It is a futile exercise, always has been, asking Baba for the paper in the morning. Every word, every line will be read and sometimes read again, to provide enough material for his evening debates with all the Kaka Babus in the street. Sometimes I think they are pseudo-intellectual discussions, no substance only voices, but not for Baba. As far as I can tell, it gives him a rush, his brain doing a somersault in the air of his wisdom and landing softly on the farthest edge of satisfaction! I am in no mood for this, I need my morning tea and paper, and some silence for heaven’s sake. There is always plenty of silence here, at our home because we are all very quiet people, at the risk of being boring, quiet nevertheless. But this morning, there is a wedding in the neighborhood and the sound of conch shells and ulu dhwani and the shrill voices of the para* aunties was what I woke up to. So I put on my sweat pants, the largest t-shirt in my wardrobe, ear phones plugged in, and ran out. I ran for a very long time, going down the slope until I reached a dead end, from where I could see a little church, the one I would visit as a child, sometimes as part of a school trip or just a quiet escape. It has been about 15 years now from the last time that I came here, so I linger taking it all in, the warm sun and the soft breeze, and those long years gone by start coming back to me all at once.
I was a very happy child, not the kind who would be the life of the party with all the dancing and singing, but happy, you know just smiling a lot and talking and playing silly games. There was every reason to be. Baba was absolutely the best father any child could have, he would always take me to all the social gatherings and show me off to his friends, shower me with a lot of treats and gifts, an extremely doting father. So when Maa decided to leave one morning, all Baba was left with was a spoiled, high-headed not so happy anymore teenager, Raihana Roy. I cried and I begged, I flung at her anything within my reach, but Maa had made up her mind to leave, just like I had, to never beg anyone to stay ever again. “Rai stop it! For the love of God, stop, calm down and listen to me”, Baba screamed as he held me down. I cried for the longest time that day, and long into the night, but Baba didn’t say anything. Nothing to comfort or console me, there were no explanations, no assurances, no promises. Baba does not tell lies.
I first met Saher in my 2nd year of college, when she walked into the classroom wearing the brightest yellow t-shirt, oblivious to everyone in the room and literally crashed beside me. My first impression? A clown! She spent the first few weeks following me around calling me Rihanna, just like all my friends have my whole life, and now I think I should have punched her in the face the very first time she said it, but that’s the thing about clowns, they can make you laugh with the silliest gestures. We laughed a lot, talking late into the night and at our long walks around the campus. You know how you meet someone and your souls connect, this was that, and so much more. She knew all the lines of all the poems I had long forgotten, and the little jingles and stories, as if she had learnt the very same things as I, and she had, she was my soul sister. The last two years of college turned out to be blissful, with Sahera by my side. On our last vacation, I packed my bags ready to go to Baba when suddenly she asked me to go home with her, to meet her family and spend some time at her house. I didn’t think for a second and went with her instead, leaving Baba a little disappointed. “Just one week, that’s all”, I said and hung up on him before he could change his mind.
I had heard people with near death experiences say that in those last few seconds your whole life flashes in front of your eyes. If that ever happened to me, this is the one and only moment that I would see. Maa opening the door, looking angelic in a sea blue saree, her long locks replaced by a short cut, looking sharp. Sahera rushed into a hug, and they embraced each other as I stood there my whole world shaking beneath my feet. She lay her eyes on me, I looked, no I blatantly stared, and waited for something to say, but words had left me. She smiled and let me in, never showing the slightest hint of recognition or acknowledgement. She knew I was coming all along, there is no way she didn’t. Sahera always spoke about me with her, giving intricate details of my life, my habits, my family, my name. Yes she knew, she was expecting me. I went about the first two days mechanically eating and sleeping and indulging in all the small talk. Next morning when Sahera was still asleep she came to our room, asked me to come with her for a walk. I obliged more for myself than for her. I had so much to ask and so much to say, that I felt my insides were going to burst by the sheer thought of it.
It was a cloudy morning, and I prayed for it not to rain, my spirits were already dampened and I didn’t need a wet day. She grabbed my hand and held it tight and started talking to me in the way she always did, softly but authoritatively. As she did, her voice started to fade out because of the screaming, the loud screaming, both of them were just screaming. That was the only memory I could relate to with the story she was telling me. She didn’t cry as she told me how Baba had treated her, not a shadow of sorrow on her face. She told me of all the times he had held her down, and insulted her dignity, questioned her place in his house, sometimes with words or by brute force. And how every morning he would be a different person, a smiling, calm, loving father. “Why did you leave me behind? “, I managed to ask finally. “Because I wanted to start a new life, with no traces of the past”. The brutal truth, yes, that’s what Maa has always been about. She didn’t feel the need to pretend and make up stories to make me feel better about myself. She had chosen to abandon me, for reasons I now understand, nevertheless she had left me behind. I let go of her hand, it was not comforting me anyway and my mind was working its way through the 10 years I spent missing her, and my thoughts landed on Sahera. As though she had read my mind, Maa whispered, “I married again, Sahera is his daughter”.
I packed my bags the next morning, while Sahera threw her little tantrums trying to stop me from leaving so soon. I couldn’t hear a thing, because I had made up my mind to leave. I didn’t hate Maa, but I couldn’t find it in me to forgive her. She had built a life of her own, which I was not meant to be a part of and I wanted to leave it that way. I hugged Sahera one last time, while she cried and begged me to stay. Sahera just like her name was my dawn, my call to wake up and see my life for what it was. I held her tight and whispered in her ears, “Never beg anyone to stay, never”. I turned around and smiled at Maa, hoping in my heart that our paths would never cross again, I smiled again.
I got a call this morning from a doctor back home, telling me about Baba. He had fainted on the road while on his morning walk, and immediately rushed to the hospital. I took the next flight home. 15 years, yes that’s how long it has been since the last time I called Baba to tell him that I won’t be coming home. “Why Rai? I thought you had gone to your friends place for just one week!”. I gathered all my wits about me and finally told him “I mean I am not coming home anymore, just like Maa”. Never have I looked back since then, up until this point when I opened the door to his hospital room. Lying there was the best father any child could ever have, my Baba, looking tired and ill and much older from what I had pictured. He opened his eyes dreamily and asked me to take him home. Two days later I did, on a wheel chair. I cooked and cleaned and gave him all that he needed to regain his health, but never did I catch his eye. Sometimes silences say so much more than words ever could. As he got better, I told him that I would leave in a day, and that a nurse would take care of him if needed. He nodded in agreement, or I think he just nodded the way you do when someone says something you have no control over.
When I came back from my run that morning, Baba was waiting for me, dressed in that grey half sweater he always wore no matter how hot it was outside, with his walking stick in hand ready to drop me off. I told him that it wasn’t necessary but he insisted so I let him come along. We said nothing on the drive to the airport, but I knew Baba was thinking hard. I thought too, that maybe this was the last time I was seeing him, he was old after all. It’s funny I felt that way, because for years I didn’t answer any of his calls or emails. We got off the car and started walking towards the entry gate, when Baba held my hand. I let him, for all I knew, this was our last goodbye. I walked towards the ticket counters looking back every second to see if had left yet. He smiled at me as he finally turned around to leave, and I just stood there watching him go. I observed him carefully 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 and started counting in reverse under my breath, “Ten, nine, eight, seven…” Baba!
We took the next flight home, my new home.
*para: Bengali term for locality