Suman stepped out of the house, shutting the door quietly. She was at her mom’s place for the weekend and didn’t want to disturb anyone. She waited at the door, listening to the sounds of the bustling house. She knew her kids would be playing in the back garden, helping out with the gardening chores. They would be bathed, fed and put down for naps like clockwork. Her foster parents were like that. They ran a household that ran on greased wheels.
Somehow, she was reluctant to leave the house this particular morning. She checked her reflection in the mirror right next to the door. A strange quirk of her father’s. He had built this house in Mumbai from scratch. In 1950, Mumbai was Bombay, milk was delivered in glass bottles and the streets were washed. The city ended at Juhu and was then lost in the mangroves and dense undergrowth of the areas which would later be called the suburbs. As a child, Suman was brought into a bustling, vibrant home in the middle of the city from a plantation where she’d spent almost a decade of her life with another foster parent, after that lady’s demise.
Suman was 22. She was a young mother and had 2 kids, a husband who was a gifted architect and yet, she kept waking up every day to the feeling that her life meant nothing to her, that she was in the wrong place, the wrong time, just everything was wrong. She hoped today, she would maybe find something correct for her, for the first time.
Just as she was about to head for the bus stand, Bablya arrived in his convertible. He always had had an unerring instinct about her. Born when his mother was a tired 45 year old, he was fondly regarded as one last gasp from her already over worked womb. He was about 6 when Suman arrived as a solemn 9 year old and since the first time he grasped her little finger, he’d never let go. Now, he was a young buck with a talent for getting into trouble and a taste for Jewish starlets. The Bombay film industry had it’s fair share of them and they were beautiful, good performers, many of whom went to major stardom or even character roles. It was evident Bablya had been out all night with one of his gal pals since he was still dressed as he was the night before.
Suman handed Bablya her key to the house, without a word. She knew what he would need to do. He would have to sneak in, bathe, look halfway human and meet dad and mom before getting on to his job. Of course, her parents would know the truth, but they weren’t going to make a fuss about it. They shared a very no fuss relationship, in fact. Even the fact that her dad had a second family was taken with a tranquility that Suman was still amazed at. Her foster mother was thrown for a bit, since she had married for love, but her spirit was too indomitable to curl up and die. She took it on the chin and moved on.
Bablya waited patiently for Suman to settle into the car before talking. She knew he would escort her wherever she had to go before going home. It was just like that. Driving off, he looked at her carefully, for the first time. Suman wasn’t a stickler for clothes. She loved color, texture and soft fabrics. But, she never dressed to please. She wore what she wanted. For a long time, it meant that the family got used to seeing her in kashtas that she draped by herself even at 9 years of age. She was coaxed to try other clothes later. But, when she took to the running track in high school, she lived in t shirts and sweatpants and running shoes. A fan of the long distance Ethiopian runners, she could run long distances at an even pace, and kept at it despite an education as a commercial artist, marriage, kids and a thousand other social engagements.
Anyway, today she seemed dressed to please. She was wearing a Persian rose pink silk sari with hand painted panels along the border which she’d painted on herself. Her hair looked puffy, so Bablya guessed she’d used mom’s hairpiece which she would rather die than do, normally. She was wearing her pretty glasses, the kind with the slightly cat eyed shape. They were more necessity than fashion, but she made them work.
At the next traffic signal Bablya asked, “So, who is the date with?” Suman was thinking deeply and started before replying, “Date? Have you lost it? My husband is in Rajasthan, who would I go on a date with?” Bablya with a smirk,”Certainly not your husband. All you both do is fight about politics and you working for the socialist party. Seriously Suman, you’re a handful anyway. Why do you make it harder for the poor guy with a political viewpoint that no one really gets?”
Suman bristled. “What does he have to get? It’s just sound common sense. People have a right to lives that they help to create, they have free will and should get just and equal treatment.”
Bablya laughed, “Well, rumor has it, your husband may very well be recommended for a government job, so don’t be surprised if you have to wave goodbye to the socialist party and your workers of the world unite mindset.”
“That’s not just for workers, it’s actually people of the world unite, or it should be. It will get there. People will see, they can’t allow themselves to be taken for granted. They must…how do you know about the government job? Mom hasn’t mentioned it to anyone yet.”
“I heard dad and your hubby talking a while ago. Dad wants him to settle down. Your guy is getting too involved in the writing, lately. He was showing dad his writeup on the temples of Dilwara and the photos. He wanted a second opinion.”
” So, weren’t they good?”
“Too good, actually. In fact, dad worried that he may drift from being an architect to a researcher on it and write maybe one article a month for some magazine that would pay him to sustain that lifestyle.”
“Well, that sounds good.”
“Yes, but mom and dad want him to have a steady job for you and the kids.”
“Yes, okay, but I work.”
“Right, you paint saris, portraits, make fancy beaded bags, do embroidery, bake cookies in a clay oven. You’re a regular small scale industry.”
“And that’s bad?”
“Not to me! Come on! You’re my second mom. But, you know what it’s like, you’ve got a certain lifestyle to match up to, you know. That’s dad verbatim.”
“What do you think?”
“I think, your husband should do what makes him happy and tell the whole world to go **** it’s ****.”
“No, seriously. He knows what he wants. He loves you and the kids. Why the **** should he give it all up for others who don’t know him or care for him?”
“Are you saying dad doesn’t care for him?”
“He does, but he doesn’t know what makes your husband tick. That’s all I’m saying.”
Suman was silent. Bablya was a maverick. He stuck out like a sore thumb at all family events, but he didn’t care neither did anyone rub in the fact that he was different. They left him to his own devices, as long as he showed up clean. They knew of his shenanigans, but again expected him to be discreet and didn’t mention anything they may have heard. But Suman knew he was fiercely protective of his own take in life. She wondered if she should tell him what was on her mind.
Bablya noticed her long silence and said just to break the mood,” So, who’s your date for today? You never told me.”
“ My dad.”
“What?! But, dad is at home.”
“No, my birth father.”
“Oh, heck. Suman, are you sure about this?”
“No. I’m not. I’m scared shitless.”
“Oh! Suman swears, this is serious.”
Bablya parked at the side of the road, at once. He turned to Suman and said, “Talk.”
“Well, you know my foster mother who died down South at that plantation?“
“So, my father received news of it, finally, since he visited the place. And he asked about me and was told I‘ve been in Bombay, since I was 9.”
“Wow, so he’s not known for so long?”
“And he didn’t think to find out?”
“Oh, and when he found out what did he do?”
“Had a sudden attack of conscience and decided to contact dad.”
“Wonderful. Smart move. What did dad and mom tell him?” It was implicit, you could tell dad something and he would always share it with her. While she was going to carry many secrets for many folks to the grave.
“They told him, I should meet him in a neutral environment. They also said he would be doing so as a family friend, not a father. And so I’ve been sent out to meet him.”
“Don’t you want to?”
“I want to…get this over with.”
Bablya was uncharacteristically silent. When the constable hauled him for holding up traffic, he didn’t swear too much and drove silently to the venue of the rendezvous.
Suman entered the tiny Irani/Parsi restaurant. She and her kids were regulars here, coming in for buns slathered with butter after matinee shows at the cinema. Which was usually a day before exams began. She didn’t believe in last minute studies and didn’t pressure her kids in any way, except to say that education was about progression not overnight success.
She sat down at a table but the proprietor inclined his head and pointed her in the direction of a table at the back, not easily noticed. She stiffened and looked more carefully. The first thing she noticed was the cap which was shaped like a Gandhi topi but covered in velvet. Next, she noticed the waistcoat and the lean back and upright posture which was uncannily like her.
She squared her shoulders and walked up to the table. She settled into the chair and looked up only when she felt composed. The man sitting across her took off his cap, in response to her pointed glance. He then waited for her silent scrutiny. Suman was disconcerted since she could see a lot of herself in this leather faced, weather beaten slim and straight man who had almost no hair to speak of. She didn’t want to say the first words, but they came out of their own accord anyway.
“Why now?” She asked and immediately wished she’d stayed silent.
He looked uncomfortable and said, “I felt I should make the effort to connect.”
“Do you need help of any kind?” She hated that it had a hint of an accusation to it. She didn’t want to feel anything for this person, but still could not tamp down the surge of very real anger that was welling up within her.
“I thought, you should know what lies in store for you in life.” He had the grace to look shamefaced while saying that.
“I see, so it’s not enough that you abandoned 2 young daughters and left to be with that dancer. Now you’ve got to return after years and ruin the little peace of mind that we have.”
“Actually, I didn’t meet your older sister. Her husband told me I was not to contact her or their family at all. It’s a clean break. I don’t mind. She was almost 15 when I left, she wasn’t a child like you. She seems to have figured things out for herself.” He fiddled with the cap.
“Oh, and you thought I hadn’t figured my life out? Let me bring you up to speed. I’m married, I have 2 kids, and a husband and parents and no need for a man who ran away with his lover, leaving his children behind with a vicious caretaker who made our lives misery.” Suman was about to burst into tears and welcomed the arrival of the waiter with two miniature cups of tea.
He waited for the waiter to leave and thanked him before speaking. “I didn’t run away because of my love for the dancer. I ran away because I loved music and I was the tabla player for her troupe for the next 15 years. I’m sorry about your caretaker. But, it seemed better to leave you and your sister at the plantation. I left it to your caretaker who was actually your mother’s cousin. She swore she’d take care of you both very well. It was only later I found out about her brutality from a neighbor who I met by chance. I got away as soon as I could and well…here I am.”
Suman struggled to breathe. That was her life he was talking about, something she’d tried to forget almost without success. She had the urge to run away at once, but she wanted to see this through to the bitter end.
“What do you mean, you want me to know what lies in store for me?”
“I mean, you’ll always love the arts in any form. If you ignore that, you’ll regret it.” He paused, uncertain because of the look of outrage on her face.
“Right. So, now, would you advise that I should run away and abandon my family just so I can do something mediocre and self satisfying and absolutely selfish?” She almost spat the words out.
He held up a hand as if to ward off the hit of those syllables. “No, no. Just don’t give up on being who you truly are.”
Suman drank the tea in one gulp. She stood up and hurled the cup on the floor. Her father looked at the broken bits of china on the floor. He stared up at her and she could see the unshed tears in them. She said goodbye and walked out of the door, unsteadily. This wasn’t the last time she would see him and she knew it. But, at that moment she had to leave.
Bablya was waiting in the car. When she slid in, he handed her his handkerchief and she sniffled for a bit. She looked into the distance, eyes blurred with tears and counted her breaths, a technique she used to cool down after a run. Slowly, the scene before her eyes cleared. She sat up straight and noticed that the sun was high up in the sky, almost noon. Bablya took her handkerchief back without a word and held her hand for the rest of the drive back home.
At the gate of the house, she turned to him.” I need you to help me.”
“I don’t want dad to interfere in what my husband is doing. He has to do what he wants. He must. I have to do what I want, which is paint and work for the party. I must.”
“What about the kids?” Bablya seemed a bit aghast.
“They will be with us and we will do the best we can for them. But, we won’t kill off who we are or what we believe in just so they get a head start in life.” Suman said that very easily and it surprised her. The credo she was brought up to accept was very different. Yet, this one seemed to come very naturally to her.
Bablya nodded. “I’ll do everything I can to help.”
“I know you will, but you have to live your own life too. Never give that up.”
Suman stepped out of the car and smiled at Bablya. He smiled back and drove off, with a flourish.
Dedicated to the real life Suman who unfortunately did sell out both as artist and human being. One of the great loves of my life, she was misunderstood and a closet dreamer who always had a hint of the wild in her.