A knowing silence
I wonder if I shall see the next winter, winter so gloomy, so dreary, yet a winter through which I must persist. What is so difficult in persisting through the winter of one’s life? Perhaps it is the ability to think that comes in the way. Nature persists; the frail birds persist; life itself persists naturally. It is wrong, though, to call anything else ‘frail.’ It is I who am frail.Human beings ride on their intellect and I abuse mine with useless thoughts. Yet there are countless others like me who withdraw into their individual selves. Gritting our teeth, we smile or wave, – all the while hiding the pain inside. Why can we not bawl and pour our hearts out to anyone, anywhere? We fear rejection; I don’t cry and you don’t turn your face away. Both of us rationalize, and the end result comes to naught. Such thoughts keep me busy. They keep away the deeper, darker ones.
The leaves flutter and tremble in the mild winter breeze. The ones centered on the branches nearest the trunk stay unmoved. It is only those at the tips of the slender branches that are susceptible. Is it because they are away from support, or is it that they have come to the end of their tether? They bow, they nod and they sway to the whims of the wily breeze. The sole pigeon on the ledge looks at me. It moves around in a patternless dance step that is somewhat dictated by my movements. A slight movement on my part and it is two steps back; a shift in my stance means a turn of its head. And then, when I am still as a mouse, defying all logic it suddenly flutters away, a humming melody on wings. It had waited for more breadcrumbs, devouring some but scattering more in its eagerness. Did it fly away crushed in spirit, just like me?
Yesterday they found her sprawled on the floor when they came back .Face up, looking at the ceiling; she was so still that they feared for her. Yet there was nothing to fear, for she had landed on a pile of clothes, a soft landing, one might say. Crumpled and listless, she was still breathing. There was no injury, and there was no attack as corroborated by the neighbors with whom she had been a short while ago. “Ma,’ said her daughter, “say something.’A tear slid slowly, reluctantly down the cheek of the fallen; yet no words passed her lips. As soon as her son arrived in a while, they bundled her into an ambulance which wailed its way to the hospital. The doctor, hastily called, had been wary of internal injuries which later proved unjustified. People watched, shaking their heads and murmuring to each other. The ambulance vanished from sight, and so did the neighbors. In all probability, their concern too vanished as soon as they slid into their apathetic humdrum worlds. The repetitive play of cold blooded reality went on as usual.
(Somewhere in between)
Days and weeks have passed; yet no speech has passed her lips. The doctors are puzzled. There appears to be no decipherable cause. She is in some kind of a traumatic state is what is agreed upon.But what has caused it? In hindsight, the family wonders if they have missed anything they should have noticed. The consensus is that nothing was apparently wrong. In a short while her son is to get married. It has been a quick decision, followed by a potentially early marriage date. Has it all been too much for her? It was the neighbors who brought the proposal. The bride is a close relation to the neighbors, comprising of the ideal family of father, mother, son and daughter. The girl’s photograph proffers a sweet and intelligent face, and more important, the neighbors are known to them for long. It would be foolish to wait, as her son has to leave town with a new job. Could this have been weighing on her mind, they wonder. The days have flown by. Their son’s transition phase from old job to new job, sister’s college exams in between, father’s extra work pressure- all these have not left much time to speculate on the mother’s moods of relative happiness or unhappiness. With something of a stoic appearance, her responses have always been muted. Since there was nothing extreme about her, it was easy to take her for granted. Her emotions were not really her own, but a reflection of what the others felt.When they felt happy, in place of her tear they often saw a smile. In any case, it would be apt to say that, like most mothers, she was taken for granted. Yet, nothing seemed to explain her current state.
I think I had a happy childhood. It seems a curious thing to say, but children are not attuned to the idea of what is perfect happiness. They exist; they play; they love and are loved in return. This is happiness for them. I was always the shy one, the youngest of three sisters. Rambunctious and vibrant, my sisters were my heroes. I never grudged them their place in the sun, nor did they ever look down on my diminutive character. I was serene in all things, enveloped in the laughter of my sisters, in the patient love of my mother and in the steady and impartial concern of my father. My world within was thus nurtured by the world without. I could sit patiently, looking at the patterns on butterfly wings so intently that I could paint them from memory. Like the ‘daffodils,’ they would flash ‘upon my inner eye.’I could follow the interminable lines of ants , my eyes moving back and forth, working out from whence they came and where they went. Our family lived on the old fashioned pillars of loyalty, honesty and trust. As for me, I felt joy when I heard the first bird heralding in dawn with its sleepy, hiccupy chirrups. As a child I often wondered if the birds took turns in this duty ordained by nature, but the chirrups sounded so awfully same that I ended up being convinced that only one particular bird proudly carried out its duty day after day. But this cannot be true, can it, because even today it sounds like the same bird? While the world works out matters of portent and gravity, I mull over and try to work out the in-fathomable mysteries of life.
It was maybe my persona which brought me extra affection. There was always a smile, a gift, a wave of the hand or a nod of the head from those I came across or should I say those who came across me? I rarely stepped outside self made boundaries. People must have thought it churlish of me not to have acknowledged their gestures, but by the time I garnered the courage to respond, they would have turned away their faces. They would have missed the glimmer of a smile on my face. The world is busy; who can afford to wait? On the other hand, putting myself in their shoes, I was to blame for having made them wait. You may be wondering why you should be listening to a full blown description of my peculiarities. What follows would probably make more sense, if not offer any justification.
My parents were popular in the locality, and we often had visitors dropping in. There were potluck lunches, impromptu picnics on the little strip of a garden outside, with conversation flowing freely. In keeping with my nature, I enjoyed every occasion to the full- from a distance, till I was called repeatedly and dragged into the circle of warmth. Among all, there was a couple who stood out- the man handsome and the woman pretty and vivacious. Their two children were away at school, the son and daughter separated by but a few years. Close friends of one of the neighbors, their first visit became one of many random ones. They soon acquired the distinction of being the best liked couple and everyone looked forward to their visits. In fact, they became an irreplaceable part of our lives. They knew just the right things to say, where to draw a line, the right words of comfort to offer and the right course of action to recommend, albeit in a discreet manner. Yes, I remember those days; I remember them so well. They were the first to hunt me out from the corners I inhabited, pulling me out of my isolated world, my solitary games. Even when the wife gave up, people were touched by the man’s concern and persistence. I was touched too, except, if I knew the words, I would say ‘inappropriately’ touched. I felt vaguely that something wrong had entered my world, something that did not fit in with the scheme of things. My mind tried to work out why fingers strayed so much and later, when the groping came, I would run out from my hiding place. And everyone would exclaim “I don’t know how he does it. He sure has a way about him.” But there was no escape for the prey that is stalked by the hunter with deadly zeal.I knew by then that the something which had turned my world upside down was not right; it should not be happening. What could I say about a man who could do no wrong in everyone’s eyes? If at all, I would be the odd one out, telling lies about a caring person who tries to coax me out of my shell. I, who lived a strange life in an imaginary world, would be weighed on the scales and disgrace would weigh me heavily down, while his worth would make him rise in direct contrast. I withdrew more and more into my shell, which was seen as an act of rebellion of growing up years, and no more the cuteness of a timid girl.
I heard one day that he was ill and could not travel any more. That stopped the visits. My childish mind saw no vindication at this turn of events. I was incapable of feeling. As time passed, whatever I used to feel turned slowly to nothingness. It was just something that had happened, as a boy is slapped by his teacher for not doing his homework, as a girl has to forgo a party for telling a lie. It did vaguely bother me that these were retaliatory acts of punishment. But what had I done? The only answer that came was that I drew this upon me by being who I was.
In life there are many kinds of people. I happened to be one of those various kinds. Some naturally attract accolades while others attract punishment. Outwardly I remained equipped to play the role of wife and mother. Inside, there was a great divide; there was a shadowy past and there was a clear present. My son’s imminent marriage brought great joy, as it would to any mother. For the first time in my life perhaps, I felt animated, elated by the happiness that spilled forth in the house. I had never mixed so freely with anyone as I started doing with the neighbors. They were now my only source of information about the bride.What kind of a girl was she? Where had she studied? What were her likes and dislikes? The neighbors were ever willing to indulge me. Occasions when the bride’s immediate family and theirs had been together were described in great detail, till I came to know more about the bride’s family than probably their closest friends did! Photographs tumbled out of closets, old black and white photographs, and sepia tinted ones. Every family keeps similar photographs, those of chubby children, leggy teenagers and adults in yesteryears’ fashion. How strange that they mean so little to others and yet mean the world to whom they pertain. Universal comments such as these follow. “See that toothless smile when you broke your front tooth.” “I wonder where that old skirt of mine is.” “I still don’t understand why you had to invite such and such to our wedding.”
But for me old memories suddenly take on a different meaning. Nestling among a couple of group photos, one in particular catches my eye. Mesmerized, I point and ask,”Who is this?” The answer comes like a slap on my cheeks, making them smart and my eyes water. “Oh, that happens to be the pride of our family, the dearest grandpa of your dearest bride.It’s a pity he’ll not be able to come.” His eyes stare at me piercingly, shredding me of my attire, shredding me of all vestige of self respect. “Come out to play little girl,” I hear and I feel those fingers. And I am a child again, cowering and hating myself, hating him, hating the world.
I am not aware of what I say or do, but mercifully I am back to my place. Stray comments buzz across my head. “It wasn’t your fault.” “Leave the past alone.” But even more ominous ones rear their heads. “Such people spare no one, not even their own families.” “No one ever complains, out of shame.” Was it only me or did he not have to look far for a little girl , a little girl beyond his own home? I thought I knew it all, yet in one blow I knew nothing of what happened in their family, behind closed doors. There is darkness and a whirring and I feel myself falling, falling. When I open my eyes, there are people all around me, urging me to “say something,”” say anything.” How ridiculous, when the last thing I want to do is speak. If I will myself to keep quiet I may never have to speak at all. I succeed, and the words do not seem to come out even if I try. Thoughts run amok in my head; they form words, but the words find a barrier placed across my lips and they come bounding back. I am punished once again. Perhaps this time it is because I was meant to have spoken out long ago, long, long ago. I shall pay the price for keeping quiet, once again.
I wonder if I shall see the next winter. I wonder if I shall be able to keep away from reliving the past. I wonder if I shall be able to bear the pain of a knowing silence.