Saturday, May 05, 2007

Always Coming Home

She stepped onto the deserted platform and looked about her. For a moment her eyes searched the dark corners of railway waiting rooms and the striped shadows of the places under the stairs. No, no one had come. She had expected no one. Her stomach tightened with irritation and something else.

If the word ‘disappointment’ crossed her mind, Aditi did not allow herself to acknowledge it. It was absurd to expect anyone to be waiting for her on a railway platform, squinting their eyes against the noonday sun, searching the compartments that whipped by, for a face that they might not even recognise.

Aditi lifted her small, battered suitcase and started up the stairs when a figure peeled itself off from a wall and walked towards her.

“Pratik,” said Aditi. “I didn’t see you.” He looked just the same, only bigger.

“Yes, it’s hot, isn’t it? Wanted to keep out of the sun.” He indicated the dark pools of shadow where Aditi suddenly noticed many more people.

“How are Amma and Appa?”

“You’ll see,” said Pratik.

Aditi’s first impression of the home she had left twelve years ago was mixed. Her first feeling was one of relief. Coming in out of the day that pressed down on her eyelids, she felt the grey stone floors cool under her bare feet and sighed with pleasure. But her initial, provisional happiness gave way to a familiar sense of tension.

Things were not all right at home.

Pratik dropped her suitcase in her old room and disappeared into his. He came out only at lunch, by which time Aditi had endured a difficult hour with her mother. It wasn’t that her mother didn’t talk, or ask questions. It was merely that every question she asked seemed desultory, as if she didn’t really want to know the answer. It was Aditi’s turn now.

“Where’s Appa?”

“He’ll be back soon. Help me set the table,” Amma said. Which was as normal as it ought to be, except that Aditi thought Amma’s voice was tight with something: tears? It couldn’t be fear, could it?

A car roared into the garage. A door slammed. Wiping her hands on a towel, Aditi saw Amma wince. When Appa came into the room, he carried the flaming heat of the outside with him. As he placed his briefcase on a small table, each gesture and movement was being carefully watched by Amma, as if she was waiting for something.

“Aditi. Good you came. How are you?”

Aditi had never expected a prodigal daughter’s welcome, but she had expected something more than this tepid acknowledgement of her presence. As they ate their lunch in silence, they listened to Appa raging about the traffic, the incompetence of the people in banks, and about how nobody could be trusted to do anything well.

‘How many times do I have to tell you, I’d like normal water and not cold? Here – take this away!”

Amma shrank into herself. Pratik, sitting opposite Appa, did not life his eyes from his plate. He finished eating first, mumbled something and went back into his own room. Appa’s voice sounded in Aditi’s ears long after the day was over. In between his dissatisfactions, loudly expressed, were mellower, expansive disquisitions on the nature of enlightenment and Vedanta. This was a waking nightmare.

Lying in bed, Aditi let her eyes roam over the walls of her room. Everything looked just as it had when she left. Even the shadows of the trees and the occasional headlight sweeping across the walls were as they had always been. The garden had seemed as lush as ever, the house as lived-in and warm as an embrace. But something was wrong. Why was Amma so afraid? Why was Pratik so uncommunicative?

“Pratik? Are you awake?”

Aditi stood outside Pratik’s door and waited. No answer.

After a minute she knocked again, this time a little louder. The door opened at once.

“Shh! Why’re you trying to break my door down?”

“I was just knocking, not trying to break your door down. Cheh! What is wrong with all of you at home? All of you overreact to everything!”

Pratik flopped down on the bed and looked at Aditi sleepily. Aditi annexed Pratik’s sheet and leaned against the wall.

“What’s with Appa, Pratik? Why is he like this? And why is Amma so scared of him?”

Pratik stared at Aditi for a full minute before answering.

“Appa. You want to know what’s wrong with him, hanh?” Pratik opened his window, lit a cigarette and put his head out after each puff to exhale. He saw Aditi watching him.
“Amma found out about Appa’s…” The rest of the words were lost because Pratik has put his head out again.

“Appa’s what?” Aditi’s head filled with terrible possibilities. How strange that the first of these, after their parents’ 28 years of marriage, should be a dread of some second, unknown family that suddenly had to be acknowledged. “Appa’s what?”

“Cigarettes. Bad investments. Temper.” Pratik threw the butt out of the window but left it open. A whiff of Raat-ki-Rani floated in as the smell of cigarettes wafted out. “What the fuck difference does it make? Does there have to be a reason why things are the way they are?”

“Well, yes,” said Aditi. “That’s usual, isn’t it?”

“Why did you leave twelve years ago?”

Aditi stayed silent. What could she tell Pratik, who was ten at the time, why she’d left? She wasn’t even sure she knew anymore, which probably accounted for the impulsive letter home and this visit.

After all this time, the difference between the serenity of the house and its surroundings and the silent tensions at home that erupted into raging anger, was more apparent. Tomorrow perhaps, there would be a moment of joy sandwiched between the rest of the day, when it would not occur to her to ask for reasons.

Aditi shrugged. People were, after all, terminally inexplicable.

“Chuck me the suttas, will you?”

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