Thirteen hours of back-breaking journey had brought him to the New Delhi Airport. He had flown over one ocean and two continents and landed in the third. Most of the passengers, a mixed group, had slept during the flight. However, his co-passenger, a young man in thirties, had kept awake throughout. The brief interaction with him had been uninspiring. As the young man immersed himself in his iPad, he closed his eyes and chose to walk down the memory lane, running into twenty long years. In mind the images moved faster than the heart could digest. It was tough for him to follow the pace of his memories.
Twenty years ago, as an undergraduate, he had come to the States to do his masters in the civil engineering. He was one of the luckiest few chosen for the scholarship by the institute. A sense of bewilderment had struck him when he had landed at the JFK International Airport. A village boy from a backward region in the central India had entered the El Dorado. It was a kind of fairytale journey, about which thousands of Indian youth dreamed each year but only a couple of hundreds realised it.
In two years he toiled hard to achieve the top honours in the masters degree. Since his father could hardly afford his pocket expenses, he did odd jobs to meet them. During the campus placement a reputed company offered him a well paying job, which he couldn’t refuse and thus he made an alien land as his second home. The memories of his homeland slowly folded up into nostalgia. A year later he met with Meira, a Mexican who worked in the same company. Both fell in love and after a year’s courtship married, riding roughshod over differences in religion and culture. She came from a large family, half of which lived in a small town eighty miles east of Mexico City and another half lived scattered over in dozen cities in the States. He had met only his in-laws during the marriage. Would he ever be able to meet Neira’s large family? he wasn’t sure.
Back home in India, his relatives remembered him at their convenience. And he hardly had left behind any friends. Once a while his brothers did call him up to enquire whether he intended to return to India. And once they heard what they wanted to they would hang up. Never in formality did they ask about his life. Those few minutes were always his life’s most tormenting moments. Mercifully, that occurrence was a yearly phenomenon.
A broken destiny he inherited, a broken destiny he lived.
Carrying the burden of broken dreams, with a heavy heart he alighted the dreamliner. As he did the immigration formalities, suddenly it occurred to him that he had an official name that faded into the memory as soon as he moved ahead. To get rid of mild headache he walked into the cafeteria and ordered a cappuccino. It gave some respite to his aching limbs but little comfort to his troubled mind. His village was still miles away and he had to undertake several journeys to reach there.
As he moved out of the exit, he walked past several taxis. Some drivers chose to ignore a middle class Indian passenger, while the others showed no interest fearing haggling. A few taxis away, he found a disinterested driver.
“Will you take me to the Railway Station?”
“Which one, Sahib?”
The driver picked up his suitcase and dumped it into the dickie. Closing the door, he asked, “Sahib, have you come to visit the Taj Mahal?”
“You’re travelling light.”
“Oh,” he smiled. “I’m on an urgent visit.”
The driver continued, “I’ve heard there are no poor people in America. Even sweepers and maids drive in cars to their work. My acquaintance, a taxi driver, came to India last year and told us that he lived in a huge bungalow there and earned more than an IAS officer.”
He smiled at the man’s simplicity. The taxi driver wasn’t alone mesmerised by those myths. Almost every Indian believed that America was like a heaven.
“Passengers coming from abroad carry large suitcases with gifts for their entire family,” the driver continued.
“You’re right,” He spoke, looking at the man, “but I’m here to look up my ailing mother.” He wished his positive choice of words could change the condition of his mother who actually was on the deathbed.
It made the driver quiet for some time.
Five years ago his mother had visited him in San Antonio. Initial inhibitions had kept him on tenterhooks and he feared the meeting between the two most important women in his life. His mother was pleasantly surprised to meet Meira, whose name sounded Indian, who looked like an Indian and who behaved better than an Indian woman. In his mother’s mind a foreign woman was a white skinned, bereft of culture. But Meira had broken that myth. Like a typical Indian bahu, she had touched his mother’s feet and ushered her inside the house in traditional Indian style. It had surprise him too. It occurred to him then that Meira was friends with a few Indian women in the neighbourhood.
In the first week itself Meira had won his mother’s heart with her broken Hindi. One night his mother spoke with a wink, “Munna, my bahu will speak better Hindi than me before I leave.” Thereafter, she diligently started teaching Meira Hindi. Their after dinner Hindi classes were the funniest moments of his life. The women learnt less, laughed more. He had never found his mother so happy after his father’s death.
In the evenings when he chatted with his mother alone, she heaped praise on Meira drawing comparison to her Indian daughters-in-law. It made him proud that his Mexican wife had won the title of the best bahu.
For three months that his mother stayed with him, Meira was extra polite with him and took his special care too. Almost every day he had to call up his brothers with whom his mother chatted and gleefully told them that her Munna lived like a king in America. With every call the list of demand of goodies; mobile phones, laptops, clothes, etc, increased and she assured them to bring everything with her.
Meira and he saved to fulfill his family’s demands so that her mother returned home with her head held high. As the day of her departure came close, both the women talked more and more. Both tried to prepare for the day of parting. And that day arrived sooner than they had prayed for. The evening before the old woman called them both to her room and took out an old gold necklace. Putting it around Meira’s neck, she spoke, with tears in her eyes, “This is my mother’s necklace and I’m glad it has found its rightful owner.”
“But, Amma, how can I accept this? I’m your youngest daughter-in-law,” Meira protested.
“Chup,” she brushed aside her objection, “Don’t doubt your mother-in-law’s judgment.”
She looked at him and relented.
“Munna, next time when you come to India I want you to bring her along. I’ll organise a huge function in her honour and invite the entire village,” she commanded.
Before departing he hugged his Amma for a long time. “We’ll meet soon,” she consoled him. His teary eyes followed her until she vanished in the crowd. With heavy heart he returned home.
“Sahib, station,” the taxi driver broke his thoughts.
He paid up and walked in. An hour later the train arrived and he got in. It was the penultimate journey to his village. The cold dinner and hot tea satisfied his hunger. Stretching on the upper berth, he was reminded of his childhood. In the village his grandpa owned the biggest house, which had a large living room, baithak. In the central wall facing the road was a large window with glass panes, which no house within fifty miles had. Sitting in the baithak, he remembered his grandpa keenly watch every movement, of humans and animals, and with raised hand, bless them all.
During the British rule, in the baithak the grandpa held meeting with his friends and planned several mini-mutinies. After independence in his old days he narrated stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to anyone and everyone who had time to listen to him. But most of his time was spent with his old friends, who like autumn leaves, fell each year. The grandpa was the last to leave.
Munna was the old man’s favourite grandchild. Why was he the favourite? Neither the great patriarch ever told him, nor did Munna understand that secret. He was neither the eldest, nor the youngest. Nonetheless, he enjoyed the adulation. Of all the stories, he remembered several but one that had profound impact on his mind was the one relating to the glass window. One evening the old man told the grandchildren that the window must be shut at dusk because during nights the evil spirits wander around our world and through broken doors and windows sneak into our houses, poison our minds and destroy our families. So, he always insisted that the window be shut before the nightfall. And we dutifully did it.
In his last few days the grandpa painfully had watched the glass develop bubbles and become hazy. With heavy heart the old man sat near the window and wavered at the blurred images passing by the house. And one day the unthinkable happened. A storm struck the village at midnight and tore two glass panes apart. In the morning when the grandpa woke up he found two large holes in his favourite window.
Then for next few months his pleas for repair of broken glasses went unheard by his four sons. And it took a hunger strike by the old man to get the window repaired. His failing health had scared the eldest son and he had brought the villager carpenter, who had nailed coarse wooden pieces onto the window. Every nail hammered hurt the grandpa.
The repaired window had further blurred the vision and hastened the demise the old man. In last moments, Munna was by his grandpa’s side and noticed sadness in those old eyes. Finally the village’s grand banyan tree too fell. He had vivid memories of his last days with grandpa.
The mother before departure from San Antonio and urged him to come to the village and repair the broken window. It had pained him to hear from her that none of his brothers had bothered to repair that. What mother had hidden from him was that all his brothers ran separate kitchens and mother cooked her food in hers. Living with three sons the mothers lived a lonely life. Had he known that he would have prevailed upon her to stay with him. But it was too late.
Burdened by thoughts he fell asleep.
The morning brought him one step closer to his village. Alighting from the train he came out of the platform and expected Tangas lined up. Auto-rickshaws came as a pleasant surprise. He caught the auto and an hour later reached the village. Alas! No further surprises awaited him. The parental house despite some damages still held its magnificence. The broken window caught his attention. It pained him to see that the window had suffered further damages. All glass panes were missing. Four of the eight panes had been replaced with wood and other four hadn’t been repaired.
Suddenly his nephews and nieces ran towards him in the hope of getting gifts but were rather disappointed when their Munna Chacha handed them chocolates that he had picked up at the railway station. Tearing through the restive crowd, he entered the baithak where his mother lay on the bed. He bent down, took her hands in his. The touch brought a spark in those old eyes. She kissed his forehead and spoke in faltering voice, “Munna, I’m so happy you came……” And she couldn’t complete the rest. He felt her leave his world. It seemed as if she had been waiting for him.
The news of his mother’s death flashed across the village. In minutes people rushed in from every direction. In the melee he answered some questions, felt several piercing eyes and felt few sympathetic gazes. After cremation, they all returned home. In the night his bed was laid out in the baithak where his grandpa, his father and then his mother had spent their old days. Nobody was willing to offer their bedroom to him. Suddenly he felt an outsider.
In the night the cold moonlight, through the broken window, fell on the bed and kept him awake. Memories of yesteryears came back to torment him.
Next morning he told the family that he would return to America after a couple of days. Hurriedly ‘Shanti Path’ was orgainsed the same day. In the evening at the behest of the eldest brother they collected in the baithak.
“Amma told us that Munna lives like a king in pardes (foreign),” the youngest woman spoke lifting her veil. An admonishing gaze by the husband made her take a step back.
In anxiety, he waited.
“Munna, we know you earn well there and you don’t intend to return. For us it’s a hand-to-mouth existence in the village. Cultivating land has become costly. Farm labourers after MNREGA are hard to find. It’s no more profitable to till lands now. I know it’s not the right occasion to discuss all this but since you don’t have time, we thought it prudent to settle the matter before you leave,” the eldest brother spoke choosing his words carefully.
“Our children need to go to schools in the town and for this we need money,” said the second brother, as his wife looked on, expecting more from him.
“We brothers have decided to divide the land, the house, the barn, the mango orchards and the animals equally between three of us,” spoke third brother in a judge-like tone.
A woman voice from behind ehoed, “Amma had told us that her Munna was a king. We live like paupers here.”
In rapt attention he listened to those voices. Collectively they all were uprooting him from his roots. So, the decision had been arrived long back, it was only being conveyed to him now. The broken window’s sadistic smile drew his attention. Over the years the evil spirits through the broken window had entered the house and destroyed his grandpa’s family.
After a moment’s thought he told them he was ready to sign the papers abdicating his share in the properties. Later he went around the village and caught hold of a carpenter. Standing outside the house, he instructed him to pull out the broken window and put a new wooden window in its place. The work lasted over an hour. The carpenter was glad to get more than he had asked for.
At dusk he closed the window and slept peacefully that night. In the morning he woke up, got ready and had one last look at the new wooden window. Assured, the evil spirits now wouldn’t be able to destroy whatever little was left of his grandpa’s large family, he left.
* * *