Playing our roles in the drama of life
I am just back from 135 / 6 Usha Sadan. It is the place where I grew up. Where most of my past memories reside. There is no one there now. Bare, empty, freshly painted; the house is in the market looking for its next owner.
As I moved around the empty house, each corner of the house spoke to me. It was like seeing an old black and white movie. The apartment seemed like a stage where each person, situation and thing had played their part and vanished into thin air.
It is steel grey, with long drawers on each side. It is called the office table. On the left are files with electricity and telephone bills dating back many years. In the centre is a wooden semi-circular pen stand that has the words O. P. KHATTRI inscribed on it. I think my grandfather got it from his office, when he retired as Chief Controller in the Central Railway. On the right are two big phone directories. There are many other things on the table — diaries, old books, rubber band boxes, clips, staplers, a telephone and some more files.
“Why don’t you clear this table? There is hardly any space to write on it!” I say for the nth time.
Papaji looks at me through his thick black framed spectacles, clearly annoyed. “And where will I put all these working files and office stationary?” he retorts.
“Put them away somewhere. Make space. This house is like a godown. Things only come in, nothing goes out.” I say.
He does not respond. I know he is irritated. He is a documenter. He keeps note of all information, not knowing when it will be useful. He applies the same wisdom to things.
This has a fixed location. In front of the gas stove with two burners. This is where my grandmother sits most of the day. Picking up a small portion of the dough, she rolls it into a round shaped roti, on the wooden rolling board with her belan. I wonder how many rotis she has cooked in her life. Perhaps if it was documented, Kaki may be eligible for ‘maximum rotis in a lifetime’ record.
“Aaj kya banaya?” I ask her groggily.
She laughs indulgently. “Sabsey pehley uth kar log Bhagwan ka naam letey hai, aur thu puchta hai “Aaj kya banaya?”
I smile at our daily morning banter and squeeze her cheeks.
“Kaw! Kaw! Kaw!” comes the sound from the open window.
“Aa gaya tumhara kauwa!” I say
“Kauwa nahi Kakbhushandi! Marney key baad yeh hi tho humey dusri taraf ley jayega.” comes her response.
She immediately makes a small ball out of the dough, dips it in oil and sesame seeds and stretches her hand towards the window. The crow takes its breakfast in its beak and flys away. Apart from me asking, what have you cooked today, this is another morning ritual.
This piece of furniture occupies the maximum floor space. But Papaji and Kaki make sure no space is ever wasted. Below the bed are trunks containing utensils, expensive sarees, bedding, some of which my grandmother has brought in her dahej. In the center of the bed are medical files, medicine bottles and ointments. A bed pharmacy. Under the mattress are shopping bags, Xray reports and an iron knife to ward off bad dreams.
“Devender Bhai Saheb ki ladki ki shaadi ho gayi. Ladka Dehradun ka hai.” says Papaji while scratching his legs with a comb, that has outlived its life.
“Accha, agli baar jaana hoga tho shagun main kuch ley jayengey.” replies Kaki applying coconut oil on her hair in front of the dressing table.
It is night, just before bed time. As I press Papaji’s feet I feel connected to an extended family of relatives — Taujis, Chachajis, Buas, Masihs — most of whom live in North India. Kaki is from Dehradun and Papaji from Saharanpur.
Placed next to the wall, on one end of the rectangular balcony is the puja cabinet. It is waist size high and has two compartments that contain idols and pictures of Hindu God’s and Goddesses — Ganesha, Shiva, Rama (Kaki’s favourite), Krishna, Laxmi, Durga, Saraswati — all of them take their rightful place in that cabinet. Alongside them is puja paraphernalia — diya, kumkum, ghanti, Gangajal and camphor. With sliding windows and a curtain, the balcony seems like a small room. It is the puja ka kamra.
“Thuney mera puja ka kamra cheen liya hai.” complains Kaki.
“Merey exam aa rahey hai, main kya karu.” I say.
I study in the balcony all night for my Chartered Accountancy exams, and sometimes spread a small mattress on the floor and sleep there too. This delays her morning puja. Nevertheless, she accommodates my encroachment in her territory. Each day, leaving for exams I follow her ‘before the exam ritual’ of bowing before all the Gods, having dahi shakar, touching their feet and waiting for her to finish mantra chanting just before I step out of the door. Making sure to step outside, with my right foot first.
“Kaisa tha aaj ka paper?” Papaji asks as soon as I come back.
Then I Left.
I left my grandparents to stay on my own in 2009. I moved to Bandra. It was not far from Ghatkopar. I used to visit them whenever I could. They were the only family I had. They were the only parents I knew. Whenever I visited them, they would feed me to the brim and complain that I don’t come often.
“Humarey paas kitna time hai, kuch pata nahi. Jaldi aaya kar.” Papaji would say.
While leaving there would be a lot of hugging, kissing and blessings. As I got out of the building and walked on the road below, I would see them both standing at the balcony waving out to me.
Then They Left.
21st December 2011
“Khattri ji passed away.” says my neighbour over the phone.
“What happened?” I ask “He was shaving and had a sudden heart attack.”
2nd October 2015
“Leela Khattri expired a few minutes ago.” says the doctor of the nursing home over the phone.
“I am coming.” I respond.
As I write this, my throat is choked and tears stream down my face. I wonder what to write next. Perhaps give a reason why I am crying. Write something profound and philosophical. Nothing comes. Just tears.
I don’t know from where we come, and where we go. Or why this drama of life unfolds. But somewhere along the way, I have made peace with not knowing.
Meanwhile the stage of 135/6 Usha Sadan awaits its next actors, to enact the drama of life.