“Always go after your dreams”, a wise man had once told me.
I always had difficulty living up to his advice. I never had many dreams of my own. So I preferred living through someone else’s. Often from the movies. When I was in school, I tried pretending like I was one of the Brady bunch boys, but that fizzled out after I realized I would never have that kind of ‘bunch’ no matter how hard I pretended. When I was fourteen, I spent a whole six months pretending I was Darth Vader from Star Wars. Speaking like I had the asthma all the time, had my father worried enough to have the doctor take a look at me.
But otherwise, my father let me be whoever I wanted to be. My mum wasn’t around so much…she left me and my dad when I was about four years old. I didn’t quite understand why, and I’m not too sure my dad did, either.
I suppose people must have thought I was weird back then. But then, most of us are allowed some degree of weirdness while we are young. Its only when we grow up that we learn to hide it from everyone else.
My dad was a good person. After my mother left, he didn’t become bitter. He didn’t turn to the bottle. He didn’t turn to other women. He went about his life, as before. Made sure I had everything I needed. Somewhere down the line, I just got used to him being sort of mopey all the time.
In any case, I’ve given up trying to adapt to movie characters now. I just pick up some trends from other folks around. I have quite a knack for picking up accents, mannerisms and general characteristics from people I observe, if I find them mildly interesting. It’s just something I do to occupy myself, seeing as I have no real occupation.
As a good father, my dad had set aside some money for college or in case I decided to backpack around the world. But as I did neither, he gave the money to me, to use as I saw fit. That’s how I have my own place now. But the rest of it is still lying around.
I pickup jobs here and there, when I feel like it, while away my time, otherwise. To his credit, Dad never pushes me. He comes around to see how I am doing every other week. We have dinner and chat about sports and news. We lay off all personal matters as we have all our lives.
That was before she came into our lives…
That’s when it all started. I heard this cat mewling the other night. It was pouring outside, and I tried to avoid looking for it, blocking out the noise the as much as possible. But soon it became more and more pitiable and eventually I roused myself to check outside.
It was crouched down below my porch and looked very miserable indeed. It didn’t scratch or bite as I approached him cautiously. I drew him outside and that’s when I realized it was bleeding from his forepaw. It allowed me to carry him home, where I cleaned him and tended to his foot, the best I could. I gave him water which he drank thirstily and finally went off to sleep, tired out.
I knew he belonged to someone, as he had a collar on him. I put up fliers, asked around if anyone had lost a cat. But no one knew anything. So I went and stocked up on some cat food, since it looked like he was going to be around for some time.
But he refused to touch the food, no matter how much I tried. That’s how my dad found me, when he dropped by for his routine visit.
He was understandably surprised. “When did you get a cat?” He asked.
“Didn’t get it…found it yesterday”, I replied. “Come on Hook, just a tiny bite”, I was still trying to coax him to eat.
“Hook?” Dad asked.
“Yeah…from Peter Pan…you know…” I said.
“Ah…I see, because of the splint.” He watched me for a few minutes, then rummaged around my fridge and emerged with a plate of my leftover sausages from the afternoon.
“How about some real food eh?” he waved the plate closer to Hook’s face.
I saw Hook’s nose twitched before he started mewing excitedly.
“Bingo”, my dad said softly. He cut up the sausages into small pieces and both of us watched in silence as he gobbled it up. I saw a soft smile play around my Dad’s face.
He broke his regular pattern by turning up the next day morning too.
“We should take him to the vet, have him take a look at his foot”, he announced.
So the pair of us landed at the vet’s clinic with Hook. We watched in silence as the vet inspected his foot.
“Is everything OK?” Dad asked anxiously, “will he be all right?”
“The foot was broken pretty badly”, the vet replied, “I think he will always walk with a limp.”
He saw my stricken face, “There was nothing anyone could have done.”
“How do you suppose it broke?” Dad asked him.
“Hard to say…looks like something ran over its paw”, he replied, “Your son did the right thing putting it in a splint. He’s not in pain, and that’s what is important.”
“Also there is something else you should know”, he added.
We waited anxiously.
He smiled, “He is a she.”
“So Hook’s…Hooker?” I said before I could stop myself.
The vet laughed, “Yeah - that’s a good name as any!”
Hooker changed our lives. Both me and my dad – we were like kids with a new toy. Dad started coming by every day. He spent hours playing with her, even when I was away. As for me, I couldn’t wait to get home from work.
She started limping back to normal slowly. Under our careful observation, we let her try taking a few halting steps around the house, but it took weeks before she got used to managing with three legs instead of four.
By then, it was impossible for us to imagine a life without her. It somehow brought Dad and me closer too, as we fussed over her. We were like proud papas, beaming as we watched her walk and even run with just the slightest hint of limp. We celebrated with strawberry shortcake, which Hooker loved to pieces.
And then, just as suddenly, she went away one night. We looked for her everywhere, put up fliers again, asked around. But there was no sign of her.
“She’s gone, son”, my father said, finally. “Doesn’t look like she’s coming back.”
I didn’t know how easy it was for him to accept that fact. Just as easily, he went back to our old life, ceasing his visits to twice a month.
Then it dawned on me that this was his mechanism of dealing with the situation, with life, and I couldn’t bear it. I had to do something about it.
So I went and searched all the animal shelters in the city till I found another cat that looked just like Hooker. My plan was to make it out as though she had returned back to us, all on her own.
The only problem was that this one walked without a limp.
But I was determined not to let that stand in my way. I armed myself with a hammer and a nail and approached that cat. When I raised my hammer, the cat did not shrink back. She stared at me dolefully, as though she knew what I was going to do to her, and yet, strangely willing to accept it, accept her fate.
Two hours later I was still standing in front of her, hammer raised. And that was how my dad found me this time.
“Hooker’s back?” he asked me happily. I dropped the hammer; let it fall to the floor. At the sound, the cat bolted under the table.
“It’s not her…” His voice trailed off, as the absurdity of the situation suddenly dawned on him.
He gave me a look in his quiet, considering way. “What were you doing with the hammer, son?” he asked me.
“What does it look like, Dad?” I asked, wearily, “I was trying to get Hooker back for you…”
He looked at me reproachfully. Then crouched down and tried to coax the cat, out from under the table. She refused, even when he fetched a can of sausages out for her. It was not until he emptied Hooker’s untouched old bag of cat food into a bowl that she ventured out tentatively.
“I guess it would never have worked anyway”, I sighed, watching her greedily finish up the bowl.
“Would you have really made her lame?” he asked me, quietly.
“I was trying to, for the past couple of hours. I might have, eventually, I don’t know…”
He was silent.
I swallowed hard, suddenly feeling like I had to defend myself. “I didn’t want you to feel like we couldn’t make her stay, Dad. I didn’t want you to go through that again…”
He looked away, didn’t say anything for long time. When he finally looked at me again, his face was mixed with sorrow, understanding and apology.
“Hooker belonged to someone else”, he said finally, “…just like your mother belonged someplace else.”
I didn’t want to believe that. “Maybe if we’d tried harder…”
He cut in, harshly, “She belonged someplace else. She had her dreams…which she couldn’t bear giving up. She was an actress, you know. There was a whole different world waiting for her. I didn’t want to stop her from reaching for her dreams.”
“Mine included having a family, on being a husband and a father. I got half of mine, don’t think I can complain.” He smiled at me.
He added gently, “There was nothing you or I could have done to make them stay. All we can do is let them go, and hope they are happy. That they think about us sometime. Maybe want to come back, someday…”
I was angry with him, for being so complacent with life and I told him so. I told him I was ashamed of him. I told him it was precisely because of this attitude my mother did not ever want to come back. I told him many things, pouring out years of pent up frustration I never knew I had, before I asked him to leave. He left without saying a word in his defense, which made me angrier. Enough to banish the cat out of my house and shut the door on her as well.
Only, the next day, it turned out she never left. She let herself back in, when I opened the door, rubbing herself against my legs in forgiveness. I kept pushing her out daily, hoping she’d get the message. But somehow she never did.
She was still there, when my dad came back in a couple of weeks. He brought a new collar, extending it as an olive branch.
We called her Kip (Keeper, to those in the know, because that’s what she was!)
Eventually I gave up my job again. But this time to enroll myself in the local theater school, recognizing my childhood weirdness for what it was.
Sometimes it takes heavenly omens to point us to the right direction. Sometimes it takes years of penance, before we find forgiveness in our hearts.
Sometimes all it takes is a wayward cat.
He himself would have remained blissfully unaware of this fact were it not for the fact that his mother was a firm believer of such things as fate and destiny - and never once failed to read the “What your future holds” column in the daily newspaper. So one day when Sanchit was all of twelve years old, when they had unexpectedly displayed the address of their regular astrologer, she had not been able to stop herself from paying him a visit.
She could still remember that monumental day very clearly when the Learned One had foretold solemnly – great things were to be expected from her only son. Such men, he had proclaimed, were born only once in an entire generation.
It had been eighteen years since, and the lustrous glow of the fortune-teller’s words had faded long since. Each day was just as much of a struggle for Sanchit as the next person. And many times, a whole lot more. He wasn’t exactly a brilliant student, not particularly handsome and never extraordinarily talented. Nonetheless whatever he possessed on all counts was just about enough to scrape by. Not that it was at all comforting to him, for he could never stop obsessing over his lack of noteworthiness.
Only once born in a generation indeed, he thought bitterly, as he came home from yet another frustratingly ordinary day. He lived alone nowadays since his last roommate had married and moved out a year ago. The only reason he was glad not to have his mother around (even when he was forced to cook for himself) was because she would constantly nag him to get married as well. “A wife can”, he could almost hear her say, “be the turning point of your life – she might be the one who will change your fortunes for good. These things happen like this, you know beta.” He could only wonder at his mother for still firmly believing in his auspicious future, for he himself had long back given up on his.
He glumly stood looking outside at the setting sun, contemplating rather morosely on the eve of his thirtieth birthday, that things had never really looked promising for him so far, and weren’t likely to, anytime soon.
“One of those days, huh?” a voice commented dryly from his next door balcony.
Sanchit grinned in spite of himself. “Aren’t they always?!”
Megha, his bright-eyed, pig-tailed, ten-year-old neighbor was lounging predictably with her ever-dependable walkman and headphones. The two of them had struck the most unlikely friendship when the Rao’s had moved in next door, a year ago. Sanchit had stepped out to his balcony, after work for his daily evening smoke when a stern voice had severely chastised him on the dangers of smoking. He had dismissed her initially, but before long they had started chatting regularly, and almost against his will he realized that he had started to even look forward to their evening conversations – for she was a smart, opinionated youngster with often unexpected astuteness that belied her age. He had also stopped smoking eventually – at least when she was around.
He soon discovered that the balcony and her headphones were her only solace from her own rather argumentative parents, who didn’t bother to keep their arguments to themselves. Megha, however, was seemingly nonchalant about the whole thing, and often carried on as if the shouting voices came from some other household, not her own.
She had once caught him, on a Saturday morning, reading the weekly sun-signs (a habit he had unwittingly inherited from his own mother).
“You don’t really believe in all that non-sense, do you?” she asked, scornfully, “It’s just mumbo-jumbo for weaklings who would rather believe that the Signs do all the work for them, than themselves.”
She had a point there, even though it stung more than a little. “Don’t be such a know-it-all, little girl, especially about things you don’t know.” He replied, giving a tug on her pig-tail, which he knew would succeed in distracting her. She went off on her usual rant about how her pig-tails irritated her no end, especially when people insisted on pulling them, just because they thought it was cute.
“Well don’t keep them so handy then”, he said. That set her off on another rant, this time against her mother who insisted that she wear her hair long and then sensibly tied in two plaits. This was followed by a long brooding silence and many mutinous scowls which was always ominous with Megha.
Sure enough, when he returned home the next evening from work, the shouts seemed just a little more louder than usual, especially since Megha’s shrill tones had also seemed to have joined the fray. Finally a door slammed and she appeared in the balcony, furious and seething and minus both pigtails.
“Wow!” He exclaimed, completely taken aback.
“Don’t you dare start on me too”, she threatened, eyes suspiciously brighter than usual and one cheek suspiciously redder than the other.
“Well…just…” he trailed off.
“What?” she demanded.
“Very chic, girlfriend!” he grinned at her.
He was rewarded instantly with a grateful gap-toothed grin, and he knew he had made a pal for life.
His mother called to wish him on his birthday, and his mood went on a steady decline from then onwards. He barely made it through the day without snarling at one person or another and by the evening…
“Did you know there’s a big dark storm cloud just above your head?” his pint size buddy remarked.
All the anger just drained out from him, leaving him feeling grumpier than ever.
“I just don’t want to be thirty”, he told her, not caring how childish he sounded.
“What’s so bad about it?” she asked.
“Well I’m just much older than I want to be, for one thing. And besides…this isn’t how I imagined my life would be at thirty”, he finished, thoughtfully.
“How had you imagined it then?” she asked.
He gave a humorless smile. “Ah but you don’t know about my Big Wonderful Destiny”, he told her.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
So he told her, trying to make out like it was a big joke. But by the time he was finished, he couldn’t help feeling more than a little embarrassed about the whole thing.
Megha opened her mouth to reply but before she could, all of a sudden a loud crash from her house made them both jump.
This was followed by raised voices, which in the awkward silence neither of them found it easy to ignore.
She just sighed and didn’t say anything for a long time. Then after a while she said softly, “You want to hear something funny - until I was about six years old, I used to think it was pretty normal for parents to keep on fighting all the time.”
It was the first time Megha had ever mentioned anything about her parents’ behavior to him; usually it was like a taboo topic they had tacitly agreed to ignore.
When he didn’t say anything, she continued, “Then one day my best friend invited me to her house, and I saw how her parents were. And when I asked her whether they ever shouted and yelled at each other – she just gave me a strange look and told me that something that never happened.” Her usually bright eyes had clouded over, and she had never seemed more like a little unhappy kid, than she did then.
“I sometimes think I was happier not knowing”, she finished simply.
Though his birthday had ended on a more somber note than he had hoped for, over the next few days Sanchit couldn’t help feeling lighter than he had before. He thought over their conversation quite a few times and it was like a weight had been lifted, though he couldn’t quite figure out why. He had however, decided to stop waiting for destiny to take control of his life any longer, as if he had never known.
Maybe, he thought, the old fortune-teller had simply told profound lies to his mother all those years back – or maybe he really did know his stuff and was just trying to be nice to her, thinking that he would give her something to live for and look forward to, instead of telling her the plain truth and adding to her sense of drudgery. In any case, it had certainly worked for her.
There was just no way of finding out for sure…
Almost two decades had passed since then. An interview of a renowned personality was being telecast all the way from France, the birthplace of Nostradamus, eagerly watched by people all over the world. That man needed no introduction, for some he was a fortune-teller, for others a clairvoyant. At times he was even an advisor for someone no less that the President of his country.
The interviewer began nervously, “Sir, as someone who has gone where no man has ever reached before to study the movement of the planets and occult sciences, and to be the only person to have finally understood the true meaning of the original prophecies of Nostradamus, how does it feel?”
Dr. Sanchit Parthasarathy gave a wry smile and replied, “I sometimes think I was happier not knowing.”
Mom’s the real pragmatic one in the family. She teaches English at my school – and has the stern teacher look down pat. She always wears similar looking ‘official’ kind of skirt-blouses in varying shades of brown, horn-rimmed glasses and hair rolled tightly into a bun. I swear if she weren’t my mother, I’d really be scared of her. Well - sometimes I am, anyway!
So then I used to think I must take after my father – whom I don’t remember – because he died in a car accident when I was only six. If I try and think really hard, I sometimes remember the faint whiff of Old Spice as he used to rub his rather prickly cheek against mine. But then I also remember that he was bald – because I know I used to love pulling the leftover hair on the top of his head which used to make him laugh. So it must make sense that he was kind of serious as well – and not just because he was bald – he used to work as a biology professor in college – and I bet that’s got to take a lot of pragmatism too.
I am afraid that one day my mom will finally think I’m old enough to handle the truth and reveal that I was adopted as a baby. Well that would explain a lot of things – especially why I never get good grades in spite of having such academic parents! Anyway, since my mom teaches in the same school as mine, it gets a bit weird at times. Especially in English class – she gets all aloof and distant with me – as if I’m just one of her students – and I guess she wants me to follow suit. But I don’t always remember that. Like last week in her class, I was thinking of the talent competition that our school was having, and I got so caught up with it. So when she suddenly asked, “Jamie – would you please bring your essay copy over to me?” And I said, “Oops – I left it in the kitchen Mom!” and then the class started giggling and that put me in the doghouse for a while.
After school I usually hang out with Scully. Scully is my best friend in the whole world. His real name was Darren Schulz but I never call him that. Of course that made me Mulder – as we were huge ‘X-files’ fans and all. People thought it kind of funny that we had mixed the sexes up of the real Mulder & Scully – but we didn’t mind. The whole point was that we were big alien believers – both of us – ever since Scully saw ‘E.T.’ the first time. I’ve seen it 15 times so far – and I can tell you – I haven’t seen the last of it. These days both of us are practicing very hard for the talent competition. It fit that we were acting out a scene from E.T. for the talent competition. I was E.T. of course, and Scully was going to be ‘the kid’, and we were doing the last scene where E.T goes home. Our practice didn’t go very well today. Scully had this idea of including the “The truth is out there” line from X-files in our scene. But somehow it didn’t seem to fit in anyplace – so finally I asked him to drop it. And he wasn’t ready to – so we just ended up arguing about it till I left for home since it was almost dinner time.
Mom told me that Mr. Thomas was going to join us for dinner again. Mr. Thomas was our new science teacher (you could see how having my mother teach in my school was so going to mess me up when I grew up.) Anyway I didn’t mind Mr. Thomas – or Willard as my mom called him – coming to dinner so much. He was mostly interesting and easy to talk to. And he had these nice twinkling blue eyes. But most of all – it was because he was an alien.
Now I don’t know exactly how I found this out – but I’m pretty sure I am the only one who knows about this – and of course, Scully knows because I told him. You see, Mr. Thomas has this curious looking tattoo on his wrist that no one can figure out. It was sort of like a head with vacant almond shaped eyes and no nose or mouth - and it was dark green in color. And there were some letters on the bottom that looked like curious looking symbols. But what had really got me thinking was the fact that he didn’t have any eyebrows – not a single hair! Once at dinner I’d asked him about his lack of eyebrows - and my mom just sighed and went all “Oh Jamie”. But Mr. Thomas said he didn’t mind and then told me that during the war he was called to do some heavy-duty research with some kind of radioactive stuff - which caused all his hair to fall off. But somehow afterwards when he returned, all the hair on the top of his head grew back on its own - except for his eyebrows! Hah! A likely story.
Dinner went well with the three of us together. My mom and Willard were great pals before he went off to college – they had practically grown up together. Everyone used to think they were sort of like a ‘couple’ and all back then - and sometimes even now. But there was nothing to it, my mom said, they were only best friends like Scully and I were – and people always like to put 2 and 2 together to make 22 – especially she being a widow and him being single still. (I suppose having no eyebrows must make it rather difficult to land a girl!)
“So Jamie, what are you going to do for the talent competition?”, Willard asked me during dinner.
“I am going to be an alien Mr. T”, I replied, giving him a knowing look.
“That’s something I haven’t seen in a while”, he told me, rather shiftily I thought.
“Yeah of course – uh huh”, I replied, nodding my head vigorously.
Mom looked at me strangely. “Jamie and Darren are going to play a scene from E.T”, she said, “Making up her costume is going to use up all of my talents, if you ask me.”
“I might be able to help you with that”, Willard said. I perked up my ears at that. Of course! “I have some paraphernalia like goggles, masks, etc - from this year’s school fair - lying around at my house. You are welcome to take a look and see if you can find something useful”, he said.
“Hey thanks Mr. T!” I replied, trying not to let my excitement show. I couldn’t wait to call and tell Scully after dinner.
“Into his house! Oh man! We might even be able to scout around and find his spaceship or something!”, Scully said. Yeah right, as if Mr. Thomas would keep a spaceship lying around his living room. But nothing would deter Scully. “The truth is out there, Mulder”, he yelled into the phone, “The truth is out there!” He was still stuck onto his favorite cliché, but I was just as excited as he was, to call him on it.
We were on a mission as we trooped into Willard’s living room after school the next day. He was kind enough to offer us cookies and milk, but we waved him off impatiently.
“Boy, you guys are keen”, he exclaimed, blissfully unaware of what was going through our minds. He led us through his living room into a small study, where he pointed to a small closet against the wall. “It’s all in there guys. Are you OK with sorting through that jumble on your own – I’ve got a few papers to grade for tomorrow?”
Were we?! We nodded, smiling beatifically at him.
“Great”, he smiled back at us, “Holler if you need anything”.
We scrounged around the room eagerly trying to find any clues about his real identity. But apart from a moldy fungus that was growing at the back of the closet, we didn’t find anything remotely interesting.
“Scully – watch out for him while I go check into the other rooms. If he even moves, hoot like an owl – OK?” I told him.
“I can’t hoot”, he replied, looking scared and sad at the same time.
We hurriedly did a quick round up of all the animal calls he could make and finally settled on him mooing like a cow. It was only later when I was rifling through his bedroom closet that I realized Willard might find mooing cows in his house rather strange – but by then it was too late.
It was there that I made a real find! There was an old album full of old pictures. I started flipping through them excitedly, when suddenly I heard a loud moo. I almost jumped out of my skin and dropped the album in fright. It fell face open on the floor exposing a picture of Willard with someone I never expected to see. It startled me more than Scully’s moo - even though it shouldn’t have really. I could hear Willard’s voice in the background asking Scully where I was – but somehow I couldn’t move. All I could do was stand there and stare in fascination at my mom’s face grinning out of the photograph – arm in arm with Willard – both dressed as Luke and Leia from ‘Star Wars’ - Willard carrying a light saber to boot!
“Jamie! What are you doing here?” Willard stood at the door, looking suspiciously at me, his eyebrow-less brow furrowed.
“I was looking for the bathroom Mr. Thomas”, I mumbled, “I got lost.”
Fortunately he couldn’t see the album as it had fallen behind the bed, and I surreptitiously shifted it underneath with my foot.
I was quiet as we left from Willard’s house, empty handed. Scully was still chattering in nervous excitement about the narrow escape that we had, but I wasn’t really listening to him. I had other things on my mind. I was thinking about my mom dressed in a shining gold dress and hair rolled in buns behind both ears in the classic “Princess Leia” look. My mom didn’t dress up like that! She put up with all my alien nonsense but deep down I knew she didn’t really believe in it. True, she must have been about 10 years younger, but it just wasn’t her to look so completely starry-eyed like that. And Mr. Thomas had had eyebrows! My head was spinning.
I began to have doubts about all my beliefs about my life so far. By the end of the week I was firmly convinced that my mom wasn’t my mom but a strange kind of 60’s hippie who wore weird shiny dresses and secretly went to Star Wars conventions – and my dad wasn’t my dad but Mr. Thomas!
I was rather distracted the whole week and that affected our practice considerably. Finally Scully couldn’t take it anymore and we had a huge row.
“It’s only a stupid competition Scully, nobody cares about it”, I told him.
“Well I care! If you think its stupid then fine, I’ll just do it by myself!” he said, threateningly.
I couldn’t take it anymore either, so I said, “Fine! Go ahead! You are on your own!” and stomped off.
It’s amazing how I never realized how articulate and witty Scully was until the week after our fight. All the other kids at school seemed totally dull and boring compared to him. So what if he had a penchant for spouting the same dialogues over and over – it was sort of endearing really. Besides, Scully got me, in a way nobody ever did, and sometimes it was all that mattered. I was longing for our fight to be over, but at the same time I didn’t know how to end it.
I suppose with the fight and the new revelations about my mom and Mr. Thomas, on top of that, I was kind of glum and morose the whole week and mom decided she couldn’t take it anymore.
“OK – out with it Jamie”, she demanded, at dinner finally. I looked at her blankly.
“Something’s going on with you this whole week. You are off in your own world - a bit more than usual. You haven’t been paying attention in class – a bit more than usual. And you and Darren have been practicing – a whole lot less than usual!” Oh boy! She was on a roll now. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you two have been fighting about something!” she finished cannily.
I didn't want to talk about our stupid fight, but even I wasn't prepared for what I blurted out next - “Mom – is Willard my real dad?”
Whatever my mom expected to hear, this was not it. She gaped at me for a full minute before she found her voice. “Jamie! What a thing to say! I swear I can never imagine the things that go on in that head of yours! Whatever made you think of something like that??”
So then I had to tell her the whole story – about Mr. Thomas being an alien and then both of us snooping around his house (only I made it sound as though I accidently came across that album). Then my mom did something that made me gape for a full minute. She began to laugh!
“Oh Jamie! And from all that you came up with the idea that he was your father! I think Willard might enjoy being thought of as an alien – I should tell him that! Now if only you could use all that wild imagination towards something fruitful and we just might be on to something”, she said, still chuckling. “You know, you remind me so much of myself, when I was about your age. I was just like you”, she told me, when she had sobered down a bit.
I don’t know why, but then I began to cry. All I could think about was that I would grow up just like my mother - wearing clothes in different shades of brown all the time - and that only made me cry harder. “But I don’t want to be like you!” I wailed in between sobs.
The smile fell right off her face – I could see it clearly, even as I was crying. “And why is that so terrible, Jamie”, she asked quietly.
And then I realized, I wasn’t really upset that I was unlike both of them. I somehow had grown to like that about myself, being different from my sober, staid and serious parents. Willard, on the other hand, had seemed like a cool and interesting person to be related to. And all last week, it was like a glorious secret that I was hugging myself with.
I stopped crying and I told her exactly what I was thinking then. Her face grew more and more serious with every word I said, and she was back to the strict English teacher who scared all her students.
Finally she sighed and said, “Well Jamie, you are stuck with the parents that you have. But for your sake and mine, I hope with all my heart that you get to remain the same way you are. I hope that life never teaches you to grow out of your dreams.” She sighed again, then stood up to leave. “…like it taught me”
She said the last part so softly, I almost didn’t hear her.
I felt terrible, then. I sat thinking alone by myself long after she left, wondering what awful lessons life had taught her to drain all the color out of her, like that. True, things hadn’t been so easy after my dad had died suddenly, but I had very little memory of that time. Still, even now I could very clearly remember the day of his funeral, with both of us wearing stark black dresses – and my mom just gazing blankly at me, in answer to all my confused and frantic questions about where daddy had gone. And then it occurred to me that maybe she just slipped out of that black dress into brown ones, because she couldn’t bear to have any other color back in her life at all.
I made up with Scully the next day, which was the day of the competition, even though he was all set to go it by himself - and scared to death at the very thought! We even managed to scrounge up a runner’s up prize, much to our surprise. It was enough to set Scully dreaming of a future in acting. Not me, though. For now I was content to absorb and enjoy my own crazy dreams – the clouds – and the colors– as long as I could. Future was as far off for me, as aliens seemed to be.
These days we are on a new mission – Scully and I. We are trying to get my mom get together with Mr. Thomas! Sometimes it’s good to have 2 and 2 make 22 instead of the usual predictable 4. Besides, as Scully says, I would get to have my own alien living with me!
Mostly his routine never wavered. He got up lazily on Saturdays, dawdling over the morning newspaper with a steaming cup of tea. Normally he wasn’t much for cooking, but it all changed on this day. He experimented and cooked up all sorts of delicacies, with the keening sounds of jazz, mostly, wafting in the background. He dined like a king on these days, even if he might say so himself. In the evening, he usually made it a point to catch a movie with his good friends Alok & Prashant - then a visit to the local pub and have at least one Margarita, before treating themselves to a splendid meal at one of the better places in town.
Sunday mornings, he rose early, simply because there was no need to, and went out to the park just across the street for a morning jog. Then there was the pesky weekly parental phone call that he had to suffer through before lunch. But if he managed it right, he could normally talk his way out in no more than 20 minutes tops. Another kingly lunch and a much deserved afternoon slumber was followed by a bout of Monday blues that invariably hit early, on Sunday night itself.
It was usually through these bouts of blue that he used to wonder about his whole existence, life and such greater issues. Day after day. he was wading blithely through his rather colorless life with no blissful happy ending that he was aspiring for. Not that he was at all unhappy with his life – but in such times all he could do was glumly despair about the pointlessness of it all.
This Sunday night, a phone call jarred him out of his bleak musings. He tried to shake himself out of the funk he had crawled into and answered.
A cool female voice at the other end asked, “May I speak to Mihir?”
A little startled, he confirmed she was.
“Oh hey Mihir, this is Sasha!” her voice changed completely, and was now girlish and bubbling.
At his silence, she prompted “Remember from Maya’s birthday party?”
Maya – there was a colleague named Maya who had indeed celebrated her birthday a couple of weeks back. Mihir had dragged himself rather reluctantly to her party – he didn’t consider himself much of a party person since he left college – and had spent most of his time sipping cocktails by himself at the bar. Regrettably however, he still couldn’t recollect meeting this Sasha.
“Aw come on – I only served you all those countless martinis and lent you my pink hanky when you cried your little heart out about missing your poor mama!”
Oh that Sasha! “Hey I never cried about missing my mom”, he replied indignantly.
She laughed, “So you do remember now. Well I just called to ask if I can have my hanky back.”
“What are you talking about?”, he asked nonplussed, wondering just how drunk he had really been. “Hey how did you get my number?!”
She laughed again, “My you do catch on fast! All right I’ll cut the crap. Meet me right now at your usual pub – it shouldn’t take you more than 10 minutes to reach there – and you’ll have your answer. I might even tell you how I know your address too.” She hung up before he could even think of any reply.
Ten minutes later, as he entered the pub, Mihir couldn’t come up with one good reason why he was waiting for a mysterious bartender he barely remembered and wasn’t sure he wanted to.
“Waiting for me?”, Sasha was right on time.
Mihir took a good look at her and wondered why he had trouble remembering her before. Sasha was strikingly beautiful. “You look different somehow”, he said., rather blandly
“Yeah well - standing behind a dingy bar for 6 hours kind of takes its toll. Coffee.”, she said to the bored looking waiter who had appeared at their table.
“Same”, Mihir told him. “OK - so why the big mystery”, he asked her.
“Oh come on – I just got here! Do you seriously expect me to spill the beans even before our coffee gets here?”, she replied. “Get to know me first wont you. I kinda feel at an advantage here…knowing all that I know about you. And I bet you don’t even know my last name!”
“What do you know about me?”, he refused to be distracted.
“Your last name, for starters”, she replied. “Seth.”
“What else? Nothing you’ve told me so far is particularly hard to find out – if you have a decent phonebook”, he said.
She smiled, “True. But what phonebook will list that you’re still single, living by yourself and with a particular fondness for cooking Italian pasta to the beat of Kenny G, on weekends?”
That stumped him for a minute. He racked his brains, again trying to remember how much of himself he had revealed to her, over those ‘countless’ martinis. “Just how drunk was I, that night?”
Her eyes danced. “Drunk enough to tell me that you’re nick named 'Chiku' which your mother insists on calling you even now when she calls up on Sundays”, she replied.
Mihir felt himself going red and was grateful for the distraction provided by the waiter, who had appeared with their coffees. “What do you want from me?”, he asked her, fortifying himself with a sip of coffee.
She leaned back in her seat. “I have a proposition for you.”
Now we are getting somewhere, Mihir thought. “What kind?”
“From our – er – talk the other day, I gather that you have passed out of a prestigious college – ranked second in fact. Currently you are extremely gainfully employed, single and with no responsibilities whatsoever. You have your own apartment, you got your own car, you got plenty of money to splurge. Well – plenty of money, period. However, you are also somewhat bored with this cushy life that you have and wonder what happened of all that potential you thought you possessed when you stepped out of college. How am I doing so far?”, she asked.
“Not so good - I am nowhere near figuring out the ‘proposition’ yet”, he retorted. He didn’t want to react to her assessment of his life, but he had a uncomfortable feeling that she had nailed him perfectly.
She smiled. “So – what are you going to do about it?”
“What do you mean?”, he asked.
She sighed, “Because, Chiku, you need to take a step. There’s something not quite so well with your life - whether you know it or not. You need to find that zing back in life. And I’m just the right person for it.” She cut him off, when he started to speak.
“Look we can skip the part when you can go into denial and I convince you by telling you some of the things you told me the other day, right in your own words. The truth remains, you need something from your life. I can help you find it. All you need to do is put together some money and let me help you use it.”
Mihir had to admire her – for sheer nerve. He thanked his stars he had led a fairly honest and straightforward life so far, that she had nothing much she could hold against him - as a result of that one indiscreet confession. He got up and put some money on the table. “That should cover our bill. I think I’m done for tonight.”, he said.
She stared at him, “You are just going to leave? You know, you are so typical. – you think you have it all figured out right now, but you’re so wrong. You have a job which you aren’t happy about. But you’ll still stick to it, because it pays. And because it does, you will never find the courage to leave it. Few years down, you might get married to a nice girl you mama picks out for you. You won’t be happy then either, but you wont refuse and you will still stick to that marriage. You will continue doing all those things that you came by easily, develop a strange dependency on it and refuse to look for anything else, simply because you are comfortable with them and scared to let them go. Doesn’t matter if they make you happy or not.”
“Man you are unbelievable”, he exploded, “Just because you served me a few drinks the other day doesn’t give you the right to comment on my life. God! I should never have agreed to this stupid farce in the first place. Don’t know what the heck I’m doing here!”
“You came because you were intrigued”, she replied quietly, “You were bored and I offered you a welcome distraction from your boring repetitive thoughts.”
She had him there. He sighed, “Look if it’s money that you want - ”
“It’s not”, she interrupted him, “I don’t really go around asking my clients for money in exchange for lending an ear. I know I’m just a poor bartender. A poor female bartender. I messed up - I barely got through school and never made it to college. I don’t expect anyone else to make up for my mistakes. You on the other hand, seemed to have done everything right. You were exactly how I could never hope to be– smart, successful, rich. But you still were so - discontented."
She continued,"Me – mostly I am pretty easygoing about my life. I’m usually cheery - except when it comes to paying my bills. I know my choice of occupation isn’t exactly ideal – and is generally frowned upon – but I’m happy with it – and that’s what matters. I got plenty of friends and we end up doing crazy things all the time. But we always end up having fun. Can you remember the last time you had fun? I bet you can’t.”
She paused, as though searching for the right words, “It’s almost like I’m skipping my way through life with nothing in hand and you were dragging your feet through yours, in spite of having it all.”
Mihir was quiet. Finally he asked, “What do you want, Sasha?”
“You don’t remember that evening at all – do you?”, she asked smiling rather sadly.
“What exactly do I need to remember?”, Mihir was growing anxious now.
“There were – some promises made – by both of us”, she said, ”Promises for a better tomorrow.” Seeing his nervous look she took a deep breath and began, “You were starting to get drunk - really drunk – and it was nearing midnight which ends my shift. You were in no shape to drive. So there you were standing helplessly next to your car with no clue how to open your car door. I helped you out and all this while I was wondering why none of the other folks at the party had shown the slightest bit of concern for you – instead of just letting you leave by yourself. But all evening I’d heard you mope about your restlessness with your life – loneliness was oozing from every word that you spoke – and I understood then what it meant to be alone in a room full of people.”
“Anyway, I offered to drive you home – and we got talking. Only now we were talking about me, for a change. You were curious to find out how a nice girl like me got into being a bartender of all things – and I started telling you it wasn’t so bad – how much fun I had doing it. I told you some of the interesting people I had met bartending. Then somehow talk turned to how much it ‘paid’ to be a bartender – and I ended up telling you how my biggest challenge then was to decide whether I should pay my rent or use that money to travel home and visit my dad in the hospital.”
“And even in the state you were – you gave me the money. You emptied out your pockets –just like that. I was so touched - I said ask me anything right now and I promise you it’s yours. And you know what you said?”
“That better be a rhetorical question”, Mihir said, rolling his eyes.
She smiled. “You wished you could be a bartender.” Her smile widened at his incredulous look and she added, “I took that to mean you wished you could be someone else, than what you were. And then I replied if we were wishing things I wish I could be rich like you. Then you took my hand and very seriously said, lets make a promise to make our wishes come true – right before you passed out.”
She sighed, “I didn’t have a clue what to do with you – but luckily your building watchman helped me drag you to your home. And I left for my home the very next day - came back last Sunday and all week I wondered what you made of the whole incident – but then happily it turned out you had forgotten about the whole thing! I might as well have never existed for you”
“True”, Mihir said thoughtfully, “I thought the watchman looks at me knowingly every time I see him – but all this while I thought I was imagining it.” He sighed, “You could have vanished with the money and I’d have never known.”
“At some point you may have noticed you were missing some cash”, she pointed out.
“Well that happens to me so many times – I take out money from the ATM and never realize how I spend it”, he replied, smiling ruefully.
“Oh to have that much money”, she sighed rather wistfully. “So – all that talk that night was just talk I guess. I suppose – I could repay you the money when I get my next paycheck and we could forget all about it.”
She was offering him a way out, he realized. He couldn't help but feel somewhat fascinated with her - her unique lifestyle - her honesty - her seeming optimism - it all made him feel a little bit small and ashamed of himself. She was right, he realized, he did need her in his life.
Mihir Seth still lived for weekends. And for weekdays. He worked at 'Crocevia' - the new Italian restaurant & bar in town - which he partly owns - along with his business partner Sasha. Sasha had been a huge help - with her numerous friends and contacts in that area - he couldn't have done it without her.
It had been tough year all in all – quitting his job, convincing his parents - convincing himself first of all. It hadn't been easy - opening a new restaurant. But it had been worth it – while it had been challenging – most of all - it had been fun. More challenges lay ahead, Mihir knew, but the biggest one was convincing Sasha to marry him.
It was quiet around this time of the day – his parents were still to come home from work. They all had recently moved to the new block of flats in the outskirts of the city. He didn’t really have any friends there. It was just him and his grandma in the evenings after school.
Not that he didn’t like Nani…she was the one who waited for him at the gate to make sure he got off the bus all right. Then after going home she made sandwiches and chocolate milk for him, just the way he liked it. And she never minded however fast he changed channels on TV (his dad always tended to get a bit testy)
But Nandan wished he had some friends here. He would sometimes see kids his age hanging around in the courtyard. But he never knew how he could make friends with them. Did he go and talk to them directly? What if they snubbed him and didn’t talk to him? Or worse laugh at him?
“What are you doing sitting in the dark like this Nandu?”, Nani stood silhouetted against his door.
“Nothing”, he answered absently, still brooding against the window.
“It’s not good for a young boy like you to mope around like this – did you finish your homework? Your Ma will be after me if you get notes again from the teacher…”, asked Nani worriedly.
“I got it covered Nani”, he replied irritably.
She sighed. Then came and sat down besides him. “It won’t be long before they come home beta. Do you want to watch TV till then?”
“Nope”, he answered shortly.
“Then why don’t you go out and play with the other kids?” she asked.
“I don’t want to Nani”, he replied impatiently. He turned his back against her, hoping she would leave.
She patted his arm. He shrugged it off childishly. He didn’t know why but he was angry with her. He was madder at his parents for dragging him to this strange new house – but then they weren’t here.
She sighed again and then got up to leave. After sometime Nandan could hear her muttering her evening prayers as usual. Soon after he saw the headlights of a car approaching their building, which meant his dad was home. Another day was over finally, he thought.
The next day Nandan shouted at his grandmother for not washing his brown socks for school. Why couldn’t she even remember simple things like socks? A day later he wouldn’t speak to her until she gave in and signed his teacher’s note for not completing his homework. Then finally he decided he couldn’t stand her reproaching about his studies any longer and decided to go out for a walk. He didn’t return till dinner time.
His parents were worried about him, but he lied and told them he was out playing with the other kids. That made them happy somehow, thinking he was settling down quicker than expected. Nani didn’t say anything.
He started going out every evening from then on. He walked around aimlessly, whiling away the endless hours till it was time for dinner. Sometimes he would stand and watch the construction of the new block of flats that was coming up. At other times go over to the main road looking around the shops. One time he even gathered up courage to walk over near to the other children. But they just got all silent and looked at him, and then he couldn’t think of anything to say either. So he just walked away. After that, he was careful to steer clear of them, even though he secretly knew he was being cowardly.
Everyday during his walks, he saw a strange looking man sitting on a bench across the street from his house. Nandan knew he was a foreigner, from his golden brown hair and fair complexion. He wore a floppy kind of hat and usually had a cigarette dangling from his fingers. Like himself, he too seemed to have nothing better to do in the evenings. Once he saw Nandan looking at him and hailed him to come over.
“Haven’t seen an American before, kid?”
Nandan didn’t know what to say so he just shook his head.
“Well don’t just stand there – lost your tongue, have you?”
The stranger smiled showing crooked and slightly yellowed teeth.
“I am Pat, by the way” He held out his hand
Nandan walked over and tentatively shook his hand.
“I’m Nandan”, he mumbled.
“Well nice to meet you kiddo. Wont you join me for a smoke?” he asked.
At his appalled look, he burst into laughter and slapped his back. “Just pulling your leg buddy”
Nandan didn’t know what to say, although he was gratified to be called “buddy” by this fascinating stranger.
Soon he learned that Pat was half American half Portuguese. He had come to India on some assignment six months back. He came down to the bench every evening to “enjoy a smoke” and because he thought watching real people was more interesting than watching television.
Pat didn’t mind doing most of the talking. He seemed to know most of the people from his apartment complex, who was married and to whom. Who were having guests tonight. Whose maid was leaving the household…
“You spend some time in a place for some time and you keep your eyes and ears open – you learn a whole lot of things, kid”
Nandan was terribly impressed by Pat. He began to come and meet him daily. Pat seemed so worldly. He had already traveled a great deal around the world. He had been to some of the finest restaurants in Europe. He had gone camping in the Australian outback – Nandan hadn’t even known what the outback was, till then. He had even seen the Pyramids in Egypt, which was, for Nandan, the height of worldliness, since they seemed to be showing them all the time on Discovery.
“So how come you came to a place like India?”, he once asked Pat, feeling rather bold.
Pat took a long drag with his cigarette, then said, “Well the thing is, somehow India is the most fascinating country I’ve ever been to.
He smiled seeing his disbelieving look. “It may seem hard for you to believe, but that’s only because you’ve always lived here. What you have in your home always seems ordinary, since you look at it everyday. You come to know it very well. You’ve seen its beauty and its flaws. But because you get so used to its beauty, you would rather concentrate on its flaws. And then it loses value for you. " He paused to take another long drag.
"Then perhaps one day, you leave it or it leaves you. And its only then that you realize what it meant to you. Funnily enough at that time you would only remember its beauty, the good times you had with it and conveniently forget about all the things that you hated about it. "
He seemed lost in his own thoughts now. "And one day, but only if you are lucky, well you still get to go back to it. If not, you have to be content with memories.”
It was all very well for Pat to say, Nandan thought. After all he had been to so many places that he could compare such things to.
Pat continued. “Listen to me kid. Always make memories. Good memories. At some point in life, they are all that matter.”
That night, as Nandan lay in his bed, he tried to think of all the good memories that he had. But all he could dredge up didn’t somehow seem good memories. All he had was… memories!, he thought, suddenly disgusted with his life. He got up restlessly, unable to sleep, and went down to the balcony. He stood for sometime staring up at the stars, wishing he had been born half Portuguese half American too. Or as anyone else but as himself.
“Nandu? What happened beta?” He had forgotten Nani was usually still awake at this time. She stood in the doorway now, looking at him with eyes full of concern. “Not able to sleep? Are you feeling sick?”
“Its nothing”, he replied back.
“Why won’t you tell me, beta?” she asked him. She sighed. “You have grown too big now, haven’t you – to talk to Nani anymore? Before, you would come and tell me everything. And now – you barely have two words to say to me…”
But Nandan was feeling too sorry for himself to pay attention to Nani’s reproaches. He didn’t say anything.
“Do you want me to make you a nice warm glass of milk? It will put you to sleep right away”, she asked.
“Just leave me alone Nani”, he snapped. He stormed back to his room, feeling angry with Nani, with himself and somehow misunderstood all at the same time.
When he went to see Pat the next day, he wasn’t there. Nor the next day. It was about a week when it finally dawned on him that Pat had left without saying Good Bye. It stung a little to know that he was as insignificant as that to Pat. It stung even more when he suddenly realized that he was probably insignificant to most people, except for maybe his parents. And maybe…no definitely Nani. She cared. Whether he got sleep. About things like his homework, which he was sure did not mean much to her. But she still cared because she thought it was important for him. And all this while, he kept pushing her away.
At 11 years of age, there was a minor storm in Nandan’s teacup. It was meeting a stranger from foreign land. And his abrupt departure.
But that evening Nandan made a new friend. With his old grandmother.
We made them with a grin and a wink
The plain blank wall, dressed so gaily
Careless school days, bubbling and silly
Those long lectures, full of whispers and giggles
And our own special corner for sharing lunches
Secrets told with solemn oaths
Then being ticked off for passing notes
Gives me a warm feeling, even now as I think
Those endless days, gone in a blink
But we still promised to be best of Friends
Dragging our feet, we went different ways
Starting life on a wide new road
Excited and alone and just a bit cowed
I turn to look for that familiar face
And all I've got is an empty space
In all those years I never understood
What we had was so cherished and good
Maybe its an old story, it still tugs the heart
Why do we grow up, just to grow apart?
I learn to live and cope and regain
Some semblence of life, perhaps be happy again
But something so sweet and tender is lost
And I achingly miss that bright ink spot