Mandar Naik

Sunita got up with the cold winter breeze, which rushed in through the open window. She got up to close it but stood there for a while, wrapping her hands around. She could smell heavenly fragrance of white Parijat flowers. A yellow climbing rose creeper was resting on the tall wall behind. The yellowness of roses and whiteness of parijat flowers made Sunita’s mind calmer for some time. She looked at the room inside and then at the garden. In the middle of the garden stood an old Gulmohar, spreading his large boughs shadowing half the garden and their adolescent parijat plant. Some birds of reminiscences came and sat, twittering days gone. She also remembered now, how he taught her to plant a tree. She knew it already, but he only reminded her. Making her sit on the hot soil on a lazy afternoon, he had retold her, her own story.
Since the day Sunita got job in this house, she thought of Mr. Prabhu “Annoying”. That’s the only word she could describe the old man then. Although for him she was “programmed”. Being his caretaker, she did all her duties perfectly - taking care of his medicines, food, bathing him, combing hair, changing clothes, shaving, taking him around in the garden on his wheelchair, everything what was expected from her. With any other patient, these all would have been seamlessly fine, but not with Mr. Prabhu. He observed her minutely, lying on his bed since the day one. His annotations were clear. Firstly, whatever Sunita did, it had some fragments of her thoughts attached to it. Some deeply rooted profound thoughts.
“You are like an ant…”- His first observation about her, “… getting ready for winter”. It was within a week since she started here. It made her smile now. But then she did not say anything. She ignored his comment and many which followed that.
Mr. Prabhu’s second observation was that the ‘Muteness’ was her weapon, well designed and developed inside. She tackled the world with it. She spoke rarely, in holophrastic answers – a word or two, ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ or nothing perhaps, although it never stopped him interrogating her.
“… You never wanted to do this… Right?” he asked her once abruptly when she was massaging his head. Her fingers, long and soft, were running into his skin, making circles, mutely. Her silence too made circles in the air and got dissolved in the hot summer afternoon.
“Why are you so much like a machine?” he asked again irritatingly, this time banging his skinny hand on the bed…,” Don’t you have anyone? Or like me just kept aside?” he laughed on his own jest.
But this time inside her, where everything had dried up, moved a tiny fallen leaf. She remembered a small girl, playing on a swing tied to a tree and she remembered a woman, looking at the girl with a gleaming smile. She also remembered a small house, tiny rather, with a roof made up of dried grass and walls made up of mud, red ribbon braided into brown shaggy hair, road running up and down with red dust, swirling wheels, some giggles, some cries, a blood shed doll, these all and some more flickered in her for some moments and then it all settled down with the gush of reality. Outside her, the circles her fingers were making into his skin were still mute and the air imbued with silence. They both could hear only slowly wheeling panes of the rusted ceiling fan. Mr. Prabhu had understood by now that behind this crystal-eyes, fragile girl, there was an ocean that was deeply buried. That lava gushing under her cold, unmoving face would hardly burst out now. And it was burning her from inside. But he was helpless. His movements were relied on her and his life stories returned with empty eyes. He opened himself to her telling her about his life, work, and places he travelled, and about his estranged relationship with his expired wife, about his daughter, married and settled in Moscow, who had arranged this comfort through home nursing, and how she cared enough to call him once a month to check if he was still alive. His friends and kin had already departed. He didn’t care much about all that and anyone now. Even he wouldn’t have kept any help, if he could have walked. Several ‘Help’ came and went, countless nurses changed before Sunita. But this time he could not just pick up the call and complain about this girl. He was himself surprised when he offered her his daughter’s bedroom to stay, unlike other care takers, who were offered a mat to sleep in the kitchen. There was something riveting, not about her perhaps, but whatever that was inside her, which he had been trying to read since long. And whatever this was, with this thirty-year-old, had immense inculcated gist as compared to his seventy-eight years of life span together. He had never heard her laugh, never seen her cry, never had she ever shouted or smiled or even sighed. But he carried on with his childish interrogations. She never said anything, but her eyes did a lot. They told stories. If had they learnt to speak, they would have told him that she once had words and life too, with abundance around her. But something got lost somewhere. Mr. Prabhu had somehow given up on her. He spoke and spoke and heard his own words echoed in silence. In later months, their monologues conversations settled amicably, finding harmony in this arrangement.
Then one day, something wrinkled in this arrangement. While taking a stroll in the garden, they saw a little girl collecting garbage on the other side of the road. Mr. Prabhu overlooked and waited Sunita to push his wheelchair ahead. But she did not, could not, she stopped looking at the little girl, observing that ‘dirty’ little child. And for the first time in many months, he noticed that something moved inside her, some old past foregone had come and tapped her from behind. Someone from deep down of her had just grasped a breath and he got a sign of her liveness. He looked at the girl. She was filthy and inadequately dressed. He had seen many such and ignored too. But he found a tiny piece in this girl to reach to the depths hidden inside Sunita. When he asked her to fetch food for the child, for a moment, she looked at Mr. Prabhu, doubting if he had seen that freshly opened aperture inside her and in the next moment she ran inside.
“Chelli (Girl), come here” he called out to the child.
Girl looked here and there and when she looked at the old man, sitting on a wheelchair, calling her. She turned her head back again into the garbage bin, grabbed the piece of half-eaten cake she had eyed on before and ran away. “Oye, Chelli... Wait…” Mr. Prabhu’s voice followed her for some distance but like a breeze she disappeared. When Sunita came running with food, she saw empty plastic bags from girl’s hand, hovering on the road. Whatever had opened for a moment got closed inside her. Perhaps she had forgotten about it the next moment, but Mr. Prabhu perceived that. Next day he insisted to stroll in the garden twice. His eyes were searching for her eyes, which were busy looking for that nasty, curly, filthy, brownish hair outside the gate. And when she found it, there was a spark, in her eyes. It was very much visible to him even in that bright morning. He told Sunita to bring the food and give, saying “Bhingdi (manner less girl) runs away. Go to her and give”. Sunita went to the girl, carefully, looking at her, reading-through, matching some similarities with the timeworn frame in the mind - Eyes were black but hair was dusky and curly too. Girl took the food and sat under a tree nearby, looking at the woman and the old man behind the gate. And behind him she saw standing the old Gulmohar, blooming in his matured red flowers. She liked its redness always and now liked the mute roses, bending over the rough walls of the garden.
Her name was “Binni”. Mr. Prabhu found it out soon. He had to. He began this game, insisting to stroll around the gate, waiting for Binni to come, ask Sunita to give her food and observe…look inside her, opening layer by layer. He noticed something had started moving inside. And outside, winds had started flowing Eastern and the skies had started wearing dark billows. Some thumping of rusty clouds and rushing of dampened breeze started settling in and somewhere something came to alive… a tiny, delicate hope. Like he waited her to humanize, her eyes waited for Binni to come to the gate. And when she came, for food, there was a sigh inside her and a petty smile in the corners of her lips; and there was some peace in the old heart and laugh under his moustache. Something could be saved.
On a warm afternoon, he offered Binni a mango and showed her a small moribund mango sapling. She nibbled on the mango like a squirrel, making her murky face, yellow but a grin in the naïve eyes. When his eyes met Sunita’s, they were wet. He looked at the sky, “it is going to rain soon… “.
He then handed over a plant to her. “This has come from heaven”, he laughed at Sunita’s bewildered face, “Parijatham…” he said, “… Krishna got it down from heaven to spread its fragrance. He knows well when to bring down what.”
In the shadow of Gulmohar, he asked Sunita to sit and dig a deep hole and asked her to put the parijat plant in the hole. “Chelli, you know what will happen now?” She shook her head innocently. “It will become a tree…. like this” pointing at the Gulmohar, he said. “We all have to become a tree and shadow the ones who need it.” Sunita looked at him meaningfully while covering the roots. Binni helped her. Gulmohar watched them from above. He was pleased to see that another life was getting planted.
Binni started coming regularly, initially inside the garden, then inside the house and then inside Sunita’s barren heart too, where no one visited for years now. It giggled her, it wobbled her, it turned her upside down and then one day with a fresh cold breeze and with a gush of raindrops, running like an arrogant adamant boy, it all ventilated. When the first rain came that year, tapping on the rigid branches of trees, sprinting on the parched old rooftop, jumping over the dried off yellow grass, Sunita ran to save the clothes drying off in the garden, where she saw small Binni dancing carelessly, all getting drenched, spreading her tiny hands. Looking at her that day, some rained inside Sunita too…making her rigid, obdurate soil stream with it, soaking it all in the interiors, deep down reaching her core. She sat down in the rain; on the moist soften earth looking at Binni. And when Binni came running towards her, she remembered “Amu”, her Amu and the running truck in the red soil and the doll, smeared with her blood. She closed her eyes, letting it all come out after long. She was getting emptied second time after she gave birth to Amu. Unbearable pain, anguish, suffocation, everything started kicking, forcing to come out of her. Rain water washed off all those dark and faded, dank and sweltering memories for a while. She opened her eyes to find Binni in her arms. And when Binni softly whispered “Amma” into her ear, that unbearable pain, anguish, suffocation, whatever hidden and rusted inside her, all those guiltless days, old muddy paths of her village, house of dried grass rooftop and muddy walls, earthen pots, hearth, clinking of bangles, tied swing to the ripened guava tree, red ribbons, red soil, tiny clothes and dirty hands, dolls and her innocent smile, withering mother, scared sacred emotions and everything whatever buried inside; it all rained through her eyes. She cried for long, hugging Binni.
Mr. Prabhu watched it all sitting on his bed. He closed his eyes peacefully and slept that night after many months.
“Bhingdi”, he called her, tiny little rascal and laughed amusingly looking at her running here and there, like a restless butterfly; and behind her now ran smiling Sunita, with morsels to feed her. They all had lost someone close to them and now found someone back in each other’s company. Days opened with Sunita’s mellow humming, passed with Binni’s magical laughs and giggles; and evenings closed with Mr. Prabhu’s prayers. At nights, sitting under the sparkling sky, they shared their stories, experiences, reminiscences, nostalgias and found something unheard, unique in each other’s pocket. Sunita found in her Mr. Prabhu’s daughter and her aborted child lost in her career. Mr. Prabhu found bedridden father and careless grandfather and vicious drunkard eyes of a father. Little Binni; she found life, words, sheer joy and family. But they were no one to each other, except ‘Friends’ or ‘travellers’ on the path of life. Life now, like silk, soft and shining, when touched they realized it existed and it had much more than what they had seen yet… life in seventy-nine years, in span of thirty or just a decade old…and with that they became content. Gulmohar stood spreading his grandeur, giving hope and support, yellow rose looked down kindly, smiling with hope and the parijat, that little plant, they planted together had grasped life.
And when, on a casual evening after prayers, Mr. Prabhu lying on his bed, listening to the humming rose, looking at the tiny parijat tree amusingly, closed his eyes with a smile under his moustache, a few seasoned red flowers drifted down and settled on the grass with peace. Since then Sunita and Binni thought that they had lost their shadow and everything they had collected for all those days. Loss was immeasurable. But when they looked at each other, they had something to withhold, in each other. While closing the window, looking at the Gulmohar, she felt that Mr. Prabhu was very much there, rooted deeply in that soil, blossoming on those few beautiful days. That is what he taught her…to bloom while imbibing those enchanting days of togetherness, preserving those precious moments, burring what was foregone. Leaving that house where she resurrected and gave birth to Binni was too treasured to leave empty, but she had to now, for the new-found purpose of life – Binni, who was now tugging her from behind. Next day when she left the house, closing the gate behind her, holding Binni’s hand, yellow rose swung amusingly, looking at the young parijat and from above smiled the old Gulmohar, standing peacefully.

This work has been published in Beetle Magazine's June 2020 Issue. Read the full issue here:

Illustration by Dhanashree Pimputkar


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