The happy family  

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Anuradha Rajkumari

That day too, after coming home from work and washing up and a cup of coffee, Dr Monideepa went out to the neighbourhood football square with Bobby and Rontu, her two sons, to give them a kite-flying lesson. Though the bristling tall elephant grass had virtually turned the playing field into a jungle, the weather was just right. She deliberately chose the puja vacation to teach them every day how to steer the kites up in the air, to smoothly pull the thread when some few others flown from nearby rooftops gathered demonically around theirs to strip it down to the ground. Otherwise, they let their kite soar high and higher, speedily loosening the spool, until it reached a comfortable height and swam in the steady breeze.

"Bobby darling! Come this side and hold this," she said, handing him the spool with one hand and taking off with the other forget-me-nots sticking to her cotton saree border. Bobby filed to her side; Rontu eyed the movements of the kite with deep concentration.

On a clear September afternoon, when the sky was bluer than the deepest ultramarine, when light fluffy clouds scattered in the sky reminded her of sanitized cotton that she used to put spirit on patients’ arms in the clinic, when the parrots returning home appeared so much like her own homecoming, nothing could be more interesting than kite flying, that too with her boys. How much they enjoyed her flying lessons she could not say, but she was enjoying the moments of tentative teaching to the hilt.

Monideepa belonged to a class apart. The way she dressed – each saree pleat in its right place, iron put to good use, washing machine showing its output in the clean clothes she and her family wore – the way she spoke, she ate even the way she taught geometry to nine-year-old Bobby (the younger one had only recently been attending the Montessori across the road) after she returned from work, dead tired but ever enthusiastic – voice as firm and authoritative as any self-willed woman – said volumes about the mountainous sturdiness she possessed. Life had taken such a course that without her discipline, her strictness, things would have been unmanageable; especially with two such naughty guys to handle.

Keeping Bobby in one place was the toughest job on earth, more difficult than making a biopsies of a cancerous woman’s womb. He was as self-willed as her. When he decided not to return to Saint Edmund’s two years back when the summer vacation drew to an end and his broken leg had not yet joined properly, nobody could make him change his mind. Then there were the regular boy’s brawls and naughty practical jokes they played on other people that filled her with so many unwritten complaints and embarrassed her so much. Now even Rontu was shaping up in the same line, just like his elder brother.

While the boys looked fixedly at their red and blue kite, Bobby concentrated on saving it from the nearby strings – all understandably smeared with glass powder – aggressively moving in its direction. Monideepa cleared with the saree end the dead fallen leaves on the dry unswept ground. They were learning things quite fast, she thought with satisfaction. Though truants, both the boys were brainy ones, so things got accomplished sooner than later. It was a rare concentration she noticed in Bobby that day, eyebrow ends knitted together, like a question mark.

Every day, scores of kites fell. Never could anyone sever Monideepa’s strings. The day they could, would be disastrous, she thought. The sky was dotted with clouds of varied colours – blue, green, yellow, violet – she counted them. Though tired, these special evenings had become inseparable from her day. Within just two weeks her routine had changed. She no longer took a pain balm in the evenings to crease off her headache.

She remained so busy the whole day; getting tired could be her right. Soon after getting up – she put the alarm at 5 in the morning – Monideepa walked up and down the newly laid-out garden at least twenty times in the morning, then washed all the clothes soaked overnight, hung them with aluminium clasps on plastic lines in the backyard, took bath, prayed, woke up her sons and husband, made them take bath and have the breakfast she prepared. Although there were two servants in the house, she preferred to do most things herself rather than leave them to foreign hands. Like cooking chicken in tomato sauce, her children’s favourite dish.

"Does Father know these tricks?" Bobby asked, pulling down the string a little towards him. Meanwhile, Rontu had drawn closer to his brother, almost touching his shoulders.

"I don’t know. Never seen him fly kites," his Mother said.

They never had anything in common, just the medical profession, which also brought them together, for better or for worse. It was easy to fall in love when young and attending practical classes together. Then followed secretly meeting after college and during weekends, either in front of their favourite Rangghar to watch the latest movie, or in the Nehru Park, the only place for lovers to visit those days. The marriage was a slightly difficult part with both sides initially dissenting, but somehow well wishers hard work led to persuasion and finally compromise.

Dr Dharmakanta, famous surgeon, gregarious and home loving, knew everything from pisciculture in aquariums to baking cakes and pizzas, but not how to fly a kite. Bobby and Rontu learnt from him to feed goldfish and clean the muddy aquarium water after every few days, so that the fish were neither hungry nor sick with no air. They saw him dig the soft earth for planting alphonso saplings and make deep trenches for the coconuts. They helped him make bamboo fences around the three-feet tall debadarus lining the wall near the gate. And all the guavas, the peaches, the betel nuts and the blackberries in their garden were planted by the three of them, with each other’s help.

With Mother it was always perfection, with Father everything was play. He could be harsh at times, like when Bobby got distracted while learning science from Mother which he noticed and gave him a heavy spanking. Bobby promised to himself he would never speak to his Dad again, but soon afterwards, that day itself, when the piranhas for the aquarium were brought, he had to, as he was too curious about the carnivore and his promise got postponed for the time being.

"Maa, next time we’ll bring Father here," Rontu said, rubbing his hands on the trouser pockets. Monideepa had not yet been able to teach her younger son the imperatives of hygiene.

"Stop that, will you?" she said, clearly irritated. A sweat drop trickled from behind her left ear. Since a long time Dharma and she had not spent a quiet moment together. It did not seem necessary anymore; work was taking too much of her time. What he did outside, beyond working hours mostly, was not her business. She had two boys and a husband, which was more than enough. Everybody thought they were a happy family, and she did not try to change outsiders’ perception."Maa, let’s go for a picnic one day," Bobby suggested, rotating the spool towards himself, eyes notched at their kite. The steady wind was helping them in their game."You guys think only of enjoyment. Exams are approaching," Monideepa reminded him."But we haven’t gone out for such a long time," Bobby complained. Most of his classmates were either visiting their grandparents or are in Jaipur or Calcuttaa."There are always picnics at home," Monideepa said, about the parties Dharma threw at home almost every fortnight. The ones where he and his friends had so much fun.

"Those are not for us," Bobby now tried hard to save his kite from getting entangled in the dozen others suddenly blooming in the sky.

Dharma’s frequent parties were actually a headache to her. Last week she stayed put in her room, while the clatter of spoons and dishes, the noise of loud music and the drone of air coolers from the ground floor below made her restless. She fretted pacing the small empty space of the mosaic floor, occasionally looking out of the window at the crowd on the front lawn. Each time she feared somebody treading her fresh flowerbeds. The plain patches of earth – now seeds sown mixed with cowdung manure from the milkman – were not yet clearly demarcated from the surrounding areas by new growth.

Then there was the pile of dishes to be done the day after. She never touched anything, only supervised. But that was enough to spoil the mood for the whole day. The only saving grace was that Sundays always followed Dharma’s party nights. To cut a short story shorter, weekends were spoilt by bad moods. She avoided Dharma the whole of Sunday. Not that they stayed too long hours together on other days.

"This is enough for today," Monideepa pronounced, indicating they should pack up for the day. By now reddish feathery streaks coloured sections of the blue sky, and more birds were homing towards their nests.

"Just hold on. Let me try and cut the yellow one," Bobby rotated the spool expertly. The thread reeled fast as he chased the other kite. All three of them held their breath.

"Our’s shouldn’t fall," Monideepa reminded him. The defeat would be unpalatable. Everything she did had to come tops. She must be the most well-known doctor in town – which she already was – her children should grow up to be the best, her family should be the happiest, an ideal one.

"It’s so fun!" Rontu exclaimed, clapping at his elder brother’s efforts. Monideepa, who could no longer sit peacefully, got up and stood beside Bobby to assist him if he required any help.

"Pull it hard Maa," Bobby let her hold the string along with him so that they could together chase the yellow kite, now flying fearlessly like a falcon. Its owner from the first floor rooftop two houses away – clear to their view, as there were no bushes between them – was another young boy, a little taller and therefore older than them, was surrounded by a crowd of young and old, probably there to boost his spirits by their presence.

A long time pulling strings and chasing kites later, the threesome stepped homeward, the two sons a happy lot, joking with each other, the Mother apprehensive of what was there in the weekend ahead.

Even before they entered through the gate, Monideepa heard the raucous music and guessed it was from their gramophone. A road roller was smoothening the uneven patch just in front of their house. A group of mobile grocers crossed them with their remaining loads of ware in baskets, hanging from either ends of split bamboo they balanced on their shoulders. Tired from the day’s work, they walked lazily along the grassy edge of the road and avoided the middle where cars and bicycles plied fast.

Inside, Dharma was tidying up sofa edges. She knew what was coming up soon: another party and more guests.

"Can’t we take a break from all this?" Monideepa asked him impatiently.

"Of what kind? Would you carry this vase to the other table?" he was very busy doing up the interiors. Nothing bothered him before and during a get together except if the silver cutlery shone less, flowers that dropped and an old record repeating tracks.

Monideepa froze where she was. He was becoming more and more unpredictable nowadays. While she carried the vase it slipped to the floor and broke into a hundred pieces. Dharma looked at her with fierce red eyes. She didn’t say sorry, determined not to say the five-letter word, come what may.

Bobby and Rontu ran downstairs to know what was happening. Mother and Father stood facing each other, pieces of broken china littered on the floor. All the walls reflected their quiet animosity, every day of the week, every hour of the day. The boys felt it creeping underneath their skin. Soon guests would be pouring in, and their parents were speechlessly confronting each other. They knew exactly what to do. Bobby pulled Mother upstairs, while Rontu helped the ayah clean the dirtied marble-chip floor. The storm subsided for the present, darkening clouds dispersed.

In her room, Monideepa opened the clasp holding her long hair and began combing it vigorously. The only way to digest bitterness of this uncaring man was to punish herself. She didn’t touch a grain of pulao that night. People thronged her drawing room and sat on her sofas, they drank from the glasses she brought at Sahar airport last summer when she went to Bombay for the conference, they used spoons and knives she received as wedding gifts and they soiled with crumbs the same porcelain dishes she kept as decorative pieces safely tucked in the front room glass shelves. There was no end to her agony.

She never imagined Dharma would be so different from her. Only she followed the hands of the clock, knowing well the necessity of an orderly life. All the others in the house had to constantly reminded that people should follow be some rules and regulations religiously, that people should get up early in the morning, that one should be moderate in eating and drinking, and that everything not fitting into a daily regimen should be rejected and discarded straightaway.

Like on similar occasions, she did not know what to do while the guests were there. Dharma would tell them she was tired and acting. That was what he said at every party to everyone. Since almost the same people visited again and again, they were now well-versed with his standard answer; some had even stopped enquiring about the lady of the house. But they all knew – maybe from hearsay, maybe from the host’s gestures – that they were a happy family.

Both the boys mingled with the children of the guests, taking them around to show their toys and guns, bartering things amongst themselves when possible, playing chor-police before food was served, putting on the music record of their choice when the elders were too engrossed in conversation to notice. They ate food without their Mother – who was tying an irregular braid from her volume of black flowing hair – helping themselves to chicken pulao and fried brinjal, butter lentil and cucumber salad. They relished most the last course – chocolate pudding – and took extra servings. Only around midnight, when the house cleared of the guests, did they hang their jackets to have a wash and go to bed.

By then, a heavy headache gripped Monideepa at the temples, worsening with Dharma’s approaching the room. Now she would have to listen to him smilingly about the fun he had. As always, he wanted pleasure. He wanted the finest things in life. As long as it was wine only that he sought, it was okay with her. Not beyond that. The town gossip carried to her some other kinds of tales. About two-legged creatures in silk sarees and crimson lipstick, whose skins were as soft as double cream.

"So who all came to give you company?" she began sarcastically.

"That doesn’t matter much to you," he was tired but pleased, his face slightly flushed with the effect of good wine.

"It does. I can’t take all this any more," she sat cross-legged on the bed, scratching at its carved head-end.

"You’re always out of it all, by choice," he smiled from one corner of his mouth, looking at her with sleepy eyes.

"I don’t want this in my house."

"Why don’t you? Everyone enjoys it."

"Except me. Exclude me from all your dumb charades that are a waste of time."

"Why don’t you relax? We’re a family. Military discipline doesn’t apply here.

"Shut up, will you? I don’t want to be taught anything."

"But you’ve been giving lessons."

There are people who are still kids. They need to grow up."

"You’ll never know how to enjoy life."

For the two-hundredth time Monideepa and Dharmakanta were quarelling again. Although they heard the noise from their beds, Bobby and Rontu did not come out this time to mediate. Their heads were heavy with sleep as the day had been too long and exhausting. Like from across the sea, they heard their parents swear and exchange the latest abusive words in currency.

"What did you say?" Monideepa threw her hairbrush towards the door.

"Don’t get hysterical," Dharma said jokingly. Now she was in the pits. Who could call her hysterical? She was a perfect woman. Her body was fit; she had the most intelligent head in town.

"Will you get out? She fumed. Dharma was in no mood to budge from the sofa he had slumped into. The effect of half a dozen glasses of liquor was setting in.

"This is my house and this is our bedroom. No one can throw me out," he said lazily.

"Do you want to see? Here we go –" Monideepa threw a pillow at him, then another, still another, followed by cushions, bedsheets, shirts, shoes, jackets, medical encyclopaedia, and finally the bottle of Keo Karpin hairoil she was using to massage her aching head.

That night, Dharma got a massive five-inch cut on his forehead, from which oozed thick red blood, which, mixed with the sweat of his brow, the saliva of his mouth and his vomit, flowed down and stained his embroidered silk salwar suit and the satin covered sofa.

For the next two months he had to explain the bandage and the stitches on his forehead to everyone he met as a case of careless walking in his plastic grip less bathroom slippers and falling down the staircase. To remove the stubborn stain on the sofa, which refused to go after repeated cleaning, he brought in the tailor who advised that the upholstery be changed. And since the old colour and floral design was not available in the market after so many years, an entire length of fifty metres for all the sofas in the house had to be purchased to maintain uniformity. Cotton from some of the pillows and cushions Monideepa threw at him had to be replaced and the seams restitched tightly, all done by the familiar tailor-master who did the sofas.

Dharma still threw grand parties, a little less frequently, though. And he never went upstairs to Monideepa those nights. In fact, he had been sleeping on his part of the adjustable twin bed brought downstairs to the guest room adjacent to the living room. Nobody asked him any questions.

People still thought they were a happy family, as always they had been.

This copy is posted as it was received. It has not been edited by TLM

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