Many-Splendoured Love/Division of Duties

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Division of Duties

That night it was just about ten thirty. It was still early to go to bed. Kaushik.bhai and Chetana.bahen were relaxing in front of the televison, watching a popular Hindi serial. A short while ago, their housekeeper Revabai, as per the nightly habit, had brought some grapes and vedges of an apple in a plate. Chetna.bahen had told her, “Sit down now, and watch some TV if you want.” Revabai had been with the family for a long time. Not just Chetana, but even Kaushik considered her family. She would sit, at times, and watch TV with them. But on that night Revabai wanted to sleep early. She said, “Early in the morning I want to start making ‘vadi’ (small dumplings). That way they will dry as soon as the sun is up.”

“She never tires of work”, said Chetana. “This year these little black grapes are so very sweet, aren’t they?” Kaushik’s attention was more on the fruit than on the TV serial. Putting two or three in her mouth, Chetana said, “Oh so sweet.”

At that moment, the phone’s ring surprised them both. Who would call at this time? Everyone is watching the serial. No one would even think of calling. Their son Sooraj was in America, and he did not call often. Early on, both of them waited for his call, pined to hear his voice. When he did call, they would reprimand him a little, saying, “ Son, can’t you form a habit to call once a month at least?”

But that never happened. Son’s wife had blurted out once, “It costs so much, do you realize? And only to say ‘how are you?’ Well, We have to believe that all is well.” Sooraj had said, “ Pappaji, We also keep so busy with work that we do not realize where the days go.”

Both the parents quietly accepted it. If and when the phone call came, they did not reprimand the son any more, nor did they take a long time talking. That night the phone was from Sooraj. Kaushik started saying, “Ohho, How are you, Son? and Surakhi? She is well? Wait, Mammi will say hello ----”

“No, no, Pappaji, we have to give you both good news. Surakhi is expecting.” “Oh very good, Dear. Congratulations. To you both. Just a moment, here is Mammi to wish ----” “Wait a minute, Pappaji, let me talk to you about something important first”, Sooraj said in a hurry. “O K, tell me, Son.” “ The thing is that Surakhi is all alone here. She would not be able to handle everything by herself -- ”. “Yes, true. Your lives there are such ----”. “Pappa, listen to me first.”

Sooraj must be looking at the clock, Kaushik.bhai thought sadly. “Here we will need somebody - first for delivery, and then to raise the child. So Mammi will have to get here. Only she.” “What are you saying, Sooraj? Then who will take care of home here?” “Arre, Where do you people have complications like here? Over there, for you, there are plenty of people around. You can easily find someone to help. And you have Revabai there any way, right? “See, Pappa, Can’t afford to talk any more now”, Sooraj started to say while winding up. “ See, with a friend of ours I am sending a letter. In it I am writing when Mammi is to come here etc. OK then, Bye.” At that hour of the night, Kaushik did not want to upset Chetana. He said, “Sooraj is going to call again. Then you talk to him to your satisfaction.”

Next day Kaushik returned home from his morning college around 1:30 in the afternoon. Taking a short nap after lunch was his daily habit, but today he had lost his sleep. Chetana said, “ If you don’t take your nap, then you will start yawing from early evening. You will ruin my serial!” When to tell Chetana the conversation with Sooraj? She will be totally sad. Kaushik was worried about that. Both of them had never been separated. Always together. Especially after the son went to America, they had become deeply dependant on each-other. ‘What will she do without me? and how will I manage without her?’

“Cheti”, Kaushik said, using the name of endearment for her, “ Do you know what Sooraj said? He said that ‘Surakhi or I - we will never be able to manage without Mammi.’ Kaushik did not want to tell Chetana the words and the tone that Sooraj had used. Making his own modifications, he said, “Look, Sooraj has made a request to us - ” “What request?” “- that they will need your help a great deal. They have asked you to go there, with great insistence.” “Yes, so we will surely go. Such a good occasion in our son’s life. Naturally we have to go.” Chetana had not understood that only she had been asked to go.

So much happened in the days that followed. Sooraj’s friend visited with the letter, and as instructed by Sooraj he gave them all details at length. He had brought all the necessary papers for the Visa also. He said, “ Your son is very methodical, he has not forgotten anything.” Both the parents, paled and speechless, gave a small smile in return.

July 4th is America’s Independence Day, the child will be born on that day, the doctor has said, so Mammi must get over here by the last week of June, Sooraj had sent the instructions.

From the day they heard this, the elder couple had become very sad. A separation of ten months for sure. How will that much time pass?, both were repeating in their mind. Kaushik would have managed to get together money for his own ticket, but Sooraj had written clearly and firmly in the letter, that “We can not afford to keep both of you for so long. Moreover, Mammi will be busy all day and night, so Pappaji would feel left out and lonely, and he will get bored unncesaarily. Instead, we will see when the time comes”.

Sooraj had sent some money for the Visa and ticket. He had written that “one-way ticket is cheaper when bought in India. I had asked the travel agent as to how much it would be approximately. This much will be enough.”

Neither when the time to buy the ticket came nor ever afterwards, did Kaushik.bhai tell Chetana.bahen that the amount sent by Sooraj was not enough. He had quietly withdrawn the needed amount from the bank, and had added to it. He went on consoling Chetana, saying, “When the son needs us, it is our duty to be of help to him, isn’t it true? Do not be so worried, Cheti. Months will pass quickly, you will see. Then during the summer holidays he is going to call me also.”


That Sooraj’s flat would be so small Chetana.bahen had not expected. She herself knew frugality well enough, but she could not understand why the son and the daughter-in-law were living in such a miserly way. There was one bedroom which the son and his wife used. In the dining area they had put a narrow settie of sorts, which was the bed for Chetana.bahen. There was a small table that two people can sit on. Chetana.bahen would feed the son and his wife first, and then would finish eating by herself.

In the beginning the days really went fast. After the baby girl was born there were some visits by their friends, and Surakhi stayed at home for one month. But because Mammi was there to look after the baby, she went back to work much sooner. After that, days became rather lonely for Chetana.bahen. Kaushik.bhai used to call twice a week, but that got stopped. Surakhi had said, “If the phone starts ringing any time, wouldn’t it wake up our little Chandni Raani? He can call once a month or so, on Saturday or Sunday when we are home, if he likes.”

When little Chandni was sleeping, Chetana would open the door of the flat some times, and would stand there, just inside the door. She had not been given the key to the flat yet. “We have to get an extra one made, keep forgetting,” Sooraj had said; “Besides, where are you going to go all by yourself any way.”

Chetana would stand in the door, and would look towards both sides of the long corridor. It would always be empty. She never saw anyone from across, or next door on either side. As if the building was ghostly, and she herself was locked in inside it. Was it because of such a life that all people living here in this country became so completely solitary?, she would wonder, and would want to discuss it with Kaushik.

When Chandni turned about three months old, Surakhi instructed Chetana.bahen to take her outside in the pram every day, making sure to cover her properly, and to make sure to come back by noontime. “Do not take her out in too much sun”, she had emphasised. Due to this reason Chetana was able to start going out to the small park near by.

There she happened to meet Shubha. With her three years old daughter Zumu, Shubha would also come to the park for a stroll. After they chatted a little, Shubha had mentioned that she was slightly acqainted with Sooraj and Surakhi. They ran into one-another, sometimes, in stores near by.

There was such an age-difference between them, but slowly a closeness developed between Chetana and Shubha. Every Sunday afternoon Shubha started taking Chetana out with her and Zumu. When she visited to see the baby, she had asked Surakhi, “You don’t mind if I take aunti out with me, right?” Then it became a ritual to have the Sunday dinner togther - sometimes at an eatery, sometimes at Shubha’s home. “Didi”, she would say, “ You are my elder sister, do not feel embarrassed at all. I am getting your company too, right? You can see, can’t you, how my husband stays occupied with work all the time?”

After a while Shubha asked Chetana, “Didi, I have to do a course for about five months or so. After that I will be eligible to apply for a Lab Technician’s job. If you do not mind, would you keep Zumu with you? Only between ten in the morning and one o’clock, that’s all.” “I do not mind it, but Surakhi may or may not like it.” “I will talk with her. Or may be she would not even find out that Zumu is spending time with you.” Shubha said further, “Didi, I will also give you some money for it. No, please do not argue at all. And that matter we will certainly not mention to Surakhi. That money will be just yours. You can use it whatever you may need it for.”

Zumu was very quiet and sweet. She had started calling Chetana.bahen “Dida”. Shubha had explained that in their Bengali language ‘Dida’ was the word for ‘grand-mother’. After Chetana came back from the park with both the girls, Zumu would drink the milk that Shubha had sent, and she would take a nap. When she got up, she would eat a small banana that came from her home also. By then it was time when Shubha would come to fetch her. From the begnning, Shubha had made sure that Zumu does not have to use anything from Surakhi’s home. Besides, she always kept saying that nothing must disturb Chandni’s routine.

The cold, dark days of winter were also going well because of Shubha, but the worry about Kaushik constantly pulled at Chetana’s heart. As the month of March was about to begin, she told Sooraj, “ Son, Now start the arrangements for his Visa. His vacation will start from the next month. So it is good if he comes over by then, isn’t it?”

As if Sooraj had prepared an answer for such a situation. “Mammi, you know very well that there isn’t any room here for one more person. If Pappa comes where will he sleep even?” Then he said, like he was coaxing a child, “See, just now we are saving money. Keep a little patience. In just a short while we are going to rent a two-bedroom flat; we will see after then.”

Sooraj had said the same thing before - “We will see then”. Why hadn’t Chetana understood that then? She felt that it was her own fault, for not understanding. Even now Sooraj goes on saying “We will see”, “We will see”. Perhaps he does not want Pappaji to come. That might increase the food-expense, is his worry perhaps.

Chetana got very angry in her mind. Even more, she was sadder. In her mind making a decision, she said, “ Listen, Sooraj, it is going to be about ten months since I came here. We had decided that around this time Pappaji will come here, we will stay two more months here together, and will raise the baby to one year. Now if he is not to be coming, I want to go back by the next month.”

Stopping Surakhi from saying something, Chetana said, “ Listen Surakhi, you and Sooraj are my children. I agree that I have duty towards you. I saw that you needed me, so I came here and stayed. Both of you are young, and can live your life the way you want. Only I can know how difficult it must be for Pappaji to stay alone like this. I am concerned about his health. Now my duty is towards him.”

“ So then, Mammi, you must understand our difficulties also”, Surakhi could not contain herself. Sooraj added, “Mammi, just now these expenses - it is difficult to spend for your ticket just now.” “ All right. I will let Pappaji know.” “ Would he have enough money for an International ticket?”

Controlling her sense of insult Chetana.bahen replied, “Listen, you do not have to worry about whether he has money or not. I am certain that he will be able to arrange for it.” Really speaking, she knew that she had the dollars given by Shubha, and that would be enough for her one-way ticket back.

After this when she went out with Shubha, Chetana bought a large bag of dry almonds, from the Indian grocery store, and she also bought a box of fragrant saffron, to ditribute among the neighbours there, even though these things were expensive. She bought a sari for Revabai, and a bottle of perfume - let her enjoy that too, Chetana thought. She left all this at Shubha’s house.

Shubha had helped her so much, every day Chetana thanked her in her heart, and she had decided to try to make up for it once she was back at home in India. She would send gifts to Shubha and little Zumu. May be they will visit her and Kaushik when they came to India some time. These thoughts soothed her.

To the son she said that Kaushik.bhai had arranged for the ticket. “The money-transfer was easily done from Shubha’s husband’s office”, was her explanation to the son. She did not give any chance to Sooraj to argue about, or to justify his own lack of money. She called Kaushik.bhai from Shubha’s house and told him that Sooraj has arranged for the ticket, and that “next year he will surely have both of us over together.”

Chetana bahen was returning to India with the same bag she had come with. Shubha had come by and had told Sooraj and Surakhi, very politely, “In this case, with the little baby and all, there is no need for you to take the trouble. I will take Didi to the airport. My Zumu will also enjoy a long ride in the car.” Sooraj and Surakhi had given a fake smile in response.

On the day of departure, both of them came down to say goodbye to Chetana. Chandni was in Surakhi’s arms. Chetana put her hand on Chandni’s head with affection, and putting an envelope in her little hand said, “Pappaji has asked me to give these fifty-one dollars to her with his blessings.”

After turning it in her hand for a moment or two, Chandni put the envelope in her mouth. Surakhi tried to pull at it, but it did not come out easily. Surakhi said excitedly, “ Oh wow, Chandni Raani has started teething already.”

Sooraj had raised his hand to wave goodbye, unnecessarily. As it fell down, feeling stunned, he was thinking that Mammi did not turn around, to look back, while leaving.