• otv
Jayshree Misra Tripathi

She could not read the words on the screen. A faint sound of clapping? Voices chattering, or were they whispering – faintly receded in her mind, as giant sobs racked her medium-sized frame. She closed her eyes and let the hot, wet torrent of tears stream down her face. There.

Done it. See, Maa? Done. First Premiere in your precious Dilli too, YOUR Dilli, not mine! Ha!

Concept – by you, Maa. 

Script c’est moi.

Financed, produced, even directed by Pater. 

The Widow Warrior Queens of Odisha.

Done. Can’t blame a woman for trying to please her mother…always trying, well, except for the odd decade away at Delhi University, thousands of miles away from you both what a glorious, carefree decade – no-one watching… all right, no one worrying about my travelling late at night in this fearsome city of road-rage, uncontrollable drunks, hysterical mobs and sidey wannabe-Bollywood heroes, heroines too… bah.

No, that’s unfair. Most of us surreptitiously tried to look like models in Marie Claire or Vogue… the Wheel of Life, no matter where you ‘belong’ to in India.

Radhika chuckled at the memories of escapades from college, some never found out by the hostel warden, others, with dire warnings about informing parents, “Don’t let them down!” The words, though ominous, never really stopped the adventures.

Walking out of the theatre hall and into a large car, ordered for the occasion, Radhika closed her eyes. Flashback. 

“Well that’s a wrap for this afternoon, viewers. Thank you for watching. You will find all that was aired today, on our website ‘Breaking Views With Your News’. If you would like to be on our panel, Tweet/Facebook us. Tune in next week, at the same time”. Out of habit, like the first robot goddess, Jia Jia, Radhika smiled at the camera. There was no cameraperson, as it was just another recorded show, but she was lucky those at the top had agreed to her weekly 20-minute segment. True, no other channel had thought of her idea, when she had made her proposal three months ago, but they were now hooked on this particular pitch. Get the viewers to promote one proposal that could change lives in the community and then allow viewers to debate its feasibility. Hopefully some good would come out of the show. Perhaps some CEOs and netas would even try to implement some effective ideas. For the People. For the Nation.

Jai Hind. The name of her show was her pride and joy, copyrighted!

Radhika had a head-start on the other channels, as her followers on Twitter and Facebook added spice to the programmes with their peppy, caustic even, remarks.

140 characters could make you or break you, especially with the trolls, the re-tweets.

Anyway. Digital Media was the new kid on the block and not in a hurry to leave.

It was soon after her mother had mumbled into her delicate floral gold-edged cup, like an ancient seer, while inhaling the delicate bouquet of her special tea, Runglee Rangliot, from the hills of Darjeeling (or was it Temi Tea from Sikkim?) that Radhika thought of encouraging older viewers to air their views.

 
The broadcast media market aimed mainly for 18 to 35-yearolds, true, as over fifty percent of India’s soon-to-be 1.2 billion were under the age of thirty-five – they were the future. Hers was a risky but interesting angle that could raise TRPs. And a few nasty eyebrows, but then, she had developed a thick skin after more than a decade in the industry.

LeSigh Grande – Mother, Maa, Mummsie… hard to live with, in a broad sense, as she was fiercely independent and stayed on her own, the pater away, gardening in solitude in the splendour of the verdant landscape of a part of Eastern Africa “I’ve been desolate and isolated long enough, through difficult postings, all sorts her of issues, for close to thirty years,” mother often said, our family’s drama queen, her eyes forever brimming with unshed tears, lips aquiver “I will live where I want to and that is in Delhi!”. But perhaps harder to live without!

It was only a year ago that Radhika decided to cut her some slack. No more blame-games, of an unhappy childhood, as an only child, of great expectations at school, at college, at work, for unfortunate choices made in the name of love…. Time to put an end all that, but the mind, “Ahh…”, the unpredictable human mind, often wavers with memories, distilled through the years, that fade in and out, disturbing one’s aura.

As if on cue, an email appeared. 

“Rika, a very interesting lady dropped by for tea this morning and I am skimming through some papers she brought for me. It seems our families were once connected! Wait, before you wrinkle your forehead and turn up your nose – (remember what happens if the wind turns, ha ha)… it is history, family history and must be respected. More when you decide to come and see me!” 

I type back “Sure, love you, see you soon”. Time to go home.

Home? Rented flat, rather, a make-shift home, still it was home, her space. Her own defined space. What a calm feeling, not exactly mudita…. 

Radhika gathered her papers and stuffed them in her bag, picked up her pen, her precious pen, part of her special collection, bought on trips from all over the world and smiled to herself. The next day was her day-off and she would sleep in.

Walking down the street towards the Metro was always a challenge. Living in Delhi was a challenge. The rape and murder capital. The grief one felt at the little ones still begging, now selling unwanted pencils and biros, their smiles with their ancient wails, stabbing at your heart. Still, Delhi beckoned thousands from the other states, even from overseas – especially those whose ancestors had served or worked here.

From white-collar folks to daily-wage seekers. Delhi was the Dil of the nation, with all its panacea for its ills revealed to you from family, auto-wallahs, taxi wallahs, sabji wallahs and the domestic helpers – nothing quite like this city!

Wish I had learnt to drive. Well I can, but wish I had the nerve to drive in this city. Statistics of accidents forestalled any such desire most days. Radhika, Rika to her parents, sighed as she got into the Metro. Thankfully, it was not too crowded, and she would get down two stops away. 

“Namaste, madam”, the guard on duty at their compound was duly impressed by her TV-status.

Radhika smiled, “Namaste” and was surprised at her sudden brisk pace up two floors by the stairs, into her one-room flat.

I am a scaredy-cat! No, am anti-social. 

“Hi flat, am back”, Rika sang, shaking off her shoes, as she threw her bag on the sofa and headed to the kitchen to make a good cup of fresh coffee.

“You must wear closed-shoes when you go out, as you walk around so much: think of dust, cracked heels and what have you.” Maa’s words over three decades almost always flitted through her head, without fail, every single day – oof! 

Wonder if the helper will show up this evening? Radhika mused, as she scooped a generous amount of the coarse ground coffee beans from Burundi that soothed her nostrils. Special coffee from a special friend. He was such a gentleman – yet too newly acquainted to be regarded as ‘forever’, yet really, really special. Charming, witty, generous and a great listener.

Sure enough, the guard rang to say that Resavati was not feeling well and would come the day after. These Dilli ladies somehow cannot manage without them but the pleasanter ones did take advantage of her ‘singleton’ status.

Radhika sank into the sofa, wondering what to cook for dinner. Perhaps there were left overs, but a fresh salad would be good, with some Feta cheese. And black olives. Later!

It was time! Radhika pulled out an official-looking brown envelope from under one of the cushions, stuffed there hastily in the morning. Its contents had jolted her, the news exciting yet it made her apprehensive. Taking a firm decision was not one of her finer points. She held the letter steady and re-read the words. 

It was the opportunity of a lifetime a three-year contract with a major literary journal in New York as a Senior Editor. 

Unbelievable! At her age? 

The question mark hovered mid-air. After ten years as a successful anchor, as the author of several books doing nicely on the charts, acceptance would mean a major upheaval. After three years what could she come back to? Unwittingly, Radhika had begun to chew on a strand of hair she had wound around her finger, a silly habit from childhood, but one that somehow soothed her troubled mind.

It was past midnight that Radhika finally drifted off into fitful sleep, with strange dreams of grey clouds in bright blue skies, eclipsing the rays of sunlight.

The weekly garbage truck’s engine woke her the next morning, with its erratic chugging sounds. She would decide TODAY, come what may. 

Suddenly, being a senior editor in New York City did not seem alluring. Radhika felt a sense of foreboding, as if there was danger lurking around the corner or that something bad was about to occur. Trying to shake of such morbid thoughts and wishing away the erratic dreams of the night before, she decided to call her mother.

She didn’t realise how long the phone rang, as she was busy multi-tasking, answering messages on FB, adding some comments on Twitter and a full five minutes had passed before she looked up to find the phone with a no reply message – she tried again and it kept ringing… instinctively, she dialed the helper’s number. Lakshmi was in tears, “… Didi, come quickly, Maa fell down – the doctor came and gave her an injection and said to let her sleep.I have to call him when she wakes up.” 

Radhika was almost through the door when she remembered to pick up the flat keys and some extra cash from the bedroom.

Now what? Should she call the Pater? Better not to until she knew how Maa was, or if it was another of her dramatic capers. It took an hour to reach her. Madness! Letting herself into the simply furnished flat, Radhika headed towards the bedroom. Lakshmi was sobbing silently, her eyes swollen, but she managed a weak smile on seeing her. Radhika gesticulated, what on earth happened? Both padded silently out of the room but left the door ajar. Maa looked sad, lips askew, her eyes closed in slumber.

“What’s up, Lakshmi?”

“Didi, Maa’s been upset recently, not with me, but she is not her usual self. She didn’t go out with her friends on Thursday and said she was very tired. Then she keeps reading this document, see, didi…”

“Please make some coffee, Lakshmi.” Radhika took the folder from her and sank into the single seat sofa with a big sigh. The pages were dotted with notes in her mother’s writing, in pencil, it was heard to read. Some lines had been underlined with exclamation marks and the words “show R”. Well, today she would have to be here till her mother woke up and it was no point making any other plans. 

“Hi, at my mother’s – she’s unwell, lets meet tomorrow xx”, she texted quickly. He would understand, being an only ‘child’ too.

Lakshmi brought in a steaming cup of coffee, with a generous sprinkling of drinking chocolate, reminiscent of her childhood, in a huge mug, with cookies and cake. Maa always stocked her favourites from Choko La in Khan Market.

Radhika smiled as Khan Market was in her dna – Maa had walked those streets, window shopping mainly, but always at the corner shop where an elderly lady stocked Orange Pekoe tea and had time to even chat.

“I have to go now but I’ll be back around 4 o’clock, didi…” Lakshmi didn’t wait for an answer, but that was all right.

Radhika took a sip of coffee and skimmed through the first page in the folder, a letter from her mother’s friend talking about some old papers that were found in a trunk in their store room. The quaint yellow-trunk, with roses carved into the corners, hadn’t been opened for years; it wasn’t even locked, but had been kept away, a memory of the lady’s grand-mother. It was only when the family decided to turn the huge storeroom into two rooms, that this trunk was rediscovered. Underneath a few silk sarees and long-sleeved blouses with chiffon ruffles, that a cloth-bound file was found. It took over a month for them to go through the pages, yellowed with time, fragile to the touch, with the ink faded. The elders were consulted, the family Brahmins, who were revered and lived the life of their ancestors, so out of sorts in today’s world. Bit by bit, they deciphered the almost illegible writing, sketched out the words and pieced together a fascinating account of historic narrative. Maasi’s grandmother had written down tales that she had heard from her grandmother, who had heard them from hers – the oral tradition that India was famed for, handed down over the centuries.

Radhika stopped reading to glance at her watch. It was two hours since she had sat down with the manuscript. Lakshmi hadn’t come, so it wasn’t 4 o’ clock yet. Radhika walked in slowly into her mother’s room, still asleep, but on her side now, with one hand shielding her face, as if to protect it from harm.
 
Glancing around the sparsely furnished room, Radhika glanced at all the photos on the nearby wall, she at all stages of her life it seemed! And just one nice photograph of her parents, the day they had got married, so very young with eyes just for each other, smiles that stretched across their faces, as they exchanged garlands. She sank into the Ikea chair, its cushion cover wornout, but Maa refused to change the brocade, just had it washed carefully in cold water, every now and then, with the flakes of a delicate soap, as there were no Lux flakes available anymore. As the mid-afternoon sun streamed through the windows, playing on her mother’s back, Radhika resumed her reading of the narrative…… 

It was a time of tremendous change in society. In the eastern part of the country, in the state called Kalinga, the teachings of the Buddha flourished. Jainism evolved during the early rule of the famous Bhaumakaras – a dynasty that proudly boasted of their warrior queens, queens who were widows, but nevertheless ascended the throne. Nowhere else in the country had widows ascended the throne. These queens ruled for 200 years, sometimes after a son or grandson had succeeded the throne.

Radhika was duly impressed by the first seeds of gender equality in the country. The first of the Bhaumakara Queens was a devout Buddhist but ensured the respect of all religions. She even donated large tracts of land to the villagers and some learned Brahmins. Radhika was startled by her mother’s scribbles in the margin – our ancestors were at the court of the Bhaumakaras! The great Tribhuvana Mahadevi’s head priest’s wife was also her companion. She was the link. ‘Ask R to travel to Odisha and research the truth! She may find the rumours of intrigue fascinating! It was whispered that the Queen had a strong attachment to her head priest!’

Lakshmi knocked gently on the door and entered without waiting for an answer. 

“Didi, the doctor saab is here”, as she ushered him into the room.

Radhika got up to greet him. “Namaskar, Uncle, how are you? What’s happened to my mother?”

Dr. Rath was a family friend, a distant relative and someone Radhika could trust.

“Radhika, its time you knew. Come sit down.”

Radhika’s heart missed a beat, this sense of foreboding since the morning now seemed a palpable truth now, but no, nothing should happen to Maa… 

It seemed surreal, as Dr. Rath spoke, of the apthous ulcers Maa had had forever, well at least forty years, that Dad and she had shrugged off as lack of vitamin B, an unhealthy diet (Maa hated spinach) and bad teeth, so the fillings may have caused allergic reactions. Maa, said, perhaps, but it was more likely just stress, the silent killer. Every fortnight, without fail, Maa’s ulcers would appear, and her words would sound strange, as she pursed her lips in pain. No, they were not cancerous. Dr. Rath paused as Radhika stifled a sob. He stated he had been treating her for the moles that had grown larger over the past five years.

She was getting weaker and there really was no other way but to say, however harshly, that these could cause an untimely death.

Radhika had turned pale with shock as the enormity of the situation sunk in.

“Does Dad know?”

“No, your mother made me swear not to say anything for now, but perhaps you should call your father home.”

Radhika pictured her father, sitting in his small garden with his plants and trees and colourful flowers in all the shades of the rainbow, thumbing through the pages of a favourite book, or falling asleep in the morning sun, his spectacles askew… alone, but for a loyal gardener, whose wife cooked for him once a day and cleaned his one room-tenement.

“You know, Maa had booked us a very nice apartment in New York City once, you remember?”, Dad had asked. I did. It was in one of the buildings built before World War Two and Dad had marvelled at the adroit use of space, especially the tiny kitchen, which housed an oven, a washing machine cum dryer and a dish washer. Maa had cooked us simple meals and he had always wanted a place like that! He was living his dream and Maa hers, but they lived apart. Sad. But that’s how they both wanted it, tired of being bonded for over forty years, in confined space, each wishing for a space their own-they decided to live how they wanted to, in their twilight years and Maa promised not to barge into her life too often, but she loved this manic city, with all its problems, congestion, pollution, aggressiveness but had her friends from the University and that mattered.

“I have been alone too long”, Radhika smiled through her misty vision at her mother’s one-liner, her support in her times of stress. This was certainly going to become an ordeal, no, Radhika chided herself, no, she would rally for her mother. 

Perhaps it was Maa’s memories of her University life when the Pater had wooed her with his brilliant wit and scholarship that underscored her determination to live where they had met.

A Vow for Remembrance. 

“Radhika!”

Her mother’s voice, unnaturally hesitant, broke her reverie. She smiled and went forward to give her a hug.

Dr. Rath was already packing his bag, admonishing her to rest and to have Radhika call at any time, if she felt any unusual pain. Lakshmi walked him out of the door.

Mother and daughter stared at each other. Each smiled sphinx-like, held hands in solidarity.

“I’m going to Odisha for a few days, Maa”, Radhika’s own words surprised her, but she nodded at her mother, “better still, we both will go.”

Maa let out a long-drawn sigh and smiled, clutching Radhika’s hand, not wanting to ever let it go, but it was time. Little time to make amends. How may a daughter do that? Radhika dialled her father’s number and sat very still.

A month passed in awkward disarray.

Walking slowly away from the waves, across the wet sand, on the shore of Puri, Radhika clasped a small Mother-of-Pearl jewellery box. The Pater was way ahead, leaving footprints that she decided to tread into. In the end then, there had never been time again for the three of them to walk here together. Like the first time. She had been a child the only time she had frolicked and screamed as the foam of the waves had washed across her feet. She remembered her screams. Of fright. Of excitement. Of a sense that nothing averse would happen with her parents beside her.

Childhood.

Frightening Adolescence. Maturing young womanhood. The Calm.

The Cry of the Penguin – yes, Maa – I can always hear YOU.

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