I am in my room, plucking photographs from an album and putting them in an envelope. Randomly picked out photographs that remind me of the good times – Appa, amma and I. Appa and I.
Neither Appa, nor I are the kind to smile into a camera, but Amma had an obsession with recording events and non-events. Most of the photographs of the three of us would have Amma grinning broadly, and Appa and I trying hard to not squint or shut our eyes when the flash all but blinded us.
Sifting through memories, I smile, until the tears start rolling down my cheeks. The tears take me unawares. This is an unexpected reaction for me. My normal gear is stuck at calm… no, strike that out. My normal gear is stuck at controlled. The only emotion that comes easily to me is anger, an emotion that I know how to handle and use.
My basics have already been packed into an overnight bag. I don’t need much. I am not going away for ever. I am sure I will be back. He can’t live without me.
Another 15 minutes before I have to leave. I had not planned on taking the photographs. But then I had changed my mind. What if my mobile crashed and I lost everything!? What if… what if I don’t come back? I needed the photographs.
There is a knock on the door.
No, no, no please don’t let it be him. I can’t face another argument. Not now. I have to leave soon.
But it was him, standing at the door, not entering, waiting for permission.
There is something odd about him today. Something that is new and at odds with who he really is. Even as I wonder what is different, the answer shocks me into silence. Diffidence. He is diffident today!
He is a short man, but you’d never notice it thanks to his larger-than-life personality. But today his awkward nervousness fills the space between us and he is not looking as tall as he usually does. He sort of stumbles in along with a rush of words, as though he had been practising these lines in front of the mirror for the last few hours.
“Amu, you are right. I am quite rigid in my own way. I know that! I think I … I think… I did understand you. Now… I am trying, but I don’t think I have… I don’t think I have understood you.”
He has never backed down from his point of view. Ever. Shock extends my silence.
It has been lucky for both of us that all these years we had been on the same page, about pretty much everything – music, architecture, friends, aikido. He has always understood me and backed me.
I had seen what he could do when he disagrees with you. He used his razor-sharp intelligence and rational mind as a weapon, and there was no way, I or anyone else could argue with logic and win.
Amma used to just throw down whatever she was holding in frustration and walk out of the room. I could never understand how she put up with losing every single argument or how he managed to make it up to her after. But the next morning or even a few hours after the argument, she would be smiling at him and laughing at his anecdotes. He adored her. She was the centre of his universe… maybe because she let him rule hers.
When she dropped down dead of a stroke in the middle of the living room, his entire world was sucked into a black hole. The only thing that kept him alive was me.
And we never argued. Ever. Funny when you think about it.
Maybe all the disagreements, complaints and grouses were being set aside, over the years, on a shelf for later, when I would need them .
And then I met Mithun. Carefree, hardworking, loving Mithun. Mithun of the average intelligence, who had no time to read plays, tomes on philosophy, politics and finance, or biographies. Mithun who hated to debate or argue. Mithun who treated me with respect. He calls me masterni because I have an explanation for everything. Mithun, who my appa thinks is sweet and harmless and utterly unworthy of me.
He never let an opportunity slip to let me know how wrong I was to consider Mithun a potential life partner. Initially I laughed it off. But after a while, my laughter sounded hollow, and I began to snap back. Argue. Explain.
However, nothing prepared me for when he turned around one day and said, “I think you will be better off getting a dog.”
It had felt like a punch, and I gasped, “A dog! Better off?”
“Yes, yes. You will be better off getting a dog than marrying that silly fellow. You will not get bored of the dog.”
That had been the final straw and we had set civility aside and the argument had raged on for weeks. Neither one of us willing to give in. I had not known it. I had always considered myself to be more like my mother – acquiescent. Turns out I was actually my appa’s daughter.
I don’t think that he had realised it either. Every single verbal parry of his, I encountered. We, the lovers of logic and analysis, passionate worshippers of poems and prose, philosophy and psychology, met as equals in a battlefield that shifted from the dining table to the kitchen, to the muted lulls during the ad breaks as we watched TV.
The last argument had begun quietly enough among the leftovers of dinner. Mithun had come over for dinner. Appa didn’t mind that. You see, he likes Mithun. He looked him in the eye and said, “Son, I like you. Which is why I am advising you against marrying my daughter. She will eat you alive. And you will bore her to death. Yours will be a match made for burning.”
I hated that Appa could pun at a time like this. I hated it even more that Mithun didn’t get it. We sat at the dining table and argued while Mithun cleared the table and left for his home. I did not even hear him go.
As he was going to his room that night, Appa turned around and again told me that I would be better off having a pet dog. I will not have too many expectations then, and it too will do my bidding. Tears stung my eyes and I stood there wondering what kind of a woman my father thought I was?
That night I called Mithun and told him that we were going to get married – a court wedding.
He was happy yet concerned.
“What will your father say?”
A lot. But that is nothing new. I can handle it.
Mithun agreed to give the notice of intended marriage. It would be another 30 days before we could tie the knot. I was willing to wait. Now that the decision was taken, I could deal with Appa’s constant snarky comments about Mithun and my future.
But the wait was not peaceful. Appa continued with his sarcastic needling. But now instead of losing my temper and arguing, I responded with cool, off-hand retorts that would drive him insane with anger. Now it was his turn to bang things and walk out of the room.
Oh God! I wish amma had been there. She would have laughed to death at the sight of Appa losing an argument and his cool.
The massive arguments would be followed by a few days of tense peace. The last big argument was yesterday. A day before the court appointed date for my wedding.
We had both, in the last three strained months, forgotten how to talk to each other. This was the man that I could sit and dissect a movie or book with for hours. This was the man with whom I had shared my every single thought and idea to solve the problems of the world! When I had felt hurt, angry or left out at school or college, when I had trouble with friends or teachers, I turned to Appa. How could we now not talk! How did he bear it? How could I?
I think he must have been haunted by the same thoughts! When I got back from work, he was waiting for me with a peace offering of a cup of tea. Unfortunately, the tea which was much needed was accompanied by advice that I didn’t want to hear repeated. The tea was left half-drunk as I stormed out of the room, but not before snarling that I can’t imagine how I ever thought that he understood me!
And now here he was, standing at my door. Telling me, for the first time, that maybe he was wrong.
The sun may have as well set in the east.
“Amu you are right. I am quite rigid in my own way. I know that! I think I … I think… I did understand you. Now… I am trying, but I don’t think I have… I don’t think I have understood you.
To me, you have always been my mirror image. While other fathers talked about not understanding their kids, I stood proud and even laughed at them. We were so alike that I forgot that you and I are two different people.”
Mithun would be waiting near the Café Coffee Day around the corner. He had decided to come by auto instead of bringing his bike, because of my bag. I had agreed to be there on time. I didn’t want to start our new life on a tardy note. I sneaked a look at my watch. I have to be there in 10 minutes… but I will have to leave now.
Appa was running his hand over my table and my files. He did not seem to notice that the photo frame with the photograph of the three of us smiling and squinting into the camera was missing.
“Do you remember the time amma and I had had that big argument about attending your second cousin’s wedding?”
Yes, I did! Amma wanted all of us to go to Chennai for it. I did not want to go to Chennai and deal with all the “yeppo kalyanam panna pore?” (“When are you going to get married?”) Appa didn’t want to go and have his routine disturbed. That was the one time that amma and he had not made up easily. The argument and the suppressed anger had simmered for nearly three days.
Appa had kept trying to convince her over and over again as to why it was not necessary for all of us to attend every single wedding in the extended family. But Amma wanted us in Chennai. She was sick and tired of making excuses for Appa’s absence. Or maybe she had just had enough of giving in to Appa.
She had given him and me the cold shoulder for the next couple of days. Appa was amused. This was a new Amma, and he was intrigued. But even he was not prepared for her announcement at dinner on the third day that she had booked her train ticket to Chennai. Before Appa could protest that he did not want to go, she said firmly that she had booked only one ticket. For herself. And she would be back in 5 days.
Appa had accepted defeat though not too gracefully, but he didn’t push it. Even he could see that something was different this time.
Amma returned after five days, full of laughter, happy memories and a lot of photographs. She had even posed in some of them. The smile was there. But she had looked old and frail and alone in them.
Two weeks later she lay dead on the living room rug.
Yes… I remembered that fight.
He was looking out of the window… at nothing in particular.
He turned and walked away. I nearly sighed in relief. He was leaving.
I watched him as he walked to the door. I knew that time was running out but suppressed the urge to check my watch. I took a deep breath, readying to take my bag and jump out of the window and make a dash to the café.
“I have always believed that if I had gone with her to Chennai, she would still be alive.”
The words sliced me. To hear him form words that brought to life my own greatest shame and regret numbed me.
“I still feel I was right. There was no need to go to Chennai. But I did not go. I could have. Five days are a small price to pay in the larger scheme of things. But I let my pride and ego get in the way. I didn’t want to lose or give in.
I don’t want to lose you either Amu. I know what I know. I know he is a nice boy, but you need something more. I know this because I know you. But you are right. I could be wrong too.”
My mind stopped tracking the time. In that moment I also lost all my reasons for wanting to marry Mithun. Appa never allowed himself to lose an argument because of his ego. I was going to marry someone for the same reason… to prove Appa wrong.
What was it? Was it that a lifetime of being in agreement had resulted in a need for a tectonic shift in our relationship? Was this my way of drawing new boundaries and building a few essential walls? Or did I just want to confound him and make him wonder who the hell I was?
Why did I think marrying Mithun was a good idea? Did I just want a third person in my little life to ease the intensity of living with an intellectual giant? Maybe I just wanted a break from Appa or maybe we need to be a threesome as opposed to an intense twosome.
I was alone in the room again. I got up, opened the window and jumped out on the pavement. Mithun would wait for me at the cafe no matter how late I was. My packed bag lay on the bed.
The Wheel of Time proceeds strongly. I am on book number seven, The Crown of Swords.
Regarding this short story, this was not how I had ended it in the initial drafts. Do let me know what you think of the story and the characters.