Photograph by Tammy Pineda (https://www.instagram.com/tnpineda/)
This account, I presume: comes a tad too late. Nevertheless, I shall write this anecdotal evidence in one way or the other: I find it rather disrespectful not to do so.
I grew up in Bombay - or Mumbai as known to the people who’re rather unknowing of its old yet disarming charms. For all the slights it gets- I found the place ubiquitous: at once emergent, vibrant, colorful, unique and at the same time- universal.
But, I’m not a Mumbaikar - my parents snaked their way out to this grand city from a quaint, small town in the frozen hills of Kashmir - a place called Sopore. A mere two years before I was to step foot into the world at large- my father had decided to move out and make a living of his own, dragging my mother along with him.
My mother, to say in the least- was a deeply immersive person: at once tender like the leaves of the Peepal tree she used to count in her spare time, and on the other hand: a rebel. For her- life was nothing if not hard work, and she rarely did scout any time out for herself. My father was the only one on whom we relied for survival: and she knew this, in its complete factuality. So, she tended to the house-work- at once immersed in keeping the home afloat, and also- watching over me. Ever if she did find herself some small time, she’d sit by the chair that we’d kept in our veranda. From there, she used to gaze lightly at the Peepal tree out in the street, its green, languid leaves spilling over the walls into our front porch. Even then, she’d call me to sit on her lap, wrapping me in her warm bosom, and point her finger towards the Peepal tree. ‘Chal aa patte ginne jaayein, kitne gire - let’s count the fallen leaves of the Peepal tree.’, she would say. ‘Ek, do, teen - one, two, three’, she’d go on, her finger moving ever so slightly.
When I was three, my parents decided to enroll me in a Hindi-Medium school. Me being a big sahib- as my mother would say, was awfully important to them. Across the street from my school, was another: a better-looking school, with a large playground, and a galvanic aesthetic where it was said that all the kids from the rich families went to.
When I was seven, we received a visit from the students from the school across from ours: it was, as they said, a friendly visit. We were told by our teachers to talk among ourselves, and forge friendships: it was a great learning opportunity, to talk to children of great sahibs, they said. A minute later, I found myself conversing with a kid whose presence was such, that me and my other classmates seemed diffident in comparison.
‘Ache lag rahe ho - You look good!’, I said, steeped in deep admiration. ‘Thanks.’, he replied.
‘Kis class main ho tum - what standard are you in?’
‘I’m in 5th standard. Tell me, what standard are you in?’, he asked, engaging lightly.
I for one, felt flummoxed. My face reddened-blushing like a ripe tomato, and I retreated a few steps back, trying to draw some air.
‘What happened?’, he asked, genuinely concerned.
‘Kuch nahi. Mujhe samajh nahi aaya - I’m sorry. I could not understand.’, I replied.
‘Kya samajh nahi aaya – What didn’t you understand?’
‘Jo tumne kaha. Konsi bhasha hai ye? – what you said. Which language is it?’
‘English’, he replied. ‘Tumko nahi aati? Anpad ho kya? – You don’t know English? Are you an illiterate?’, he said, his face screwed up in a dagger of disapproval.
Saying nothing, I slowly snaked my way out of the classroom, running back my way home in tears. When my mother saw me, she at once got up from her chair- she was counting the fallen leaves of the Peepal tree when I had come home running and gasping.
‘Kya hua; What happened?’, she asked.
I felt rather ashamed to tell her the truth, so I concocted up a story where I was smacked at the back of my head by my teacher.
She, as always: gestured me to come sit on her lap. When I did, she rocked the chair while asking me to count the leaves fallen at our front porch. ‘Ek, do, teen’- she began again, but by then, I was inconsolable. I framed a smile, skirted with a fit of garrulous laughter. But it wasn’t real. I abhorred the language that had made me an ‘Anpad’.
Later that evening, when my father came home, and my mother was in the kitchen, making dinner, I asked him to transfer me to an English-Medium boarding school. When asked why, I said that’s how one becomes a sahib. It was with some reluctance, and a lot of complaining on my part- that finally landed a victory in my lap. It was decided, that day, that I’d be transferred to a boarding school where they taught in English- the language that made big sahibs out of the common folk.
Years later, I found myself a job with a handsome pay. Now, I had my parents moved out from that old, murky place we used to call a home and settled them in a place that was more likely to my stature. I for one, was content with my life now- I had a great career, a good home and decent prospects lay ahead of me. The only thing that ringed my heart with the same sense of betrayal and humiliation was that after that incident, there came a sort of unseen wedge between me and my mother. We weren’t the same anymore, or rather- our relationship wasn’t.
A month back, my father called me, sounding hesitant. When I inquired as to what was the matter, he told me that maa had developed a malignant tumor, situated at the nape of her neck, and that the doctors had given her a mere three weeks to live. ‘You must come home at once.’, he said and hung up.
As he demanded, I came home at once. My mother- this was the first time I really took in her features: with the advent of old age, the skin of her face had parched and darkened, and begun to crack and flake around the corners of her mouth and eyes. Her lips, which were once full, had developed small fissures across, making her look thirsty. Her nose was just as round and small as I remembered, and her chin, upturned.
‘Abhinav Beta’, she called out. Her voice was feeble. Laying paralyzed on the bed, she did her best to sound sinuous.
‘Yes maa?’, I replied.
‘Theek maa – I’m fine, maa.’
‘Beta’, she began, her voice fading, ‘Ek hi iccha hai meri - Mujhe vo Peepal ka paed dekhna hai firse. – I only have one wish- I just want to look at that Peepal tree one last time.’
‘Bilkul – Of course.’
Later that evening, we accosted the street that we had not seen for over ten years. The street seemed narrower somehow, and the house, a faded reminder of our encumbered past. I imagined the house I had bought for my parents - at the time, we could ill afford it. I wheeled my mother on her wheelchair, bringing her closer to the tree. The tree- looked dead, withering, its branches bare and shedding, leaves fallen and turned to muddy rubble. Its trunk had become parched, hard - as if a drought had climbed up its spine.
‘Marr raha hai - its dying.’, my mother mumbled. Then, saying absolutely nothing, she gestured me that she was done, and that she’d like to be taken home.
Three weeks later, as expected, my mother passed away. We had a small, elaborate funeral arranged. After paying our respects, we headed back home. My father, who himself was ill with emotion, asked me to sort through her stuff she kept in the cupboard. It’d be needed when we immerse her in the Ganga, he said.
I went in her room, opened up the cupboard and went through her things. There, while I was shuffling through her dresses- a note slipped down onto the floor. I picked it up. It was four- fold, its edges torn and upturned. I unfolded it and read:
It is such a great thing - counting the fallen leaves. You may not understand it now, but you will, I hope, some fine day. I was devastated when I heard that you wanted to go to boarding school- I could not bear the thought of you being away from me. But I guess that’s motherly instinct. So, I let reason get the best of me, and allowed you your due after all, we wanted a sahib from our home! And look at that! We actually got one!
But what to do of this motherly heart, eh? I never could reason with it. It was unbearable to be away from you, I did not even get to see you grow up into such a fine young man, and so I presume, the longing remained. But I knew saying such things would just bring you down, so I kept them to myself, hidden in this note.
When you were in boarding school, I met your teacher by happenstance. She asked me, where you were and I told her that we had transferred you to a boarding school. We got to some more talking, and I asked her why she’d slapped you. She maintained that she never had. I even had a brief argument with her: after which I understood she was telling the truth.
It was but later I realized that the problem lay elsewhere. It was because you wanted to study in an English medium school. This wasn’t so obvious to me then, but overtime, whenever you visited home, I saw that you never really talked in Hindi, except with me.
The tree after you left was my only place of solace. I used to sit on my chair, rock it, and count the fallen leaves. There was a beauty in it, always was. You know why, beta? Because those dead leaves were kept alive through my memory. To me, they were a blessing, something that over the course of these years, I’ve held quite sacred. The tree grew old with me, it seemed. It too, I would like to say, missed you very much. Did you miss it too? I’m sure you did.
Like that tree, beta, I too seem to be growing old with time. Over the years, I devoted myself to study English. It’s quite fun, I must say! I thought we’d converse in English one day, but you always seemed too busy with your work.
I leave this note with a final, parting thought- I love you, beta. I always have and always will. Maybe, when you read this note, we will go over to our old home, and watch, one last time, the leaves fall down onto the ground. I’d like to see that. And, more importantly, I’d like you to be there.
Your loving Mother,
I crumpled up the note, and flung it aside, back into the reaches of her cupboard. I got up and looked at the clock: it was eight. I hurried, took my father’s leave and rushed over to the old house. I arrived there in half an hour and walked into the familiar smells that took me back to my childhood. The tree- stood towering and magnificent, as if flowering to bloom for the very first time. Its branches stretched above and beyond, curtaining the night sky. Its trunk was dry but gentle to touch, like a hard-gouged wound on a supple body. The leaves