Siddharth stepped back after an hour at the telescope. The pale cream wall with the framed photographs was unchanged. So was the streak of dampness that ran from the ceiling in the far corner. The indoor world was the same as always.
He packed away his instruments, his camera, his sketches and closed the window. His rucksack lay at the side of his bed. With a sigh he picked it up and left the house to answer his father’s summons. A few hours later, he was in the city, speeding through in a black and yellow taxi. But when the streets narrowed down, they began to move more and more slowly. He could see the sweet shops, the cups of tea held by people and the pushing, elbowing men and women who always seemed to want to go somewhere. There were loosely strung groups of boys standing with hands on their hips or around the shoulders of others, their faces a blur, their eyes unfocused, their teeth bared in raucous laughter. He stared at them and at the buildings with blackened sides that had been whitewashed over and over again, and at the new ones, all glass and chrome, their tops chopped off by the frame of his taxi window.
His ears felt rather than heard the mangled mix of screeching tyres, rattling buses, purring cars, the incessant talking, the shouts, and the horns, the merciless horns laying claim to the atmosphere as though it belonged to them. A patriotic song from a teashop mixed inharmoniously with a cell phone singing ‘You’re my Hunny-Bunny’ and the ‘Chikni Chameli’ from somewhere juxtaposed with the blaring-out of the latest manifesto from a politico who was standing for the municipality elections next week. Already he was longing to go back.
The familiar turn in the road with the red letterbox, the peeling plaster of the shop selling kites, a relic from his childhood, and he was almost back in the by lanes where he had grown up. He closed his eyes, savouring the blackness, knowing it would be elusive once he reached. A few more minutes, and he could feel the ambience seeping into every pore of his body – the lined Ashok trees, the broken step, the rusty opening in the gate of the park opposite – and here, almost brushing against those forgotten years, the taxi stopped and he opened his eyes reluctantly.
‘Cannot go further, too narrow, how will I back my vehicle?’ the driver said.
He got out wordlessly and gave him a hundred-rupee note, waving away the change. He watched the taxi reversing and driving off, fighting an urge to call it back and climb in.
The mossy corner of the outer courtyard with the dripping tap made him stoop and cup his hands beneath it and watch it filling. He lifted up his hands and sipped the cool water of his childhood. A plethora of images flashed into his mind, one chasing the other until his mother’s voice interrupted them. ‘Come back, you devil, wait till I catch you.’ Yes, she had always caught him when he had run away after a prank; and there had been many. Instinctively, he brought up his head with a jerk, then recalled why he was there.
The bell rang with the old, familiar tone; do things never change? Or wear out? But, he knew the answer. This was a place where old and worn out things were repaired over and over again. Only one thing had worn out before its time that no amount of repairing could heal. He remembered the patience with which he used to explain his views and the blankness that met him. They had never understood.
‘This is your ancestral home.’
‘We live in a society, not on an island where you can do what you want.’
‘As long as you are here you will have to go to these social gatherings.’
And so, he had left. His father had been not only the head of the family, but the head of the Bengali community that lived in the neighbourhood, the head of the entire clan. Everyone came to him for advice – regarding their sons and daughters, their careers, marriage, everything. Peeping from behind the curtains when he was told to go out and play as adults were discussing adult matters, he had seen his father resolve issues with an iron hand, seemingly a god to them. How could people discuss intimate matters with another? And why should the other offer solutions as though he were dispensing justice? Weddings arranged under the auspices of his father crumbled; he arranged divorces. People died; he gave them money for the last rites. Children were born; he blessed them and got their horoscopes cast.
A claustrophobic feeling that he remembered from his boyhood days overcame him. He rang the bell again, and getting no answer, pushed the door open. The smell of incense hit him and he took off his sandals out of habit. In the small worship room where an array of silver idols stood musing about the fate of men, he found his father. Sitting cross-legged as he remembered it, his back ramrod straight, white-haired and swarthy skinned, his father remained as still as the statues.
Siddharth waited, leaning against the wall and looked around. The silence bounced back from odd angles of the house: the tulsi plant which he had always associated with his mother’s chants, the sunmica topped dining table, the washing machine which looked incongruous among the antiquated objects. The washing machine that his mother had received from him with wide-eyed wonder stood in the corner, lovingly wiped clean, perhaps one of the last tasks she had performed before she had died. No one used it now, he was sure, it had become a relic just like all the other the pieces that were displayed.
What could it be that his father wanted to say to him? He would have to wait.
‘Sit, do you want a cup of tea? Or something to eat?’
His father felt more uncomfortable than he did, he realised. The old man took his time and prepared a cup of tea and sat before him at the table. He toyed with his cup, and then, characteristically, without preamble, went to the point. ‘Your mother had been worried about you.’
He waited for his father to continue.
‘When have you decided to get married?’
‘But, she’s no more.’
‘Have you someone in mind?’
‘You have to get married, you know. Already twenty-nine … I’ll start looking out.’
Images of shy brides, faces painted, all dolled up in silk and jewels repulsed him. What should he say? ‘I am not getting married.’
‘I am not interested in marriage.’
‘That’s no answer.’
‘Baba, is that why you called me here?’
‘Yes, what’s wrong with that?’
‘You know I’m busy. I thought … by the tone of your voice, that there was an emergency.’
‘Well, it is an emergency.’
‘I am going to the ashram.’
‘Oh! Then go.’
‘Well, I can’t, until you get married.’
‘What’s that got to do with it?’
‘Because, well, you don’t understand, I’m going for good.’ Siddharth stared at his father. ‘There’s nothing for me here. You’ll have to stay here. Or sell all this.’
He looked around. His childhood memories lay scattered around. Tears and laughter. His mother’s sobs and his father’s taunts. He got up.
‘I have to go, Baba. You do what you want with this. I don’t want anything. And, don’t go on about marriage. I will never marry.’
‘Listen, but tell me why. You will need someone when you grow older. Someone to share with.’
Was there a catch in his father’s voice? He could not be sure.
‘No, Baba,’ he went on, in a softer tone. ‘I’m too used to being myself. Besides, I can’t share everything in my life with anyone. There are places in which I will never let in anyone.’
‘But, son, you will need a woman.’
Siddharth was surprised. His father had aged. That was the closest he had come to talking with him, man to man.
‘But that’s no problem. I can have a relationship with any woman I like. If she also likes me, that is.’
He realised his father did not understand. He stopped and gave him a smile, perhaps for the first time in years. Perhaps, they belonged to different strains. Like bacteria, he thought. They could never really understand each other. Did bacteria understand each other? Perhaps it was only humans who felt this desperate need to understand each other.
‘But, what Baba? This is not your day and age. You’ve got to understand, you’ve got to move with the times.’
His father shook his head. ‘I can’t. I’m too old. You do what you like. I can’t come to meet you then. Ever.’
Siddharth bent down and touched his father’s feet. That was the most he could do for the traditions his father stood for. His father was not even interested in trying to understand him and his beliefs. It had always been about roles as a father, a son, a husband. No, all the people that were advised and helped were not individuals; they were just faces.
He turned and walked back into the street, squinting at the bright sunlight. He would have to walk to the main road before he got a taxi to take him to the station. Afternoon shadows cast their darkness on the row of old-style bungalows and their shaded interiors. He wondered if there were people from his childhood still living in them. Uncles and aunts, as he was told to consider them, despite not being related by blood. It was as if they were watching him, brows furrowed, disdain written on their faces. He kicked at a pebble and watched it roll desolately towards the gutter. Nothing stirred. He hailed a passing cab.
Later, as he watched the birds through his telescope and made notes on his laptop about their nesting habits, he wondered why people could not be more like them. He wondered why it was expected of him to put someone before himself and live. He watched a fledgling, with hardly any feathers yet, being pushed by its parent out of a large nest. Again and again, it fluttered its wings and fell to the soft sand below. Today’s lesson was over, he thought, as he saw the parent look at its baby struggling to stand on its feet. Tomorrow, it would fly. On its own.
The sea waves hit the rocks and a fine spray filled the air. A pair of gulls swooped down and looked for crumbs left by picnicking humans. Their raucous cries filled the air. He felt a thrill go through his body as he settled down to watch them.
Monika Pant, from India, has had her stories and poems published in several anthologies around the world. An English teacher for over fifteen years, she also writes course books in English Grammar and literature. Her real life snippets are published in the Chicken Soup for the Indian Soul series and a short story written by her was long listed for the 2013 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Her debut novel Caught in Two Winds was published by Lifi Publications and she has written a memoir, Echoes From The Vortex, Authorspress India. She blogs at http://monikapant.blogspot.in/, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and her twitter handle is @mpant65.