As the train trundled past the river bridge she looked beneath its parched dry bed. Once it was a gentle blue stream with its usual flora and fauna described in plenty of town chronicles. She looked out at the same old tall black chimneys towering above the Sugar mill; piercing the sky; but they were silent today. The crushing season was long over. The air was steeped with the scent of molasses, still adhered to the slanted walls of open Catch Tanks. The Old green tomb of the Sufi near the railway tracks was appearing brighter now and a few devotees could be seen coming out from its sacred portals with caps on and sweets in the hands. Old banyan tree, at a distance, with the suspended beard entangled roots was there. It was surrounded with sprawling shanties and two-story houses. You could see its top parts at the horizon as the eagles floated. The panorama had the same old features but with a different cosmetics.
She craned out her neck from the compartment window when the deserted Signal Tower approached. With the introduction of electronic signal systems the tower had become redundant now. There was no signal guard smiling with a green flag and with a pride unknown. The Old Good’s Railway Yard had not changed much except the absence of green man-size grass that used to grow around it. And now the train floated slowly by the platform and finally came to a screeching halt. She was back in the town which had once defined her life. The place was still the same old but looking fresh.
For long she had sung – “Country roads, take me home…..”.
When she was in Holland she was craving for her motherland. Now, she is there but now she is remembering the Amsterdam’s canals, its narrow buildings, the floating flower markets and the clatter of trams, ringing of bicycle bells. From Amsterdum to IG Airport it was a long journey. She had left the sleep-blinkers given in the aircraft and now she was wondering why she should have left them.
There was a lot of excitement when she had boarded the plane. It was no more as she had reached the destination. Her younger brother had come to receive her at the station. There were no collies, no fanfare, no festoons or banana trees, freshly cut and placed as décor at the sidewalks. Her brother embraced her softly and she kissed his forehead. Most of the Travel-Boxes and bags in India now run on castors. Extra help is not needed. They were out of the station soon. She was looking at the new topography and strange faces of her home flock. They were neither sorry not delighted to find her back. It was natural. For them she had become stranger now. The last thing there she noted there were plenty of bicycles in her home town – their freshness gone. These were poor sisters of the trendy gadgets they ply in Holland.
As a young lass she had left the town and now she was a mature lady.
“Where is Doolha Bhai (brother in law) ?” inquired her brother.
“She will be here next week most probably.”
No one seemed to be anxious to know and talk about the stranger doolha bhai who was supposed to a Dutch Seaman. They knew their girl was now much married without the consent of her parents and works in a foreign country that is one of the richest in the world. The old-relatives would still vividly recall the stories that circulated when she didn’t return in the initial years of her education. They only knew that she was awarded a scholarship and selected for an advance research course of Horticulture. Her parents died waiting for her to return and the boy she was betrothed had grown gray with a beautiful family.
It all had begun with her parents’ reluctance to let her go and she knew the inspiration they got originated in the castle of her future in-laws. She had developed strong repugnance for the boy as she had opposed her further studies in a European country. He had told, in loudest tone, he would not let her go as his future wife.
But she cared for no one. She knew that society would declare her a rebel. It is not so easy to break the codes of society and it is tough to face the music. Once you reach the end of the tether, there is no going back.
Many years ago, may be fifteen years, she had written a letter from Holland.
“Dear Mom and Papa, I know I’d left you without your permission and still it hurts us all. I should have thanked that you didn’t stop me physically. But you didn’t let me speak my heart. I’ve not forgiven you for casting aspersion at my character and future while I’d nothing in mind except my career. I don’t feel like returning and I can’t explain it and I don’t understand it myself. I owe you too much and no recompense from my part would meet your sacrifices and love. I must confess I’m your ingratiate child but I won’t call for forgiveness.
There was an absolute disconnect in the family. Not much was discussed in the house after she had left. The rumour- mills worked overtime and fatigued after a few years. The story was over-lapped and forgotten for other juicy stuffs of society.
She could see that her father’s old Maruti car was still there at the station. Much was there for reminiscence as she stepped into that car. Crossing the old familiar road, lanes and by-lanes they reached their home – sweet home; bitter home!
Sajida was my old friend and my family invited her for dinner the next day. My wife made special continental dishes as she wanted to please her and look caring and considerate. Sitting at the terrace I asked her – where to start the discussion?
“From where you like !”
“Tell me in nutshell the whole of your Kahani.”
Reclining in the chair she had the following story to narrate:
“I left the country because I was suffocated and smothered. For my family my marriage was a big issue. I for one had no time for it. Then that boy,….what was the name, entered the scene. You see, all my family loved the boy as they were well placed and belonged to an aristocratic family. I had seen nothing or heard nothing about them that could be construed as a negative factor or a wrong selection. Initially, I felt he was good catch and he would be of a good espouse. But he came out in his true colors when the families drew closer. He was an adamant and a dictator. He began to send signals of his likes and dislikes and he sent me commands to follow them.
Meanwhile I was selected for the scholarship of my favorite subject. I had to go to Holland. He rejected the idea out-right and his family informed in no uncertain terms. He thought that whites would steal me away from him. He had some jaundiced notions of Western culture and didn’t show faith in my integrity and character. The worst flurry of blizzard I faced when my parents refused to trust me .They agreed with them and acquiesced. I shouldn’t and won’t be allowed to go.
I crossed swords with my father when he called me a prospective harlot. My mother kept silence. That was the moment when the bridges were burnt. I told them to go the Heaven and let me go to Hell. That boy is not cut-out for me and I was not sacrificing the course of my life for an idiot and for your false egos and values.”
Being a scribe I know where to give pause to a story. I asked her to begin with the dinner.
“No, let me complete the story. We say we love flowers, yet we pluck them. We love trees but we cut them down. I am a horticulturist and I talk what I know. Even today I’m afraid when someone declares his / her love for me. I tell you …we count the garden by flowers…….never with leaves that fall. To me leaves symbolize work and a serious and useful life. Flower symbolizes frivolous leisure. All natural flowers are also artificial. Leaves are real. They are dark and darkness has a unique color and brilliance. It delights my nature. I like leaves and wanted to be a leave not a flower. The pity is I had no capacity and wit to explain that.”
And where is our much gossiped doolha bahi, the proverbial Dutch Seaman ?” I tried to give her a break.
“To tell you the truth, I’m not married. I was never made to marry. I’m a born spinster. I wrote the story for the consumption of my parents, to close the subject for ever. Happiness of their dictionary has no meaning for me.”
It was difficult for me to understand the project of her life.
“Today, when I’m getting old, I have come to visit and revisit that ugly chapter of my life. I want to realize what my parents had undergone. I want to check the facts and foundation of their anxieties; their overwhelming sense of security, their claim of guardianship.”
I asked her where we go from here, uphill or down hill ?
“I begged my parents to let me go with their blessings. Unfortunately, none of supplications were heard. Contrary, they put my dignity on trial. No, I love them but I am still an aggrieved party.”
“Enough for now. We shouldn’t insult food which is lying for long and cold.” I suggested.
After dinner I repeated the same question. “Where we go from here, uphill or down hill ?”
She asked to get my violin and played the song of W.B. Rands she said she loved:
“I wish I live in a caravan,
With a horse to drive, like a pedlar man!
Where he comes from nobody knows,
No where he goes to, but he goes.
The roads are brown, and the sea is green,
But his house is just like a bathing machine.
The world is round but he can ride,
Rumble, and splash to the other side.
With a pedlar man I should like to roam,
And write a book when I come home.
All people would read my book,
Just like the travels of Captain Cook.”
I failed to conclude what she had done to her life. What she added and what she omitted to merit such life.