(A Quarterly International Peer-reviewed Refereed e-Journal
Devoted to English Language and Literature)
Anshu Johri authors poems, short stories and plays in Hindi and English. She migrated to USA in 1995 and lives in San Jose, California. She grew up in Madhya Pradesh, India and her early education took place in various towns of Madhya Pradesh. She received her Bachelors of Electrical Engineering from Government Engineering College, Jabalpur and has a Master of Science in Electrical Engineering from San Jose State University, California. She started Udgam, one of the first online Hindi literary magazines of the world in 1998 and was its editor till 2004. She also produced and hosted a radio program ‘Uphaar’ in 2004-2005.
Her published works include Khule Prishtha (Bare Pages- A collection of poems, 1990), Shesh Phir (More Later- A collection of short stories, 2004), Boond ka Dwandwa (Dilemma of a Raindrop- A collection of poems, 2014) and Adrishya Kinara (Invisible Shores- A collection of stories, 2015). Her poems and stories have appeared in reputed Hindi Literary Journals like Kadambini, Vaagarth, Vartmaan Saahitya, Kathakram, Hindi Jagat and Vishwa, among various others. She was a guest speaker at a discourse on ‘New Feminism and New Responses’ among other writers from different languages, organized by the Sahitya Academy of India, Bangalore in June 2015.
Her work in English has appeared in Dukool, Vine Leaves Literary Journal and an anthology Desi Girls published by Hope Road Publishing, U.K. Besides writing, her other passions are painting, teaching Hindi and theatre to kids. She resides at 2839 Norcrest Dr, San Jose CA 95148, U.S.A and can also be contacted at email@example.com.
Little to Care
It was June 21st. The year doesn’t matter. The evening of the longest day of the year was crisp and hot, and had slowed down the metabolism of every living plant visible to Vishakha from her window. Vishaakha sat on her chair with her left elbow resting on the table and her head clumsily rested on her left palm. Her right hand scribbled odd figures on the paper and her thoughts had the freedom to drift. She couldn’t remember when and where her schedules had begun to overpower her. It hadn’t happened suddenly and it wasn’t that she was tied to them by the necessity of sorts. Perhaps it had been her choice. She knew exactly how it felt to have time for everything and yet no time for anything. She also knew what Bhummi would have to say to this-“Keeping busy is not your option Vishakha, it’s your need. Poor you!” The imagery of Bhummi, showering her sugar coated sympathy on Vishakha startled her.
Vishaakha stopped scribbling. Now her eyes followed a white bird in the evening sky, probably returning to its nest. The faraway hills were illuminated by the orange spillover of the setting sun. Slowly everything would fade in the gray of dusk. She loved the hazy mountains as they grayed in the dusk- their silences becoming quieter. She felt that a cacophony of survival was slowly giving way to peace. Her thoughts were interrupted by the ringing of the phone. It rang once, twice, thrice and then she picked up sluggishly. It was Bhummi on the other line with her usual persistent questions.
“Vishaakha….why did you take so long to pick up the phone? You scared me! What are you doing? What are you cooking tonight? You don’t sound very cheerful. You are not sick. Are you? Let me know if you are sick. Don’t just lie down quietly in bed like you did last time. Promise me that you’ll let me know if you need anything. Won’t you?”
“Yes Bhummi I will. Is there anyone else on whom I can depend except you?”
Bhummi seemed satisfied with this answer. Their conversation was short. Bhummi’s younger daughter began shrieking in the background and she had to rush to pacify her.
Bhummi was short for ‘Bhumika Mathur’. Her husband was the Vice-President of a start-up company and her life revolved around her two daughters who were six and ten years old. Vishaakha and Bhummi knew each other for so long that they had forgotten how they had met.
“Was it at Chikku’s birthday party…?”
“No it cannot be. Remember, I had stitches on my forehead at that time. I had fallen on the slide at your place, so it has to be before that.”
“Yeah! You’re right. I think it was in the park that we met when you had let me swing even when it was not my turn.”
“No! Our fight over “Champak” magazine preceded that incident.” In the absence of any concurring incident, they decided to let it rest.
“Seriously, who careshow we met?”
They went to the same school in India, incidentally got admission in the same grad school in the U.S.A and now they lived in the same part of California- the crowded, coveted, and earthquake prone Silicon Valley.
Bhummi was always worried about Vishaakha.
“Look Vishakaha. No need to laugh at this. But I have a strange intuition that you would die like Professor Neuman.”
“Professor Neuman!” What on earth makes you think I’ll die like him and so young?”
Professor Neuman taught them EE-280 in the Grad school, which was an advanced course in Digital Logic Design. He was well-built sized bald man, who loved wearing bright shirts with a light brown trouser. People kept gossiping about him. Gossip is a skewed way of deriving fun but people don’t mind it. They don’t mind deriving fun in a skewed way.
So according to rumor A Professor didn’t marry because “…his girlfriend ditched him. What else? He was too much in love with her to find someone else.”
But according to rumor B, “Totally baseless!…professor married not once but twice and was divorced each time.”
“I’m not surprised. He hardly talks. Even his lectures would be contrite and to the point. His expectations of answers…contrite and to the point. Which woman would want a partner like him? Jeez!”
There were more rumors floating around all over the school. Anyway, one week the professor didn’t show up for the class. Then he missed his class the following week and then the week following it. This was very unusual of Professor Neuman because in spite of his supposedly “messed up” life, he was very particular about being punctual. Only later it was found that he didn’t show up because he had a rather valid reason for not showing up. He had passed away three weeks before! It was a heart attack. The cops had to break the doors to get in. His corpse was lying on the floor with his left hand under his chest. There was a glass lying nearby and white pills were scattered all around his body. He must have tried getting to the phone to call 911 because he was only a couple of steps away from it. The lamp on his table was lit. It illuminated every word of pages 64 and 65 of that open book on ‘Cache Coherency’ without a care. He must have been reading it when he began to feel the pain. Vishaakha often wondered about his last thoughts. May be he thought that it was a heartburn and he would be O.K in an hour or so. Professor Neuman was not that old. He was 42 when he died.
Bhummi had said “So sad. You know Vishaakha! Lalita Pawaar and Parveen Baabi also died like this. Such famous actress of yesteryear and not a soul nearby when they died! It must be really heartbreaking not to have your dear ones around when you die.”
“Dear ones like…?” Vishaakha had asked.
“Dear ones are those who love you and whom you love. But you will not understand these things.”
Bhummi had an absolute faith in love. Her concept of love was shattered when her husband forgot her first birthday after their marriage. She was hoping that he would get three sets of dresses and a bouquet of roses for her. And then he would gently take her on the terrace the way Raj took Riama in the movie “I have always loved you”.
For some strange reason that year Vishaakha also forgot to wish Bhummi in the morning. She remembered later in the evening and she called her up. She had assumed that Bhummi must be dinning out in a fancy restaurant but she was wrong. Bhummi picked up the phone and she was extremely mad at Vishaakha.
“How come you didn’t call me since morning? You forgot my birthday Vishaakha?” Then Vishaakha heard her sobbing. Her anger had precipitated, revealing an underlying sadness.
“Hey Bhummi, I will be at your place in a few minutes.”
Bhummi was like a child in so many ways. When she opened the door, Vishaakha could see her red and swollen eyes. She had probably been crying since morning. Her husband had left for work early in the morning, without wishing her of course. He didn’t wish her when he made couple of hurried calls from his cell phone and was tied up in a meeting since five-o clock.
“He must be very busy Bhummi. And in the time of need and crisis it is the person closest to you whom you can afford to neglect. This is the practical definition of proximity.”
Bhummi kept looking at her for a couple of minutes with her tear soaked eyes and then she asked “How do you know?”
Vishaakha answered in a barely audible voice, “Somehow I know everything.”
Vishaakha was always short of time. She juggled to have some more of it to accommodate more things that she aspired to do. She was learning French and Bangla and class of Kathal dance for a pleasure workout.She thought thatit would be awesome to read Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali in original form. Translations either add an artificial perfection to the raw freshness of original work or they take away some part of it.
Bhummi believed that Vishaakha did all these things to kill her time, because she was lonely. The same “time” had turned Bhummi into a spinning wheel, constantly rotating and revolving in trajectories which were created on the fly.
“Even satellites are better than me. Whether I like it or not, I have to do things and this is what being busy is all about where you are caught up in things without choice. Don’t talk to me about doing what I like. After marriage and specially after having kids, one has a different set of priorities. Then you stop thinking about yourself. Look at me! I don’t have weekends, no time-off. Got to go now! I need to take the elder kiddo for her drawing lessons. ”
After Bhummi left, Vishaakha heard her own voice from the distant past. The child in her assumed a shape, a body. Her apartment transformed into that big house near the quiet street in Bhopal in India. It becomes 5 o’ clock in the evening and all the kids of the neighborhood including her know that it is playtime. She has completed her homework, well most part of it and she is grabbing her badminton racket, and her new toys. “Maa it is 5 o’clock. I am going to play.” ‘Help’, ‘Kho-kho’, ‘Cricket’, ‘Hide and seek’, ‘poison-nectar’…all games of the childhood were gathering in her memories…the throwing, the pushing, the laughter…
Bhummi’s daughters play in her supervision. She takes them to the park and helps her elder daughter to play with the other kids who are being helped to play respectively by their parents. Meanwhile she also entertains her younger daughter and chats with other parents. She has to play with her daughter if she can’t find anyone else. She is worried that already at the age of six her daughter is fairly rebellious.
“This little brat refuses to answer me in Hindi. She understands but responds back in English. And her acts of emotional blackmail…this li’l brain asks me if she wants me to be happy for her. Okay, I reply and she goes, it will make me happy if I have a sleepover at Merlyn’s house.”
Bhummi has asked Vishaakha to teach her Hindi. “She should imbibe our culture and values.” Bhummi said.
Along with the worries of preservation and passing down of her Indian culture and roots, Bhummi had to do groceries, laundry, iron the clothes, clean, cook, attend to her children, socialize and invite friends and acquaintances over for dinner. Amidst all this, Bhummi still found time to call Vishaakha and ask her if she was doing fine and Vishaakha should let her know if she needed help or was sick.
It was just by chance that Vishhakha stopped by Bhummi’s house that evening. Bhummi was sick, had high fever and so had her younger daughter. She was wailing for no reason while Bhummi was trying to calm her. She was also helping her older daughter to complete a school project. When Bhummi saw Vishaakha her controlled patience began to melt down in tears. Vishaakha took the little one from her arms and asked her to lie down. As Vishaakha got tea for her, she found the tired eyes on the withdrawn face of Bhummi staring at the emptiness of the roof above. “When would Vibhav be home” Vishaakha asked.
“I don’t know.” A clear stream was welling up in Bhummi’s eyes, in spite of her hard efforts to suppress it. “May be around 11:00- 11:30.” Then she started explaining without asking- “Vibhav is also very stressed out these days. We have lost so much money in stocks. The company is not doing well either…he has to work really hard…arrange for funds and whatnot. Then he has a family to take care of…enormous pressures you know…..and….and wasn’t it you who told me that in the time of crisis and need people who are closest are the people whom you can afford to neglect…take them for granted.” Her voice kept breaking from time to time.
This was a different kind of loneliness, which was born from not being alone, but from lack of time for those with whom you would have wished to spend most of the time of your life? All individuals were enclosed in their own cocoon, living together but separately. Lives walked on parallel paths without ever merging, or maybe intersecting at some point, only to diverge in different directions later, with time!
Loneliness reminded Vishaakha of Naidu Auntie. She was upstairs in her bedroom when she was attacked while Uncle watched the T.V downstairs in the living room. Naidu Auntie was stabbed 53 times in her abdomen. Nobody knew who did it. Police could never catch the culprits. For days people suspected that Mr. Naidu might be involved in this, otherwise how was it possible that you kept watching the television while your wife was being stabbed. How deaf could a person be? How loud could a television be? Naidu uncle had turned into a stone figure after the incident. Recognizable but lost, locked in his house for days and cut off from everyone including his sons. Nobody knew what he went through. Vishaakha was 14 years old then. She was shocked and horrified. For years she dreaded the television, the volume of any music or sound which was loud enough to overpower the faintest cries of help. She became paranoid to such an extent that she would start searching the rooms to find a family member who was missing for more than ten minutes.
Memories of Naidu Auntie were followed by the memories of her grandpa. His asthma, his wheezing, his sleepless nights, his pain and everyone around him! His surroundings getting accustomed to his suffering! As if a pain which bothers you every-day, becomes part of you and then it stops affecting people around you.
Vishaakha contemplated her own solitude. Few years back she found it surprising. How come 30 years of her life had passed away and except for once she never met someone again with whom the frequency of her thoughts matched. Maa still writes to her, urges her to send a photograph in a sari, which would make her look more traditional than she was. Maa said “It is difficult to find good boys these days and it is even more difficult to find a boy who is ready to marry a girl who has studied abroad and works in States. And Vishaakha you don’t have very many options at 30.”
“She must be very independent” they would say as if it was a bad thing for a girl to be independent. Vishaaakha wondered if it was genes or years of social conditioning which were against her independence, or the so-called “hindrance” in finding “Mr. Right.”
Now Vishaakha has become used to living by herself. She often consoles her worried mother on the weekly telephonic conversation that he has with her.
“I don’t feel lonely Maa, even when I’m alone. In fact I feel asphyxiated in a crowd. The fewer the ties, the better. The fewer the emotional attachments, fewer are expectations that come with it, and even fewer are the frustrations which are born out of these unmet expectations. So stop worrying. There’s nothing amiss in my life. And I am over with whatever grief I had.”
At some point in her life, hopes had blossomed in her heart too. She had let her wishes go loose and they had spread all over….green creepers with tiny buds waiting to open up…they waited eagerly for the spring. But why did she even contemplate to live a life devoid of perfections? She was young then and she believed in perfections. It was her mirage!
Ranjna comes to learn piano from Vishaakha. She is sixteen and she dreams like a sixteen year old does. Vishhakha feels that she is sixteen too when she is with Ranjna. One day Ranjna asked her-“You didn’t get married”?
“No I didn’t.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s so scary. I can never understand how one can spend their entire life with only one person…I mean life is so long. Don’t you think it’s weird to spend that whole span of your life with one guy without getting bored? And the amount of commitment that it needs, the freedom it takes away. When I tell this to Mamma she is really mad at me. But you know what I mean. I don’t think I’ll ever marry. I’m never going to cook. It’s such a waste of time. My Mom has no life. I can’t see myself living like her all my life.”
It took a moment for Vishaakha to recover from the culture shock.
The ease with which Ranjna had shared her apprehensions stood in complete conflict with what she thought. They stood like opposing poles before her, Ranjna who was born and brought up here didn’t want to be like her mother, Bhummi whose whole world revolved around protecting her girls from becoming ‘Ranjna’. It seemed that their fears were both right and wrong, and the wrong part of it was unyielding and uncompromising. Two cultures were ready to fight for their identities, which were blurry.
“Life isn’t long Ranjna. It’s very short. Life touches you like a feather touch and by the time you realize that you need to hold it, it’s gone. It’s lost.”
Vishaakha’s face is red. A deep sadness from past penetrates her eyes. She looks forlorn, dejected, and hopeless. She breathes heavily. A shadow comes and sits beside her. The shadow smiles, she smiles in return. She explains, the shadow listens.
“In India from where I come we don’t exchange rings when we get married. We exchange garlands made of fragrant flowers. Weddings are long and lot of fun and last for…”
Something had sprouted between them during exchange of books. That young seedling nourished itself as they exchanged thoughts, their experiences, their cultures and their dreams. It was when they decided to exchange their lives that a car ran into a head-on collision on a freeway in Texas…and Vishaakha is still alive.
Ranjna’s eyelids were wet. She whispered, “I am sorry.”
It was Bhummi again on phone complaining like always. “You know Vishaakha everything is in vain. All relationships are farce…this entire life of mine seems worthless.”
Bhummi’s life revolves around her daughters. At one point, it was Vibhav on whom her happiness was centered upon. Bhummi has been laying down the foundations of her happiness in carving sculptures out of people. Her chiseling sacrifices disappointed her because human beings cannot become statues. Vishaakha wanted to tell Bhummi if she ever had some time to really listen to her, “It took a lot of effort from me to find a small reason to live when life stood stalled before me with a long list of ideals and values all wrapped up in despair and nothing seemed worth it. But when I found it, that small reason gave me enormous strength. And what you construe as my effort to keep myself busy is a very small attempt to continue to inspire the creative being within me. Yes, it does have a flavor of sadness, it has anguishes of its own, but it is not farce, and it is certainly not worthless.”
She sat on the piano and stared at the notes of ‘Fur Elise’ or ‘For Elise’ by Ludwig Van Beethoven- A man who grew up with an abusive father, was short and unattractive, wasn’t loved by any of the women he loved, and became deaf; yet, he turned every pain of his into melodious music and left behind the legacy of musical masterpieces of unparalleled finesse.
Her fingers deftly moved from one key to another; the house became vibrant and music flowed through the stillness of a starry night, swinging in the gentle breeze beyond the confines of the walls where Vishakha solemnly played the first movement of ‘Moonlight Sonata’. A meditating thought caressed her.
“After nurturing a creative attempt to be a tiny dot of this large unfinished painting on the canvass of time, whether I die like Professor Neuman or Naidu Auntie or in a car accident on a freeway in Texas, life has very little to care about it.”