Pishi’s car had still not pulled out of the driveway. Inside the house, Baba’s door closed on us. Under the yellow porch bulb that was collecting insects, I heaved a sigh of relief. Normalcy had returned after three long hours of careful conversations and tasteless food. In this house, for ten years now, I doubt if anyone has ever complained of the food. Maybe that is what gives our cook the incentive to continue.The utensils protested in quick clanks in the kitchen. The cook must be eager to leave. He has been, ever since Dida died.
I returned to my room to pack off the remaining clothes. I was leaving for New York the next day. Baba had touched my head and muttered a blessing on hearing the news. Pishi had driven down with my favorite bottle of Shiraz Cabernet to celebrate. I had gotten into Stony Brookes University for masters in Computer Networks with a decent scholarship. To cover the rest of the expenses, I had planned for loan. But, as always, Baba decided to take care of the finances.
After my grandmother died, I was shifted to boarding school. Bishop’s Wescott Girls’ School, Ranchi, Jharkhand. So, Baba found easy excuses to bury inside his audit papers, and, when off work, in books, behind closed doors. The only conversation that we had was about my education and later, as I grew up, about the finances to manage it.We did not even discuss my mother. Though once, on Dida’s insistence, he had allowed me to look at her black and white pictures from an album that lived in his study. She had a round face, typical of the Bengalis that, somehow, I had failed to inherit. She stands with gentleness in all these photos, the same innocence against different backgrounds, unaware of the daughter who would kill her.
It was already midnight. My flight would leave in seven hours and the drawers weren’t empty, the clothes were still piled on the crumpled bedsheet, and vacant bags gaped in alarm. But I wanted to leave! Of course, I did. Hence, I started rummaging through my old stuff, trying to select things that were absolutely needed. That is when I came across the painting. Years ago, this painting of a yellow lamppost in the dark sky had reminded me of 19th century poetry. I am not a poetry person. But my mother was. At least that is what Pishi tells me. That my mother was fascinated by romanticism. Somewhere in those drawers were books on Wordsworth, Byron, Dickinson and other poets of that era. I no longer flipped through those pages. For my own good. Because my fascination with guilt had to die. The guilt that I had killed my own mother during childbirth. That the doctor had warned—either the mother or the girl.
Dida chose the girl.
Baba chose the mother.
And he stuck to his choice.
Over the years that I was learning to chase ants in the backyard, Baba was learning to deal with Dida’s discipline. He would show up for lunches and sit through Cartoon Network after dinner. He would occasionally break chapattis into pieces for me with a smile. We would go to meet relatives in our Maruti 800, Dida and me staring out of the back seat windows . Baba sat alone in the front, driving, listening to Mohammad Rafi.He had a collection of old songs, mostly by Rafi, that he repeated on every trip. At times, I sang along.
We went to Parents-teachers meetings together. On festivals, Baba chose new clothes and shoes for me. We celebrated Holi, Diwali, Dusehra like a normal family. But we never celebrated my birthday. At least Baba didn’t. And Dida never told me why. Not even on her death bed, when I was eleven and she was dying of a heart attack.
I was sent to boarding school within a few months of her death. Pishi was told that it was better as there was no one at home to take care of me. Baba promised to visit and he did every alternate weekend. And each time, he allowed me to hold him tightly and cry for a few minutes. We would then drive around the town for hours in the same old Maruthi 800 that had outlived Dida. On the road, Baba would ask me about my studies, health and expenses. He never asked about my friends or teachers, or whether I liked it at the school. I would want to tell, but it had become a habit to keep things to myself. They were of no use to Baba. I missed Dida at such moments, and I kept this information to myself as well. So, after dinner at my favorite Chinese restaurant I would be ceremoniously returned to the warden. And while he told me when he would visit next, I wished that for once, instead of visiting, Baba would ask me to come home for the weekends.
After two years, during summer vacation, Pishi told me about how I had killed Baba’s love. His happiness. His conversations. The doubts surfaced then. It started snaking up my neck and whispering to me that Baba’s choice had never changed. It had always been my mother. I could now clearly feel his withdrawal, his resistance, his struggle to keep up with the chore of parenting. The feeling solidified inside me, occasionally fluttering wildly, like now, as I looked at the painting.
I had started frequenting the school church because on the high set windows surrounding the church were paintings that reminded me of romanticism. In particular, on one of the glasses was a painting of a lamppost in the night sky. I would sit for hours in front of it, staring, absorbing, trying to take it all in. But somehow it was never enough. I guess because I didn’t know what I was searching for in that lamppost. Was it my mother? Or was it guilt? Or was it really hope of getting rid of whatever it was? Days turned into nights, school turned into college, and the whispers reached their crescendo. To deal with them, I started avoiding Baba, telling him of a project or a college trip that is keeping me away from home. Instead of questioning me, or visiting, he transferred money into my bank account. I think he was relieved that the burden was off his shoulder. And with time, this idea relieved me as well.
I tucked the painting and Dida’s photo inside my duffle bag. By two in the morning I had packed four pieces of luggage, arranged the collection of romantic poets on the study table for Baba, and, without looking, discarded the personal diary that I had kept during boarding days. I went out in the backyard where I used to chase ants, unaware of the happiness that Dida was trying to chase at that time. Did she live in guilt as well? Of choosing me? I closed my eyes and tried to remember the good things that were about to come to me. Tomorrow I will be far far away from all of this. In a new life. In a different world. Removed from the burden of lies and guilt. I think I know why I chose masters in The States.
The next morning Baba pulled his Honda City out of the garage. (The 800 had given up finally.) We drove to the airport in silence, letting Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammad Rafi fill the silence once again, and probably for the last time.
Ban k kali, ban k saba,
Somehow, the songs had sounded better in the old Maruti, at the back seat. But, again, this wouldn’t be of any use to Baba. Or the odd coincidence that this song of separation would come up during this ride. I guess the song was tricking my head. Making me nostalgic. Or emotional? Was it possible that Baba thought so too? That his feelings would be of no use to me? When had I made an effort to know? I shifted a little in my seat and, bending forward, changed the song. As always, he didn’t protest.
At the airport, Baba helped me with my luggage. I touched his feet. He smiled, touched my head, and muttered good wishes. The smile was still plastered on his face when I fished out my passport. But it wasn’t very convincing. My eyes fell on the laugh lines and the wrinkles beneath his eyes. The greying hair. The drooped shoulders. The Maruti 800. Dida. For a brief moment, I think I saw sadness in his eyes. A lump formed in my throat. I remembered the eleven-year-old boarding school girl holding her Baba and crying. And for a fleeting moment, I wanted to touch him, and ask for his permission once again, one last time. To hug him and cry.