Poetry and Fiction - Letting go
by Harvinder Kaur
Don’t die,ma. Please don’t die on me… please.” Ma’s eyes opened slightly for the last time, to let out some secrets for those who could understand the language of eyes, and then they closed forever.
Rakesh’s first reaction was not of tearing pain, it was, “What will I say to Trisha?” Then he broke down. Grandpa bent down and put a hand on his son’s shoulder. Then the two men held each other, something they had not done for many, many years. Grief binds in a strange way.
“Swati, beta, you will have to go to Trisha’s school. Do not tell her anything until her stage performance is over, or she will not be able to sing. I think you too must go, Rakesh. It will not take long. I will take care of the hospital formalities.” Grandpa had steadied his voice and the stoic calm that was characteristic of him came back even amidst the storm of death. Swati always secretly admired him for this, a quality she wished Rakesh had inherited from his father, instead of becoming aggressive with people and fate.
Rakesh turned with a jerk to his mother’s body that reposed in death. “Get up, Ma, get up!” he jerked back and shook his mother’s arm. “It’s not fair, it’s not fair,” Rakesh was still sobbing “How can she die today – on her birthday, when Trisha is singing a tribute to her in school. She is waiting.”
The doctor who stood at the back watching this came forward now, “I’m really sorry, Mr. Sheth, for the loss, but your mother died painlessly. Please try to take comfort in that.” Swati put her hands on his shoulders that were heavy with grief and quietly led him out.
They had to break the news to their daughter in a way that her heart would not break. It was a very delicate heart like her father’s, which would not accept change or grief easily. How will they tell Trisha?
“Trisha, your song is next. You are ready, aren’t you, sweetheart?” Trisha loved her teacher, especially when she called her ‘sweetheart’; it made her feel warm all over, like after grandma’s hugs. “Ma’am, can you see my grandma, she promised she would come, but she went to the doctor.” “Okay, you be ready, I am sure she will be there with your parents in the audience.” “No, I want to see them first,” Trisha’s voice hardened.
Her teacher knew what that meant. She secretly prayed that Trisha would not get into her fit of stubbornness just when she was to sing a solo song in front of all the guests and parents. “Look, Trisha, I can’t make you see from here because we are backstage. When you go on stage, I am sure you will be able to spot them. Just think about the song, take a deep breath and you will sing beautifully.”
Her teacher was suddenly reminded of the time when Trisha did not eat or drink anything for the whole day. When she had asked her why she was not having the lunch that her mother had packed, she was surprised by the response, “My mother promised to give me sandwiches last night, but it is rice.” “But you like rice, don’t you, Trisha?” Trisha did not say a word and she decided to cajole her a little more. “Come on now, have your lunch.” She opened the lunch box for her. Suddenly, she had a few rice grains on her specs and the rest all over the classroom. She knew after that she would have to be extremely careful with this seven-year-old. She could not take a broken promise.
Trisha walked onto the stage in front. The whole hall was full of everyone’s mummy and daddy, grandfathers and grandmothers. Where were hers in this big hall overflowing with so many people?
The music started, her teacher in the wings anxiously encouraged her to start singing. She did, even as her eyes searched for her family. She went into an alaap just the way her grandmother had taught her. Where was grandmother? The audience became very quiet, they realised that this child was exquisitely talented.
Ham chaahto ke gulam nahi
Ham dard se aage jate hain
Andheron se ghabrate nahi
Hamen chirag jalane aate hain
Ham hawa ka thanda jhoka hai
Ruki saanson ko chalate hain
Hum jal ki chalti dhaara hai
Sookhi zameen ko hara banate hain
Khate meethe sab sawaal hamare
hamari gol-mol koi baat nahi
Rang-birange hain khel hamare,
Hai seedhi-sachhi baat yahee.
Andheron ki kaali chadar par
Tim-timate taron ko chipkate hain
Pedon ko rangeen pankh de kar
Zamin ko aasman par le jate hain
After the second stanza, she spotted her mummy and daddy. He wasn’t wearing his blue shirt, the one she had told him to. Where was ‘daadi?’ She was not there, nor was grandpa!
The audience could sense something was wrong. The child’s concentration had wavered, and she had stopped mid-stanza. Rakesh without realising it, held Swati’s hand. For once, he wished his daughter would behave like her grandfather – Trisha stopped singing. There was a dead silence in the hall. Those who sat in the front rows could see the expression on the face of this talented child change. In fact, it froze, as if an iron cast had come over it.
Her teacher knew what this meant, she knew it was useless to urge or force her to do anything at this point. Trisha was not like other children in many ways. She went to the stage and very gently led Trisha away. The incomplete song and the audience’s wonder hung in the air like Damocles’ sword. She would be called to the Principal’s office afterwards, she knew that. Her parents came backstage to take her home.
When Trisha returned after a week to school, her friends found her changed. They tried to make her feel ‘good’ and tried to play with her, just as Miss Sheela had asked them to, but Trisha was not interested in playing. In fact, she was not interested in anything anymore. She did not even stand near the window and sing songs as she used to.
Her best friend told everyone, “It is because she misses her grandmother, who has now become a star.”
“No silly, her grandmother has gone to God.”
“That’s how you become a star!”
Even though everyone tried to make Trisha laugh and play, she did not do anything. The children gave up trying.
“Miss Sheela, Trisha has become like the statue in the hall,” a kid remarked.
Her teacher was worried. After a fortnight, she called the parents.
“It is not just a question of loss,” Swati explained to Miss Sheela, but before she could say anything more, Rakesh’s urgent voice took over, “Look, she had prepared so hard, and that song was taught by mother. When the annual day fell on my mother’s birthday, Trisha told her that she will give it her best, and that would be her birthday gift for her. She was excited and even selected the clothes all of us would wear. She made my mother promise that she will be there on the annual day no matter what. That’s how it would have been had she not had a stroke the night before.”
“I understand. It is difficult for anyone to bear it.”
Miss Sheela could see that Rakesh had drifted.
“It’s so unfair,” he muttered to himself. She noticed that both his fists were clenched. Swati and Sheela looked at each other.
Rakesh came home earlier than usual. He was in time to have dinner with everyone else, instead of having it in his study with his laptop. “I’m not hungry,” he told Swati dryly, “you people eat.” He watched his little daughter eat her dinner. It was as if she had lost her taste buds. A few months earlier, she would have demanded ice cream and would have created a fuss over the soup.
He ripped off his tie and threw himself on the bed. He was tired in every way. He was sick of office politics, he could not reach the targets his bosses set, and his subordinates could not meet theirs. He had lost his mother and the spirit of life had been sucked away from his daughter. He still had his father and his wife, but where would she go anyway? It was his daughter who wrenched his heart. If only it had not happened the way it did. God was not fair, if there is a God that is, he could never make up his mind.
“What’s the matter, Rakesh, why are you so tired?” his wife asked him after dinner. “Nothing, just work.” He actually wanted to say, that it was life and its unfairness. It was not fair that after working so hard, people did not recognise him enough and he had to struggle to keep office politics under check. He had been manipulating and pressurising people almost all his life. Even at home, he had put pressure on his wife to stop working when their daughter was born. It was selfish of her to want to work when they had a baby to take care of. Thank goodness, his mother made her see sense.
“Your shoulders are stiff and heavy,” she put her hands on his shoulders to ease the tension which always reflected in his taut posture before showing on his face.
“It’s nothing,” even as he said it, his head leaned back onto the softness of her breasts, and he let go. When he opened his eyes there were tears in them.
In the morning, when they were having their leisurely Sunday breakfast, Trisha surprised all of them with a question, “Mummy, why don’t you work like my teacher and the aunty next door?”
They all looked at each other, Rakesh at Swati, Swati at Rakesh and then both at Grandpa. No one was prepared for this. They were relieved and puzzled at the same time.
“I can, sweetheart, but it’s been a long time,” Swati fumbled.
“You see, Trisha, before you were born, Mummy was a designer, then God designed that you come and then she started to take care of you.”
“And you are worth much more than any job,” Swati quickly added, not being able to figure out what was going on in her little daughter’s mind.
Trisha was quiet, lost in thought. Then after a long, pensive pause, “In my school, Ganesh says, God doesn’t do anything for anyone and people don’t become stars when they die.” They were all benumbed, not being able to make the connection, but at last she had started asking questions again.
Later, Swati wondered why Trisha had asked what she did. Had she and Rakesh ever argued in front of Trisha over her wanting to work again? She could not remember any such time. They were both careful about not arguing in front of their child.
“Swati, I want to tell you something,” Rakesh’s voice was so soft that she was almost afraid. “The day before Ma had that final stroke, she had talked to me about you. She had said that we had been too rigid about your not working and that after Trisha started going to school, I should have encouraged you. She had felt guilty, I think, or maybe something else. After all, she couldn’t pursue singing after she’d got married. I meant to talk to you about it but then everything happened so suddenly. I think Trisha was there in the room when we were talking. I should have discussed this with you.”
“It’s okay, Rakesh, I’m fine really. I never even felt the inclination to work. I’ve always felt fulfilled.” Rakesh drew his breath in fast, short gasps – why did he never feel fulfilled – even after success, even after money? How could she let go so easily?
He took a deep breath and then asked her, “Swati, are you telling me you didn’t mind not being able to work? In a way we imposed upon you, isn’t that like giving up your identity, isn’t it unfair?”
“Identity isn’t dependent on other people. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be your real identity. I don’t see why Ma should have felt guilty. I love looking after Trisha.”
Rakesh did not go to office that day. In the afternoon, he went to pick up Trisha from her school. He met Sheela, her class teacher, at the gate.
“Hello Mr. Awasthi, I’m surprised to see you here today.”
“So, am I,” Rakesh laughed.
“It is strange that I should run into you, but perhaps I could mention it, Trisha asked a question today after a very long time, she asked me if everything had to be fair.”
“Oh! How did you answer that?”
“I was taken aback, but I did tell her that we should try to be as fair as we could and not feel too bad when things did not seem too fair. I suppose somewhere we have to let go.” Sheela looked at his face carefully. “I don’t really know, but I hope that helps, Mr. Awasthi.”
Rakesh did not respond to that, he was lost again. She politely took her leave, and he went to take Trisha.
A chubby boy waved to his daughter, “Bye, Trisha, and don’t forget.”
“Bye, Ganesh,” she said, so quietly that no one heard her.
“What shouldn’t you forget, Trisha? What was your friend talking about?” Rakesh got curious as he fastened Trisha’s seat belt.
Trisha was quiet at first, and then she told him, “People don’t become stars when they die, stars are just fire.”
Rakesh drew a deep long breath and sighed, he felt the urge to smoke, to take a long, long puff.
At the dinner table, Rakesh told Swati and his father who had just returned from his pilgrimmage about the conversation at school. Trisha did not join them for dinner. She was not in her room. Rakesh got a little concerned, when his father gestured him to be quiet. They could hear a voice in the balcony.
There under the stars, Trisha was singing the song that she had left unsung on stage.
They did not know that her little friend had told Trisha:
“People don’t become stars when they die, stars are just fire. But they do listen, even after they die, especially at night, if they love you.”
That day a song drifted from the heart of a child and melted into the light of the stars.
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