“Where are my keys?” I called out to no one in particular.
Meera had barricaded herself up in her room for the past hour and a half, getting ready for our visit to my mother’s place. I rummaged around the overflowing cabinets in our cluttered living room in vain, muttering under my breath. “How hard could it be for someone to keep an eight hundred square feet space tidy?” I daren’t say it out loud. I managed to locate the keys buried under a pile of Bombay Jeyashri’s music CDs. I checked my watch in consternation. It was almost eight. I’d promised amma that we’d be there well before lunch. “Meera, we need to leave!” I yelled, at the top of my voice.
“Coming.. five minutes!” came a muffled reply.
I was halfway through the morning paper when she descended the staircase resplendent in a purple Kancheevaram saree, dabbing at her nose with a tissue and grinning unapologetically.
“Okay. I’m all ready! Have you locked up the kitchen door? What about the windows?” She was about to disappear again when I firmly held her by the hand and led her out the front door. “All done, could we just leave? I don’t want to keep them waiting forever!”
Vellinezhi, my native village, was a three hour drive from Cochin. It was a quiet, little village in Palakkad district, made famous by the Kathakali artistes that it had churned out over the decades. Although we’d been in Mumbai for most part of my twenty-six years, appa, after retirement, had chosen to come back to his native village. He’d had enough of the city. I was no fan of the city-life myself. But my job with an IT Major in the city had held me back. And Meera, of course…
We’d met for the first time at a Carnatic music concert. Yes, an unusual place to meet one’s future wife. An innocuous flyer shoved through the gap beneath my apartment door was what alerted me to her presence in this world. A solo performance at the South Indian Samaj temple near Matunga station. Something about that grainy photo of hers drew me in and I decided that I would attend the concert. Honestly, I was no music aficionado. But watching her sing that evening,was pure joy. She could make the trickiest of compositions sound like an airy rhyme with her saintly fervour and passion. This was a woman you couldn’t forget.
To cut a long story short, we were married soon after. I wouldn’t go so far as calling ourselves the ‘perfect couple’ but we did okay. My office hours that were long and erratic, didn’t seem to bother her much. I wasn’t expected to remember birthdays, anniversaries or buy her expensive gifts. Sometimes, I’d come back to a topsy-turvy house, a reeking kitchen and find Meera, oblivious to it all, singing blithely like a nightingale in the rain. We’d warm up leftovers for dinner. Her passionate intensity, her dreaminess were an essential part of her. And I was okay with it. We were two people with little in common yet madly in love, living out our strange dreams.
Appa’s failing health had been a matter of concern to me for quite sometime. I had managed to wrangle an opening in the Cochin branch of my company to be closer to home. I was worried that the move would upset Meera. But the prospect of moving to Kerala, the land of musical prodigies like Swathi Thirunal and Chembai, the grand locus of Carnatic music, had excited Meera to no end. Within a few months of our moving there, she had begun teaching at a music academy in Kakkanad. Life seemed to be good.
And then, a few weeks back, out of the blue, I was asked to shift base – to New York.
We reached Vellinezhi just in time for lunch. I watched a smile break out on amma’s face, as our car pulled into the sprawling courtyard of the old house. Lunch as usual was sumptuous. We dug into the delicious sambar , cabbage thoran and pappadam with gusto. After the last drop of the paal payasam, had been drunk, a wonderful sense of contentment washed over me. This was what coming home was all about – The touch of a loving hand, good food, warmth and long talks. Meera and I, we were going to miss all of this. This would be our last visit to Vellinezhi before we flew out to New York the following week.
“So your visa is here.” Appa began. “You flight is from Nedumbassery is it?” He asked, chewing thoughfully on his betel leaves.
The payasam was slowly easing into my system, making me feel drowsy. “Yes. Nedumbassery to Mumbai. I will be taking an international flight to New York from there.” I explained.
Amma was clearing the table. Meera was helping her out with the dishes.
“What about Meera?” Appa asked.
“Her visa might take some time to arrive. She’ll join me later.”
Amma turned to Meera, a look of quiet concern etched on her features. “Mole, do you want me to come stay with you for a while?”
“No, amma!” Meera interjected, a little too quickly for my liking. “ I will be okay. I have my classes to keep me busy. And it is only for a few weeks, the visa will be ready soon.” When she smiled, it looked forced. If amma noted something amiss, she said nothing.
Despite the scorching June afternoon, the old house felt deliciously cool with its creaking wooden beams and red oxide floors, cracked in places with age, gleaming nevertheless. Appa was stretched out in his armchair. As watched my wife animatedly explain to him the difference between Kalpita and Manodharma Sangeetham, for a brief moment I felt ashamed, just a little, for the way I was taking her away from a life she loved. Teaching music at the college was something that gave her life purpose, a meaning. It was something she lived for, and here I was, uprooting her as easily as pulling stray weeds from a garden.
I was lost in my guilt-ridden thoughts when Meera brushed against me and winked suggestively as she walked past. “I’m going up for a nap, want to join?” I stared at her for a long minute without replying. The smile died off her eyes and was replaced by a look of concern. “Arvind, Anything wrong?”
I took her hands in mine. “Tell me again, Why aren’t you mad at me?”
“For taking you away from home, family and the job you love so much. For making you start all over in a foreign land?”
She smiled and squeezed my hand. “Home isn’t a place, Arvind, it is a person. And to me, it is you. Wherever I am with you, I am home. Don’t worry, I’ll find something to do there… join a cookery class, learn some housekeeping, or pop a couple of babies to keep myself occupied!”
Her laughter was infectious. I had to give in.
I went looking for amma and found her in my grandmother’s old room. It had lain vacant ever since grandma’s death several months back. It looked like she was clearing out the room. She was seated on the bed, surrounded by a sea of old sarees, a pensive look on her face and looked up when I walked in.
“Your payasam almost knocked me out, ma. It was divine!”
She beamed with pleasure. I would never tire of seeing amma blush at my compliments. She patted the mattress beside her. “Come. Sit down. God knows when I’ll be able to talk to you after this.” She sighed.
“Ayyo.. don’t go all ‘senti’ on me ma! It is only a short term project.”
“That is exactly what Leela’s son said before he left for California eight years back. He is now a Green Card holder. Didn’t even turn up for her knee replacement surgery last month.”
I laughed. “Don’t worry ma, I swear I’ll be here in time for every single surgery of yours!”
She scowled and gave my ear a hard tug. “So, tell me is Meera okay with the move? She seemed to be strangely silent all through lunch.”
“Oh. She’s pretty cool about it.” I tried to steer her away from the ensuing discussion that I was loathe to have. Looking around the cluttered room, I remarked. “There’s so much of stuff in here, want me to help you?”
She nodded and gestured to the old rosewood wardrobe in the far corner of the room. “Why don’t you start with that? God alone knows what your grandmother has stashed in there. I wouldn’t be surprised if a snake crawled out of all this junk.”
I pulled open the wardrobe and was greeted by a strong smell of moth balls and talcum powder. “More sarees!” I called out. “Haven’t seen achamma wear a single one of these!” An odd assortment of papers on the lowermost shelf caught my eye. “There’s something else here. Some old papers.” I began pulling them out.
“Careful. They might be important.”
They were pictures, pencil sketches and paintings – beautiful ones, all done by my grandmother. We were silent as we leafed through the papers, pausing every now and then to exclaim at the exquisite artistry in the pictures.
“So this is where she kept them, her paintings…”
I looked at amma quizzically. “ You knew about this hobby of hers?”
She nodded “Of course! It wasn’t just a hobby, it was her passion. I’ve seen her spend countless afternoons bent over that table sketching, until your grandfather came down and yelled at her for forgetting to fetch him his tea.”
“Wow..Never knew that. ”
“She was sixteen when she married your grandfather and was eager to enrol for a fine arts course at the Women’s college, but he wouldn’t hear of it. If she was disappointed, she never showed it. She went about her life uncomplainingly – raising children, cooking, cleaning and secretly working on her sketches whenever she could.”
When I looked up amma’s eyes were moist. Perhaps grandmother’s story reminded her of her own. Her Masters’ degree in Chemistry had earned her a research grant at CIPET, Madras. There was no way for her to accept it. Her life was with appa in Mumbai. Twenty years back, there had been no question of a couple staying apart to pursue their separate career interests. After I was born amma had given it all up and settled down to a life of quiet domesticity, just as my grandmother had. Just as Meera would, I realised a moment later, with a pang. It struck me that some things hadn’t changed a bit since the times of my grandparents.
I held in my hands one of the sketches – A young woman with long braided hair looking out a window wistfully, watching, yearning for something. I had a constricting feeling in my chest.
“Arvind.. Are you okay?” Amma’s voice was gentle. I nodded unable to look up into her eyes.
“Can I have this picture amma?” I asked.
She pretended not to notice my red-rimmed eyes. “Of course.. It will look nice on the walls of your home in New York.”
I nodded and quickly walked away. I needed to see Meera. I found her upstairs, sleeping. I wanted to wake her up straightaway, but chose instead, to watch her as she slept wondering how poorly off I’d be without her.
She was surprised to see me when she woke up. “How long has it been since I slept?” she mumbled drowsily.
“Long enough for me to mull over a few things.” I replied. “Meera, I don’t want you to quit your job at the music academy.”
She rubbed her eyes and looked at me uncomprehendingly.
“I have thought about this long and hard. I think you should stay back here.”
She looked at me so startled, as if she’d seen a ghost. “No! I can’t do that! What about you? What about us?” she asked in a choked voice.
“It’s just for a couple of years. I promise I’ll keep flying down in between to see you.”
“Are you sure?”
I nodded. “Besides, with you here, I wouldn’t be tempted into staying back in New York! That should save you some anxiety!”
Her eyes filled up as she placed her hand over mine and brought them to her lips. We stayed so for a long while.
My gaze fell on the table where I’d placed my grandmother’s painting. A tiny shaft of light from the late afternoon sun fell upon it, bathing it in a golden glow.