by Anu Shivaram
The summer sun lazily slid behind the horizon, painting the sky with brilliant hues of orange and pink. “Mummy look! so many colours in the sky. The sun is going home now.” Young Adi exclaimed looking at the spectacular sunset. Suma and Ravi smiled listening to their son as the car entered their driveway.
Ravi’s eyes looked for his mother, Girija. Nearly every day, the headlights would illuminate her standing by the front door, as they arrived home from work.
She was not at the door today, there were no lights in the house. Suma was perplexed. She got off the car and rushed straight to her mother- in- law, Girija’s room. Finding the room empty, she went through the whole house, switching on lights and looking for her mother-in-law.
When she entered the kitchen, a note stuck on the fridge caught her attention. Seeing Girija’s handwriting, she grabbed the note and started reading it.
Ravi also came into the kitchen with their little son Adi. He snatched the note from her before she could finish reading. As Ravi read the letter, his face turned red with anger. “What the bloody hell does this mean, what sort of a horrible joke is this?” he yelled, trembling with rage.
“Calm down Ravi, what is the matter?” Suma took the letter from his hand and began to read it.
“Dears Suma and Ravi,
I know this note will shock you. At this stage of my life, I have taken a decision which is against all expected norms. I have decided to go to New Zealand on a fifteen-day cruise with our neighbour Mr. Alex. I will stay in his city apartment tonight and leave Sydney by 3 pm tomorrow. I have not decided on what happens after the cruise.
I am very sorry for causing you this pain. I understand how terribly embarrassing it is for you to face family and friends. I understand your anger and your disappointment; it is totally valid. I request you both to understand my loneliness, my lack of purpose in this age. I am trying to find a meaning for my existence, don’t know if I will succeed.
My love and blessings to little Adi. It will be very difficult for me to manage without him and you both but I had to take this decision. I have written Alex’s number and address in the phone book. I will wait for your phone call.
“You mean to say she has eloped like a teenager?” Suma exclaimed without thinking.
Ravi did not answer, he felt stifled, “My head seems to be splitting into a thousand pieces”, he dashed out for a breath of fresh air.
Suma sank into a nearby sofa as though it was impossible to stand. This was a huge shock for both of them.
Adi, tired and cranky, came in and tugged at Suma’s dress asking for food. Suma went into the kitchen and saw the table neatly set out for their dinner. When she saw Adi’s favourite summer drink, mango lassi in the fridge, something stirred inside her and her eyes welled up. She let Adi enjoy the drink and walked into Girija’s room.
The room was neat and tidy. A picture of Ravi’s deceased dad sat on a table with a bunch of fresh flowers in a vase, books neatly arranged in a bookcase, a silent tanpura nested in a corner. It must have been ages since she had entered Girija’s room.
“How did this gentle, shy lady take such a bold decision?” Suma wondered.
Even when they had friends come over, Girija generally retired to her room after the initial formalities. How did such a hesitant person befriend Alex? How did she decide to go away with him?
Suma knew their neighbour Alex was fond of young Adi and had invited him to use their pool on hot days. A couple of times when Ravi was away and Suma was struggling to mow the lawn, he had offered to help. Except for the customary greetings, they didn’t interact much. Suma neither had the time nor the inclination to find out more about him.
Let alone neighbours, Suma did not have much time to talk to Girija who lived in the same house. Her job and Aditya’s activities seemed to consume all her time and energy. Thankfully, Girija managed the household and handed them a shopping list when they needed to replenish groceries!
When Girija had newly arrived in Sydney, Ravi would sit in the kitchen and chat with her about his childhood, his vague recollections of his deceased dad and other relatives and friends. Gradually those sessions decreased as Ravi got more involved in his job and his travels for work increased. Aditya’s activities took up considerable time during his weekends
Not that they did not have their differences and misgivings. Suma was aware of the immense help she received. Girija’s efficient presence at home helped her focus on and advance her career. Both women seemed to have made a conscious effort to avoid open confrontations.
Suma sat slumped by Girija’s bed for a long time. She heard Ravi walk in and slam the door. She understood how upset and how concerned he was. She felt a deep sense of guilt. Were they wrong in forcing Girija to leave India and come and stay with them in distant Australia?
Earlier, when they had visited her in India, Girija had said, “Ravi, the roof is leaking. Can you get a handyman to fix this please?”
Ravi had immediately retorted “why bother about fixing this old house ma? We have a beautiful five-bedroom house in Sydney, just come and stay with us, without any of these hassles”.
Ravi’s aunt who was listening to this added, “What Ravi says is true Girija. This is your time to relax and stay with your son. Why don’t you just go and live with them in comfort? Why would you bother about fixing this old house now?”
Girija was in her late fifties and had just retired from the school where she worked. Girija had smiled helplessly, not knowing what to say. She was apprehensive about going to an unknown country but she was not confident about continuing to live alone in an old house that made constant demands for repair.
Finally, she yielded to Ravi’s persuasion and decided to sell her house and go with them to Sydney. Like Girija, Suma was also apprehensive about having her mother-in-law living with them permanently but she knew how restless Ravi was, worrying about his mother living alone in a distant place.
Deep down, her traditional Indian upbringing convinced her that it was her duty to look after her in-laws. She braced herself for the tensions that would ensue living with an in-law.
After lengthy visa formalities, Girija landed in Sydney. Suma had thanked her stars as the timing could not have been more perfect; Aditya was born within a month of Girija’s arrival!
Girija automatically assumed complete charge of the baby and spent her entire day looking after him and getting used to the new gadgets and the Sydney lifestyle.
Three years rolled by rather uneventfully. Ravi and Suma both started getting more involved with their work while Girija was busy bringing up her grandson.
After three years, they all visited India. Suma was rather irritated to find Girija laughing heartily, chatting loudly with everyone she met.
“She acts as though she has just been released from prison,” Suma remarked to her sister when Girija was not around.
After returning from India, Suma noticed that Girija often seemed distracted and lost. She would withdraw into a shell whenever they got news of a relative or friend’s demise in India.
When they admitted Aditya to a pre-school close to Suma’s work in the city, Girija had cried unabashedly. They had laughed, attributing it to her love of Adi, not for a minute thinking she could be crying from fear of loneliness.
Suma came back to reality when Ravi entered the room and yelled, “Give me his address, I will go and bring amma back. What does she think of herself, running away like this?”
“It is rather late, let us sleep tonight Ravi. We shall go and meet her in the morning. We now know she is safe,” Suma tried to pacify him.
She locked the front door and tucked Adi into his bed. Suma could not sleep, she walked back into Girija’s room as though she were looking for some clues. She opened the wardrobe and gently ran her hand through a few soft saris hanging in the wardrobe. Right beneath the saris sat Girija’s red diary, blushing as though embarrassed by all the secrets it held within.
Suma grabbed the diary, throwing all discretion to the wind. She knew it was inappropriate, but she didn’t care; she needed to know what led Girija to her decisions. She turned the pages hurriedly, her feminine curiosity egging her on!
The first few pages contained Girija’s memories of the school where she taught and recollections of her friends and colleagues.
Suma was startled to read that Girija would wait to see the postman every day, even when he brought no letters for her! He was the only human being she saw during the day!
Ravi and Suma were very proud of their beautiful mansion in a pricey suburb of Sydney, discreetly hiding in a cul-de-sac away from all hustle and bustle. Girija had bemoaned her fate to be locked up in this beautiful prison with no human interaction throughout the day!
Suma teared up reading this; she had no clue how lonely Girija felt and how desperately she wished she could drive; how desperate she was to meet people and talk to them. She even had flyers of driving schools tucked in her diary!
Girija had recalled how in her school staff room they analysed the TV serials and discussed the latest books and movies with so much enthusiasm. She had missed that camaraderie. she wrote, “how can one enjoy a good book or a good show without sharing it with others?”
More than everything Girija had missed her music. She did not feel like singing alone. She sang when Adi was little and was at home with her. She had not felt like singing to the lifeless walls that echoed her voice as though mocking her!
Girija had recounted in her diary one day while she was frying some samosas the fire alarm had gone off and she had run out into the open, not knowing what to do. Their neighbour Alex, who was working in his garden saw her panic and came to check. When he saw how scared she was of the fire alarm, he had coolly walked in and turned off the alarm.
The aroma of the piping hot samosas had drawn him into the kitchen and Girija recalled hesitantly offering him some. Alex had sat comfortably at the kitchen bench and savoured the samosas.
Girija had replied to his queries haltingly in her accented English and thanked him for the timely help.
After that, Girija stopped to say hello whenever she saw him working in the yard. He would stop what he was doing and come up to her for a chat. Much to her own chagrin, Girija found herself stepping out into the garden every day, neatly groomed!
“Alex must be a little older than me. He is so affable and friendly. It feels like I have known him for a long time. Finally, I have found one person I can connect to, in this strange city,” Girija had written.
Girija was tormented by guilt; a traditional Indian widow, she knew she was forbidden from befriending a strange man, but her yearning for companionship was so strong it made her defy every barrier she had set up for herself.
Much against her will, she allowed Alex to spend leisurely afternoons all summer chatting on her deck, cutting up a juicy watermelon, or coaxing her to make delicious mango lassi. He loved it when she made mildly spiced buttermilk on hot afternoons. They exchanged their life stories, now each able to understand the other’s accents and thoughts better.
Alexander Novak was a toddler when his family came as Polish migrants to Australia in a ship just after the Second World War. His parents had died when he was a teenager and Alex had worked his way up and set up a successful business.
After two decades, when their marriage turned sour, Alex’s wife had left him. A few years later his three children had also flown the nest, leaving it empty.
To overcome his loneliness Alex had started travelling wherever his fancy took him. He narrated experiences of exotic places to Girija who listened to him, her eyes wide with wonder, trying to imagine the cities and towns that Alex described. Girija had admitted shyly that she had seldom travelled and had only visited three towns in her entire life.
Suma continued reading Girija’s graphic description in the pages of her diary.
When Girija had insisted on going back to India suddenly, Suma thought she was homesick and had arranged for her travel.
“I want to go back to India” Girija had written. “I don’t want to get involved with a foreigner at this stage of my life. I will not be able to handle the backlash of an elderly widow being involved with a man. How will Ravi and Suma feel? They would be so embarrassed by my behaviour. It would be such a disgrace,” she had debated within herself.
The pages revealed to Suma how desperately Girija had tried to explore options of going back to India, afraid of her growing attachment to Alex and the ensuing repercussions.
Girija was severely disappointed that things had changed in her town while she was away in Sydney. Her old colleagues had now retired, many friends had relocated, internet cafes had popped up everywhere in the town and she could not identify herself with the changed town anymore.
Suma could not believe that Girija had visited a few old age homes trying to see if she could live there. She had felt even more lonely in her home town and had returned reluctantly to her family in Sydney.
With the turn of each page, Suma felt Girija was changing, was growing and becoming a different person.
Girija had debated within herself whether or not Alex was the reason for her to return! She had worried herself sick about the social, emotional and physical ramifications of her association with Alex. The pages of the diary revealed how scared and worried Girija was.
It was almost daybreak and the rays of the sun peeped through the curtains when Suma finished reading her mother-in-law’s diary. She felt she had finally got to know this lady who had lived with her for so many years.
When she came down the steps, Suma saw Ravi getting ready to go and meet his mother. He still looked very angry.
She stood near him and said firmly “Don’t go alone Ravi when Adi wakes up let us all go and see them off on their cruise. When ma comes back, let her decide how she wants to live.”
“What do you mean?” Ravi hissed.
“I mean… it is her life, her decision” Suma’s tone was calm but firm.
Ms Anu Shivaram is interested in languages and literature, loves to travel and learn about other cultures. Generally, she writes in her Mother-tongue Kannada and is interested in translating between English and Kannada. Presently working as a Contract Manager with the NSW government. She lives in Sydney and is involved with Vision2020 a charity organisation that supports infrastructure development in India.