Our paternal house was beyond boundary. Mamma never took us there. The sign board outside the big rusted gate partly read: ‘The house of the Sunk’ I say ‘partly’ because moss had worn the gate as much as time had ravaged the house itself. Old, grey and deserted, is how I always remember seeing it.
‘Nisha! Neeessshhhaaaa….’, came a loud yell from the balcony. I looked up, to see Mamma waving out frantically to me. ‘Come upstairs RIGHT NOW!’ The timid girl that I was, I rose quickly, dusted the mud and stones off my frock and waved a quick ‘good-bye’ to my friends. They didn’t so much as bother to wave back. They just moved in closer, making a smaller circle, and continued with their game of Antakshari.
I climbed the three flights of stairs slowly, knowing Mamma would be angry at me at not having completed my homework before going out to play. The light was out. The grill gates were open. There was nothing sizzling in the kitchen. Mamma sat quietly in a corner of the sofa, just next to the telephone. She held her head in her hands. The pallu of her sari seemed to be wet. ‘Had she been crying?’, I wondered.
As I tiptoed into the room, Mamma looked up. She looked terrible. Shaken!
‘Mamma?’ I ventured softly.
She held out her arms and I involuntarily ran into them. For the next few minutes she became the child, and I, the parent.
Mamma finally set me down on the sofa, right next to her.
‘There’s some bad news…’
I gaped. In all of my twelve long years, I had never been told these words. I stared blankly. My heart raced. (In retrospect, I think the only thing that was I was thinking of, was Dadda). I made a quick prayer to my Friend upstairs. ‘Please let Dadda be safe! I don’t want anything else. Not even the new Casio for my birthday. Just bring Dadda home, please!’
‘Its Dadi-ma’, whispered Mamma.
‘Dadi-ma?’ I asked awkwardly. It took me several moments to associate an image with the word.
My mind raced back a couple of years. We were in the ‘House of the Sunk…’. A frail old woman seated on a rickety wooden chair. Her back was hunched. She peered at me from above the heavy glasses that sat perched upon her nose. Mamma and Dadda stood behind me, while the lady, who had been introduced to me as ‘Dadi-ma’ examined me. Atleast that was the way I felt. After having asked me the standard set of questions a stranger would… (My age, which school I went to, how I performed in my studies, etc.), she pulled me close to her, and most unexpectedly, planted a kiss on my forehead.
As I jerked back, I noticed her sparkling emerald earrings. They reminded me of Alice in Wonderland.
A sudden gust of wind made me tremble slightly. Through the grilled windows, I saw the leaves rustling, rather wildly, in what seemed to be the onset of a storm.
‘Get her my shawl’, Dadi-ma ordered Dadda.
‘Sorry, Ma. I am never entering THAT room again’, Dadda replied, pointing to a dark room in the corner of the hall. The lights were so dim that one could hardly make anything out, leave alone the green painted doors.
‘The house of the S U N K….’, the thought made me tremble more.
‘You are always silly! No wonder you married…’ started Dadi-ma.
I couldn’t hear the rest of the conversation, which was more like a brawl.
Mamma whisked me away into the car that was parked outside the rear door of the house. I watched the shadows of Dadda and Dadi-ma move animatedly. As I turned my gaze to the rest of the backyard, I noticed a heavy iron bucket standing, nay, dancing, at the edge of the well. A wicked-looking cat jumped near it, making the bucket sink right in, and me shiver in fear.
I think I fell asleep in the car. I never saw her again.
Until the phone call that Mamma had received this evening.
‘What happened to Dadi-ma?’, I asked, my voice quavering.
‘She… she…had an accident. Slipped in her bathroom.’
‘Oh! Is that all?’ I replied, a wave of relief washing over me.
‘No, Nisha. That isn’t all. She broke her hip. And when they tried to operate, she lost’
Tears started streaming from my eyes.
‘Don’t cry, my dear. We need to go there’
I didn’t reply.
All my growing years, Mamma and Dadda had kept me away from my Dadi-ma. I have never known the luxury of being spoilt rotten by a loving Grandmother. And all because these two people fought with one old lady.. Cut her out of their life. And mine too. And now? Now, she wasn’t even there. ‘If I could have just one chance!’ I pined. ‘To bring a little sunshine into my Dadi-ma’s life’.
If I had my way, I would pack a little bag with my worldly possessions and move to the ‘House of the S u n k…’. My Dadi-ma and I would spend hours together, reading ancient manuscripts from her worn-down library, tending to the wildly overgrown weeds in her garden, discussing the lovely tea-parties she had had when she herself, had been a little girl like me.
And at night, when the wind shrieked through the mango and jackfruit trees, I would huddle in my pretty lace nightgown and Dadi-ma would tell me stories to keep my fears at bay.
I missed her. Missed that very special bond (that I never had) that exists between a grandparent and a grandchild.
‘I hate you!’ I suddenly barked.
Mamma was startled.
‘Yes! I hate you!’ I shrieked and ran into my room.
‘Nisha! Baby! What’s the matter?’ Mamma ran behind me.
‘Dadi-ma is dead! And you never let me meet her EVER!’ I sobbed.
It took Mamma a minute to understand what was going on. As I sat crying amidst a pile of school books and pencils, she seated herself next to me.
I refused to look up at her. I could never forgive her! And Dadda.
‘No! I am not forgiving you this time!’ I swore.
‘Nisha! Listen. There’s more…’
Now I looked up. Yeah! Dadi-ma must have left those priceless emerald earrings that she knew I loved so much, as her legacy for me. Tears pricked my eyes again, as I thought of the old lady, so forgiving and so generous…but had died unloved and uncared by her own!
‘Nisha! STOP that crying!’, Mamma commanded.
I wiped my tears (and my nose) on the edge of my sleeve.
‘You must know something, dear. Your Dadda and I met when we were very young, and got married against your Dadi-ma’s wishes. You know that, don’t you?’
‘So! Dadi-ma was very angry, and we moved into this city, and started our life together. And then you came! And we were both very happy. Dadda missed his Mummy, of course, but then, he knew that she and I would never gel. She comes from a very orthodox background, and I am rather modern in my thoughts. Do you understand what I am saying?’
‘I…I think so…’ I stammered.
‘OK…so, Dadi-ma was really cross! And refused to have any ties with us. So, recently, when she slipped and broke her hip, she kind of.. lost the use of her legs’.
‘Awww…..’, it was slowly sinking into me.
‘And she cannot live by herself any more!’
‘Oh! Wow! So, Mamma, are we going to live with her? Really?’ I muttered excitedly.
I instantly dreamt of the day Mamma, Dadda and I, would alight in front of the ‘House of the S u n k…’. The gates would open, as if by magic. The thick, overgrown weeds would miraculously make way for us as we walked into the house. Dadi-ma would await us in her big arm-chair. Her black cat would purr softly by her side. And when I bow to take her blessings, she would hand me a little silk red bag…and in it, would be those emeralds…
‘Nisha! Did you find that funny? Why are you grinning like an IDIOT?’ Mamma suddenly lashed out at me.
‘Hmph? Hmph?’ I muttered.
‘Didn’t you hear what I said?’
I smiled sheepishly, the effect of my day-dreaming still engulfing me in a warm, happy glow.
‘I said, Dadi-ma is coming to live with US! In our one-bedroom apartment!’
‘Yes! That’s the whole point! The old hag was so angry at your Dadda for having married me, that she gave away her palatial house in charity! And has reduced us all to the streets! And now, she is coming to live with us. And will make my life miserable!’
At this, Mamma started to cry again, until her eyes were swollen and could shed no more tears.
I gaped at her.
‘Its OK Mamma…that was a frightful house anyway… House of the SUNK…we could have never stayed ALIVE there, isn’t it?’ I tried to console her.
‘You silly child! That was the ‘House of the Sunkuvars’. The Sunkuvars were a very wealthy family, with plenty of property and gems and money! And this old woman has not only written us out of her will, she has even donated the bungalow that Dadda and me were hoping to move into, when she managed to forgive us!’
I shifted uncomfortably.
Suddenly, things did not seem so rosy. There wasn’t going to be any magic after all. No vicious buckets dancing on the ledge of a well, no overgrown weeds. Only a dirty black cat, probably!
‘Our hopes are sunk’, Mamma continued with a resigned air.
I rubbed her palm.
A thought suddenly flashed across my mind, making me smile. ‘Maybe, we could rename our home, ‘House of the Sunk!’’. I didn’t dare mention this aloud. Mamma would kill me!
(Wrote this short story for a fortnightly writing exercise on S & Co. on Ryze network - the theme being Old Houses with a line/phrase on the gatepost).