“Kavitha have you packed some fruits?” asked my concerned Mom.
“Here are some freshly baked scones,” said Geeta (our cook), placing the packet in my food basket.
“Kavitha, I bought a crossword book yesterday, the ad says that if you solve the puzzles in this book, then you will be a wiz in crosswords,” said Anu, grinning. I gave her a friendly punch on her shoulder.
Alka added, “The place is very picturesque, you would want to look around, here are the binoculars.”
Before I could react little Shweta added a sketch book to the kitty, saying, “Sis, you must get some sketches of the place back with you.”
“What’s all this fuss about, I will be away from home for just a couple of hours,” I said in mock anger. I looked at Dad and Bruno (our dog). “What do you have for me; you don’t want to miss out on this occasion do you?” I asked mischievously. Bruno brought his basket and laid it next to mine and looked up as if to say, ‘don’t forget my basket, after all I too need something to pass my time while I give you company’.
All of us burst out laughing and Bruno joined in the chaos; very soon we were rolling over each other shouting, screaming and Mom was trying to bring some order in the room. Dad came to untangle us and we pulled him down and he collapsed in our midst. “Stop, this madness,” said my Mom in a raised voice.
Well, it took some time for normalcy to be restored. My Dad looked at his watch and said solemnly, “Kavitha, you better head out,” and I nodded. Lots of hugs and kisses followed before I could finally free myself to leave. Public display of affection is very common in my house and it happens every time someone goes out of town. I have never seen a closer knit, loving family. I wonder how my parents manage their five daughters, Bruno, innumerable guests and their respective jobs with such ease and composure. I secretly wish that when I get married that I will have such a family too.
I got into the car and sped away to the hilltop with Bruno and my huge picnic basket. The place is about an hour and a half drive from home, it is beautiful and serene and the right locale to spend some quality time to introspect. I go there whenever I want some quiet time for myself or to think through to find solution to a problem I am grappling with.
I will be leaving for the USA along with Anu (my sister) to pursue higher studies, in a few days time. We both have got admissions in the same university. Celebrations are on in the house and we are all overjoyed with the twin news. Alka (my elder sister) is working in US and will be just a few hours’ drive from our place. Our youngest sister Shweta is waiting to grow up so that she too could join us. Mom and Dad are wondering what they should do under such circumstances and we have been asking them to switch jobs and join us there.
A lot has happened in my life and I wanted to be alone to retrospect; I would be leaving a lot of memories both good and bad behind me. Bruno who was sitting quietly till now in his ‘seat’ started barking excitedly and I looked up to see what the matter was. What apparently caught his attention were two dogs chasing a helpless sheep and thinking it was a sport he wanted to join in and be counted. I stopped the car and talked softly to him till he calmed down. He went back to his favorite pastime of putting his head out of the window to enjoy the view and the cool breeze and I went back to my driving.
I found a nice spot and spread out a blanket. The view was breathtaking and I could see far into the horizon from this height. It was a pleasant and windy day with the sun well tucked behind the clouds. There was a hint of a chill in the air and I could hear the soft rustle of the leaves. There was a meandering brook to my right side and I could see egrets and ducks enjoying a quiet swim there. As I was turning away I saw a kingfisher smartly swoop into the water and come out victoriously with its prey!
I saw water gushing out of a tap a few feet away from where I was planning to sit. I could not resist drinking from the tap before I closed it; the water was cold and sweet to taste. From where I sat I got a glimpse of several types of wild flowers scattered around the hillock; I was amazed at the rich diversity of colors on display. I could see butterflies fluttering from one flower to another like they were unsure of which pretty flower to settle on. Bees were ‘busy’ with their task of drinking nectar from the flowers. Fresh bamboo shoots were bursting from the trees in the aftermath of the rain. I spent a few moments capturing all these sights on a camera; the binoculars complemented this task beautifully.
I checked on Bruno, he was happily scampering around making friends with the stray dogs that he came across. Like any dog he loved the hills and the freedom to romp around at will. It was difficult to stop him briefly to talk to him, he nodded very understandingly to what I said and fled. I grinned at his exuberance and untiring energy.
I sat back on my makeshift bed and gazed ahead. I was very excited about my admission in a premier institute in USA and my joy knew no bounds when Anu also got into the same institute. She is a very bright girl and I am sure that she will make a great doctor soon. I embraced economics a few years back and I am looking forward to working with one of the brightest minds in this area. Anu and I will be sharing an apartment; it was wonderful to be back together again. I was closest to her and though we were two very different individuals we complemented each other beautifully. We were called stuck ups at home because we had to share everything with each other first.
I respected my eldest sister Alka immensely; we all go to her for advice and guidance. She is the ‘sane and sober’ person amongst us and takes very good care of all of us. She had our parents’ ears and they turned to her for assistance when we girls behaved a bit difficult at times. She was both strict and generous in her dealings with us. Anu and I were looking forward to being under her care again soon in USA.
Kiran was the black sheep of the family; she was the most adventurous amongst us. She was a bold girl and spoke her mind freely; these attributes proved to be great assets for her when she became an activist. She has helped Anu and me out of many small scraps in school. We all love her dearly at home.
I adored little Shweta, we cuddled her all the time. Because she was the youngest, we made her do chores that we disliked doing, like fetching our books, cleaning our rooms etc. Sometimes she would go sobbing to Mom and complain and we ended up saying sorry to her. I would miss her so much I thought sadly.
My mom and dad were the best parents in the world. They had a very hectic work schedule, yet they managed to take such good care of us. They were the final arbiters of skirmishes in the family and we were amazed at their fair and balanced judgments. Anu and I would sometimes deliberately do things to get their attention and they would liberally embrace us in their love. My parents have been my mentors and they have given me a new lease of life. My dad has been my hero and I looked up to him. I have always wondered how he managed to live amongst six women! I owe everything to this family and am extremely grateful to them for their love and support. It has been a long journey but I have been able to traverse it with their help.
My life was markedly different in the past when I had lived with my biological parents; before circumstances changed abruptly. Originally, I was born into a traditional tamilian family and my former parents lived in Chennai. My father had worked for a corporate house and my Amma had been a housewife. We lived in a joint family; my grandparents and my Appa’s elder sister also stayed with us. I had an elder brother Ajay and three cousins. My cousin sister Hema was five years older than me and my twin cousin brothers Shankar and Ravi were about my age. My uncle had held a government job and my aunt had been a housewife too. Just as much as my Appa loved his work my uncle hated his; he would skip attending office to laze at home.
Hema was everyone’s favorite especially my Appa’s and he reserved all his attention for her, ignoring me for the most part. Amma was meek and subservient and was visibly scared of her domineering mother in law. Appa encouraged his mother to rule over the house, my grandpa never bothered to curtail her authoritarian demeanor. He used to be out for most of the day and came home only to have dinner and retire to bed in the night.
I had a very lonely and troubled childhood, neglected by family and disliked by Appa. Amma had been busy from four in the morning till eleven in the night doing the household chores all by herself and satisfying the demands of the elders at home, that she had no time for her children. The boys did not mind because they were pampered anyway and could do anything at home. Realizing Appa’s aversion towards me, Hema kept a cold distance from me. She would do anything to earn the ‘most favorite’ tag at home.
I can recollect many incidents when I was humiliated by Appa. There was a lot of rejoicing in the house when Appa had bought a camera. Very soon photography became his passion and he used it extensively in his spare time. One day he said that he was writing an article about his family for his company’s magazine and wanted to include some family photographs. At the end of the shoot he expressed his desire to take some exclusive pictures of his daughter, so the rest left the venue. I was very excited thinking that finally he would be focusing only on me. Saying “Come and stand in front of this column,” he went back to his camera. I did as was told and was surprised to see Hema joining me. Appa came menacingly towards me and roughly shoved me out of the scene saying “I don’t want you in these photos- step aside.” I stood aside hurt and crying, watching them enjoying the photo shoot, he did not include me even once.
This was not the first time that such an incident had occurred to me. We had guests home for dinner one night and my Amma came to fetch us. I ran along with Hema to see them. Appa, seeing me coming, lost his cool. He quickly pushed me away with an “I don’t want to be embarrassed in front of my friends.”
Appa would shower Hema with gifts, but would rarely get me anything. While I did not in the least mind Hema getting all these gifts, I wondered why I was denied them. He would scold me and sometimes even hit me if Hema complained against me to him. He never thought it important to get my view on the issue.
There was a painting competition in our locality and I wanted to take part, as I painted quite well. Appa was furious when he heard that I was participating; he forced me to withdraw so that Hema could win the competition.
Hema’s old clothes and books were passed on to me; Deepavali was the only time I got new clothes. The text books that were handed over to me after use by Hema would be in tatters, but I learnt to manage with what I got.
Unable to stand the humiliation by Appa and grandma I approached Amma one day. Since nobody was in the house that day I thought that it was the best time to engage Amma on that issue.
She was happy to see me, “What do you want to talk to me about,” she asked casually.
I went straight to the point, “Why does Appa hate me so much?” I asked directly. Amma tried to evade the question by talking about some inconsequential matter. “Have I ever done something wrong?” I insisted. She continued with her rambling. “Amma, I must know, why does he like Hema so much. I must know- I will not get another opportunity to talk to you about it.”
Realizing that I was determined to get an answer from her, she decided to open up. “You see Appa prefers a son to a daughter,” she began tentatively.
“But Amma, Appa already has Ajay,” I said unconvinced.
“I know, but he only wanted sons,” she replied tamely.
“But why?” I asked tersely.
“Because he thinks boys are better than girls,” she stammered back.
“What is it that Ajay does that I can’t do; in fact I often do better than him. He is so lazy, shoddy and arrogant,” I countered.
“See daughter, all I can say is that your Appa and his mother think that girls are a burden and should be ignored,” she said sadly.
“Do you agree?” I asked her simply.
“Of course not!” she said vehemently.
“Then why does he favor Hema, is she not a girl too?” I asked angrily. She decided it was best to be frank and tell me everything.
My uncle died of lung cancer; he was a heavy smoker and drinker. Appa promised my uncle at his deathbed that he will look after his family. In fact the night he was dying Appa made many promises to my uncle in front of my grandma and his sister. I believe my aunt and his Amma had insinuated that my Appa was responsible for her husband’s death. She felt that because he had been so preoccupied with his work he had not paid any attention to his brother in law’s deteriorating health. She thought that being the only real bread winner of the house; he should have counseled his brother in law and stopped him from destroying himself. Amma had tried to intervene but they had snubbed her, saying that it was a family matter and they did not want any outside interference.
I was shocked to hear all this; she was suffering silently without complaining. She had started to sob and I went to console her. I was not even in my teens at the time of this incident, but I still remember that I promised to take care of her after I grew a little older. She had held my hand and said softly, “Sorry my little girl, but I am not able to protect you- forgive me.”
I quickly shrugged it off saying, “Now that I know the truth I will manage, please don’t worry about me anymore,” with a new found determination.
I grew up overnight; suddenly the issue that had bothered me so much did not have any further relevance. I decided to become strong and independent and not have any expectations from my family. I did not want to rock the boat then and decided to let things go on as usual.
We all looked forward to our summer vacations; besides not having to study, we were allowed to play for a longer duration. Appa would take us all on a holiday; he would hire a van for this purpose, after all, ten from the family had to be accommodated! This fateful summer Appa picked a hill station to go to in order to beat the hot and humid Chennai weather. We spent a lovely fun filled week at a resort, swimming, playing, trekking and gorging on delicious food. All of us were in our best behavior. It was nice to see Appa enjoying this break; he was free from the work pressure. He was being nice to Amma and she was glowing in his attention. She too was free of all the household chores for a few days. We all spent quality time bonding with each other; sharing jokes and experiences. I captured these precious moments on the canvas! Alas the lovely time ended and we were all ready to leave the resort.
We started early in the day so that we could reach home by lunch. We stopped at a town for breakfast; the hills looked enchanting from that point. As we were preparing to get into the van, a flower patch, just a little distance away, caught my fancy. After some deliberation, Appa agreed to let me go to fetch the flowers, while the driver reversed the van with the rest in it. I scampered away and quickly collected as many of the wild flowers as I could possibly hold in my hand. I had started back when I heard a loud explosion and heart wrenching screams.
Little was I prepared for what was to greet me then. A speeding truck driven by a drunk driver had smashed into our van and it blew up on impact. A huge crowd had gathered around the sight and the passersby where discussing the accident. There were no survivors and I had lost my entire family in that accident. When the crowd realized that I was part of the family they helped me to the front. I was inconsolable and sobbing.
The police, ambulance quickly made their way there. I was asked to move away but I refused. Though there was so much sound around, I was completely numb and oblivious to all that was happening around me. I don’t know how long I stood there, but one family took charge and tried to console me. I remember so little of what happened that day, but I was told that I had fainted and was rushed to the nearest hospital there. It was a month later when I had recovered somewhat that I learnt more about the accident. The flowers which I had plucked were placed at the site by this family on my behalf. Little did I imagine that the flowers that I had plucked would be used for such a purpose.
I had been in and out of hospitals and was never fully conscious to understand what was going around me at that time. One day I had got up to find myself in a new room. My wailing caught the attention of two girls who were present there and they rushed towards me. They introduced themselves as Anu and Kiran to me, and while one was keeping me occupied the other rushed to fetch her mom. Very soon many more had gathered around me and were trying to have a conversation with me. Asha (their mom) had taken me in her arms and had spoken softly to me calming me down. She very briefly explained the situation to me and I smiled weakly and went back to sleep. I met their father Kunal in the evening and took an instant liking to the entire family.
From that day there was always someone in the room to give me company. They were all so warm and affectionate and would very patiently attend to all my needs. I was unaware of why I was there and they were in no hurry to explain. The girls left for their boarding school in a few days and I stayed behind with their parents. Slowly I recovered and got to know them better. I was surprised when they said that they wanted to adopt me and asked me if I had any objection. I was in no state to respond to them at that time.
I got adopted and had a new family in due course. It took me some time to get used to their language and lifestyle. Though the family embraced me with open arms, I took my own time to accept them. Looking back I am surprised by this fact because they were such a warm, loving, generous and liberal family, the antithesis of what I was used to.
I joined the same school as my other sisters; I became Anu’s classmate though she was a year younger to me (I had missed a year of school). I started enjoying the school life and very soon Anu and I were inseparable. We shared a room, studied and played together. She was very popular in class and she generously made me part of her big gang. I turned naughty too in her company and we played many very harmless pranks on our friends. Our elder sisters kept a watchful eye on us.
The best thing about the school was that the faculty also paid emphasis to other extracurricular activities. We were encouraged to pursue our hobbies and interests in the weekends. I soon started participating in painting, music, photography, trekking and sports and was excelling in them too! The teachers taught us the importance of discipline, being independent, sensitive and innovative in life. I started learning fast and became an all rounder, topping in studies and excelling in the other activities too. On breaks the extended family that would include uncles, aunts, cousins, elders and kids would go on holidays and have a great time. The different families bonded and shared the intervening experience; I got easily accepted by them all.
The influence of school, college and my new parents had a great impact on me; I have grown from a shy, awkward and insecure girl to a confident and happy human being. The friends I made while studying have become my friends for life, all of them have contributed to my personal development. The teachers have taught me the importance of learning with an open mind and have always encouraged us to be curious and innovative in our quest for knowledge.
I am so happy to be part of this progressive, liberal and broad minded family; I owe my new lease of life to them- they complete me. My parents are proud of their five daughters and wish for nothing different. Why was my earlier family so retrograde and stifling in its thoughts and its action, in spite of having three sons – I wondered some times.
I admire my mom a great deal; she manages home and work so wonderfully. She has inspired me to be strong, sensitive and an independent woman. I worship the ground on which my Dad walks; he is everything my previous Appa could not be to me. He taught us to be bold, adventurous and witty. My sisters have been my idols; there was so much to learn from each one of them.
I sat there for a couple more hours, going through all the happenings in my life. A sudden chill roused me from my stupor; I gathered all my belongings and put them in the car with Bruno’s help. I headed home with a smile on my face and a silent prayer, hoping that my luck and good fortune continued well into the future.
Glossary ( in local dialect)
Usha Sridhar is an independent researcher and resides in Bangalore. At a personal level she loves traveling, is an avid bird watcher and an amateur photographer. Usha, is passionate about poetry and short stories. She loves to observe the ebb and flow of life around and weave them into tales in verse. Her poems and short story contributions have appeared in RatemyLiterature, MuseIndia, and efiction India. Her poems have also appeared in several anthologies. Her first poetry collection called ‘Life Matters’ is being released shortly.