The platform was not as crowded as I expected it to be. As my parents walked to the notice board to reconfirm our reservation in the train, I gestured to my grandparents who were busy looking around. “Thatha, Paati come here.”
“They have not reached,” announced Thatha. I looked around to confirm that my uncle, aunt and cousins had not yet arrived.
Encouraged by my roving eyes, the fruit vendor nearby smiled, removed a towel hung around his neck, and shooed away some flies buzzing around the fruit. I winced at the sight of the flies perched on the fleshy red interiors of the pomegranates. Who would buy them? Even before I finished my thought, a man came up to the vendor and bought two pomegranates.
“Amrutha, go find a place for us to sit,” Maa ordered, lugging an overstuffed, protesting suitcase behind her.
“Give it,” I insisted. Taking the suitcase from her, I walked on dodging discarded food packets and fresh pan stains that littered the station floor. Finding an empty bench under a creaky old fan, I plonked my backpack on it and waited for my family to arrive. A lone traveller, walking towards the bench eyed my bag and looked at me hopefully. “Its taken. The family is coming,” I replied with a wry smile.
As I watched him walk away, a huge poster of a pouting model caught my eye. It was an advertisement created by the company I worked for. A reminder wormed it way to my head. I had forgotten to email my boss to tell him the final copy for an advertisement was on his desk!
“Patti, sit here,” I said when they arrived, herding my grandma into the bench, more forcefully than I had intended to. “Careful Amrutha,” hissed Paa.
Throwing an apologetic stare his way, I ensured my grandma was fine. “I’ll go, make a call, and be back,” I told them, walking away, trying to find a quiet spot in the now bustling station.
Neeraj, my boss, howled on the phone. “I don’t care about your vacation. I can’t find the print-out.”
“I left it on your desk. Look carefully.”
“I have looked! This is important. We can’t wait for your vacation to end for this. Why didn’t you hand it personally! And speak loudly, I can’t hear you,” he thundered.
“The final copy is also in your inbox, Neeraj. Just print it again!” I was struggling to make myself audible over the din of the train announcements and the persistent beggars nearby. “Check your messages. I will resend the email as well,” I yelled before disconnecting the phone.
As I forwarded the email, the now familiar combination of frustration and exhaustion crept up on me again. What an addled-brained idiot he was! Couldn’t find things right under his nose. I sighed and focused on my breathing. I didn’t want to start the trip angry. I wanted to be calm and happy. I hated feeling this way. This was exactly why I had decided to take a break. Even my therapy seemed to be adding to my stress lately. I had to choose better, make wiser decisions about work, life. But how was I supposed to do it? How much could things really change at work?
I had no time to ruminate. By the time I walked back to the bench, my relatives had arrived. My cousin came running to give me a hug. “Amrutha, I haven’t seen you in forever,” she exclaimed! “I miss you so much. How is work? What is the latest campaign you are working for? Did you meet anyone cool recently?” I smiled at her enthusiasm, but work was not what I wanted to talk about.
Pulling her aside, I whispered, “ I will tell you, only if you tell me who you are dating now.” She giggled and drew me away from the elders.
By the time the train pulled in, I was completely up-to-date on the life of an Indian teen. College, I discovered was no longer as it had been a decade ago. Settling into the window seat, I watched the train move away. Slowly at first, and then with greater speed till we had left behind the cacophony at the station.
“Look, I am wearing your lipstick,” said my Aunt, flashing her garish pink lips. “Didn’t you work on this campaign?”
I nodded at her with a smile . I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the lipstick didn’t suit her. “That’s what I do,” I thought, “I make people want and own things they can do without.” I looked at my aunt. She was dusky and had beautiful eyes. She really didn’t need lipstick. She was beautiful because of how witty and compassionate she was.
“Are you all right?” Thatha frowned till his bushy eyebrows touched in the middle. I realized I was still staring at my aunt.
Smiling, I winked at him. “Yes, old man. I am fine and happy to be with you all.” He gave me a disbelieving laugh. I pinched his cheek in response. Then, putting my hand through the crook of his elbow, I started outside the window. The rain-weathered buildings, stunning bungalows, and defiant slums, all rushed by in a haze. Such disparity exhibited in such a small slice of the earth. The city looked so beaten down in most places. And the world I inhabited was so different. Money, desire, fame, greed, glamour.
Before I knew it, we had reached the outskirts of the city. The train slowed down as we passed a slum area. In a shanty outside, two children sat drawing designs on the ground with chalk. I smiled at them and they waved back shyly. My mind wandered to Seema, a lady I had met during a visit to an orphanage organized by my company for their Corporate Giving Drive. Every now and then I thought about Seema. I thought about the contentment I saw on her face, as she recounted tales of her work with the kids. I thought about my life. I thought the kids I had just passed. I thought about Seema. Who had the better life? Who knew how to live it well?
“Amrutha, play Uno with us.” My cousin looked at me eagerly. Making excuses about a rising headache, I climbed up to the upper berth and settled down for the night. A vacation with family was not the ideal break I had wanted. But I had succumbed to Maa’s emotional blackmail about how old my grandparents were, and how we might never have an opportunity to travel with them again. So well, here I was and maybe it was for a reason. What do you want me to experience, God? I asked, before dozing off.
Morning was the harbinger of optimism. I climbed down from my berth excited about the trip. I could see lush green hills in the distance. Fluffy white crowns of clouds adorned their heads. I went to the train’s door and stood there, breathing in the fresh air that lovingly pushed me back, as the train surged ahead. I laughed and the tall grass outside nodded its head approvingly. Everything was a plush green and echoed life.
By the time the train pulled into the mountain town of Nishganj, I was calm and relaxed. Far from the chaos of my office and Neeraj’s whining voice, I could listen to my own heart. As I stepped out of the train, I felt myself looking forward to these three days. This was good.
I let Paa and uncle wrangle with the cab drivers. I looked around drinking in the simplicity of the place with drought-struck city eyes. What a contrast! I inhaled deeply and slowly and easily. The city hastened my heartbeat. My frenzied lifestyle meant that I was caught up in choices, decisions and actions which constantly repeated themselves at a hurried pace. Lately, I had been unable to cope up with it. An almost health crisis, had sent me to a healer, or a therapist as I liked to call her. It was thanks to conversations with her that I felt, I was still sane. What race are you trying to win? Whom are you racing against? And what will winning mean, she had asked me in the very first visit. That had applied the brakes. I found myself slowing down in the middle of the race, running slower and slower till I finally stopped in the tracks. I saw all running around, without an end line in sight.
By the time the cab rumbled to a halt in front of Nature’s Heaven, the home-stay we booked for our visit, I was more than a little nauseous. Curvy mountain roads did not agree with me, ever. Standing up, I gave a loud burp, much to everyone’s amusement. I was embarrassed but the sight of the bungalow, drew my attention away. “So pretty,” I felt myself exclaim. Trees lined the entryway and a cheery flower filled portico ran around the front. I looked at the lounge chair there and wanted to sink into it with a book.
“The door is locked. No one is here,” said Maa, tugging on the handle.
“The caretaker knew we are coming. He should have been here,” said uncle, his famed temper beginning to show up in his voice. “Let me go look for him,” I volunteered. Before anyone could object or say anything, I strolled up the path besides the bungalow. The tall grass beside the path invited me to run my fingers through them and experience their softness. When the path ended into a meadow, I slipped off my shoes and let the grass tickle my feet. A smile of unbridled joy settled on my lips.
I saw him then, almost near the end of the meadow, where the mountain gave way to valley. From the distance, it looked like he was doing tai-chi…his hands moving through the air in waves. Close-by, I saw dozens of birds nestling near his feet. Ah, he was feeding them. He was talking to the birds. A pigeon sat engrossed, staring at him, the way a child sometimes gazes into its mother face. What was it learning from him? I stopped at a distance. I didn’t want to intrude and spoil the moment.
Paa’s call snapped us both out of our trances. My restless father had followed me up the path and caught up. The boy turned and first noticed me, then my father. A smile broke on his face, as he came hurrying towards us.
“Are you the house-keeper?” asked a puffing Paa.
“Yes Sir. I am Shiva, the caretaker. ”
Shiva was about 20, I decided, as I watched him interact with others. Just slightly older than my cousin. But he exhibited a maturity and cheerfulness that seemed to come naturally to him. I observed him the first day. I watched him massage my grandpa’s legs, cajole my grandma into sharing traditional south-indian recipes, show Maa how to make some instant pickles, accompany Paa on his evening walk, help my uncle and aunt search for medicinal herbs that grew here, and play board games with my cousin. Shiva knew how to win everyone’s heart. By the second day, he had already built a rapport with everyone – or almost everyone. The only person with whom Shiva maintained a respectful distance was me. Maybe it was the “stay away” Maa claimed was always plastered on my head, but I attributed his reserve to shyness. I realized I felt a little jealous that he spoke to everyone but me.
But Shiva captivated me. His features indicated that he was from north-eastern India. I found myself incessantly pondering over the reason that must have caused him to move so far away from home. Why did someone choose to leave the familiar and choose the unfamiliar? The familiar even if it was difficult was still something we knew. To leave what you know and choose something different, took so much courage. Was he brave? Or was he simpleton who took whatever life offered? I wanted to know. Why? I didn’t know.
The kitchen, I realized was a good spot to corner him. Pretending to be hungry, I walked to the kitchen. Smells of pungent spices floated lazily through the air and entered my welcoming nose. My stomach rumbled in appreciation. I stood in the doorstep and noticed the fluidly with which he moved around the kitchen preparing dinner. He rhythmically chopped vegetables as though he were moving his hands to the beat of a song.
When he noticed me, a flicker of surprise ran over his eyes. “Do you need something, Ma’am?”
“I am hungry,” I said. Then, a moment of fearless honesty took over. Maybe it was the mountain air. “Actually, I am here because I was curious about you, Shiva. Where are you from? Tell me about your life,” I asked unabashed.
He was undoubtedly startled. But then, the ease with which he handled everything took over. He handed me a bowl of the sweetest fruit custard I had ever eaten. Then, Shiva began to tell me about himself.
Shiva was a traveler. He set off from home when he was 16. He wasn’t 20, but 25. He changed jobs and explored different avenues. I sat down on the ledge of the kitchen window mystified, as he narrated tales of his struggle: working on a roadside hotel in his home-town at age 12 to earn a single meal a day, later conspiring with the chef to teach him cooking in exchange of 2 cigarettes a day – the money for which he earned by washing the owner’s bike everyday, hitchhiking his way to Mumbai in exchange of meals he would make at Dhabas along the way, arriving at Mumbai, working at a local eatery, getting disillusioned with the city, and then finally landing this job through a friend he made in the city.
“Don’t you miss home, Shiva?” I wanted to know.
“Home? In today’s times work is more important, Ma’am. Few are able to do what they want to. I am actually lucky,” he said softly.
“Lucky?” what was he talking about! “You have lived a life filled with challenges. Unable to even enjoy a childhood. Having to work without break, unable to enjoy your family, friendships and you call yourself lucky?” I couldn’t help saying what I found myself uttering.
Shiva threw a patient smile my way. “I am lucky because I am doing work I love. People in my village live in squalid conditions. We suffer drought in summers, floods in rains, and chilly winters. I don’t miss my home. I do think of my little sisters sometimes. My brother…well, not so much. He was much older than I, and we had no real connection. And parents in villages are not like what I see in cities. They are out of the homes most day. We met only for meals. I respect my mother a lot and send money so they can take care of themselves. But yes, I am lucky because I just love cooking and by luck, I found this job. The money is good, place is beautiful and I feel at peace.”
“Is it because you are in the hills and the hills have been your home?”
“Maybe,” said Shiva thoughtfully. “Never thought much about it.”
My aunt came inside the kitchen. “What have you made Shiva? The smell is wafting all through the house. Everyone is already in the dining table.”
Shiva smiled, “Dinner is ready. I’ll bring it out in a minute.”
“What are you doing here?” she asked me, one eyebrow raised.
“Finishing dessert before dinner,” I replied, shepherding her out of the kitchen.
Three days had passed. I had actually had fun with my family. But the highlight for me was Shiva. Something about his personality fascinated me. Shiva’s optimism blossomed in environments that could have easily destroyed it. He could very well have been a grouch, hardened by the experiences of his life. Instead he had found something that even I had been unable to attain. Despite all the good things I had, why did I feel this void inside? What did I really want?
Sinking into the lounge chair in the portico, a pen and pad in hand, I contemplated working on ideas for the next campaign. A wave of dislike for my work, swelled inside. I didn’t want to work. It was my last night here, and I wanted to make the most of it. I wandered to the garden. Shiva was on the swing gazing at the stars. When he saw me emerge from the shadows of the trees, he immediately got up.
“Sit down, Shiva. I want to walk around.”
I walked about the garden looking at the lights twinkling in the distant mountain slopes, showing signs of life in the otherwise sleepy hills. The moonlight made the trees appear as though they were iced with snow. They nodded their heads sleepily to the lullaby singing night breeze. The bushes huddled together seeking warmth and the flowers in them were already fast asleep. The swing creaked comfortingly. Shiva’s presence soothed me.
“Ma’am, is something the matter? You seem restless.”
I paused and stared at the north star.
“Sorry, don’t reply to that. It is not my place to ask,” whispered Shiva, mistaking my silence.
His voice held humility. It was an unintentional question; a thought that had found its way past his lips, just as he was trying to swallow it down. When I noticed his obvious regret at his utterance, I found myself laughing. His question was so innocent yet intimate.
“I was trying to work and didn’t want to. I am unhappy with what I am doing. But I don’t know what else to do. It feels like there is no meaning to anything I am doing in life. I thought I wanted to be in advertising. I wanted to be a great writer and here I am writing nonsense that is becoming popular, to sell things that I am not interested in! People will think I am mad, because I am good at what I do and I make so much money. But I am unhappy and that is why I am restless.”
Shiva looked at me silently. He then hung his head to stare at the floor. Here I was, being more honest and open to this stranger, than I was to friends.
He looked at his feet thoughtfully and then spoke, “Ma’am, why are you really doing it?”
“Because it has become something to do. And I have worked so hard for it, I can’t imagine doing something else.” I really couldn’t. Give up all that hard work, sleepless nights and sacrifices. A memory of a past relationship that had died a quick death due to my work habits, taunted me.
Shiva looked at me. “City life is hard. That is why I like it here,” he said with twinkling eyes.
“City life is crazy. This seems more real.”
For a bit none of us spoke. Shiva gave a sigh before speaking. “When I left home, I had dreams galore. Mumbai disappointed me. Broke my heart. But I found joy again after coming here. Maybe it is time for you to move ahead. Change is scary, but sometimes it is good for us. Be adventurous and try something you haven’t tried before. We must be open to change…”
The laughter escaped me before I could even stop it.
Shiva looked shocked and then a bit hurt. “Maybe it is not my place to talk. Sorry.”
“No Shiva,” I still couldn’t stop laughing, “I pay someone money to help me understand life, and she has said the same thing you have. But what you are saying seems to somehow make sense. I mean, it feels possible and that’s why I am laughing. Why didn’t I understand her? How come I understand you?”
Shiva got up to leave. “Maybe because I said it as it is. Simple things work, Ma’am,” he said smiling and walking away.
It was silent after he left, and I sat down in the swing. I was poised for a promotion. I had been featured the previous month in an industry magazine article titled ‘the top 10 people to watch out for in advertising’. But after almost a decade, all I felt was…empty. I had given it my all. I felt no passion. Was it really time to move on?
When I got back, Shiva was singing in his native tongue. My family sat around him enraptured. Vivid pictures of his town danced in my eyes. Women dressed in traditional attire of blouses and skirts. Men in smart short trousers with colorful shirts. All with a bright scarves wrapped around their tiny waists. With a cloth around their head to protect them from the harsh sun, they sang and worked harmoniously in the fields. Everyone applauded and I snapped out of my reverie. Shiva had finished singing.
“Shiva your village must be so beautiful.” Maa exclaimed.
“Who taught you to sing,“ Patti wanted to know.
“I could visualize your village,” said Uncle.
“Music does that to people.” His eyes rippled, like the windy fields I had just envisaged, his arms as tough as trees, his hair was as brown as earth and the flush to his skin was the breeze blowing.
“You can see my village in me and my song. It happens. We always carry what we are born with. We may wear many masks, speak different languages, but the blood still carries it roots. What you are born with, is what determines the passion in your blood, the belief in your heart, and the strength of your mind. What we accumulate along in life, all these experiences, is what we weave around our basic personality. But the roots are always at home. And Grandma,” he said addressing Patti, “everyone sings back home.”
“Amrutha used to sing too. She has won many awards. Then she started work and forgot life,” said my uncle, laughing.
Shiva turned to me and smiled. Was that true? Had I forgotten to live? Uncle’s words stung my heart. I felt like someone had handed me a magic wand and challenged me to make a new wish. I was filled with an urgent desire to do something. Maybe, just maybe I could change?
“Amrutha, still remembers,” I said. I could see the amusement, shock, curiosity flicker across their faces. “Paati, let us sing that song you taught me as a child,” I said seating myself next to her as everyone broke out into claps and hoots. I smiled at Shiva before breaking into the song with Paati.
Everyone turned to Shiva after the bags were loaded. Shiva said his good-byes with smiles, but his eyes shone with emotions.
He came to me and handed me a flower, an bright spring bloom. “Ma’am, smell the flower,” he requested. I did. It smelt fresh. “Ma’am,” continued Shiva, “like flowers come and go, so do things in life. But this fragrance will stay in your memory for far longer than this flower will. Similarly, don’t compromise on your joys. Fill your life with things that make you happy. Let your happiness be your guide in knowing if you are doing the right thing or not.”
I took the flower from Shiva. “The flower and your words will stay with me forever, Shiva. Thank you,” I whispered.
As the car left Nature’s Heaven, I saw the green hillsides smothered in parts with bright red spring blooms. Much had blossomed within me and around. I looked at my aunt who had again worn the same lipstick and stifled a laughter. I had laughed more in the past three days than I had in years. I picked up the phone to text Neeraj.
‘Notice period begins now. Thanks for everything. I Quit.’