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Father arrived with dawn, his hair in even more of a tangle, carrying four green drum sticks.

He had brought us four brown melons on his last visit. One each for Ma, me, Neelu and himself. It was four this time, too. Well, Father didn’t know that Neelu was in jail.

Ma woke me the moment she heard his call. Pulling up her saree over her head, she said, ‘open the door’. But she went and opened the door herself and stood quietly, looking into Father’s eyes. I looked beyond his head and found Venus, still gleaming in the sky.

Father asked, ‘Been sleeping?’

Ma did not reply, said instead, ‘Come inside.’

Making him sit in the living room, she went off, to clear the bed perhaps. Father was in saffron cloth last time, which she had torn into scraps in anger. He looked more like a beggar this time in his dirty, torn dhoti and shirt.

I was on my way to the bathroom, a cigarette hidden behind my palm, when I noticed that Father was craning his neck for a better look at the curtains at the windows and doorways. Seeing me, he said, ‘I’d like to know what you are doing these days -- after you have taken your bath. But where’s Neelu?’

You don’t bother with us for years and years, then why this sudden interest! All I said was, ‘Take rest, Ma’s bringing you tea.’

I wasn’t overjoyed at the sight of him for some reason, not this time. In fact a vague irritation was slowly clouding my mind. With his emaciated appearance and clothes worse than a beggar’s – he alone knew what he was gaining from such a life!

The bathroom door rattled. Ma’s voice, ‘Will you be taking long, Malu?’

I found Ma holding one of Father’s ancient, starched dhotis in her hand when I came out. She placed it at his side, ‘Wash off the dust-and-dirt and get your royal robes off.’

A guilty smile appeared on his face. He was still clutching at the green drum sticks, which he now held out to her, ‘Very beneficial. Cook it over a low heat.’

‘Won’t you be eating?’

‘Why else would I bring four!’

‘And you’ll be eating with us, sharing our food? I have just put out a fresh wok to be cleaned.’

The same guilty smile now spilled across his moustache and beard.

Ma seemed to have forgotten all about tea this morning. But I was getting late for jail, and it wasn’t just another visit -- I would have to do a bit of shopping for him. Unless the application was handed to the jail superintendent before the interviews began, I wouldn’t get a chance to see Neelu.

Sundays were my off days. But there was no way I could laze about, thanks to the rush for jail. I’d skim through the newspaper, then take my bath and get ready. It was the one day of the week I could meet Neelu on. Visits were not allowed on other days.

I was in even more of a hurry today. Ritu was to drop by in the afternoon. She would have lunch with us. I’d have to fetch Ma some chicken meat before I left for the jail. And it wasn’t as if Ma didn’t know.

She had forgotten to give him a towel. She knocked lightly on the bathroom door with one in her hand and Father opened the door immediately. He was taking a shower in his dhoti and asked, accepting the towel, ‘But why don’t I see Neelu yet?’

‘He’s become an ascetic!’

‘But why!’ He sounded shocked.

‘Isn’t that expected of an ascetic’s son?’ Ma turned towards me and I could see her nostrils heave, twice.

She went towards the kitchen and I said, ‘It might be difficult to meet Neelu today even! And it’s almost time for Ritu’s visit!’

Ma stopped by the dining table, then replied ‘It’ll be best if Ritu doesn’t come here today. Why don’t you go visit her after you’ve met Neelu? Have something at a restaurant.’

‘But Ritu knows of him!’

‘There’s a difference between knowing him and seeing him for herself when she’s not expecting to.’

‘Father will surely be staying on for two or three weeks...’

‘Do whatever you think is best –’

She went into the kitchen.

Father came out of the bathroom in a clean dhoti. Water dripped from his tangled hair and beard. The shirt he had just shed was in his left hand.

Seeing me, he asked, ‘So Neelu’s become an ascetic, finally?’

I didn’t say ‘yes’, nor ‘no’.

He stood waiting, quietly. Somewhat worried, a little distracted. It seemed he was trying to come to terms with certain things.

He looked up suddenly, ‘Since when has he been away?’

‘Seven years!’

‘How old was he then?’

‘Shouldn’t you be knowing that?’

Father was silent for a few moments, then spoke calmly, ‘From the sound of your voice it seems there is no peace in your mind, all you have managed to do is arrange for external comforts.’

Carrying a frying pan in one hand and toasts in the other, Ma came straight to the table, ‘Pull up your plate.’ She dropped the toast and omelette on my plate and asked him, ‘Will you be sitting at our table – we eat non-vegetarian stuff on it -- or would you like your tea in your room?’

Father didn’t reply and pulled up a chair distractedly, then sat down.

Ma had turned and was about to go back into the kitchen when Father said, ‘Listen, tell me something. Was Neelu...’

He didn’t complete the sentence. Seeing him fall silent, Ma was about to move away but Father persisted, ‘Was Neelu hurt in anyway?’

Ma looked at him straight, in a way I had never seen her do before. She replied, unwavering, ‘I am saying this in front of Malu – can you name a single thing that Neelu had received from you?’

Father sat for a while, then sighed and placed the shirt at a corner of the table. There was a soft thud.

Ma had just brought me tea and the sound had reached her ears as well – wasn’t that a chillum in the shirt-pocket? Was he going to smoke in the house during his stay? Was she against Ritu’s coming here because she had already seen it?

Ma called out, ‘Lakshmi! I need you here. Go and dump this shirt on the street!’

Father sprang from his seat, picked up the shirt and pulled out a coloured pebble from its pocket. He looked at Ma and me, smiled faintly and said, ‘I play with it!’

‘Yours, of course, is the ideal age for play!’, Ma retorted.

‘No, no, I spend time with this pebble when my mind falls into disarray, for hours on end, and it calms me down. It helps me concentrate.’ He paused and added, ‘I’ll teach you as well.’

Ma broke into a sudden rage. ‘Learn the virtues of domesticity first, before you teach me those of sannyas ! And you haven’t yet told me about what exactly you’ll be needing for your morning service, have you?’

Father looked hurt. His voice tried to make light of it. ‘I don’t take anything in the morning. But since you’ve already made tea, give me a cup. And a glass of water too,’ he said.

Ma hadn’t brought out the tea things today. She carried in a cup of tea and asked,’ Will you be having it here?’

‘The poor table can’t possibly hurt?’

‘You alone know whether it can! Last time you didn’t even sit on the dinner seat,’ she replied harshly.

Opening the refrigerator, Ma brought out a bottle of water and looked around for a glass, not finding which she passed it to Father, saying ‘You must be used to drinking from your ritual vessel – but this is very cold --,’

‘Not as cold as Himalayan ice I’m sure,’ the words slipped out from me.

I had spoken them lightly, in harmless jest but they sounded sarcastic! I noticed that Father had lowered his eyes to the pebble in his hand.

On his last visit, about nine years ago, when I had just been selected for admission to a management course and was chasing every conceivable family tie for funds, when we didn’t have a dining table and had to make do with wooden seats on the floor during meals, I remember Father refusing to sit on one despite Ma’s repeated pleas. Ma had broken down and wept. I now understand how Ma used to weep at the slightest provocation in those days. Listening to Ma’s sniffles throughout the evening, I remember getting more and more angry with Father.

Ma has changed into a fresh saree after her bath. I had set up a small mirror on the dining table itself and was shaving. She exclaimed at the sight, ‘Aah! Why shave here?’

I didn’t turn around, ‘You were in the bathroom.’

She didn’t reply but asked him instead, ’Will you be taking lunch? Or do you still eat once a day?’

I could feel his eyes on me. ‘No! No more restrictions,’ he said.

‘We’ll be having chicken today. Ok with you?’

Father kept silent. He spoke after a while, ‘Steam something along with the rice for me. And the drum sticks.’

‘Weren’t you saying that there are no more restrictions for you?’

Father replied in a quiet voice, ‘I can’t be responsible for the murder of a living creature.’

Saying which, he sighed heavily.

His words had singed me, it felt as if the razor’s blade had cut into a pimple, and the following sigh was way too much to take. I looked at him and said, ‘then you shouldn’t be eating rice, either! Plants are living creatures, too. And how do you justify the drum sticks?’

He sat holding the pebble between his joined palms and he replied calmly, ‘Life is not about debates. Debates are so superficial, Malay.’

Malay, not Malu! He used to call us that years ago, me -- Malay, and Neelu – Neelay, when he told us stories from near and far and explained their moral. My words had been a little rude no doubt, but what to do, I was human too. The rude awakening at the wee hours was making my head heavy as it was, and did the early rising serve any purpose? I was running late as usual. Go to the market, buy chicken meat, carry it back home, on top of which I’d have to buy some butter for Neelu, as well as a couple of kilograms of peanuts, a pair of pajamas and a pair of slippers, which I should have bought yesterday but had forgotten to, and it was up to anybody’s guess whether the shops would stay open today and where – I was to bear the brunt of all this alone! And it was already getting to be eight-thirty and would soon be time for Ritu’s arrival.

I left my seat and told Ma, even as I was on my way to the bathroom, ‘I will bring you the chicken. Tell Ritu to wait in my room when she comes. Is there anything else you’d like me to bring you?’

Ma came out of the kitchen. A cup of milk in hand. She held it up for me, ‘Gulp it down. There’s no surety of the time of your return, or your next meal. Bring me a smallish cabbage if you see one.’

I was about to take a sip of the milk when Father asked, ‘You seem to be cooking up a feast today! Are you expecting guests?’

‘What guests! A girl’s coming over, I have asked her to have lunch with us –‘

‘Whose daughter?’

‘You won’t know.’

‘How is she related to you?’

Ma smiled faintly, ‘No relation yet. An office-friend of Malu’s. Get it?’

Finishing the milk, I was about to light up a cigarette on my way out, as was my habit, but restrained the urge. Father noticed the cigarette hidden behind my palm. I looked into his eyes briefly before saying, ‘I am off to the market. I will have to go out again right after I get back. Why don’t you walk around in the backyard? You might like it.’

Father remained seated but said, ‘I am wondering why you look so distracted!’

‘There is cause enough for distraction and so I’m looking it.’

‘No, no, I wasn’t referring to that. You seem to be suffering from severe worries.’

I thought it best to leave and not drag it further since I was really running late but a sudden fit of obstinacy drove my words, ‘Worries have their own causes. But it’s different for madmen and ascetics of course.’

‘I don’t think you understand me. Tell me something, is there a possibility of your getting married to the guest you are expecting today?’

Ma must have been keeping a track of our conversation -- she came out of the kitchen, wiping her hand on her saree, ‘Why are you interrogating him so? You’ve just heard that he’s in a hurry, that he’s running late...’

She turned to face me, ‘Why don’t you go there first? Bring the chicken on your way home. Won’t the shop stay open?’

There seemed no other way left. It would be too late for me to go to Alipore after my trip to the market and picking up Neelu’s things. And I couldn’t just let that go, either. I hadn’t been able to make it last Sunday -- he’d be waiting and hoping.

Father was running his hand through the knots in his beard. He wasn’t untangling them but was merely feeling them with his fingers. He saw I was about to leave but said, ‘Malu’s life has entangled itself into far too many knots. It won’t be right of him to intertwine it with somebody else’s before disentangling his own.’

Back in my room I was writing the application to the jail supreintendent for my interview with Neelu when I heard Ma’s voice, oozing anger, ‘He’s thirty-two, do you want him to turn into an ascetic as well?’

Father’s voice was much softer. ‘Family life turns hellish if handled by wrong hands.’

His words seemed to set her on fire, she must have begun screaming in the kitchen – ‘You have spent your whole life as an ascetic, what do you understand of family life? You left the moment you felt like it. Malu had to fight so many battles on his own, on every side. It’s because of him that I have experienced whatever little comfort that I have. Why must he bow to you and your insults!’

I stood at the kitchen doorway, ‘Aah! Ma! What have you two started today? It seems it’ll be best for Ritu not to come today!’

Ma came out again and stood right in front of him, ‘You are here for just a couple of days, must you get involved in our daily life? Why don’t you go to the garden and sit there a while?’

I called Ritu on the telephone the moment I was out of the house.

‘Ritu, listen, I feel so bad –‘

‘What’s the matter?’

‘No, actually, I feel terrible having to say this to you –’

‘Stop dragging it, tell me right now, I’m feeling tense –’

‘I meant to say, a relation of mine has passed away, this very morning, I have just heard –’

‘So sad –’

‘But the invitation stands – just that it’s been postponed to the Sunday after next. No, no, I will let you know.’

I tried sharing the news of Father with Neelu but couldn’t bring myself to. He had already been in jail for so many years, would have to be there for so many more, what was the point of telling him about Father? And was there anything to tell?

Watching his whiskered and bearded face through two layers of wire nets, I suddenly remembered Ma’s words that seemed strangely apt now, he was an ascetic, he was looking more and more like a young ascetic with every passing day!

I said, ‘Didn’t get time to buy the slippers today. I will be depositing the pajamas before I leave. I don’t quite remember your size and so bought one of size 40 – try it on.’

‘A small size won’t hurt, and I can always fold up a bigger one.’ Then he smiled shyly, saying, ‘Leave behind a couple of packs of cigarettes.’

‘How’s your case progressing? Have they taken you to the court?’

‘My cases seem to be coming up at all the courts. I find myself going to some court or the other every week. Am travelling the world for free it seems!’

Neelu spoke the words nonchalantly. I tried to act equally unaffected. I asked in a light tone, ‘Heard you guys would be changing the land. But the land stays exactly the way it was, unchanged. The only difference is that you all have turned into state guests. What was the point?’

Neelu laughed as always, ‘There’s no point in discussing this with you. Dada , when are you getting married?’

I don’t usually smoke in front of Neelu in this place, but I found myself lighting a cigarette today.

‘Why have you turned dumb at the sound of marriage?’ Neelu looked so nice when he smiled.

I answered with a smile, ‘You are at your in-laws’, I will be at mine, who will be Ma staying with?’

‘Are you planning to stay at your in-laws?’

‘That of course is your birthright alone.’

I looked towards the investigating officer nearby. The man smiled faintly and said, ‘I have never met a man as learned and charming as Neelay babu in my 26 years of service. At times I wonder –’

Neelu spoke up from behind the wire haze, ‘Enough, enough Mr Investigator, don’t start on an encomium!’

‘Neelu, do you remember anything of Father?’

‘Haven’t you heard from him at all?’

‘Tell me -- what do you remember?’

‘Just that he came once in saffron cloth. He used to wake us every day before the break of dawn. Ma threw away his saffron clothing when he was leaving. I don’t know him well at all.’ He smiled and added, ‘I am keeping a diary nowadays, to pass time. I was thinking of him the other day. Does he know of me?’

‘Faher thinks that you’ve become an ascetic.’ Neelu broke into a loud laugh.

Ma would be waiting for Ritu. Waiting for the chicken. My mind fell into a stupor as I left the jail. It felt as if I had nowhere to go, as if I was nearing the end of the road, that it was time to let go and sit. A strange tiredness, almost ennui, no, irritation, or was it apathy – was taking hold of me.

I climbed into an empty taxi. Walking into a cool bar on Park Street, I began wasting time with a beer, as if wasting time was of utmost importance.

Father’s voice, singing a song of adoration, reached my ears the moment I stepped into the house that evening. A full, melodious voice. The Hindi pronunciation was clear, too.

The song wafted in from the direction of the garden. I saw Father sitting with his eyes closed, moving to the rhythm of his song. Ma was sitting as his side. Still, like a statue. The mango buds were glistening in the moonlight.

‘Shall I bring you tea, babu?’ Lakshmi had crept up behind me.

‘Let it be, I don’t feel like having tea now,’ I replied.

His eyes opened. The song had neared its end and he ended it while looking at me.

Ma looked up the moment the song ceased, then at me. She seemed to have come out of a trance. She stood up and came towards me, saying, ‘You know the tricks of driving me wild with worry! It’s been hours and hours. Not a word the whole day. Ritu didn’t turn up, either. Where did you eat? Was it her place you went to?’

Not uttering a word, I smiled.

“Must you get anxious over such trivial things? Life isn’t a shelter made from mummy’s saree!’ said Father.

‘How long will you be staying on -- this time?’ I asked.

What I had meant to say was, can’t you stay on for a few days longer?

***

saree: a length of cloth wrapped around the body, worn by women;
dhoti: a length of cloth worn by men around their waist, often in pleats; a loin-cloth;
sannyas: asceticism
dada: an elder brother or cousin (often used as a suffix);
babu: a title affixed to the name of a gentleman, somewhat similar to ‘Mr’;

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