(From my closeted collection of short stories)
‘’You are scheming on a thing that’s a mirage, I am trying to tell you its sabotage’’
I turned eight when I realized that my parents were not just my father and my mother. They were also man and wife. The day I realized it, I was expelled from school for cutting the wire of the telephone, which was elegantly placed on the principal’s desk.
I came home early that day to find my mother and her keeper alone at home. I was told that she was sick. I would always see my mother locked inside her massive room and talking on a telephone placed in the drawing-room. She would be staring at the wall, sometimes talking to herself, and paranoid to meet anyone. Our maid was allowed to go inside the room under the supervision of my father. It was certainly not a usual afternoon.
I came home to find two very important actions being taken by my father. First, my mother was to be sent to a place where she could live peacefully, and second, my father was to get a new mum for me.
My mother was to be sent to an asylum, and my father was going to file for divorce.
Anu (my mother) met Sameer (my father) when both of them were in school. They grew up together. But it was the December of 1976 when they actually realized that they were in love. It was in one of the cold winter nights when the world seeped into a cocoon of deafening silence, Anu called my father from her new telephone. The phone was the pride of the house. It was installed in the drawing for everyone to see. Anu’s brother had got it from America. Anu was thrilled at the idea of calling Sameer in the middle of the night. Also, because her father, Col. Amarjeet sen hated Anu’s choice of men.
A few years later, Anu eloped with my father creating a scandal in her society. Her mother had her first stroke, Amarjeet went into depression and the incident forced her brother to come to India with his American wife. Six months after the secret marriage, I arrived in this world. I was not at all a wanted child. The first few years of their marriage were quite ‘adventurous’ as my father put it. They would leave me at my grandmother’s and would go out to travel around the country. Gradually my parents were known as the most happening couple in town. My mother would collect souvenirs from every place for me to see when I grew up.
She needs to go to these places when she grows up and also know how her parents were when they were young’’ she would say.
I guarantee you that I know about my parents even more than they knew about themselves. I recently went back to our old house and found a couple of videotapes in a box which said,’’ Sameer and our journeys.” I quickly converted them and transferred them to my laptop.
My mother had made small clips, which we can now call video blogs. I clicked on a file tilted, ‘Manali-07/05/1982’.
The video started with a very defocused shot of a short woman strolling next to the river. She is wearing a cotton kurta and her trousers are rolled up. Behind her is the never-ending Himalayas. She has short hair and her eyes were almost shut because of the sun's rays. She is holding a twig. Once in a while, she would hit the stream with the twig as if she was trying to catch a fish. She was staring at the river. This was one of the videos which my father made of her.
Are you getting bored,’’ a voice from behind the camera said.
Anu takes a deep breath, ‘No I am not’
Are you observing the river then’
Do you love me?
Anu breaks into a sudden smile at this question, exposing her dimples.
‘No, you are bored of me’’ — Sameer asks more inquisitively.
I am not bored of you –Anu replies
So, do you love me? Sameer asks again
What are you even doing with that camera? Its mine.
I am recording you so you should say how much you love me.
Anu gets up from the rock and snatches the camera from him and says,
I don’t love you at all
Anu laughs and the camera shuts down.
I found more of these gems. My mother would get up every morning; record herself as to where she was going. I often rewind and watch it. In the video, my father is often seen sleeping next to her and sometimes in some other room. She would even record people on the street while my father shopped for woolen caps.
One day I found a tape that had no title. In the video, Anu is seen arguing with her husband. The camera is placed on a table, mom forgot to switch off the recording. She was trying to convince my father to let her take up acting and give the NSD entrance exam and quit the silly job at the hospital.
‘I never wanted any child’ said Anu vehemently.
‘So are you going to disown your child’ my father replied.
No, Vasudha can live with her grandmother while I will go for my classes, that too if I get qualified’’
What kind of a mother are you’’
I will tell you what kind of a mother I have been. I was an unwed mother. I am also a mother who has no say in her daughter’s upbringing because her father thinks she is not ‘woman’ enough to take care of her’ Anu roared in anger.
At least I have the courage to take a stand’ she continues.
I am not like you, Sameer. I don’t lick my father’s ass for work at this age. You think that makes you a man!
My father bends over and hits my mother on her cheeks. I think my father had no clue that the camera was on.
I thank my mother for recording that incident. She has saved herself from my wrath. I will never blame her for my untimely appearance in this world. I won’t blame my father either.
When I turned five, my father went to another city to look after the extended business of my grandfather. My grandfather never accepted Anu. He said, “these army wallahs don’t know how to raise their own kids. Army girls are always rebellious. Too modern for our family…’’ said our patriarch Dadaji.
Sameer grew up in a joint family. He had to sleep with his elder brothers which also meant sleeping next to a bunch of teenagers who would masturbate at night and kept nude pictures of women beneath their pillows. Sameer was exposed to such marvels when he was ten years old. But he hated his house for being too small. There were fifteen members in it. So when Sameer grew up, he bought himself the biggest house in Vasant Kunj. The house was brought from a family who had migrated to India after partition. They left behind their wooden table, some old paintings, a swing in the house. The house was renamed and was called ‘Mirage’. The name was to have a lasting impact on the house.
Before I go further into the lives of my parents, I need to describe ‘the house’. The character of the house is more powerful than any other in this story. Perched on the corner of C block in Vasant Kunj, it indeed was the biggest house on the street. It had four rooms on either side of a long passage, which led to a verandah. The two rooms at the beginning had no window but an adjoining storeroom where the former owner from Lahore had kept their memoirs from Pakistan. Their Muslim friends in Lahore gifted it to them. My mother later took out the painting and hung it in her room. Every room was identical. It had a massive wall and the fan attached to a long iron rod, which hung from the ceiling. One of the rarities of our house was that it had a big garden filled with guava trees. As the dusk hit the marbles of our house, the sound of the birds filled every corner. The chirpings were so loud that sometimes it seemed that birds were yelling for help. Later when my mother fell ‘sick’, she was to run to the garden one evening to silence the birds. The sparrows would flit their feet in the verandah. What amplified the sound of the bird was the wave of deafening silence, which the house acquired in the afternoon. I guarantee you that our house was the place to hear silence. One could hear everything- time, the clock, the screeching voice of the neighbors, and conversations of the strangers passing by. One could keep a track of sounds-what would come after the other. Anu lived alone in this house when I was gone to school and her husband to his business tours. She had quit the job at the hospital.
My mother had brought the vintage telephone with her. The American manufactured telephone was kept on the wooden table from Lahore. Once in a while, the telephone rang. My mother would run to the phone from its first bell. Later when I came back from school, I would run along so did the maid who would return in the evening to do the daily chores. It was almost like a race where the telephone was finishing line and there was nothing ahead of it. The telephone was placed in the drawing-room.
But no one ran to the telephone when my father would come back to the house, at least, not my mother.
On my seventh birthday, my father decided to bring his business partner, Mrs. Mistry, a Parsi woman from south Mumbai. Mrs. Mistry was visiting us from Bombay and was a very stylish woman. She looked like a model from the cover page of the magazines that mum would often read in the evening when she was alone at home. Mrs. Mistry had curly hair and a very slender figure. She smelt like cake. The maid of our house and her two sisters who had come to assist her for my birthday party stared at Mrs. Mistry from the kitchen door. On my birthday, the house would be filled with my parents’ friends. I had no friends till now. As the maids laid out the dinner for the guests, I went into the kitchen, poured coca-cola, and added a bit of my spit. The salvia got mixed with the froth in just 2 secs. I then took it to the drawing-room and gave it to Mrs. Mistry. I watched her drink it as I stood next to my father. I felt like a hero and savior that day. I hugged my mother as if I had saved her from Mrs. Mistry.
My father came home at 1 am that night after dropping Mrs. Mistry at her hotel. I couldn’t sleep even for a minute because of the yelling sound that echoed from my parents’ room.
The next morning I saw my father leave for another business trip. The first rain of the monsoon arrived just as he left. It was the July of 1989. 25th, to be precise. The house no longer acquired the silence. It was the sound of rain and thunder that gathered in. Each sound came one by one, like a synchronized march. The sound of the storm, followed by thunder and then rain. And when everything was over, the sound of the leaking rainwater and then an outburst of people on street. The smell of rotten guavas on the marbled stairs leading to the garden would make the maids go mad. They would never clean it. It was one such afternoon when the telephone ran again.
My mother ran to the phone.
Hello. Hello. Who is it? Say something who is it.
She heard absolutely no voice from the other side.
The telephone got disconnected.
After half an hour, it rang again.
My mother yelled but heard no voice again.
I had stopped running to the phone now because I knew no voice could be heard from the other end. No voice. No hope.
The evenings had become even emptier for my mother because I had befriended, Sanjay. He lived next to our house. I often played with him until one day he asked me to kiss him. I ran back to my house the day he did. I was seven and he was twelve.
I entered my house to see my mother busy on the telephone. She wasn’t just busy but was laughing and giggling. The telephone never rang but it was my mother who would make the call. She would talk for hours. This became an everyday thing. She would be busy on the telephone most of the time. From her conversations, I gathered that she would talk to someone in Manali, Himachal Pradesh. A man. This man was visiting Manali and was a banker from Lucknow. He was quite a well-read man at least more than my father.
Now my mother didn’t seem to bother when father came back from the business trips, mostly from Mumbai. All his shirts smelt of cake. So my mother and father slept in different rooms. It broke my heart to see my mother go away from my father even after I saved her from Mrs. Mistry. I knew that the telephone had some role to play in this.
As the distance between Anu and Sameer increased, so did the conversations in the room. Anu would talk to herself in her room. She would talk on the telephone and when she was done talking on the telephone, she would talk in the room after latching it from inside.
She had started sending me to school one hour early. All the kids would reach at 9 am but I would reach at 8 am. The whole school campus had the same silence which my house acquired. My classroom was right next to the principal’s office. So one day the telephone in his room rang. I felt the school building was crumbling down as the phone rang. It was 8:12 am and there was no one in the school except for the guard at the gate across the cricket, basketball, and football ground. You know how in movies, they slow down the whole sequence to add more gravity to the situation, the telephone slowed that moment for me. I ran just like the way I ran for it at home. But it never rang in the house anymore. My mother made the calls. I hated it. I wanted to destroy it. I entered the principal’s room and cut the wire, which connected it from the mainline. I breathed heavily as if I was a hero again and I had saved my mother. But the principal saw me and I was expelled for a week.
When I reached home that day my father had come home to take me away. My mother was to be sent to the hospital. Anu was caught talking on the phone; Sameer had snatched the receiver from her hand and discovered that it was dead. Anu would talk to the dead telephone always.
My father told me about the dead telephone when I turned 19. We shifted to Mumbai when my mother was sent to the asylum on my eighth birthday.
She committed suicide two years after that. I was not taken to the funeral. I studied in Bombay and grew up with Zubin, the first and the only child of Mrs. Mistry and my father.
I did go to Manali over and over again. I also discovered the spot where mum was playing with the twig by the side of the river while my father recorded her. I also visited the house in Vasant Kunj. It looked different. It was very modern with glass verandah. Trees were gone and were replaced by artificial grass. The rainwater no longer leaked but scrolled through the glass windows and with the well-built drainage system. There was no screeching sound of the birds. Besides the brand new Audi TT, a signboard read, ‘Khannas’.
The mirage was gone. I think it died the day my mother left the house. The death of mirage was like the death of an old crumbling empire-where the courts were once filled with parties and songs and dance but as you penetrate the courts, you will see a king heaving with doom that he cannot define. To him, the whole empire would seem like a mirage.
Yesterday was my 28th birthday. I live alone in an apartment in Vasant Kunj. I had to return to this city and the street. In my apartment, I have no picture of Anu and Sameer but only the old vintage telephone that rests on the wooden table from Lahore and is placed next to my bed. Once in a while I pick it up and leave the receiver on the table. No voice. No hope.