I’ve never been a crying person. I think I am like my mother in that aspect. Although we don’t have much in common, this one trait holds true for the both of us. This is the first thought that goes through my mind after I received the call from the doctor. “Come home” he said. “Your mother wants to see you.”
On the chair underneath the window, I sit and wait. I run a finger over the weathered photographs…so old they are. And so young she looks in them.
The moon peeps out of the clouds tonight, bobbing its head over from time to time, like a ship stranded at sea, aching to be one with the shore again. I perch my hands on the windowsill, as I would all those years ago.
“Sleep beta.” My father would say. “Close the window, it’s getting chilly.”
“Oh, let her catch a cold!” ma would shout from the other room in her stern voice. “Once she can’t stop sniffling she’ll learn not to do it again.”
Smiling, baba would tuck me in the covers and kiss my nose. He’d tell me that the wind howling was the sound of the moon wailing, who searched all night for his beloved sun, and gave up just as the sun arrived at the horizon.
I hold the picture in my hand now. I can’t remember the last time I saw ma this happy. I do remember the day that picture was taken. Driving to Goa during the school break. Ma’s school principal responsibilities were put on hold for a month. As the sun was setting, baba just had to stop the car and watch it over the horizon. Although they made it a point to never publicly display any sort of affection when I was around, ma cozied up to baba as he put an arm around her shoulder. “Smile!” I shouted as I whipped out my camera.
I put down the photograph and walk down the winding staircase. I see myself, sprinting up these stairways after ma and I would return from school, and lock myself in my room. Once a fortnight at least I would be summoned to the principal’s cabin –ma’s cabin- for ‘disorderly conduct’. She scolded me the first few times, shouted at me, lectured me, but soon even those turned to deep sighs. “Can’t you see I have other things I’m busy with Priya? I don’t have time to entertain your goof-ups, week in and week out. Please, if these punishments don’t bother you, at least think about my reputation.” But they didn’t faze me, no. Those were one of the few times ma spoke to me with undivided attention.
I swing open the big oak doors of the house. The winds are howling again. The birds that usually chirp during winter are nowhere to be seen. Dead leaves crunch under my feet as I make my way towards the barn. Tall, proud and bright red in its prime, it now stands a pale comparison to the mighty structure it once was. The red paint has been peeling off after years of neglect. The doors creak on their hinges, a pitiful whimper in contrast to the roar of the winds.
The barn is empty, but it was not always so. I used to visit it every day: after school, during weekends, during holidays, to spend time with the one being that understood me the most. My horse, my Sapphire.
Baba brought him to the barn when he was just a tiny little foal and I was a toddler learning to walk. We grew up together, ran together, ate together, and played together.
I asked baba one day what the most precious and unique thing in the world was. “Your ma and you, beta” he replied. “Nothing is more precious to me in the whole wide world” he said, taking me in his lap.
“No baba”, I protested, playing with his beard. “Tell me something that everyone thinks is very precious.”
“Hmm, let’s see. There are rubies and emeralds that are so valuable, powerful kings would fight each other for them!”
“Tell me something else” I said, unimpressed.
“There were also sapphires-“
“Yes! Yes!” I squealed in delight as I jumped out of his lap and ran towards the barn. I wrapped my arms around my horse as he nuzzled my cheek. “I will call you Sapphire” I said. “Because you are the most precious thing to me in the whole world.”
Time is a cruel monster they say. But no amount of descriptions prepare you for the force with which that cruelty hits you. It leaves you gasping, wheezing, desperate for breath.
Baba never made it past my 18th birthday. Never saw me leave for college. Never saw me fall in love. Never saw me graduate. Never saw me get married. He never saw ma pushing away her food. He never saw her staring vacantly out the window for hours and hours. And sometimes, I’m glad he didn’t witness that himself. Sometimes I’m glad it was only me. Sapphire comforted me during my darkest of times. He let me confide in him and heard me talk. That poor, sweet, horse.
I’ve never been a crying person, but the day baba died I came very close.
I shut the doors of the barn. Sometimes memories can overwhelm you.
The year baba died was the year I left for college. It was also the year I fell in love.
I knew from the moment itself that ma would never approve. In her mind she had already picked out who I would marry, where I would get married, and even what dress I would be wearing. So it was no surprise to see the fireworks take off whenever I’d go back home for the vacations.
At first we’d argue about it, then give each other the silent treatment, then make some petty attempt at reconciliation. And the cycle would repeat all over again. How I’d miss baba during those times. His mere presence in the room brought the tension in the air down a notch. Most of my vacations were spent in the barn with Sapphire; talking, playing and riding him for hours. He was the closest thing I had to a friend back home. Ma happily busied herself with school-work whenever she got the chance.
But when it comes to family, you can take animosity only so far. Our differences were still present, but we both silently agreed to not let it come in between our relationship. All that time spent away from home made me start missing ma, and as far as bold assumptions go, I think she missed me too.
The doctor meets me outside the house. “Your mother is awake” he says. “You can go talk to her if you want.” The last time I was this nervous walking towards ma was coincidentally the last time I was in this house.
I had just graduated and was going to spend the next couple of months at home before setting off to start a life of my own. Ma was buzzing. It also happened to be my birthday and she had made me my favourite food. It was the first time I saw her smile this much since the day baba had died.
“Come, come Priya” she said, setting the table. “God knows you don’t get pulao in your hostel.”
I hugged her from behind and pecked her cheek. “It’s so good to see you ma”.
“Oh another thing!” she said. “The school is organising a trip this summer for all the faculty members. We’re allowed to bring along one person with us. Normally, I’d turn that offer down. But now that you’re here, and I know how much you’ve always wanted to visit Goa again…”
“YAY!” I squealed in delight like a little girl and hugged her again. The happiness that day was something the four walls of that house barely witnessed, if ever. I decided now was the best time.
“Umm, ma. I have something to tell you.” I said.
“Ooh! I have a surprise for you too afterwards” she said.
I cleared my throat. “Ma, it’s about Tushar. I wanted to show you what a great person he is. We…we plan to get married soon.”
The smile vanished off my mother’s face in an instant and was replaced by the stony expression I was used to.
“We’ve talked about this” she said, her voice not betraying any emotion.
“Please ma!” I said. “You’ve never even met him. Once you get to know him I’m sure…”
“Please, don’t do this now” she said, her voice breaking. She pinched the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes.
“He makes me happy ma.” I pleaded. “All we need is your blessing.”
She looked up. “Blessing? You marry that man,” she said, wagging a finger at him “and forget about coming home again!”
“Stop it ma! I’ve always ever done whatever you’ve asked of me. I only ask for this. If baba were here…”
“Don’t you dare bring him into this!” she shouted.
I stood there, shocked. “You’re right” I said, and then said the six words I would always regret later on: “I should have never come back.”
And with that I stormed out of the house. I went to the one place that always helped me calm down. But when I opened the door to the barn there was no one there. I looked around, calling his name, but the place was empty.
I rushed back into the house. “Where is Sapphire?” I demanded.
Ma looked at me, unable to speak, for once in her life.
“WHERE IS HE?”
“He…he died two weeks ago” she said, her lips quivering. “He didn’t suffer. I’m so sorry. I meant to tell you sooner but you had your exams and I didn’t want to…”
That was the last straw for me. I turned around and stormed out without saying a word.
I walk into the room. All these years I had pictured how she looked but nothing prepares me for the sight that I behold. She is a frail and weaker version of the once strong and proud woman that I used to know. She has lost a lot of weight. Her skin hangs onto her cheekbones, probably because of the medication, but her eyes are still the same wise ones that I knew.
I sit beside her and hold her hand. Her skin has now started to sag like the petals of a withered rose.
“Hello, ma” I say, my vision clouding up.
“You came” she whispered.
“Of course ma.” I replied. “I’m sorry I never came earlier” I said quickly before I lost the courage to say it.
She smiles the tenderest smile I have seen. “We both have an ocean of things to apologise for.”
All the guilt of the years gone by wash over me. The pointless arguments, the silly fights, the excuses, and all for what?
“Yes we do ma, yes we do.” I say.
“I have something to give you” she says. “It’s in that drawer over there.”
I look at her, puzzled, and open the drawer. I look inside and gasp. Inside is a beautiful pendant with a sapphire at the end. I hold it in my hands and let it slide across my fingers.
“It’s beautiful ma” I tell her.
“I meant to give it to you the day you returned. I didn’t know how to tell you about your horse. I-I thought I’d give you something to remember him by.”
I’ve never been a crying person. But that night I made up for a lifetime of tears, with my mother by my side as we talked into the night.