Click! Piu heard the distinct sound on the other side as Indrani disconnected the call. That was so much unlike Ma, Piu thought to herself. Usually, it was Piu who disconnected the call even as Indrani held on, patiently waiting on the other end, never wanting to be the first one to press the ‛cancel’ button.
But today was different. It was Sunday. Piu could easily visualize her mother – she had just taken her bath, droplets of water from the wet strands were seeping into the cotton fabric of her blouse, leaving a damp spot. An early morning person, by this time she must have finished her yoga, drank her morning tea, watered the plants and completed puja after her bath. On other days, she would be sitting in the balcony, sipping her second cup of tea without sugar or milk and flipping the pages of the newspaper absent-mindedly, her mind miles away from the current affairs, dipping into the past and memories till it was time to leave for college.
But not today. By this time she must have cut the vegetables for lunch, slicing each one differently, according to the dishes they would go in. The potato cut for the bitter mish-mash – shukto would be different from that of alu posto – potatoes cooked in poppy paste. The veggies would be washed and kept in small heaps waiting for their turn to go into the deep-bottomed pan. The chillies would be cut lengthwise, each one exactly of the same size and would go in after the phoron or seasoning. Despite the heat, her face would be serene, not a hair out of place and her bindi intact. Oh, the bindi won’t be there! Even after three years, Piu could never think of her mother without the customary dot. On Skype, Piu always felt unsettled seeing her mother’s bare forehead.
In her childhood memories, the bindi was always there. Mom would wake up Piu every morning. Little Piu’s eyelids fluttered open and that quarter-sized bindi would loom large in view. While going to the college, Ma would prefer only maroon or black ones but at times, during parties and marriage functions, it would take the hue of the saree she wore.
By the time Dad had died, Piu was already in the States to pursue her degree and the bindihad remained deeply etched in her memory. She was yet to get used to that vacant spot between the eyebrows. The bindi or the lack of it also reminded Piu of her guilt. The guilt she felt about leaving Ma back there, but then she had to finish her research. Somewhere deep inside she knew her chances of going back in the near future were slim. She had her research to finish and then there was Adi or Aditya. Actually, it was Adi who filled Piu’s void of companionship.
She realised how lonely her mother felt after Dad died. His death was not only sudden but it came when they both, in their early fifties, were ready to explore life once again, after Piu had flown the nest. They were going on vacations, watched concerts and plays almost every evening, revisiting the days after their marriage and before Piu was born.
Piu had finished her coffee and got up for a shower. Actually, today she had all the time in her hand. She picked up her dirty laundry and Adi’s as well, intending to start the washing machine. Though Adi had his own apartment, he hardly stayed there. He spent his time more in her apartment, than his own. Half of his clothes were here, Piu thought wryly.
Adi was busy this weekend. His mother had come for a week or two from Chandigarh. Though she met Piu, Adi had so far kept their relationship a secret from his family. His conservative family wanted him to marry somebody from their community. They were traders for generations and Adi was the first software engineer in his family and the only one among his siblings and cousins to go for a job, albeit a high paying one. They also expected a large dowry, Adi had laughed while confiding to her. Although they were yet to talk about settling down, Piu felt a little bit nervous about fitting in. But then she had reasoned they won’t be staying with his parents and the little time they would spend she might be able to play the docile daughter-in-law for Adi’s sake. At least she hoped so. No wonder she was trying to perfect that recipe of rajma-chawal as a comfort food for Adi though she was not all that fond of rajma.
Stifling a yawn her eyes strayed to the clock and quickly she calculated the time in Kolkata. In another half-an-hour, Dhrubakaku would be there at their apartment. For the past one and half months, this has been their routine. He would arrive at around 11 am, they would chat for some time before Ma would serve lunch. They would eat together; afterwards, he would watch TV or read a book while Ma took her nap. Then she would make tea, and after another round of chatting he would finally leave around seven in the evening. The two have fallen into a routine. From her voice, Piu could detect the happiness her mother felt. Ma no longer dreaded the Sundays when she would be alone at home all day, the television blaring just to break that silence that threatened to engulf her. Ma, an excellent cook, had almost stopped cooking for herself. Piu felt relieved that slowly her mother’s life was back on tracks.
Dhrubakaku was no stranger to Piu since her childhood. Both her father and Dhrubakaku were in charge of adjoining administrative blocks during the early part of their services. The two families would meet often. She remembered Mitali Kakima with her long hair, always worn in a thick braid or a bun. Piu would silently stalk her and at the very first opportunity, tug at the bun and her hair cascaded down. She loved playing with it, curling the ends with her fingers, hiding her face behind the thick tresses and while her mother frowned at her, Kakima would smile indulgently. Piu was a few years older than Ria and they were playmates. Actually, Ria was her living doll, whom she could love and bully.
She still remembered when Mitali Kakima was suddenly hospitalised and Ria had been left in her mother’s care. When she died, Dhrubakaku sought a transfer to Kolkata to be near his in-laws so that they could take care of Ria. That was the time, perhaps, they had lost touch as her father continued to be transferred from one district to another. Even after coming back to Kolkata the father and daughter met occasionally, each one busy with their own lives. But Dad and Dhrubakaku must have been in touch because they were in the same service. After Dad died, he came to pick up Piu at the airport, he had seemed exactly the same as before, save the greying and receding hairline.
He was exceptionally witty and upright just like her own father but was more friendly. Perhaps that was because he had to bring up Ria without a mother. He connected exceptionally well with the young. And he could make Ma laugh again. And Ria, Piu thought how wrongly she had assessed her. Unlike Piu, she was not academically brilliant. And Piu had dismissed her as the unambitious type who would just get married and settle down. But Ria had a mind of her own. After attending a designing course she initially started freelancing, designing book covers and magazines. Now she was slowly setting up her own business, turning into an entrepreneur. Piu discovered a new Ria after Dad died.
Once Piu returned to the States, Indrani struggled with depression. Friends and relatives dropped in but most were not perceptive enough to understand her loss. The nights and Sundays were the most difficult ones. It was Ria who would drop in now and then, stay over at night, even as visits by others steadily declined and then suddenly stopped altogether. Six months was a long time and the widow was expected to get on with her life. Throughout the period, Ria handheld a grieving Indrani, dragged her to malls for occasional shopping or to watch a film, and gradually brought her back to the land of the living.
But nowadays, Ria, a budding photographer as well, was usually away on Sundays, venturing into the suburbs to capture, interesting snippets of life. Quietly, Dhrubakaku had replaced her on Sundays. Indrani struggled with tax filing and investments, things she had never done on her own. Dhrubakaku had simply taken over.
For the past week, Piu has been toying with an idea. Next day while chatting on Skype, she could not hold back and blurted out, “Mom why don’t you two marry? I have no objections if that is what is holding you back.” Clearly, taken aback, her mother was quiet for a few seconds. Did I hurt her? Piu thought desperately, did she miss Dad? Did she think she would be betraying his memories? Piu waited for her response. She once again thought of all the arguments and how carefully she had laid her case. “If you can be happy together why do you want to think of the society?” She tried again.
“Piu, it is not the society that I am thinking about or even you. I know you feel guilty for being away. But you have your own life. I am thinking of myself. It is not easy to adjust to another person at this age. I am used to being alone. I think this is a far better arrangement where Dhruba or Ria come and go just when they like or I need them,” her mother patiently explained.
“But they are great people. What’s your problem?”
“Piu, I am not sure of marriage and staying together. I don’t know whether he snores or leaves the toilet seat down. I could adjust to your father when I was young but I don’t think I can do it now. Why do I need to marry him when we can be great friends? We are adults and we do not need a chaperone to meet and spend time together.”
Piu for once lost her tongue – “Snoring? Toilet seat?” she mumbled.
Sitting so far away, Piu could still hear the quiet confidence in her mother’s voice. She hardly registered a word as her numb mind went over and over her mother’s utterances.
Suddenly, the screen went blank; poor connection she thought bemusedly. As Adi once again winked from the wallpaper on her screen, Piu suddenly felt the need to re-evaluate her own relationship. Homesick and lonely, when did Piu become Adi’s dirty secret?
Bile rose in her throat as she tried to figure out when and how did she become a doormat and handed over the reins of her life to Adi. Suddenly, she felt a violent urge to take control of her life and set the boundaries anew for the relationship. She got up and took out the clothes from the dryer. In a large poly bag, she stuffed Adi’s clothes without bothering to fold them. Her chest still felt cramped. Piu then quickly emptied out his space in her wardrobe, and threw in the toothbrush and shaving razor Adi had left in her bathroom closet, in the same poly bag, for good measure. It was indeed time to reclaim her space and her life.