I wonder when they emerged- the wrinkles on her face, the changes in her voice, her beautiful gray hair. Or had I been lost for too long? I held her frail fingers in my hands and hummed a familiar tune. Her eyes sparkled behind her spectacles.
My father would sing this song while driving through the mountains. My mother would be occupied in cutting fruits and passing them to us. Apples, pears, mangoes and bananas, tastes the seasons would allow. We would often stop in the local markets to buy some apricot and plums, and if there was a state run store, we would stock concentrated fruit juices and jams-for our days in the plains. My mother usually carried milk powder for me, and there were containers with biscuits and namkeen, to be had with chai during the stay. Yes, she was always prepared, in control. And if you dislike motion of a vehicle as I do, my mother could offer you some soda or sweets, churan balls and digestives. Lying in her lap I would suck on orange toffee and dream of a world with just my family, the trees and the breeze, music from around the world and her hand stroking my hair, no homework, no school, just this toffee…until sleep would take over and dreams richer than my imagination would unfold.
At times during a halt, while my father took photographs and my brother collected cones, I would quietly drop some biscuits from the car window, for the little monkeys. My mother would often warn me against this act but her reasoning failed. How could the monkey mother carry me with her? I only learnt my lesson when a monkey mother leaped on to my window assuming danger for her child; I am glad the window was up and that her glaring teeth were at a safe distance. I am also thankful, that my own mother was not as ferocious in her anger, though the two mothers could give tough competition to each other. That’s how I like to remember mother, not as this quiet human fidgeting with a mobile phone that seems too alien an object.
Holding our cups of chai, we sit quietly in her room. The bed sheet with faded elephants needs to be changed. The television set has dust sitting on it. There is a yellow shoe box filled with medicines. The calendar declares a month in the past. And the metallic photo frame on the wooden shelf is the one that we gifted to our parents on their 25th anniversary. That was indeed a long time back. She looks radiant in her yellow sari and my father looks dashing with his wide moustache. This was a photograph from their honeymoon, to which colour was added later in a studio. I think it was Bhimtal, mother defiantly says its Nainital, yesterday she had said Pithoragarh; Since this was before my brother and I were born, I agree with her each time, even if the note at the back of the photograph suggests otherwise. Wherever it was, it was a place and time where the sun shone brightly, the grass was a definite green and my parents embraced life in all its beauty. I am certain that the chequered bag in my mother’s hand contained some edible treasures, maybe some Namakparaas and Matthi, could also be Semolina Laddoos made by Tayiji, my uncle’s better half. This bag still hangs in her almirah, with vintage sunglasses and letters in a handwriting I recognize. As I read through one, I have an insatiable desire to have a freshly made Laddoo dissolve in my mouth. I tell this to mother and she smiles.
Every Tuesday, my mother used to bring Boondi Laddoos for me from the sweet shop in our neighbourhood market. They used to be soft and warm, and would break as I picked them up hastily. I could gulp down two in a row with greed written across my face. Mother would chide me for eating too much sugar, but next Tuesday the Laddoos would be there again. Just like the milk and almonds on my study table each night, or the Amla Murabba and Tulsi leaves every morning. How come she never missed any task, how come she was never late? Unlike me, who could never be on time! Am I too late?
My brother often recalls the bus honking for me. I would be the last one to get on to it. I am sure the bus driver recalls those times as a nightmarish phase in his career. My mother would wait at the bus stand with my school bag, explaining her plight to him, while I somehow managed to tie my shoe laces, grab my sandwich and make a dash.
Today, I do not wear shoes with laces and mother finds it hard to remember those recurring incidents. She joyously remixes characters and events, emotions and stories. I enjoy listening to her nostalgic monologues, these are the few times when she laughs, the most beautiful sound in the world.
My mother’s laughter has its own dedicated epics, ones that are narrated in the lanes of Meerut even today. “She would always laugh, we used to call her the laughter queen,” retired neighbours reminisce in the park; “One day, she was talking about her pressure cooker not working, she was laughing even then!” my aunt mutters while frantically rotating her beads, as if memories of a generous laugh can enhance the effect of her mantras. I do remember her laughing while my teacher complained of my slowness, much to the teacher’s despair; and when she recognized a long lost friend while negotiating the price of bitter gourd. I always thought that this is how life would be, her fingers stroking my hair, my father at the steering wheel, my brother playing music and my mother laughing through it all. We shall drive through life in a chocolate brown car, with monkeys, trees and countless stars greeting us on our way to nowhere. I had wished for things to only be beautiful, but that would have been unreal, I wish things could have stayed unreal. I wish I could turn back the clock and bring the wheels of time to a stop. Just like the photograph in the metal frame, with the greenest grass and love in bloom.
I don’t know when I grew up, it was sudden. I was sent to an institution in another city, to study with smart people and become a professional. Consequently I moved to another country, to study further and become an even better professional. I studied, cooked simple meals, and struggled to survive. With time, I made newer friends, fell in and out of love, started living an independent life. The mountains, the fruits, the almonds and milk were far behind, the laughter of my mother was replaced by libraries, museums, events and money, never forgotten. I imagined a life with my family, but a family yet to be born. I had to curb memories of the strong Punjaban with her dark brown hair, holding my school bag, awaiting my return as she packs Laddoos to be couriered. She got limited to phone calls and irregular visits. Papa would take care of her, my brother is there, and I felt distance wouldn’t matter- I can send her flowers on her birthdays.
She has always preferred roses as far as flowers are concerned. She would delicately fix a red rose in her hair as she got ready for a celebration. She was always well dressed in the most colourful attire. I would hold her fingers and walk with pride. After all she was mine. With time she continued being mine, but I stopped being hers. After all I was doing this to please her, to prove that I can be as smart as any other child. Did I fail to hear the loneliness in her laughter when I made those hurried calls? Was I too occupied to notice the discomfort with which she navigated foreign lands? It is not that it pained me any less just that I refused to acknowledge the change. Perhaps it was my only way to survive adulthood and its many surprises. I lack the fortitude with which she could laugh throughout life; I am a child who could not accept her own bubble being burst.
Speaking of bubbles, my mother is a great bubble blower, indeed the greatest ever. She has mastered the art of mixing the right amount of soap and water to create magic. We have a photograph of her giving me a bath, the bubble blower kept on her side, lest I begin to cry and she needs to distract me through the glorious globes of soap, water and air. I would try and hold, like dreams too fragile to touch.
Here, sitting in front of me, is the protagonist of all my dreams, fragile as a flower, magical as a bubble, fading in her quietude. I can choose either to wallow in the misery of change, or live our reality as she would have liked. The latter seems appropriate. And so I shall stop typing on my laptop, and go make a few calls. It’s her birthday next week and we must go for a picnic. It’s never too late to meet friends old and new, to celebrate a life well lived with food well cooked, to hug and laugh and blow bubbles, who knows when a chocolate car might appear and take us far away.