“I’m coming in a minute. Hold the door for me, won’t you, Robi!”
Madhura yelled from somewhere deep inside the house. Robi, her son, was fidgety. He hated being late. This evening was the housewarming he’d been waiting for. He would finally meet Reema’s parents. It wouldn’t do to be late.
Standing at the threshold, biting his nails, the young boy looked dapper nevertheless.
He was eager to drive to his girlfriend’s new home. It was only the second time he would be taking the wheel of his father’s old fiat, one he had learnt to drive in. Gora, the father was no longer among them. Robi had tucked him away in a remote corner of his being. The blue car, a throbbing reminder, stood bleeding for the boy as he took the wheel.
Mihu, the guard, cook and driver was on leave. The mother, saddled with more housework than she would like, dilly-dallied. Robi would have to be kinder today.
She arrived, at last, in a flowing saree, hair pinned up, stunning. A surge of pride overcame the son, yet his eyes sparkled with indignation as he told her that she mustn’t be the reason for a reprimand from his girlfriend.
Reema was the Nepalese ambassador’s daughter who wanted to do the unthinkable, become an actress!
Madhura grinned. Was there a hint of guilt in her cheeky smile?
Her trailing saree pallav swaying dangerously low, she swung her petiteness into the passenger seat and expertly tucked the extra muslin into her waist. Robi reminded her of Gora, her lost love. Her heart lurched as her vision sought him, but Robi revved the engine and the moment passed, the tenderness jerked away.
Madhura gasped as he took off, like a whinnying horseman.
“Damn, so many red lights. The lights are playing truant, as expected!” Robi hissed.
He raced through one red light after another. It was a Sunday. The traffic was light.
Madhura ignored her son’s misdemeanours, her mind on earlier drives with her husband.
Both mother and son were caught up in a single-point focus.
It had been over four years that Gora, a commercial pilot, had gone down with an Air India flight. The crash made headlines, yet like most headlines, that’s all it was.
Robi and Madhura’s lives followed two parallel streams; they would not speak of the one who had glued this family of three.
Madhura kept up a steady stride and an eye on the son’s academics, while baba, the father, was playmate. Every summer they travelled to the hills and returned when the intensity of June had abated.
It was a workable scenario.
As the car pulled into Reema’s wide driveway, their eyes met. A quiet sentiment, ripple-like, arose and fell between them, vibrant Gora on their mind.
Time & Tide
“Nai Dilli, Nai Dilli”
The bus conductor yelled as he insistently thumped the sides of the bus with his metallic ticket box.
Robi jumped out of his skin. Had they arrived already? He struggled his tall physique out of the narrow seat. Baba would be absent at home. The thought hit him in the gut. He stuck his hand into the tight pocket of his jeans, seeking his mobile phone. He should call, as per his mom’s instructions. It was missing.
Outside the bus, in the brilliant sunshine, he took cognizance of his surroundings. Something was amiss. People were sitting in the shade of large canopied trees at regular distances, on backless cement benches, and an open canteen of sorts, was buzzing. Tea in paper cups, munchies on paper plates, nothing new to behold, yet the scenario appeared unusually solemn. The lack of noise perhaps, especially the human voice. Was he watching a screenplay unfolding and had lost his sense of hearing? Up ahead, buses with diverse names and colours, bearing names he’d never heard of, stood waiting. Not one person held a mobile phone. His eyes zoomed into a phone booth in the distance. These still existed. Puzzled, he walked a few steps ahead to find a shady spot. The air was warm on his skin. Kurukshetra’s air was warmer. He swallowed his spit, and unwittingly breathed in the smells, familiar but strong. Anxiety appeared in the pit of his stomach, making him belch.
Was he at the right bus-stop? Had he not heard ‘Nai Dilli’, the city of Home? He sought more signs that would assuage this gnawing fear. There were none to confirm either the place, or the time. Bizarre.
He pinched himself and yelped. The mobile must have dropped out. He would deal with the loss later. His mind raced, heart pounded, as he dialed his mother’s mobile number at the phone booth, ready with a ten-rupee coin. It didn’t exist, said the lady at the other end. He placed the receiver back, struggling to recall the landline number.
He ran a furtive hand over his head, in the hope of unscrambling it.
He managed to extricate the number after all.
“Haloo! Kaun?” Mihu’s familiar voice rang into his ears. Thank Goodness!
“Mihu Bhaiya, this is Robi. Ma hain?”
“Kaun? Robi baba. Ek minate.”
He heard Mihu call out to his mother.
“Oh Robi, we’ve been so worried. Your father has returned but the car broke down. There was no way of reaching you.
Will you grab an auto rickshaw and reach home?”
All he had heard was ‘your father has just returned.’
“Baba has returned from…?”
“He was in Guwahati. The blessed Air India flight was delayed as usual, so he …forget it. Just come home.”
And that was that. Events were spiralling on this fine summer day.
A wave of exhaustion washed over Robi. He slumped down on the pavement, stomach muscles clenching. What had just happened? He would visit the public toilet. The samosas he had consumed at a roadside eatery an hour back were playing havoc with his digestion. He would throw up and feel better, perhaps even come to terms.
Had he moved ahead in time? Or been transported to an era when his dad lived? As far as he knew, he was nineteen, going on twenty, and studying to be an engineer. His head hurt. His tee-shirt embossed with- Student of the Year; Kurukshetra ki Ladai Jeeto (win the battle of Kurukshetra) felt real. The engineering part held.
He clutched his backpack and looked for the sign to lead him to the public toilet, lips quivering.
The mirror would shine a light.
As he entered the men’s room, a long, rectangular mirror came into view. Barely able to face himself, he retched. Rushing into the loo, he threw up a generous amount of undigested matter. He had just viewed a young, unkempt man, a six-footer called Robi, son of Madhura and Gora Brihat, and had seen a fleeting reflection of his father. It was not the boy who was easily annoyed or the one who yearned for his father’s hands to tousle his thick hair. The boy who lamented his passing in his dorm-room night after night, wasn’t the one in the mirror. A grown man had replaced him.
Reema, the girlfriend had also wilfully drifted into a life in New York. She broke his heart: two losses, emptying his heart of promise.
Having returned to her life as a columnist after her pilot husband’s death, Madhura was making waves with a vengeance.
It was all good for ma, and Mihu, and the rest of the world.
That ill-fated Madras flight was not Gora’s to pilot. He had been called in to replace one who had taken ill quite suddenly. Fates had been sealed; lives had been shattered.
Robi held this choice against Gora, hating and loving him with equal intensity.
New Delhi, the city, had always been a haven: nurturing in winter, warm in summer, and joyous in spring. The seasons stood out in this city, scripting pleasurable outings, rising and falling with the ebb and flow of affection among the Brihats.
Here he stood, regurgitated in a new form.
He hated Delhi, where he felt claustrophobic. It had lost its appeal. His father’s permanent exile and Reema’s exit made him choose engineering, the only means to escape the void.
The noisy auto rickshaw puttered to a stop in front of Home’s solid iron gate. It creaked open with a familiar grunt and looked far less rusty. Robi’s fingers held fast onto the knob of the front door as he rang the doorbell. His stomach tensed up, again. Bile rose.
Mihu, a lot younger than he remembered, pushed open the door, welcoming the boy with gusto.
“Come baba.” Robi wanted Mihu to hug him. His parents, seated at the dining table, looked younger. Robi felt the blood draining from every part of him, oozing on to the floor, his heart pumping fast to hold him together.
He put a hand on the closest chair to steady himself, lowering his gaze.
He heard his voice, “Nice to see you Baba, you’re back!” Tears began to form. He was melting. Madhura hugged her son hard. “You’ve grown in three months, haven’t you! What say, Gora?” she was all cheer. Robi’s silent discomposure went unnoticed. Mihu placed a glass of thandai on the table, “Lo beta.” His favourite summer cooler. He guzzled it.
“Slow down, summer’s just begun. There’s plenty!” he heard his ma’s affectionate tone.
Home it was.
“Yep, I’m back,” his father announced, “thank goodness I was almost home when the old fiat died on me. I could have been in deeper trouble,” he laughed as he said that, casually dismissing any other casualty that may’ve occurred.
How about death? Did that not happen? Robi’s heart continued to beat loudly in his ears. This was his father at the table.
He attempted a smile, and then, “I’ll wash up and join this merry party.”
His parents were living and breathing and that should be enough. He wanted to rush to his room, toss himself on the bed and howl.
The house was as cool as he remembered it in summer.
“Yes go. Your favourite food is ready and waiting.” Would that set everything in order?
Ma and baba were busy catching up, it appeared, years of being apart perhaps. What did he know!
Oh, he would wake up from this dream and hate being alive after this visceral experience! Baba would be dust, again.
He stood in the dimly-lit room, tall and heavy, in the mid-day shadowy mellowness that lit up the ceramic tiled floor.
Could he simply go to sleep?
All objects shone and sparkled in the room. It was his room. Was this some karmic mashup? Unwilling to crease the perfectly made bed, he found a large ornate hook where he hung his backpack. It held. On opening the wardrobe, he found neat piles of shirts and tees.
Joy and foreboding quivered inside of him, sensing an imposter.
In the attached bathroom, the mirror sparkled – unrelenting, watchful, mean. The man he was, stood mocking him. The reflection moved, daring him to smile. His parents were more beautiful than he remembered. The fear that he would wake up to a fatherless home raided him. Staying awake would deepen his journey into the unfamiliar. Surreal. He was being silly. He laughed. He would lunch with his mother, and tell her how he had imagined baba at the table with them, or perhaps not.
“You took your time son.” His father beamed at him, playfully teasing. “Men!”
Gora was still around. The dream hadn’t shattered yet. Robi hugged his father, tenderly feeling his hair, which showed off a few greys. He smelled his cologne, felt his love. Gora’s arms clutched Robi back affectionately. This was happening. While it lasted, Robi would try and live it, breathe it, embrace it. Breathe. Eat.
“We are okay, right son?” Gora asked after this impulsive exchange.
Strains of the sarod played on in the background of this perfect family picture. Music was part of this home, but after Gora, ma had stopped playing classical music.
“I am.” Robi started serving himself generously. The chairs were new.
“Why are you so quiet boy?” Ma prodded. “Is everything all right?”
“Just eat, I’m fine.” Robi stuffed his mouth.
“What year is this?” He had to ask.
“1985, haah! Same year as when you left!” Gora was laughing and Madhura joined him.
“You seem to have had a concussion on your way here.”
There may be some truth in what his father had just pronounced.
“Yes, of course it is.”
So, he had landed himself in a random year. No wonder baba and maa looked this way.
When he left for college, it was the year two thousand and two. He should have been an infant!
“Dad, can we go for a drive later?” Let’s test this, shall we.
He had to appear to be content and above all, normal.
“Nope, the car is at the workshop. But we can go cycling at dusk, when it’s cooler.”
He was a little boy again. Silken longing spread through his veins, illuminating boyhood.
Was he being given a second chance to relive childhood? What divine intervention was this?
Should he be looking a gift horse in the mouth? Breathe boy.
Everything was delicious. It was a feast made for baba’s return, not his. Nothing seemed changed but for the year, and his own physical transformation. He ate ravenously, picking up chapati after chapati, refilling his bowl repeatedly with the raita.
He heard his parents plotting a getaway to the hills with him. Every once in a while, he looked at them, his heart lurching. Had they not noticed how he had grown? His memory of young parents was blurred. He admired them now. What a dashing couple they made, and so in love! He slyly observed the sharing and intimacy between his parents. It was beautiful. How he had longed to remember. Now he wouldn’t have to.
Madhura always spoke of Gora as if he were around, throbbing and participating in the family setup. She made it harder for little Robi to forget and forgive. When Robi left home for college, in February 2003, he was in a rush to get out. His first year away, while tough, eased him into a new cycle where nothing reminded him of his father.
Robi had idolized him, placing him on a pedestal. They were playmates when out, and teacher and student, when home. He couldn’t bear to imagine that nights of remembrances were over, that it was all in the past, or the future, as it were. He spluttered at this thought.
“Go nap, Robi. Nothing a good post-lunch siesta can’t cure.” Gora advised his son.
“Yes, I think I need a quick snooze.”
Even as he got up to return to his room, he remembered his laptop. In which world would he have to look for it? Where were all his college assignments stored? Sure enough, there was no laptop in his backpack. No overlap of the present and the past and the future. Time was his ally, and his enemy. He would have to choose to make it work in his favour, or lose the round.
Clutching his pillow to his face, he wept hard. Unsure of whence his tears flowed, the well of confusion or joy? An unforgiving and unbearable tightness in his chest jabbed at him. His pillow turned soggy, as he licked his lips clean of the saline water.
He fell into a deep slumber, lightened momentarily of the heavy blight of ignorance.
When he awoke, it was past six. The summer sun shed a mellow glow and bearable heat. Madhura was in the garden, sitting in the shade with a teapot and homemade cookies. This divine smell permeated the early years of childhood in this Home. His ma had stopped baking after baba passed.
Her lush, brown hair flowed freely in the breeze from the pedestal fan.
“Ah there you are. Come, have a cup of tea with me. These nankhatais are as fresh as can be.”
He had grown up; he could sip chai now, no more juices and milk drinks.
He could get used to it. But dad all over again?
“He’s gone to check if the car can be repaired today. You know your pa, once he sets his mind to something…”
She was so in love. Gleaming in the light of the setting sun, she was a simple girl in love with a boy. Her skin was tauter, voice sweeter, manners gentler. What was different? Was she always so lovely? The little Robi failed to notice, but now, as a young man, his vision grasped her feminine charm. His heart filled with longing for a girl to love him, and he saw what his baba would see.
Was he straddling two different worlds? Had he travelled back, then forth? Was this real, and the other life, false?
“But I thought we were to go cycling around the block?”
They heard the clanking of the gate. Dad and his blue fiat had arrived.
“You know you really surprised us when you chose the engineering course. You were such a literary boy, writing essays with élan. But you were adamant. Enjoying it, are we?”
“It’s okay ma, got to graduate. So, baba has brought the car, I see.”
Madhura beamed, already focused on receiving her man. So much pride.
He had always been his dad’s boy. He had barely ever watched his parents as a team. Whenever Gora landed, he spent all his time with Robi after school. He spent a week at best, and would be off again. Perhaps, when he was away at school, his parents romanced. How would he have known!
“We ready for a drive?” Gora burst upon them, a bit sweaty but handsome to boot.
His eyes locked with his wife’s shared moment, secrets Robi was not privy to. Were they in on this tryst with fate, this double-edged fate twisting his insides? Was baba a mere visitor from the Other World? How did he do this journey through time? His stomach muscles tightened again. He wanted to touch them, ensure that they wouldn’t dissolve. He was certain that his baba wouldn’t leave his mate behind in this time capsule.
Madhura was an ambitious woman, but she quit the newspaper to be home. She wanted to be there for her pilot husband, as also for Robi. After Gora’s passing, she had dived, head first, into her journalistic work and was beginning to make a name for herself as a columnist.
He peered at his mother’s eyes, her muslin kurta patterned with sculpted images of Ajanta-Ellora, figurines that spoke of love in the realm of the physical. She was perfect. They were perfect.
He got up to join his father in the car.
Gora drove towards the central part of Delhi, Shanti Path, where the roads were wide and clean, spring eternal in this diplomatic area. The car was an old fiat and wasn’t equipped with an aircon. The cool summery breeze flowed in and both men stayed quiet till they arrived at the long, empty stretch that showed off the capital city’s most modern face. Despite the heat, the flowers were blooming. Gora began to speak of a future where he and Madhura would travel the world once he retired. Goose-bumps on Robi’s skin. His father espoused a future where he lived on with his mate. He touched his father’s arm.
“You want to drive? Let me get to the end of the road, and you can drive back.”
The father’s confident smile bore into Robi’s heart. Gosh, how he loved his baba!
Please live, and let me live with you too, in this world. Let me not ever awaken, baba!
Tears stung his eyes, his heart was sore from the escalated beating it was taking.
“You will be long gone, probably making tons of money. Then find a wife to settle down with.”
His dad continued, unaffected by Robi’s discomfiture.
Did he want a father who was alive and well, yet one who might evaporate at any moment?
How was he to trust this world he seemed to have accidently stumbled into?
“What’s on your mind? Care to share, son?” At last.
“Baba, had you not been a pilot, what would you have been?”
“Haahaa, perhaps a stay-at-home husband? Your mom could then flourish in her profession. She’s made way too many sacrifices for you and me.”
It was all about Madhura.
“I see. I wondered. Maybe you can still choose?”
Gora was elsewhere, probably dreaming about a glimmering future. Robi took over the steering wheel. The drive home was deathly quiet. Robi glanced at his baba repeatedly. He wasn’t an apparition.
At home, dinner was plain, unlike the kingly lunch. His mind ticked nervously. He was both Alice in Wonderland, and Hachiko, the faithful dog, at the platform, awaiting his baba, who was both there and not. He roamed unfettered in this unsure state, from room to room, with ears tuned into his parents’ exuberant voices.
What if he died, would his father live on? What if he had died and this was Heaven? Myriad thoughts swirled.
In this state of disquiet, Robi dozed off at night, wondering if he’d ever go back to college. After all, his hard work had been swallowed up by Time. No laptop, no mobile. How would he live on?
When he awoke in the morning, less agonized and more accepting of a lifetime left with a youthful baba and ma, Gora had already left.
“What happened Ma? I thought you said baba would leave in a week? My summer break has barely begun.”
Madhura barely looked at Robi as she murmured, “What can I say darling, the pilot of the flight to Madras suddenly took ill, so they called in your dad, who reluctantly agreed. He wasn’t keen, but duty calls.”
Robi’s face turned ashen. Baba had hesitated, he hadn’t rushed off merrily. Oh, Robi, down the wormhole now, dancing behind a shadow forever!
His ma handed him a glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice, just the way she used to back in the day.