It’s strange how some memories of hardly any significance at the moment can stick to your brain forever, can grow there, take root, and bear flowers in later years – their fragrance taking you back to the moment – now etched in your mind – and make you wonder how it was, that of all the things you could’ve remembered, you remembered that particular memory; running back home, from your walk on that damp, winter morning, with your five siblings behind you and your father far ahead, panting, feeling the icy nip most on your sweaty forehead, your shoes muddied and a little drenched from being dipped in the careless, dirty puddles left over by last night’s rain; finding solace after entering the crooked, cobbled, terribly-set, tiny path leading to the local school, and then, to your beautiful little home, flanked (in sharp contrast to the dirt before), by beautiful, lush, heavy growths of marigold on both sides, bejeweled with diamond-dews, blooming, (some drooping where the rain had lashed harder), their sight warming up your heart as you near the threshold, and smell that rich, sweet, warm and tempting aroma of chocolate – for of course, it is Sunday and there will be rum chocolates for dessert… – a memory sparked off by the very same ‘delicacy’ placed on the breakfast table that day – eighteen years later, in a different country and by a different hand.
It was an off day at work and Sid had gone to the nearby park early in the morning and was greeted, when he returned home, by his twin girls’ hugs, who had now woken up – and of course, the sight of the rum chocolates on a glass bowl on the table.
He smiled as he thought of the first time he had had those at home, under the staircase, hidden from view, with Maansi, the neighbour’s daughter, having stolen a handful of those from under the very noses of the adults, and run to find a suitable spot for relishing them – the special Sunday treat, so different from the mithai and ice cream served to the children.
How the twelve-year-olds had enjoyed them (after the initial cough wore off, of course)!
When the theft was eventually discovered, their parents had had a good laugh and had decided that Sid, being the eldest of the six, would be allowed one every Sunday. His brothers never forgave him for that.
Sid’s grandfather didn’t approve, of course. He was a stoical man of great principles, and thieving, to him, was the greatest of all sins, as he explained well to Sid, as well as “the neighbour’s daughter”, in his thundering, deep voice, sitting upright in his big brown armchair, with his long white beard falling to his chest, making him look like a mystic or a God. Sid only wished that he wouldn’t be beaten with his grandfather’s walking stick, which seemed to him at that moment, like the trident of Poseidon.
Maansi looked as if she would faint, and when the ordeal was finally over and they were made to leave after solemnly promising that they “would never steal again”, she burst into tears, as Sid consoled her, daring even to touch her cheeks as he brushed her tears away.
It was then that he noticed how large her eyes were. They could trap him forever and he’d be happy to live there…
Maansi… Where was she now?
He never did steal again, of course – a lesson like that does leave an impact. It was probably one of the only real memories he had of his grandfather, who passed away before Sid was thirteen.
Sid sighed and walked out to the balcony overlooking the courtyard that boasted of roses, in total contrast to the one he’d had at home with a solitary banyan tree growing there.
He watched the mists rise up the houses of the neighbours, none of whom he really knew, and thought of how he’d known every single neighbour back at home – not that he had ever made any effort to get to know them, but his mother was a good neighbour to all, respected and looked up to, and she never gave up any opportunity of hosting an occasional dinner for the ones in that part of the world. It made her happy, he could tell.
He wondered now, as he thought of her, how he’d never really seen her without her apron and her loose bun, the sweet smell of flour always about her person. She was beautiful, yes, and had a musical voice too. Her only regret in life was that she couldn’t read, and this made her feel out of place whenever Sid’s father read out stories to him and his siblings in the evenings. She could only listen. Never read. He found himself feeling ashamed of the fact that he had looked down upon her for this single “defect” which made her seem less-than-perfect to him… and how he’d adored and respected his father for being able to do what his mother couldn’t.
Sid’s father was a jovial man bestowed with a gentle, happy and benevolent nature. He took them out for walks in the mornings, buttered their toasts, took them to the movies, and read them stories every evening. Every single one of them adored him – but he loved Sid the most. “Siddhartha is made for great things”, he used to say, “Success will not be a mere word to him.”
Sid was always marked out from the rest of his siblings, never really scolded, (not even when he had stolen those rum chocolates that day), yet he never let the praises get to his head.
He was always the silent, observant boy, feeling like an outcast in his family most of the time, a feeling that grew with the growth in his education and ambition, (except when he was with Maansi), and having a sense of disconnect with his life in India…
The desire to leave had been established in him at an early age itself; and leave he did, as soon as he was of age, ready to climb the peaks of success in a new nation, with a new life, and never look back – not even when his father breathed his last and his mother called for him, not even when his brothers took their father’s ashes to the Ganges and, not even when his mother severed all ties with him saying, “I cannot overstate the importance of the presence of the eldest son during his father’s last rites…from this day on, Siddhartha, I wash my hands of you.” He thought she would come around soon enough but he had been proven wrong.
A mother’s hurt could be as strong as her love – perhaps stronger.
Yet despite all of this, he never really missed home- until today, a nostalgia set off by the most unlikely of things.
He had never allowed himself to think of home, of his mother, of the youngest little twin brothers, who must have graduated by now, of Maansi, of his father…
At precisely this juncture, Sid’s little one came out to the balcony asking him to solve a quarrel between her sister and her.
He stared at her, bewildered, lost in thoughts… she reminded him of the elder one of his twin brothers, though why, he couldn’t tell.
He watched her run away from him, and into the adjoining room, as she got no response, and approach her mother with her story… how different they seemed to him, how distant… like strangers. His wife, a picture of sophistication and class, so unlike his mother with her apron and her bun; his daughters, with their fragility and refined graces, so unlike his rugged, rough, wild little brothers…
He turned away from them and felt an old, familiar feeling creep up inside him – the feeling of not belonging, of being an outcast, of living amongst strangers.
He wondered whether he had any culture, whether he belonged anywhere, but only a strange blankness stared at him for an answer.
Why was it, that after all these years, he wanted someone to call him Siddhartha and not Sid? Why was it that every time his daughters read their books on Indian folktales, he felt a sudden warm rush? Why was it, that he wanted to converse with someone, anyone, in his native language? Why was it, that after all these years, the sight of pies and tarts couldn’t arouse his appetite, and he craved for a homemade chapatti and spicy curry?
And, why was it that he couldn’t, for the life of him, remember his mother’s voice, yet he could almost hear his father’s… gentle, reassuring, praising, doting… dead?
Sid felt a sudden urge to cry, to let it all out. He felt weary and suffocated and could feel the back of his collar dampen with sweat… He tried hard but the tears just wouldn’t come out. Why wasn’t he capable of even a little emotion, he thought to himself, a little remorse?
He lit a cigarette in a futile attempt to calm his nerves.
He turned around again and saw, through the frosted window separating the balcony and the adjoining room, his two daughters once again at play, with one tying pink satin ribbons on the other’s hair and both smiling happily. Why couldn’t adults be like children and forget their old scores and woes in a matter of minutes? But that was only wishful thinking he supposed…
Looking at them he wondered whether his karma would get back at him in the end, when he died… What if his children wouldn’t come to his funeral?
Stifled by his own thoughts, he sighed heavily.
The cigarette had done him no good and he walked out of the balcony. Perhaps a little fresh air would do the job. Also, he felt a deep urge to be out of the house for a while. A long while. He took his jacket and decided to make his way once again to the park… He looked for his wife to inform her, but hearing her voice from the room upstairs, talking over the phone with one of her friends, made him decide against it.
Just as he was about to leave, he noticed, once again, the bowl of the rum chocolates on the table. He went towards it and picked the one on top and put it in his pocket.
As he walked to the park, he thought of all the things that he had left behind, in leaving home, and of Maansi… As he neared the park full of children and joggers, he picked out a solitary spot and sat on the bench there. He fumbled in his pocket for the chocolate and for a moment felt a grave panic at not finding it immediately, but as soon as his fingers locked in upon it, and felt its wrapper, he felt a deep surge of relief and happiness… as though he’d found a lost treasure. He unwrapped it hurriedly and ate it hungrily.
The sharp tang of rum warmed his insides as the chocolate melted in his mouth taking him back to the days of old…
Once again, he was twelve, and under the staircase, excited and nervous, a little guilty even, yet curious, and in a mind for mischief, with the girl he’d always been infatuated with… Once again, he could hear his mother laughing in the kitchen with the old woman, the Punditji’s wife, who had come to ask for some curd; hear his father listening to one of his brothers recite a poem about spices, learned at school; and hear the little twin brothers crying in the room upstairs; feeling all the while, the dread of hearing the old, heavy, footsteps of his grandfather walk in upon them and pull him by the ears from under the hiding spot.
The bittersweet taste of the chocolates felt salty and sour, as heavy, long-due tears ran down his cheeks and met his lips, and he sobbed, like a child…for what felt like the very first time in all his life.
It’s strange how memories can push their way past borders, proud, defiant, ignoring rules, oblivious to time, and remind you of things you never thought you’d remember; little things – seemingly unimportant – taken for granted, like the house you grew up in, standing knowingly and stoically, its windows in tranquility…with all its airs and graces – telling you in a quiet whisper, carried to you by the winds themselves, that one day you will miss this place, dearly… in days like this day, you will miss the home you grew up in and everything you felt while amidst its walls and its inmates; the home that made you and brought you up – you will miss it… Seeking it in your memories and finding solace there; and when you walk away from it, you will feel the eyes of the proud door behind you – the door that knows too much of you, the door that knows that the time you’ve spent there will never return – and it haunts you with its honesty; you feel your home almost mocking you and telling you that though you’re leaving it, it will never leave you – and will stay there, embedded in the deepest parts of your heart and mind – a memory in the making, waiting to be remembered, by a scent smelled somewhere years later, a long forgotten sight seen in your breakfast table, and the well-known taste, of rum chocolates for dessert.
© Isha Garg
Doodle by Isha Garg