It hit her like a punch in the gut. The realisation that he was really gone. Then came the thought that soon the house too would belong to someone else. The new people would most likely tear it down, and build a multi storey concrete structure in its place. Soon, nothing may remain of the quaint little Assam type house, with its bright red tin roof, except for her memories and some fading old photographs.
It was eight by the time she sat down to her cup of tea at the dining table. Sunlight was streaming in through the lace curtains of the window in front of her, painting the floor with intricate patterns of light and shadow. She watched absentmindedly for a while, before dragging her eyes back to her laptop. For the past few days she had been working on a catalogue of sorts, of the items in the house, colour coded to indicate what was to become of them. She had intended to be quite surgical about the whole thing and had expected to produce a short ‘To Keep’ list and a longer ‘Sell/Donate’ list in a day or two. Instead, she found herself suddenly unsure about several things, the emotion compounded by the fact that in her wonderland-esque journey through trunks and cupboards she kept encountering forgotten incidents in the form of some mundane and dusty artefact she found there, leaving her with a really long “Decide Later” list.
As she resolved to definitely finish the task today, it occurred to her that she was no better than him, after all. She didn’t inherit his musical talents, or his skills with a paintbrush, but sure, she got his inability to just throw things away. She looked at the garlanded black and white photograph on the wall and murmured, “Thanks Baba.” There was an unfamiliar feeling at her chest, that came with the realisation that she would never again hear the familiar “Riju, ota phelish na ma, kaje laagte pare”. Riju, don’t throw that away, it could come in handy.
Growing up, her relationship with her father hadn’t been quite the same as the relationship her friends had with their fathers. He was different. Not one to answer to a boss, he had moved from one job to another, always unhappy, until he quit it all, and started giving paid tuitions in Mathematics to school children. He was a good tutor and became a popular choice amongst the students of their little hometown fairly quickly. Finally he was happy. With her mother’s salary from her job as a primary school teacher, they now had enough to get by, while still affording him the free time he never had at his other jobs. Time he could spend perfecting a tune on his Hawaiian guitar, or labouring at an oil painting for hours. Her mother, Paroma, had never approved of this arrangement. They were comfortable financially, but they would have been much better off, well to do even, if he had only stayed on at one of his jobs. She could never forgive him this ‘lack of responsibility’, and her dissatisfaction with Baba, trickled down to Sarojini – Riju to most people – in quiet subtle ways, without her ever realising it. She had loved him of course, but reluctantly. He had never spent as much time taking her to parks or playgrounds, or their family out for the occasional dinner, as the fathers of her friends did. She had grown up feeling like her mother and she were a responsibility, like the electric or phone bills, to be taken care of in a timely manner, but that’s about it. “Sameer only loves his things!” had been Paroma’s favourite refrain about her husband.
Bipin interrupted her thoughts as he walked into the room holding what looked like a dust covered box in his hands. Bipin had been her father’s live in help and companion for almost a decade. Ever since Paroma had passed away one night, unexpectedly, in her sleep. The last few days, he had been helping Sarojini sort through the endless collection of things, mostly her father’s, that had been stockpiled all over the house.
“What do I do with this Rijudidi?” he asked.
“What is that? A box? Give it to the raddiwala.” said Sarojini, eyes back on the catalogue.
“Not a box. It looks like a toy house.”
Sarojini walked up to where Bipin had set the box down on the floor and looked at it. In a flash, she remembered. She had been about 12, and her friend Mohona had received, as a birthday present, a beautiful purple and white doll house, complete with movable doll sized furniture arranged in each room. She had fallen in love the moment she had laid eyes on it. That evening, she had thrown one of maybe five tantrums she had ever thrown in her life. She wanted a doll house like that, and didn’t care that it cost an unreasonable amount of money, nor that she didn’t have a ‘foreign-return’ uncle to gift her something so expensive, like Mohona did. She had calmed down only when her father had promised her a doll house if she could wait for it a little while.
He had spent a month making her this five room doll house, with a pull away roof, and removable doll sized furniture in every room. He had carved and polished every piece of wood to a smooth finish, and hand painted every inch of it. She remembered being disappointed. It was no match for the purple and white factory produced dream house. Still, it was better than nothing, and she hadn’t expressed her disappointment to her father. She had played with it quite a bit too, before losing interest in dolls altogether, which is when it must have been relegated to a dusty corner of the house.
She picked up a little chair from the doll house’s kitchen, observing how the little wooden legs had been stuck into perfectly drilled holes at the base of the seat. She wondered how much effort it had taken Baba to get all of this just right.
“Dust it, and keep it in the store room for now,” she told Bipin, “I’ll decide what to do later.”
Something nagged her inside, as she got up and walked out to the garden to get some air. What was it?
She walked up to the Mango tree. Mango trees were better suited to warmer climates, uncommon to this little hill station. She had doubts whether it would last the first winter, when Baba and she had planted it together. But her father had been more optimistic. That same spot had once been home to an Orange tree, also alien to the cool hill station. Planted by her grandfather years and years ago, it had borne them sweet, juicy fruits every winter for many years. Sarojini remembered delivering bags full of oranges to their neighbours as a child. It had stopped bearing fruit while she was away studying for her Master’s degree and then a particularly severe hailstorm had uprooted it completely, a couple of years after she had moved to Pune for work. The loss of the Orange tree, that she had climbed like a monkey when she was little, and spent hours reading under when she was older, had hit her pretty hard at the time. Her father had brought up planting a Mango tree in its place during her annual two week visit home the year after that.
“If our Orange tree could survive here, why not a Mango tree? Our garden is special.” This was Baba’s argument to to her, when Sarojini pointed out Mango trees didn’t grow in their climate. She hadn’t paid any attention to the idea on that visit, but when he brought it up again the next year, she agreed, just to pacify him. Bipin had had to travel downhill to a bigger town in the plains, to procure a plant from a nursery there. They’d been told it would bear fruit in about three years. There was another year to go.
There! That nagging feeling again. Sarojini ignored it. All this nostalgia was getting to her, she decided. She was supposed to finish cataloguing today and she had already wasted a couple of hours moping around a doll house and a mango tree. She hurried back in, pushing all thoughts out of her mind, determined to get rid of all the junk without falling into day dreams about them.
She attacked the list and started rapidly colour coding all of the items she had left for later. Her father’s guitar would have to be sold. She had no use for it and it would only gather dust in her flat. She would keep one of his paintings, donate the rest to anyone who wanted them. When she stopped for a break an hour later her “Decide Later” list was much shorter, and she felt much better.
Bipin had brought down a big trunk from the loft the night before. She decided to tackle it now. She expected to find more of her father’s hoardings in there. The man really was reluctant to throw things away. True, he had often put the same things to good use, fashioning a makeshift tool or repairing something around the house. Still!
With a dupatta tied around her nose, she started pulling out things from the trunk. As expected, she found the same kind of things she had so far uncovered from the bottom shelf of her father’s wardrobe and many of the other boxes and trunks in the store. Stacks of tiles, probably set aside as a good surface to paint on. Pieces of glass cut to different sizes, wrapped in chart paper. Partially used sketch books, boxes of nails. Then, she spotted it. A longish object wrapped up in a piece of brown rexine, held together by rubber bands. It looked vaguely familiar.
Sarojini set it down on the floor and carefully unwrapped the rexine cover. It was a kaleidoscope.
She was in Class 3 when a fall down a staircase at school had left her with a fractured ankle and a month long break from school, mostly to be spent on bedrest. The initial few days she felt like royalty. She re-read her entire collection of books, assembled jigsaw puzzles, played solo player memory games. Soon though, the fun turned to monotony and with nothing new to distract her she grew restless and cranky. That was when Baba made her interesting little toys to keep her occupied. Her favourite among them had been the kaleidoscope. It was made of three rectangular mirrors arranged into a prism, with a very thin plastic film at one end. Sarojini had spent hours dropping different kinds of bits and pieces in, and marvelling at the patterns they formed when she looked in and shook them around.
She picked the toy back up and looked through it. The plastic film was coated with dust, and there wasn’t anything to make patterns on the mirrors inside. Yet Sarojini could see something. She saw her childhood once again, without the coating of resentment towards her father. She saw a man who had chosen peace of mind and simple joys over monetary luxuries. One who wasn’t comfortable with restaurant dinners and outdoor games, but had shown his affection in ways that his daughter just couldn’t identify as affection at the time. A man who planted a Mango tree in an unfriendly climate, probably because it was one of the two fruits his daughter preferred above all others. The only fruit he himself had liked was the pear, which, incidentally, flourished beautifully in these climates, but he had insisted on Mango. She had never even asked him why.
She knew what that nagging feeling was now. It was a mix of guilt and regret. She had spent all her life believing her father had treated her as a duty to be fulfilled. She had taken his love for solitude as lack of interest in herself and her mother. So, though she had cared for him, she had done so grudgingly, taking interest in nothing more than his general wellbeing. She had never talked to him about his childhood, where he had learnt to paint, or how he came to realise he was good with wood and tools. No, her interactions with him had been limited to ‘important’ things only. In other words, she had treated him exactly the way she had always held him guilty of treating her – like a duty to be fulfilled. And now, when she could see she had, at the very least, judged him too harshly, he was gone, it was too late, and she had no way of ever mending her relationship with him.
His death had shocked and saddened her, but that feeling was nothing compared to the heartbreak she experienced when this hit her.
A week later, Bipin bustled about the kitchen, humming a tune for the first time since Sameer’s passing. He had grown attached to the mild mannered old man and his death had pained him deeply. Soon after came the second blow with Rijudidi announcing her intention of selling the house, following which Bipin’s services would no longer be required.
“I wonder what made her change her mind” he wondered, dropping the Tengda fishes into the smoking hot mustard oil.
Sarojini, cup of tea in hand, walked around and surveyed the house. With Bipin’s help, it had been emptied of a lot of things, some sold as scrap to the raddiwala, most of the others donated to places that would find better uses for them. Sameer’s best paintings were now displayed on the walls of each room. The doll house – dusted and cleaned – was fetching appreciation from visitors in their drawing room. All of her own belongings had been moved from her old room to her parents’ room, which also had all of their things that she didn’t give away, including the guitar. This was going to be her room whenever she came home, from now on.
She imagined she would have to come more often at first, while the Homestay was still finding its place on the map and then hopefully, Bipin would be able to manage most of the day to day affairs on his own. There was still a lot to be done, details to be fleshed out. She had friends in the hospitality business who could help. For now, she had a plan.
Outside, she looked at the Mango tree. It had survived two winters against all odds. She saw no reason for it to not bear fruit next year. After all, their garden, this house, was special.