By Ajay Kalra
What do you mean to yourself, without all the roles you play? Here is a poignant recount, interestingly portrayed by the author when he peeped within
The easiest part about doing a piece on myself is that I don’t need to move an inch for getting the research material. The challenge though, is to view myself from a distance and report my findings honestly to the world at large. It is like stripping myself bare, layer by layer, with nothing to cover my raw vulnerable self from the public gaze. And yet share I must. About I, me, myself.
As I delve within, I realise there are many different rooms inside. These rooms belong to the various people who play a key role in my life-story. I begin my journey by visiting these rooms, wiping the dust off memories and rekindling the emotions.
My grandmother’s room
As I open the door I see her perched on top of her kitchen stool preparing some alu bhajia for an evening snack. I am five years old and have just gotten up from my afternoon nap. Groggily I walk up to her and hug her from behind. “Uth gaya?” she asks without turning around. Still half asleep I cling to her like a small chimpanzee would to its mother. With one hand I pinch her wrinkled cheeks, while with the other I reach for the piping hot bhajiya. Blissfully munching on the scrumptious snack I move to the adjoining room.
My grandfather’s room
I find him diligently working out the interest and maturity dates on his fixed deposits. The table that he works on is called the office table, perhaps because it gives him the satisfaction of being at office after retirement. It has drawers on one side and a single cabinet on the other that stores old files and records. It is made of sturdy steel and painted a sombre grey. As he hears me coming, he turns and looks at me. His look transforms me into a student. I am now twelve years of age. “Your report card has come,” he says. I sit down, my face turned to him expectantly. “You have done well, but you could have done better.” I nod and scrutinise my report card. “Try to get 80s instead of your 70s and 90s in place of your 80s,” he adds. I nod again. He then smiles and reaches into the drawer and pulls out a rectangular box and hands it to me. It is a pack of fancy water colours that I had been wanting since long. Delighted with my new acquisition, and my grandfather’s reluctant approval, I scamper across to the next room.
My mother’s room
As I step inside I realise it’s much smaller than the other rooms. She is seated in one corner in front of a small mandir, containing small idols of gods and goddesses. A silver idol of Durga mounted on a tiger catches my attention due to its location in the centre of the platform. I remove my shoes as I enter and go sit next to her with my eyes closed and palms folded. After a while the puja comes to an end and I get up to receive the customary aarti and prasad. “Kabhi aya? Kya khayega?” she asks as she puts down the puja thali. She opens a cabinet and opens a box of dry fruits and thrusts a few salted cashews into my hand. I make myself comfortable on a small stool and tell her my marks. Before I can finish telling her the result in each subject, she interjects enthusiastically, “I always knew you were a bright student.” I smile, even though a little disappointed at her inability to understand the finer details of my life.
Suddenly my mother’s face appears to have wrinkled, her hair looks grey. She says, “Accha, listen, I need some money. Navratri is coming and I will need some extra money for the puja. I feel awkward to keep asking you for money, but there is no option.” “I don’t have any now. I will give you some tomorrow,” I respond in a voice which is mature and responsible. Surprised, I look at myself in the mirror. I am no longer a boy but a man: a provider who is responsible for running the household and setting an example as the head of a family. With this transition I move on to the next room.
My father’s room
The room is dark, except for a bright shaft of light being projected on to the wall facing the door. I squint my eyes to get accustomed to the darkness and take a few tentative steps forward. Now I can see an outline of a table placed in the middle of the room with a projector beaming picture slides on the facing wall. As I look around I discover that the room is seemingly empty of any other object. My attention now shifts to the picture on the wall. It is of a stocky man shaving and a small child watching him wide-eyed. It is my first recollection of father. I press a button on the projector and the next slide appears. It is a moment from my third birthday celebration with my father helping me mount a bicycle that he had gifted me. I move on. There is a picture of me being admitted to boarding school when I was five years old. The person with me is my grandfather and not my father. As I move from pictures from the first standard right to my graduation my father is missing in them all. Then all of a sudden I see him again in one solitary picture after my graduation. The memory is all too clear. My mother was insisting I touch his feet after their divorce had come through. I didn’t. The separation that happened many years ago had finally got a social sanction but it meant nothing to me. Not anymore. There is one more slide with reference to my father and this of my mother crying on his death. Wearily I get up and look around for an electric switch to brighten this dark room. After some groping I find the buttons and switch on the lights. The walls are covered with question marks all over. I move on to the next room.
My sister’s room
This room is bright and colourful.
The curtains are a beautiful contrast of bright yellow and flaming orange placed adjacent to each other for impact. The round glass table has a flower vase with the most exotic ink blue flowers I have ever seen. There is no one in the room. I sit on the sofa and look at my watch.
It’s noon. I pick up one of her lifestyle magazines and browse through it, waiting for her to return. She finally signals her arrival through the loud click-clack of her high heels and a big shopping bag. As I look up I see her round face with its flashing intense eyes. “I would like to talk to you,” I say. “Yes, tell me,” she responds, trying hard to conceal the rebellious tone in her voice. “Freshen up first,” I tell her. “No, I am fine. Tell me now,” she retorts. I take a deep breath trying hard not to give up the idea of speaking to her. “How did you come home right now?” I ask. “He dropped me,” she counters. “Is he aware that you are looking at boys for marriage?” I inquire. “Yes,” she answers. “Then how do you plan to take this forward?”
I ask her. “Look, he is not ready to commit himself at the moment. We shall deal with it when the time comes. I don’t see why it should bother you,” she snaps, annoyed at the intrusion in her life. I take another deep breath and respond as calmly as I can, “I want you to understand that what you do with your life is eventually your responsibility, however, it is natural for me to be concerned as an elder brother who doesn’t want his little sister to get hurt.” She softens. The genuineness in my voice seems to have broken the wall of indignation. “Give me time to think about it,” she says. I get up and leave. I would have liked to hug her but I don’t. As I leave the room I feel much older than I am. I look down. I am wearing my father’s shoes.
Before I enter my room I remove my father’s shoes on the small shoe rack outside. I feel lighter now. As I open the door a fresh breeze welcomes me. The room is at an elevation. An open French window overlooks the topmost branches of a mahogany tree. The sun’s rays kiss each leaf as it flutters ever so slightly in the gentle breeze. It is a sparsely furnished room, with only the essentials. A small cot, a table, a chair and a mid-sized wooden cupboard that tries unsuccessfully to hold all my books. One corner of the room has a small mat. As I sit down on this mat I close my eyes and watch my thoughts. I see my grandmother in the kitchen and I instinctively become a child. The very next moment my sister evokes the parent in me. My mother appears next and I become the provider. With the image of grandfather I become a student – eager to prove. A sudden realisation dawns. I play these roles even in their absence. Just their thought is enough for me to slip into my role. I watch more intently and gradually the thoughts loosen their grip. I can now feel spaces between my thoughts. In these spaces I am no one, yet I am.
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