"Bahu....Simmering tea is an art! Cluttering the ingredients will only clutter the taste and thus your head."
Nalini remembered her mother-in-law's words while making her morning tea in her now perpetually cluttered kitchen. It somehow didn't feel necessary anymore, to arrange the clutter, neither in the kitchen nor in her head. While she waited for the tea to simmer, her eyes gazed outside the window perched atop the kitchen slab. The window opened to a busy narrow road below with a building standing tall on the other side of the road. Well, in Mumbai for that matter every road was busy. In fact the more narrower probably the more busier. Add as many superlatives but you just couldn’t emphasize enough ever.
Nalini loved to stare at the road. Her gaze always served as a warm host to the oblivious strangers speeding by in one single direction on that busy narrow one way. Anyways, everyone always seemed to be in a hurry in this city. Not only in this city, but always, in general for that matter. And these oblivious companions of hers always amused her in some or the other way. Well, one might wonder how these strangers on a busy road can ever be referred to as companions. But life is also strange in a way to teach you one day that that feeling of companionship doesn't necessarily need to be blessed with a face always be it known or otherwise. And life teaches you to adapt to that philosophy and live with it too.
So, this was kind of Nalini's daily ritual which she didn't know since when had formed a part of her everyday routine. Definitely not since the very first day, which was almost 45 years back now, when she had landed in Mumbai and into this 550 square feet house located in the far away suburbs as a newly wed bride. Strangely, it felt like as if it was just yesterday that she was entering the house clad in that maroonish crimson jacquard saree complementing the white jasmines adorning her heavy juda and her sparkling gold nathni. She only could remember the nathni among her few pieces of jewellery as that was the first time ever she wore it and could never forget that discomfort. It had felt like a boulder trying with all its might to hang by her nose. A thali ready with sindoor reddened water was kept for her to dip her feet in and walk that ordained walk. And amidst the strict instructions buzzing all around her of "Right foot first... Right foot first" just as the thought of slipping and falling had found its way to enter her head her walk had begun and ended in a whiff of a second. And that was when she had lifted her head for the very first time and glanced around the house wondering if it could get any smaller. A stark comparison to the maternal house of her town. Not that her maternal house was a sprawling bungalow but at least there seemed to be space to breathe and walk. But maybe that is what big cities were all about she had thought. The bigger the city the smaller grew the concepts of life - space, leisure and patience. A concept that sunk in her as slowly and steadily as her comfort grew with the compactness of the house and the years.
Even today crystal clear was the image of that day when her in-laws were coming over to her maternal home. Everyone seemed to be so nervous and hustling around. Her house was scrubbed spic and span. All delicacies were cooked with utmost care. Special attention was given to her attire. Even her father had given his only daughter a good look from top to bottom to ensure and double check on her appearance. How everyone had marvelled at the stories of the so called Mayanagri. And those tears of joy in her parents eyes when the alliance was accepted. Nalini chuckled to herself collating all her yesteryear thoughts together. They were right! There comes an age and time when thoughts start unfurling like those Japanese Kokeshi dolls that her husband had once gifted her. Nalini glanced at the doll perched on the refrigerator and thought to herself "hah, the taken for granted silent companion aren't you!"
Her thoughts now oscillated to that day when her husband had unveiled that gift for her and said
"Do you know Nalini what's special about these dolls?! They have no arms or legs, but they are believed to bring good fortune one day."
"And how is that" perplexed she had asked.
"Well, it simply means fortune doesn't come from what is seemingly visible but rather from what is not."
She had secretly posted the doll on the top of the fridge later to save herself from the interrogating glances of her mother-in-law and sister-in-law. And surprisingly no one ever noticed it placed in that small compact space of a house. Anyways the kitchen did not ever serve as much of a hanging place for anyone in the family for that matter. More so, after Nalini's arrival in the house. So, the doll had always enjoyed its assigned place of solitary privilege there. But then, come to think of it, the doll did have with it the company of the multiple stacking dolls. Not really in solitude, was it!
That time however even Nalini had company. The house used to be thronged with people, her parents-in-law, sister-in-law, husband and then after an arduous five years of trial had come in the littlest member her Son and the apple of the entire family's eye. No amount of prayers had made the Gods to yield again and he had thus remained the single apple of everyone's eye for ever and the sole heir to the throne. Just that, there was no throne. So, staring out of that very window above the stove must not have even occurred to her then as at that time she was the one akin to those scurrying ever occupied persons on the road, just that her scurrying was limited to the inside of the house serving something or the other from one member to another of the family and maximum to the vegetables and the grocery vendors below the building. The best part of this city was everything came to the doors of the house be it vegetables, eggs, milk, grocery, medicines or laundry. And in a way even they had become Nalini’s companions over the years. But these ones weren’t unknown anymore, but companions nevertheless, which had matured into relations infact. They had always called her bhabie from day one and she had called them all bhaiyya and they had all grown old together. Neither they knew her name nor did she know theirs.
Ironically, in life two kinds of relations promise to grow old together. One, which is with the inanimate objects and the other, which are these kinds of unconditional nameless relations. But, that way these nameless relations were no less than any family household members to say. Most of the times they kept themselves abreast of all the happenings of various families in the building. Infact there were quite a few instances in which these nameless members happened to know more about the neighbouring or opposite families more than you did. Sometimes even that served as a good source of entertainment and sometimes it was otherwise.
While she turned off the stove and started to strain the tea leaves she smiled to herself wondering as to why she was even trying to wonder now. It's strange isn't it, at one point in time you never got the time to breathe forget about wonder and at another point in the same life you have the entire time in the world to wonder on such trivial and insignificant things in life as to when you started to wonder in the first place. But then Nalini also thought it was not only her. Even the house was in the same boat of wonderment of time travel as her if you really think. At one point it was overflowing with people, voices and clitter clatter and today it's just only her footsteps or maybe not even that, actually it's the clock hanging on the wall that makes the loudest and probably the only noise in the house. Although, fortunately the sound that it makes is continuous and promises to be so and that too not a false one that is. And come to think of it she had never earlier noticed the clock’s solidarity.
Bringing the tea cup to the table she wondered how quickly it all had changed in a blink of an eye or so it seemed. Sister-in-law married and left. Now she was busy battling battles of her own life. Parents-in-law had moved on to their heavenly abode one after other. Son had left abroad for higher studies and then married and settled down there. Actually the house had slowly and steadily graduated step by step towards that silence but she had never realized. The realization sunk in only when her husband had also left for his heavenly abode five years back after a massive heart attack leaving her as the lone resident there to give company to their ancestral house. Unlike the Japanese stacking doll her dolls had stealthily left her company one by one. Tears rolled down from Nalini's eyes remembering that fateful day. The tears had rolled down solemnly in complete silence but when they dropped into the tea cup it sounded like a loud thud to her ears in the quietness around. Nalini looked down at her cup and for the millionth time remembered her husband's favorite dialogue.
"Nalini, my dear, learn to add a drop of honey in every cup of your tea. That's what life is all about."
And, as usual she wiped away her tears quickly and chided herself for doing exactly opposite of her husband's philosophy. Her husband was always a carefree happy go lucky person. He had that rare talent of finding joy in tid-bits of life. Nalini had met her husband for the first time when they all had come over to her maternal home for the alliance. But she only got to hear his voice on their first night together. In those days that was the norm for arranged marriages. Well, the concept of love marriages was non-existent then and so was the concept of boy and girl speaking to each other before the wedding. However, even if it is kind of unthinkable for the new generation that was still a tremendous amount of progress from marrying at the age of eleven in the generation prior. Or probably every generation has something or the other in their kitty to ridicule and humour about terming it as unthinkable. Perhaps, that's what is termed as progressive or is it generation gap as they call it.
Nalini always considered it as a fortunate stroke of serendipity that her husband turned out to be caring unlike the horror stories she had heard about the daughters in her neighbourhood back home. Luckily for her, she thought, her life didn't turn out to be another such similar tale which the girls of marriageable age heard and shuddered hoping against hope that theirs doesn't add to the same list. Probably the trait of talking to oneself was a woman's trait after all Nalini mulled. And a much needed one too! With an exasperated smile Nalini chastened herself "where all my thoughts keep time travelling."
It hadn't been this bad actually. She had grown used to speaking to herself over the years especially from the time her son had slowly wriggled himself out of the tie of the umbilical cord. She didn't really blame him for that. She didn't have anything new or interesting as a widowed housewife and a mother to speak to him and that's a good enough reason to give anyone to get bored of you after all. Unlike his good old childhood days when he used to hang around by her saree all the time even with all that company of so many other members in the household coaxing her to keep giving him all the attention. As they say, childhood days are indeed very special whether it be of one's own or that of their child. They really do not come back again, except, as reminiscences. Thanks to the neighbor's ten year old girl who had taught her the usage of social media that is whatsapp but that also one would eventually get bored of she guessed howmuchever promising the new technology seemed in reducing distances. And anyway, it must be strenuous to type messages after a long day of work. He is also busy after all. So, gradually the whatsapp messages had also dwindled and finally stopped although this was a little less gradual than the advent of the house into the embracing of that silence. However, sometimes she did wish that probably if they had a material legacy to leave him by then maybe the hold of her umbilical cord could have been stronger. Just the family ancestral house was not enough to strengthen that cord.
It humoured Nalini as to how this whole concept worked. A generation or two toiled hard to demarcate their space, in the case of Mumbai that demarcation of space was in air, that is, as a flat in a building. That space, which was almost worshipped by these two generations, in the whole sense of being, would later serve as just an asset class to get disposed off by the generation next without even batting an eyelid. Just like even her maternal ancestral house which she had monetised to fund for her Son's studies abroad.
But Nalini didn't have any complaints from life really. As life also loved to play that new age game called treasure hunt from time to time. Isn't it. Another one of her beloved husband's philosophies. You just need to take up the cues and keep looking for treasures which are hidden in the most unthinkable of places. And more often than not you do find little treasures hidden here or there enough for the days of life to pass. Like sometimes in the neighborhood or sometimes in the old age club formed by the society or the celebrations organized by the society kids or sometimes just by gazing at the lives in the flats of the building opposite. Yes, even staring at another hustling bustling flat right across does instill some kind of positivity in you. Maybe say kind of reinstating the existence of a living breathing life around you and in you. Sometimes life even surprises by placing a treasure right below your tea cup. Like today, when Nalini's eyes started to decipher the advertisement on the upturned newspaper placed on her glass table top over which she had placed her tea cup all this while. It had been right there but Nalini being lost in her routine thoughts didn't register the conspicuous treasure trove. Well yes, routine thoughts, as those exact same thoughts came to visit her daily, same day, same time with full punctuality! Thoughts do get very punctual with age that way.
Nalini adjusted her spectacles to read the advertisement. The advertisement said that they were calling for canvas paintings. High definition photographs of paintings to be submitted and those which will be selected will be called for display in an art gallery exhibition. This rekindled a cherished childhood hobby long lost in hibernation and in a deep slumber in some forgotten nook of her heart. This for a change reminded her of her art teacher in school who had come down to her house and had specially requested her parents to allow their only daughter Nalini to go for special art classes as Nalini was gifted according to the teacher. And she also remembered her parents promptly tell the teacher that they didn't want their child to pursue things which she can't make use of in future in any way. Nalini had also not attempted to put up any brawl then for her hobby as she had known it would only be in vain. Her art teacher had tried to cajole and coax and had made a few honest attempts which her parents had dismissed attributing it to be greed of the teacher to make some monetary benefit out of it. And just like everything else, even this fervour had subsided.
It is strange how some memories of the past can rise and peek-in most unexpectedly and feel like did they really happen in this life or was it some other life. Nalini mused how she had completely forgotten about this hobby of hers in all these years. She wondered how she even forgot to mention about this hobby of hers to her beloved husband as well. Maybe because just like her parents had said then, there wasn’t any use of it. Or maybe because she didn't want to hear a similar reply from her in-laws too saying that it was all futile and of no use to cultivate such interests. Nalini wondered for some time. There wasn’t any use of it then. Was there any use of it now?!
Nalini quickly picked up her phone and went in search of her ten year old neighbourhood pal. Umbilical cord is also like the banyan tree which might have one trunk but its roots have the capability of spreading and taking nearby ground into its fold to sprout with new hope each time. The ten years old Disha in the neighbourhood was also one such root for Nalini's banyan trunk. Right from the time Disha's parents had been leaving their two year old Disha in Nalini's care when they were off for their day jobs to the day when Disha herself became wise enough to reprimand Nalini for forgetting to take her medicines. Nalini remembered her husband teasing her "So, is Disha your twelfth Japanese Doll?" Probably Disha in some way quenched Nalini's maternal quests. No wonder therefore whenever that thought raised its hood inside Nalini's heart wishing for Disha to not grow up so fast her mind quickly brushed it way chiding her.
Three days later Nalini opened her door to six fresh white canvases delivered outside accompanied with a huge paint kit and a wooden stand. Even inanimate guests can sometimes build so much anticipation and pleasure on their arrival Nalini thought. And anyways it had been long since she welcomed any kind of guests at her door inanimate or otherwise. Neither had she had the luxury of such anticipation till now let alone guests.
Now, beside the glass table stood the wooden stand with a half white and half painted canvas neatly and comfortably sitting on it. This was Nalini's new companion for all her tea sessions. Another faceless companion but this one for sure possessed the magic of breaking the silence around. She couldn't help smiling when she added the drops of honey to her tea this time.
For the subsequent three years Nalini kept sending the snaps of her work to her Son. Now, she did have something new and exciting to share each time in her whatsapp messages. Again it was Disha who had taught her how to make use of the camera in her phone and send the snaps on whatsapp. And her excitement in this couldn't be subdued by no response to her messages, as now, the house didn't seem silent to her anymore. Sometimes little Disha also joined her in her painting sessions. Fortunately, her parents didn’t consider this as a waste of time which had no use in future. And with time few more little hands had joined in splashing colors on their canvasses and all over her house. Bare walls which had earlier housed only that clock were now filled with a collage of vibrant hues and varied imaginations of little hands.
One fine day, somewhere in California a forty three year old man received a whatsapp message from an unknown Indian number. The message read:
“Dear Mr. Amol,
This is to inform you that your mother Ms. Nalini had participated in an art event organized by the Mumbai Art Association. Three out of her five paintings had been sold for INR 40,000 each and one of her paintings had been selected to be displayed in a national art event which has won an award prize of INR 5 lakhs and been sold for INR 35 lakhs.
As unfortunately we have come to know of Ms. Nalini's sad demise, we would like to transfer the amounts to her heir Mr. Amol whose address had been provided by Ms. Nalini as her nominee in her bank account. Kindly provide your account details to the below mentioned correspondence for further processing.
Also, our sincere gratitude to Ms. Disha for sharing Ms. Nalini's other paintings with us and for sharing your correspondence as well. We will contact you once we have suitable buyers for them. If there are any other paintings of Ms. Nalini in your possession that you would like to share with us do let us know.
Incase of any queries or assistance required kindly contact us on our phone number.
Mumbai Arts Association Club”
PS : This post is part of #StorytellersBlogHop Feb 2021 hosted by Ujjwal & MeenalSonal.