12.02.2009 18 °C
I’ve always considered Shillong to be my second home. I have fond memories of the place and my childhood. My summer vacations always meant Shillong. As we ascended the altitude the breeze would get cooler, the air would smell fresh and it seemed the pine trees welcomed me in their folds with love and warmth.
Those endless walks – be it in the Ward’s Lake, the Beaver Road, the golf links… the shop hopping in Police Bazaar, jalebis from Dilli Mistan, the road side alu tikkis & chole and roasted corns! And also sometimes it was a quick dip in the Crinoline pool. We’d always walk, take the zigzag short cuts and never did it tire me nor did my feet ache.
It was the perfect holiday for me year after year and I never got bored of this yearly custom!
I never realized that this once a year rendezvous wouldn’t last a lifetime.
With my studies taking the better of me and Maa’s passing away it almost stopped. Because Shillong without my Maa wasn’t fun you see. It’s always been with her that I prized every moment of Shillong. My Shillong Aita was still there but for some raison d'être which I never understood my Guwahati Aita prevented me from visiting her. I never asked her, it seemed so useless to ask the woman because I know she’d never tell me the truth or the rationale behind her decision.
Thus ended my Shillong rendezvous leaving me morose.
It however doesn’t mean that I never visited this place again. I did. I did it with my friends and during my Unilever days as a trainer; too many times impossible to count now. But it never felt the same. Yes, the breeze did get pleasant as we climbed the hills, the air still felt fresh, I still felt the pine trees welcoming me, but somehow the warmth and love was missing. It didn’t feel like “home coming”. I felt like an alien in midst of strangers and sightseers.
One thought constantly haunted me in my every visit. I wanted to meet Aita, just see her once, but I was so psyched with Guwahati Aita’s “sermons” that I stopped myself form going to my second home, leaving me bitterer every time I came back from there.
Years passed by, almost a decade, in fact a decade and two years… it was the month of August of 2008. We again decided to go to Shillong for a day. It was Neeyor’s first trip to this wonderland. We packed our picnic basket and got going. As we stepped out of home, I made up my mind that whatever it costs I’ll visit Aita. And throughout the hundred kilometers of the journey the only thing on my mind was how Aita would react, was she cross with me for not visiting her for so long, would she let me inside the house, would she reprimand me. I knew it was useless to ponder over these. All I could do was face the situation as it would unfold.
Once we reached Shillong we strolled through Police Bazaar, bought a few knick knacks and then proceeded towards Upper Shillong for lunch. My mind all the while was affixed to Aita’s thoughts only. Post lunch we were back in town and it was the moment I had waited for so long.
Nirav didn’t know the place; I gave him the directions to Aita’s house. As I stepped out of the car and walked towards the gate the compound looked unfamiliar. The gates were locked, I banged on it but no one opened. Having no other option left I went to the neighbour’s house on the opposite. The lady who’s Aita’s friend was amazed to see me, she hugged me like her own child and when I said the gates were locked she ordered her servant to accompany me to Aita’s house. She looked somewhat bewildered but I let pass by. I thought it was all but natural to look bemused to see me after such a long time.
I realized my folly when the servant let me in through a smaller gate. Once inside the compound I also realized that the main house had been converted to a pre-nursery school and Aita was perhaps staying only in one part of that huge house. The servant left and I knocked the door. A few seconds later a young lad looked me through the glass pane and then opened. I asked about Aita and he let me in. As I went inside I saw her seated on the bed. She turned around as I entered the room and said “Nandini, why did it take you so long to come?” I stood froze. She recognized me I thought! As per everyone who has met her prior to me told that she recognizes nobody.
She looked so much the same except for her hair which had turned into a shade of silvery white and her skin had fine wrinkles. Never has a woman looked so good in wrinkles. Her hair was neatly tied into a bun. As I hugged her she still smelt the usual of Pond’s talcum powder. I didn’t even realize when tears started dripping from my eyes. And I didn’t have an answer to her question. I couldn’t tell her that I was “very busy with work, married life and a baby”. I couldn’t tell her my Guwahati Aita “psyched” me not to visit her. I simply didn’t have an answer. I never felt as culpable as the way I felt then. I introduced Nirav and Neeyor to her. She spoke to Nirav for a long time and then she touched Neeyor’s little feet and said, “Everyone says babies are God’s replica, can this little one tell me when will I die? Can she bless me so that I die soon?”
I felt heavy, the lump in my throat felt painful. I felt so silly and stupid to have thought whether she’d let me inside the house, scold me or not talk to me. We sat in silence for a couple of minutes.
She again started talking. She told me the same things she had told Nirav. I thought maybe she had forgotten and hence repeating those to me. But I was wrong. For all the time we spent with her, she kept narrating those few lines of her life over and over again. Her sorrows, her misgivings and her loneliness. Then she started speaking about my Maa, my Aunt and my cousins. But the irony is she could not realize that I am her daughter’s daughter. She spoke about Dipli (my cousin) but failed to picture her and my Aunt as mother –daughter.
I felt so sorry for her. I wanted to bring her back to Guwahati with me. But that wasn’t possible. She couldn’t walk; she’s on a wheelchair when she’s not on the bed. The lad who opened the door stays with her and there’s another woman who cooks for her and nurses her.
As we left Shillong, meandering through the pine groves, descending the altitude, I still felt heavy, I still cried and tried to hide those tears when Nirav or Boon looked back to talk to me. But the guiltiness gradually faded and it was almost gone by the time we were home.
Visiting her truly seemed “home coming”.
It’s just a few days ago I heard from someone in the family that Aita’s no more. I don’t even know exactly when that was. I was casually sms-ing Loya when she sms-ed me back “Sorry to hear about your grandmother.”
At that moment I only prayed and wished maybe she passed away in silence and in peace. This is what she wanted so desperately. I hope she finds solace wherever her spirits are now. At least I saw her once, for a few minutes and even if she remembers nothing she did ask me why I took so long to visit her…
I don’t know if Shillong would feel the same again. If those pine trees would ever wrap me in their love and warmth, if the Oakland house would be the same without her, would I ever get the feeling of “home coming”…