. Vasundhara was too fatigued to reciprocate. Before she could knock the door, the door was opened by Lakshmamma, her mother’s maid servant and companion. Lakshmamma greeted Vasundhara with a huge smile, almost like she was relieved by her arrival. Vasundhara, smiled and asked “is amma sleeping?”
“No akka, she is in the bathroom, she is waiting for you for dinner” replied Lakshmamma
Both of them lugged the luggage inside the house. Vasundhara was amazed at how the house had not changed one bit since the last many decades. She was escorted to the room that she had shared with her brother all her childhood till her marriage. The 2 beds that were kept, one on each side of the wall, were joined together and her brother’s key board had been moved to a corner, from where there was no way it could be played. Lakshmamma, showed her the shelf in the cupboard that had been emptied to accommodate her stay for a fortnight.
It was still 9.15 in the evening and Vasundhara, freshened up, took a shower and came out of her room. The house was quiet, and darker than she remembered. She wandered around the living room, stopping at the showcase, where everything in it was exactly as she remembered. Her mother came to the living room from the kitchen, and Vasundhara gave her the obligatory hug, and lakshmamma setup dinner on the living room table. Vasundhara said “the house is exactly the same, nothing has changed” Her mother was quick to reply, “I only have to take care, I have kept it as good as I can, and with no one to care for, some of these have worn out, but who cares……”
Vasundhara decided to focus all her energy on the vada she picked up from the table and told Lakshmamma “very nice” and got herself immersed in her dinner.
When Vasundhara woke up from her jet lagged sleep, it was slightly after 10 in the morning, she checked her messages and was glad to find Sneha’s message saying, she will drop by in the evening to pick her to the college reunion that was planned in the evening. She quickly freshened up, went into the kitchen, found some breakfast. Just when she was about to finish, her mother and Lakshmamma opened the door. They had lot of shopping bags in their hands and Vasundhara helped them out with that. They had gone to shop pooja items for their father’s last rites ceremony.
She imperceptibly found from her mother the exact date of the ceremony and the arrangements for the same. All seemed to be in control, the purohit and the caterers were booked. About 100 were expected, but can never say with death ceremonies, her mother was declaring.
“Sneha is dropping by in the evening, we are going to that reunion party” Vasundhara said. Her mother just nodded vaguely, which Vasundhara was sure was a nod of irritancy. She quickly added,” it is a dinner party, and I might be late, so will take the home keys with me”, for which her mother just shrugged without a word. Vasundhara decided to let it be and waited for Sneha
Sneha was a high school teacher in a famous CBSE school. She was both school friend and a neighbor to Vasundhara since their first grade. After marriage Sneha had moved to Malleshwaram, and her parents had sold their property and had moved to an apartment. Both Sneha and Vasundhara kept in touch with each other since the last 5 years after Sneha traced Vasundhara. They chatted in whatsApp regularly and they knew fairly well about what was happening in each one’s life
“Heard Prithvi, is in Bangalore” Sneha mentioned as they were sitting in a coffee shop in the JW marriot from where they had planned to hop on to the reunion party in JW plaza 2 floors above.
Vasundhara did not respond. “I think, he knows you are coming, someone must have told him”. Vasundhara again did not respond “you think you want to meet him?”
Vasundhara was thinking, “I would love to see him, talk to him, hold his hands, walk round the Jaymahal park like the old times” but she just said “why? What for?”
“For satisfying our curiosity of course” cried Sneha smiling “to find out about his wife, his life after you left to States”
“The woman he married two years after he told me he was too focused on his air force training to marry me?” thought Vasundhara. She just uttered “what is there to know? Nothing novel will come out of it”
“C’mon, atleast he can see you and eat his heart out. I don’t know how he looks right now, but trust me you look spectacular for a 40-year-old. In fact, you look more beautiful than you were 25 years before. Before you were pretty in an obvious sense of way, but now you look picturesque with a quaint charm about you” declared Sneha, who herself was a tall and striking personality
Vasundhara just laughed, “What good it is for anyone? We could be Anjelina Jolies, but we still need to go back to our lives of you teaching in school and me running a path lab”
“Whatever, I am happy that we look this way, and if we want to, we can fool around with our charm, it is not what I want to do, but it is nice to know, that I have that choice” said sneha. They both laughed…
She probed again “So you want to meet Prithvi? You should you know. It has been 20 years, it is nice to meet an old acquaintance, and you were so close to him right. And we are not kids, we know our boundaries ….”
“She will never understand. For her it is a thrill” Vasundhara was thinking
“You remember, how we used to look forward to his coming to the college. He would always get a chocolate bar and you would give the whole of it to me. Did he ever realize you hated chocolates?”. sneha enquired laughing.” Man you must have watched hundreds of movies with him”
Vasundhara remembered how she would bunk college, and go to his bachelor pad in RT Nagar. He would cook for her and his home was like her own, where she even had a cupboard for herself. To her friends, she would fib that she was going to the movies or someplace out and no one knew about their hub at his home. “Five years….. I have been with him, heart and soul, she thought. And we managed to keep it a secre”t, she thought relieved
“He was not just an acquaintance Sneha” replied Vasundhara
“I know, but he is as good as one now” replied Sneha “when was the last you met him? guess it was at the opening ceremony of Rakesh’s studio. That is where you distributed your invitation cards to everyone….” Did he come to your wedding?”
“No he did not” replied Vasundhara
She remembered the last time she had met Prithvi. It was in Jaymahal park, where she had begged him to marry her. She promised him that she won’t be a burden on him and would live alone till he completed his air force pilot training in Delhi. All she wanted was to be legally wedded to him. That was the only way she knew she could get a semblance of acceptance from her parents. There was no way her parents would tolerate a live in relationship, which was what Prithvi had vehemently wanted. He had called her selfish for not understanding his point of view while she had begged him to understand hers
“I never understood what went wrong with you two. Suddenly you just announced your wedding to Vijay” Sneha was saying
Vasundhara thought “My heart broke, that was what happened. Marriage was a very small price he could have paid for what we had” but said “It was a long time ago Sneha, lot of water has flown under the bridge, and we are in our own islands of life now”
“You know he might come in here today” said Sneha “he is invited though he was 4 years our senior. Or I guess he is invited unofficially …. That was what Rohit was saying. Oh well for the old times sake hope he drops by”
The hope to accidently bump into him, just to see how he looks, how he would look at her, was the hope that Vasundhara had been living with all through her life, after marriage. Now she seemed unsure. But before she could respond, Rohit came by. “Ah you girls look great! and same as before”. Rohit gave them both a hug and confirmed “Gopi is on his way. He should be here in 15 mins” said Rohit. The four of them had decided to have a private catch up before the others arrived.
He looked at vasundhara and declared “what is it? 20 years since we met? Man the time has flown. So you a big shot in US I heard?
Vasundhara laughed “I work in a lab and you own many labs, so who is the big shot” they both laughed. Rohit added “you are pretty modest for a person working in NIH”
“You really disappeared from the scene Vasu, at one point we were hanging out everyday and suddenly we don’t even know where you are and what you are doing” cried Rohit. “typical, what happens to people who go off to US. But your disappearance was very weird, the other US big shots atleast ensure they keep in touch to show off their fairy tale life” he exclaimed laughing. “You disappeared like you wanted to avoid us and we were hurt and we may have called you names during those days”. they all laughed
“I take the credit to have dug her out and how?!! shouted sneha. It took me years to get her contact info. “funnily it was through Vijay’s cousin I got her contact no”
Gopi joined in all exchanged pleasantries “you look great Vasu…. And Sneha… you look hot as ever”. “And you look drunk as ever” added Sneha jokingly
They were sipping coffee. When Rohit asked “are you in touch with Prithvi?”
Vasu thought oh God, hope these people don’t think I am fixated with Prithvi and just replied “No”
“He might come by today he is in Bangalore on Business” said Rohit
“Do I want to see him?” Vasu was asking herself “and to what end?” She was suddenly immersed in sadness that went deeper than ever before
Others were reminiscing about the different people and events. They were laughing remembering how Prithvi used to bribe the judges to ensure that their theater group won all the prizes, simply because Vasu was part of it. Vasu wanted to run. Suddenly she wanted none of this. She wanted to be back in her home in States, where there were no memories that could haunt her. She got up and mumbled “rest room” and slipped away from her friends, from whom she wanted some space.
She locked herself in the restroom, with tears streaming down her cheeks, and saw her face in the mirror, and suddenly got angry at herself. “why does this affect me so much. I was dumped by a man 20 years ago, and by a man who was …what …selfish, egotistic, heard hearted, and in all likely hood, never thought very less of her. She was now married to a decent man, in a good job, with lovely twins… why should he haunt her so much now. He can go to hell!” she declared to herself angrily. “Oh God for the heart ache he has incited on me, make him remember me in his death bed atleast and with regret that he does not have me by his side” she thought sadly. She fixed her face and took a resolve to leave the thoughts of Prithvi behind her and went back to her table
Sneha was arguing “I never had a crush on Dhruv…. You guys are imagining”
“We are not”, Rohit quipped. I remember how you used to find excuse to sit next to him or borrow notes… you used to try a lot to get his attention”
“I don’t remember all that… all I remember is he was a studious boy, whose notes I used to trust and prefer… anyway what is he doing now?”
“He is also in US, is quite private, not much in Social media, like our Vasu”
They turned to Vasu “You did not come to your brother’s wedding right?”.
“Ya I was almost 9 months pregnant with my twins. I saw the pictures though I did see Sneha and you in some of the pictures.” reflected Vasu
“And still you did not feel like getting in touch with us?” pointed Rohit
Sneha intervened “ya right, she had just had twins, and in the midst of juggling the twins and her work, she would think, Yes! Now I want to get in touch of Rohit”
“C’mon, all I am saying is we were not just friends, we were close friends, she did not have the slightest curiosity to find if we were still alive?” quipped Rohit
Vasu just gave up and yelled “Look, I am sorry Rohit I have been a very self-centered bitch, I never cared, but I want to make amends now…. I promise I will keep in touch. I will ensure that I will everyday check if you are dead or alive. OK…”
Everyone laughed and the others from their reunion party started trickling by and everyone got busy meeting one another.
It was 11.30 when most of the reunion party had left. It was back to the original group of Vasu, Sneha, Rohit and Gopi, with one addition of Ganesh who stayed back lingering around the bar.
Gopi was saying “it was fun. Thanks Ganesh for organizing this”
It was nice to meet people after so many years … People don’t change much do they? Did you notice Rajiv… he is still the flirt he was and half the things he was saying was untrue just like the old times”
“And look at our Ganesh” he asserted to Ganesh “neither have you changed… you have always been an organizer…. Thanks to you, we had this memorable evening”.
“Ganesh, you are an event manager by profession right?” enquired sneha. “wow! You have chosen a perfect profession for yourself. You have always been the organizer of our batch. Remember the final year’s teachers’ day program? The Chemistry prof had tears in her eyes at the end of the party we gave them. You had organized for dhol and drums (Indian drums), and lot of lecturers were saying that after their wedding this was the only time they were garlanded…. You always had a skill to touch people’s heart in the events you organized Ganesh. You are so good at this and lucky for you, you have made a profession out of what you are so good at”.
Ganesh proclaimed “actually I should thank Prithvi for giving me a break in this field” Everyone looked surprised. “you know the opening ceremony of his first training center, I managed that event. He gave me free hand, to do what I pleased. I had organized a theater group to demonstrate why his personality development school is very important and beneficial to youth. I had organized for eminent members from every industry to be there. Sudha Murty from Infosys, Girish karnad, from theater community, Dr Hegde… it was a huge success. And since then I have been managing the opening ceremony of all his 21 training centers. He was supposed to come here today… wonder what happened. Well … he is a big shot… I am not surprised…”
“He was always a big shot”, thought Vasu. Remembering the days when he was doing his PG, and juggling some successful content management business.“He always had a flair to be a big shot” she thought almost in pride
“Oh wow! He has so many centers? Never knew, but I do know that his centers do a great job of personality building courses. My office has his courses as the standard program for the new entrants” said Gopi
Vasu was remembering how in the old days; he would be great motivator for everyone around. Even for her, when she was not sure if she could get through the IISc entrance exams for post-graduation, how he had pushed her to take the exam, where she did get selected. If not for the marriage she would have taken the IISc path.
Ganesh was saying “the man has a great charisma, I heard he got a standing ovation for his talk in IIMb on the importance of non-technical trainings in the Industry and Society”
“What is his training centers called?” Asked Vasu
“you don’t know!!” exclaimed Rohit. “Man you are something, you really turned all of us off, even Prithvi”
Vasu looked at him vexed “don’t go on and on again… I have told you already, I have been a bitch. Move on….!!”
Ganesh responded “it is called ‘TFB’, it stands for thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.
“Oh!” exclaimed Sneha impressed
“His ideology is that our thoughts, feelings and behaviours distinguishes individuals from one another and shapes us up in what we become in life” Ganesh was saying
“Just like him. Fancy ideas. He never bothered to understand how his behaviour and feelings impacted me” thought Vasu
Sneha exclaimed “Wait…. Is it the same centre with a name board TFB with a logo of a monkey carrying another monkey on the back?
“ya … that’s the one” replied Ganesh
“It does not make sense to the theme of the centre right?” asked Sneha…. “How is this monkey pic related to personality development?”
“Actually I had asked him the exact question on our first meeting, in fact had suggested various other logos and had fought with him that his logo will be deterrent to the theme he was trying to promote…. A monkey picture to promote a personality development center…. But he was very adamant to use it exactly the same way. A big monkey, carrying a smaller monkey on it’s back and the smaller monkey wearing a blue scarf… I never got it. But then he is doing so well, inspite of it….” He laughed “his center is one of the top three training centers in India and he also has centers in Singapore and Dubai. He has 19 centers in India and 1 in Singapore and 1 in Dubai”
“I see it every day and never gave it much thought. Never imagined it was all Prithvi’s” said sneha
“Monkey on a Monkey’s back….” Vasundhara was thinking, her face white. She remembered the first time she had been to his home, he had carried her on his back and had declared “This is the way a bride should be carried to her home, and this is how I will carry you home after our wedding”.
“This is how monkeys do it” she had squealed in mock holding his shoulders as he held her on his back.
“So we are the happy monkeys” he had replied and took her on a tour inside his home carrying her on his back. She was wearing the blue scarf that he had gifted her that day and as far as she could remember that was the happiest day in her life other than the day she had held her twins in her hands for the first time.
That had been their routine, since then, whenever they were celebrating, like him passing the pilot entrance exams or her finals’ results or any happy moments were celebrated with him carrying her on his back and dancing around the house. It was a silly expression that had become a habit to him, much to her chagrin sometimes ….
Ganesh was saying “He has always been an enigma. Never explains himself, very easy going in somethings, very stubborn in others. Well he has had his share of let downs in life, so he is entitled to being eccentric”
Everyone asked almost together “what let downs?”
“Oh he has a permanent limp on his right leg, that resulted from some hematoma or some such thing, that was neglected and treated late. He suffers from permanent pain in his leg due to a damage to his leg muscles. He is mostly on pain killers and walks with a stick. That was the reason he could not become an air force pilot” said Ganesh.
“Wow so much we don’t know and so much we assume. I always thought he was a big shot business man, never imagined all this” muttered Gopi. “wish we could have met him today”
Vasu and Sneha were in Sneha’s car at the back. Sneha was telling her driver not to come for work next day, since he had worked so late that day. Vasu was quiet hoping not to be interrupted. Sneha guessed as much and busied herself with all the whatsapp messages, looking through the pics of that day’s party. Finally Sneha could not hold back “Do you want to meet him? I can easily find his number, you are going to be here for another 15 days and you can plan it out”
“No…. better this way, nothing to be gained. He has his life, I have mine, there is no need to disturb it” said Vasu. They passed the rest of the time in silence till Vasu was dropped at her house.
Vasu was on her way to the airport 15 days later, the taxi ride, did not seem as bad as it was while she was coming from airport 15 days back. She inhaled deeply as the taxi took a turn near the Baptist hospital. This was the hospital where her father had breathed his last. For the first time she remembered the good times with her mom and dad as a child. The days when they would go the Anjanaya temple on Saturday evenings. It was a family routine, for many years, they would visit the temple, and then go to Sukh sagar, have tiffin cum dinner. Thrifty though her father was, this was a routine he never missed. She remembered her mother those days, planning light lunches on Saturdays, just so that they can eat their heart’s content in the evenings. Wonder what happened to them in the later years she wondered.
Vasu had had a dialog with her mom finally. As she was getting ready to leave to the airport, her mother had started what looked like her next life time grievance “from tomorrow, I need to lead a lonely life, atleast your father was there till now” she had started sobbing.
Vasu could no longer keep mum she shouted “amma, the last 10 or more years, you have led a miserable life with appa. You both could not stand each other. Why?… last Diwali when I had called you, you even said you will get peace only after he dies. He is dead now, you have your peace. Why this tragic tears. Why cant you be ever happy. Look if you cannot be here, you are always welcome in my home. If you need anything here, anything at all, I can arrange that. Beyond that it is upto you to decide to be happy or miserable. I have never seen you happy with any of us. You had problems with appa, you cant stand your daughter-in-law even for your son’s sake and me …. you wanted me out of the house the minute you could arrange it. Believe me, nobody on this earth can make you happy, since you have decided to be unhappy. We have never expected anything from you amma…. I have never burdened you with my problems ever. Me and anna (brother) ….we have never let you feel any financial burden. What do you want from us? You want to be sad, because you feel you are not entitled to be happy. Please come out of that mind set. Be happy. That is the only thing you can truly contribute to your children’s happiness”
They heard the taxi beeping. Vasu hugged her mother, and added “love you ma, will arrange for your tickets if you want to come to my home after your trip to Kashi” and left. Deep down, she hoped she never had to come back here, because she knew, if she had to come back, it would definitely not be for happy occasions.
As they approached the Devanahalli check post, she checked her purse to ensure her tickets and passport were handy. She felt the compact hand mirror in her purse and felt a deep melancholy. The mirror was a gift Prithvi had given her on her 20th birthday. She had found it from the box she had dumped in her mom’s attic 20 years ago. The mirror was a like a round compact powder box, only smaller with a flower pattern all over it. It had her name inscribed on top and when flipped open, the cap had the mirror inside it and on the base was written “You are looking at the face of my life”
She wondered if she would ever see him again. But then thought “it is meant to be this way. Else the world would have conspired for us to meet some way. And if it is meant to be, we will meet someday. Maybe that is the day when we would have paid our price to indulge in our love. And if not, why is it needed also. We have each other’s love, we have had the providence of experiencing this whole feeling we have for each other. How many get to experience such a feeling?
So thinking she made the rest of her journey back home