The November auburn sky was ready to dissolve in the vast darkness of the indigo night. The birds were rushing back to their nests, chirping to the rest in the flock to move faster. Behind the clouds, the moon hung like a skinny band of radiance.
In the Malik’s residence, soft jazz had found a dwelling on the music player. Mehroonisa swayed her hips slowly and lip-synced on the songs, holding her empty wine glass like a microphone. Occasionally, she looked into the jewel encrusted mosaic mirror on the wall, singing to herself and coquettishly adjusting her nose stud. The blue chandelier earrings that Farhan bought for her birthday last year looked dazzling with her black georgette sari with sequins. The dark violet border on the sari matched the color of Mehroonisa’s eyes.
“You are beautiful.” Farhaan said, with a naughty smile on his face.
Mehroonisa beamed, cranked up the music player volume.
Pennies in a stream
Falling leaves of a sycamore
Moonlight in Vermont
Evening summer breeze
Warbling of a meadowlark
You and I and Moonlight in Vermont
Farhan saw his lovely wife do a twist as poured another round of drinks for both of them.
“Here is to the beautiful birthday girl. Cheers!” Their glasses chimed together.
Dancing and getting drunk was their once-a-month ritual, but on birthdays and anniversaries, they took out their cherished favorite CDs of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, and fantasized themselves in glamorous sounds of romance and old world charm.
“Eh Mehroo, Your present. It is in my wallet. Let me get it.” Farhan said, as he held her close while dancing.
“Eh Faaru, You are my present and my future.” Mehroonisa tightened the hug.
Farhan shook his head at the silly joke as he softly pushed her back and went to the bedroom to bring his wallet.
Mehroonisa snatched the wallet and looked at Farhan while opening it. She found a small green satin paper envelope. She slid it out then slid it back and threw the wallet on the sofa. Her annoyance was visible.
“Gift card? Seriously? You got me a gift card?”
She hated gift cards. They reeked of laziness.
“No, listen baba .. I wanted to buy you that handbag you told me about. But I don’t know about brands or colors or style. ” Farhaan tried to make her see the point.
“No, That is not acceptable” Mehroonisa was adamant. She didn’t think she needed to explain to her husband why.
“Mehroo, it really doesn’t matter.”
“No means no.” She said walking towards the kitchen.
Farhan smiled. He knew his wife of 27 years. She was still the same stubborn lass he fell in love with in college, who fought with him to give her fewer gifts because she felt embarrassed in front of her friends whose boyfriends were not so rich. He had only stopped because she had threatened to break up.
Mehroonisa glanced back and pretended to have glaring anger in her eyes. The hands fanned into a cobra hissing at him.
“Ok fine, snake girl, don’t kill me,” Farhan surrendered.
But Mehroonisa wasn’t listening. The next song on player had caught her attention.
Bees do it , bees do it
Even educated fleas do it
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love
Farhan laughed at his wife’s ageless theatrics and blew her a kiss. Mehroonisa gleefully extended a hand to catch the kiss in the air. Then she closed her eyes and pouted gracefully like a professional Jazz Singer to blow him a kiss back.
She opened her eyes on the hospital bed. Six machines cramped in a tiny room. She closed and opened her eyes a few times to ensure it wasn’t a bad dream. Something thick had started to curdle up in her. She tried to sit up and shrieked when she couldn’t. She had no strength.
Their 23 –year-old daughter, Taani, rushed to her side. The parents wanted to come in too but the nurse asked them to wait. The nurses adjusted the bottle, took her temperature and made small talk until the doctor came inside with reports. She was doing much better now, he had assured her.
“Ho kya raha hai? Why am I here? When did Taani return from Bangalore? Where is Farhan?” She had wanted to scream but she seemed to have no control on her voice.
It took a lot of patience from both sides to come to the point. Taani sat on one side on the bed and on the other side her parents had taken her hands in theirs and told her that her Farhan had died following a massive heart attack the evening of her birthday. She had run to get help but had fallen off the stairs and had been in a coma for 20 days..
Coma? Heart Attack? Farhan had died? It made no sense to Mehroonisa. It was not Farhan’s way of dying. He was a health enthusiast, marathon runner and even occasionally retreated to yoga.
The unbelievable was happening. Are they lying? Is this a prank? She looked towards the door expecting Farhan to pop his head from the side of the door and yell surprise! as he often did in college days.
It irritated her then. I’ll kill you, she would say. It wouldn’t irritate her now.
“No No No I wouldn’t kill you. Show me your face.” She pleaded to her husband.
She wanted to cry but all she could do was scream. It was simultaneous painful and confusing for her.
While she slept peacefully, her husband’s body had been religiously returned back to the elements it came from. No questions. No answers. Her college sweetheart, the doting husband was gone. Just like that. Accept it or not.
Her lips started to quiver. She went back to sleep.
Taani watched her mother go back to sleep and fixed a few strands of hair from her face. There was one thing Taani knew about her mother. Her mother did not love anybody the way she loved her husband. And with her father gone, Taani had lost her mother too.
As she caressed her mother’s limp hand she cried without tears. Her eyes wandered outside the grimy window.
Outside the ward, the hospital staff talked about how the daughter of room #309 patient had been running around to get all necessary paperwork done first for her father death and then for her mother’s hospital dues.
Mehroonisa opened her eyes and watched Taani, moving medicine bottles aside to keep the tea cup on her bedside table. The mother and daughter exchanged a kind glance at each other and a half-smile formed at the corner of their lips.
Did you eat something? Mehroonisa asked, trying to sound as motherly as she could.
“Haan. Toast. I am leaving now.” She said wearing a watch her father gave her.
“On a Sunday?” Mehroonisa had wanted to ask.
But she heard the door shut before the words could make their way to the mouth.
Mehroonisa looked on the framed pictures on the wall. Not too long ago they were all happy and together. She felt a strange pang, similar to that of an empty nest. All the birds were gone. Some of them had gone too far.
The doctors had advised two months bed rest but she had taken more than six. She felt safe and closer to Faaru under this blanket. It still carried the smell of his after shave mixed with the odor of his night flatulence.
She got up from the bed slowly and limped towards the bathroom. The bed sores were beginning to sting. Now that she had the home to herself, she could come out of her shell for a bit to wash up. There was no one around to judge her for her latency in getting back to her feet.
She looked at the bathroom mirror and the mirror shot back with spiritual wisdom.
No! She shot back. A thick lump in her throat refused and threatened to hurt her eyes. She looked away.
She splashed her face and wiped her blank expressionless face with a towel. She opened the Almirah and glanced at all the saris hanging. The pink jamavar, the red and gold bandhani, the yellow with pastel flowers, the black with violet border. She looked away, quickly pulled the purple house gown and beige shawl and closed the Almirah.
The phone rang twice as she was changing. The brain was in no hurry to take telecommunication urgencies. She did however pick up at the third ring.
“Ma’m, we have a special discount for mother’s day. Would you like to..?”
Is it Mother’s day? Today?
She remembered the last Mother’s day. The mother-daughter had gone shopping for a new bookshelf. They had similar taste in furniture. Classic but modern with artsy bent to it. They made the purchase and then spent the entire afternoon sipping wine at the new bistro in broad day light, something Mehroonisa always wanted to do. Taani brought out the adventurous side in her, just like her father did. She made her laugh like her father did, too.
She took her Teacup to the balcony. The May afternoon air was dry and itchy against her skin. She came inside and observed the house like someone who has no attachment to it does. The hall and kitchen were mostly clean. One of the plastic place mats on the dining table had a water streak, like it was just wiped. The rest looked good as new, never touched.
She opened the door to Taani’s room and found it spick and span. Not a thing out of her place. Tears welled up in her eyes. The Taani she had known never bothered with cleanliness. Her room always looked like a Sunday fish market. The maid had to be paid extra to clean the room. Even when Taani moved to Bangalore, she returned home once a month for 3 days.
Farhan’s death had changed Taani, too. And for the first time, Mehroonisa realized that she had never once thought that Taani too had lost her father. She had been so occupied in her own pain of losing a partner, she had become selfish and oblivious to her own flesh and blood’s feelings.
She was a bad mother. In fact, Taani had become the mother bird and she had become the dependent bird, waiting all day in the nest to be fed and taken care of.
She ran to her bedroom and opened a few drawers looking for Farhan’s wallet. The satin envelope shone in sunlight. She took it out and opened the envelope.
There was a note attached to gift card.
To Mehroo, My Jaan
The way you wear your hat
The way you sip your tea
The memory of all that
No, No, They can’t take that away from me.
From Your Faaru
Drop by drop, the unannounced tears fell on Mehroonisa’s cheek like the big raindrops do a sunny day. She sat on the edge of the bed and sobbed until she thought the time stopped still.
She got up, limped to the Almirah and picked out her new aqua green chiffon sari and looked for a matching blouse. There wasn’t anything that matched.
She wasn’t sure she will have the courage to wear it today, but one day soon, she will have to get a blouse stitched.
The gift card had been neatly tucked in the inner pocket of her old handbag. She looked at it and pouted in mild scorn.
It was time to buy Taani and herself a new handbag.
It was time to go on a wine sipping date with her daughter.
It was time to become her daughter’s mother again.
It was time to ask Taani how she was feeling.
In the evening when Taani came home carrying five grocery bags, she stopped in her tracks to see her mother wearing a Sari, fiddling with CDs. Mehroonisa waited for her daughter to say something but Taani stood there for 2 seconds then went straight into the kitchen without any expression on the face.
Mehroonisa found it a bit strange. She had thought Taani will be happy to see her mother decked up.
She walked into the kitchen and saw Taani standing there looking at the floor.
“Taani “ she said.
“I am sorry, Taani. Betu.”
No answer. The silence was deafening.
She waited and then took a few more steps to touch Taani on her arm.
Taani let out a huge sigh and turned back to face her mother.
Her face was a pool of black, blue and purple tears. Mehroonisa wiped her tears. And in wiping her daughter’s tears, her own tears resolved a few knots.
They two birds then hugged till the tears were replaced by trust and comfort.
In time the Rockies may crumble
Gibraltar may tumble
They are only made of clay
But our love is here to stay
Together we’re going a long long way
(c) Anuradha Sharma
(The title of the story and lyrics quoted above are by Ella Fitzgerald, my favorite singer. She puts me at ease on cold December nights.)