Her face was streaked with tears of triumph and joy. She had never in her life felt so happy. Much to her surprise and delight, Aayat had won a writing contest and was the proud owner of a hefty cash prize worth Rs.10,000. Her short story had been selected out of thousands of entries across India. It was a pivotal moment in her life. She could barely contain her happiness, but then, she did shed a few tears of joy.
“Women are not allowed to show emotion because it makes them unladylike; learn to stifle your feelings no matter how happy or sad you feel,” Aayat’s mother reprimanded her every time she slipped out of control.
Laughing was particularly forbidden; however, giggling was acceptable on those rare occasions when father was in a fairly good mood. In fact, even he would join in the banter, but those times were few and far between. Father loved his family, but he was a man with measured speech.
A lowly construction worker, he labored from dawn to dusk to feed his large family. Long, erratic shifts often took a toll on his physical health. Prolonged exposure to cement, concrete, paint, dust, lead and toxic chemicals often led to severe bouts of coughing and wheezing. Father’s hands were calloused from overusing saws, hammers, power drills, bolsters and cold chisels. Moreover, the protective gear caused considerable skin irritation.More often than not, father returned home covered in soot and grime.
A life of dire poverty and hardship made him sour and disillusioned. There was a deep sag to his eyelids. His eyes were rimmed by black circles of weariness. Father often thought of alternative ways to supplement his meager pay, but never really got around to doing anything substantial. Alas, with each passing day, his hopes of a life luxuriant with abundance and joy diminished.
The only thing that brought him alive was his decade-old transistor that helped him tune into melodies of the past. He listened to old songs before he slept, it was a nightly ritual, it invigorated him enough to scramble out of bed every morning.
“Ammi, today we shall have a feast. We deserve to treat ourselves to a lavish meal. You will make us paneer makhani, won’t you? Then we’ll round it off with gulab jamuns.” The excitement in Aayat’s voice was palpable.
Mother muffled her tears. She planted a kiss on Aayat’s forehead and nodded affectionately.
Aayat ran to to the bazaar to fetch fresh paneer, cream and ready-made gulab jamuns. Her literary accomplishment called for a massive celebration after all.
For some people, happiness is a bowl of paneer makhani and gulab jamun. The things we take for granted are sometimes the very things coveted by the less fortunate. Happiness means different things to different people. There are very few moments in life when we are truly, madly and deeply happy. In fact, we would trade all our tomorrows for that one present moment of happiness.
Father sauntered in. The house was thick with the scent of paneer makhani. A faint smell of gulab jamun also wafted from the dingy kitchen.
Father surveyed the kitchen.
“That’s a massive spread. Is it Meher’s birthday? Or your sister’s anniversary?” he asked his wife.
“It is nobody’s birthday or anniversary. My sister didn’t send all this food. Our daughter won a short-story contest. She has been awarded Rs. 10,000.”
Father was pleasantly surprised. Mother gestured towards a piece of paper. With the hem of his shirt, he wiped his eyeglasses clean, and looked up the printed copy of the email congratulating Aayat.
“Hmm. Good job.” Father shot a glance in Aayat’s direction and replied nonchalantly.
How Aayat had waited all day to hear effusive words of praise from him! How she yearned for recognition from him! However, he just nodded mechanically as Aayat gave him the lowdown on her writing endeavours.
Mother proudly laid out the heirloom porcelain bowl for Aayat. It was her way of articulating her feelings. The red and white floral motif bowl was their one prized possession. Aayat’s eyes filled up at this magnanimous gesture of love.
The entire family sat down to a scrumptious meal that night. An overused burlap place mat was spread out on the floor. Aayat helped mother set dinner – a sizzling bowl of paneer makhani laden with cream and coriander, a bowl of hefty gulab jamuns and a plate filled with naan and steamed rice. The aroma and novelty of the food stirred everyone’s appetite.
Aayat gobbled spoonfuls of paneer makhani while biting into big chunks of naan. She reached out for a second helping too. Little Hamza devoured the entire bowl excitedly and hastily. Amaan too licked the bowl clean. All the kids ate to their hearts’ content. Mother and father, too, ate gratefully and contentedly. Then the family helped themselves to kesari gulab jamuns stuffed with exotic dry fruits. It was a feast of a lifetime!
Aayat helped mother wrap up dinner. She actively engaged in household chores, and every chore was executed to perfection. Whether it was kneading dough, mincing vegetables, brewing tea, cleaning cobwebs, sewing father’s missing buttons, sweeping the floor, Aayat thrilled at homemaking as much as she did at writing. She took it upon herself to help Amaan with studies and even hummed lullabies to make little Hamza sleep at times.
It seemed as if Aayat had matured beyond her years.
Aayat had written down the award-winning story in her foolscap book. Later that day, she had visited Meher’s house to type it out and email it. Meher was her first cousin – Meher’s mother and Aayat’s mother were real sisters but their lives were diametrically different. One was fabulously wealthy while the other lived a life of abject poverty. Admittedly, status difference never determined their feelings for one other. It never caused a rift between the two sisters or even cousins for that matter. Both the sisters spoke with deferential amiability with one another. The bonhomie between Meher and Aayat was also touching, inspiring even.
Aayat was well-accustomed to a life of trials and tribulations, hardships and challenges. Mother often reassured her, “My dear daughter, remember, those who have never known real hardship cannot have the same strength as others. God chooses his bravest soldiers to fight the toughest battles.”
Meher and other girls feasted on cupcakes and ice creams, Aayat wrote stories about them. Other children adopted exotic birds and parrots, Aayat wrote poems about ordinary birds landing on her windowsill, parrots flitting in and out of trees and squirrels darting up and down the trees.
Words had a hypnotic hold over Aayat. She wrote fervently, as if her dexterous fingers held all the magic in the world.
Meher’s nails were always polished, she wore high heels and heady cologne. Aayat caught a whiff of her perfume every time she breezed by. Sometimes even her lips were painted a deep red, but primping and prepping was the privilege of the rich and privileged, not underprivileged girls like Aayat.
However, not once did Aayat compare her life to Meher’s or whine about everything that was lacking in her life. In fact, there was always a bovine placidity in Aayat’s face, a calm and cheerful disposition that distinguished her from the rest.Burdens unprotested, grievances unspoken – Aayat was learning to cope with the ambiguities of life. Her almond-shaped eyes were forever radiant with purpose and resolve.
What Aayat lacked in looks, she more than made up for in passion and attitude.While she wasn’t what you’d call conventionally beautiful, she was pleasant looking enough – a kind of effortless personality radiated from her: Her zeal for life, her knowledge of things, her sparkling conversational skills, her ability to perform each task meticulously right from peeling potatoes and mincing garlic to writing stories and reading – Aayat gave her 100% to the task at hand, no matter how banal, tedious or challenging it was.
Meher lived in a luxurious duplex apartment furnished tastefully rather than ostentatiously. Her parents believed one’s living space shouldn’t overwhelm its inhabitants but be an extension of who they are. They gracefully adorned their home with a few knick-knacks from their travels.
Aayat’s house, on the other hand, was sparsely furnished. Incidentally, furnished would be too fancy a word for a house with leaky roofs, fragments of plaster falling out of the ceiling, a worn-out rug, three plastic chairs and a rickety table, a rudimentary bed, an ottoman and a couple of patched up bolsters. The house was oppressively dull. However, Aayat never shied away from calling that house her own.
“I wish I could pin down father’s exact thoughts. What he is thinking. How he is feeling. How I yearn to have a friendly relationship with him,” Aayat confided in mother.
“Your father contains and compartmentalizes to a disturbing degree. He is a man of few words. Moreover, he is becoming increasingly conventional with age. It seems there is nothing new to be discovered about your father ever again,” mother remarked despondently.
“Ammi, we all have stories to tell. It is just that people forget to rediscover each other. Ammi, we are not the same person we were even a minute ago. There is always something new to be discovered about people. We are always reinventing ourselves.” Aayat’s mature perspective took mother by surprise.
“Okay, let us plan something for his birthday. Let it not slip into oblivion like the rest of his birthdays,” mother proposed enthusiastically.
“I know exactly what to do to rouse him out of listlessness and fatigue,” Aayat ran over to Meher’s house.
Father’s preoccupation with music was well-known to the family, so Aayat decided to buy him a trendy digital player – a much-needed upgrade to his good old transistor.After researching extensively, Meher and Aayat zeroed in on the Saregama Carvaan. Aayat spent a whopping six thousand on the Electric Blue portable music player. She thought the music as well as the striking colour would revive and raise his flagging spirits. After all, when we indulge in things we love, we lose track of time and dismal thoughts take a backseat.
With thousands of preloaded classical tracks by Mohd Rafi, Manna Dey, Kishore Kumar and many more yesteryear legends, the birthday gift was sure to lift father’s mood and add zing to his otherwise lackluster life.
Father awoke to the sight of a beautifully-wrapped gift next morning. There was also a handmade card sitting jauntily on the table. It read, “Dearest Abba, happy birthday from all of us. Now you can let go of that drab transistor and treat your ears to as many as 5000 soulful songs anytime you want.”
Father, a bit puzzled, gingerly unwrapped the gift. He was not used to surprise gifts on his birthday. In fact, he was not habituated to receiving gifts at all. He couldn’t make heads or tails of the shiny thing before his eyes.
“Move over gramophones and transistors, CD players and MP3 players, here’s the latest music player on the block. What’s more, you can choose songs depending on your mood – there’s a song for every mood – happy, sad, contemplative, romantic. There are also Sufi songs you can listen to when you return tired from work,”Aayat enthused like a two-year old adding, “Abba, to sit with you on the charpoy under the starlit sky and listen to sweet music flowing out of the Carvaan is all I want.”
Father’s eyes filled up. He allowed his tears to flow, freely and uninhibitedly. He planted a kiss on Aayat’s forehead and met her innocent gaze for as long as he could.
For the first time, Aayat felt a kinship with Abba and thought she would be his princess after all.
Ammi – mother
Abba – father
Naan – flatbread
Paneer – cottage cheese
Paneer Makhani – an Indian dish made of cottage cheese and cream
Gulab Jamun – an Indian delicacy made of milk solids, flour and a leavening agent
Kesari – flavoured with saffron