MOHINDER BHATNAGAR
(Delhi)

 Mohinder Bhatnagar has been a compulsive writer since the age of twenty. Holding a masters in English literature from Panjab University (as also an LL.B), he has been in varied and unrelated careers spanning 30 years like academics, taxman, banker, lawyer, editor et al. and has seen life in its varied hues. Mainly a short story writer in English, his writings have appeared in The Tribune, The Indian Express and other newspapers and magazines. Twelve of his stories have also been translated into Punjabi by Mrs. Brajinder Gulati of Toronto (Canada), some of which have been read in literary forums in Canada. He has widely traveled in USA, Canada and UK. Currently based in New Delhi, he is working as an editor with an Infomedia firm and also undertakes writing, editing and translation on freelance basis. His email: mkbhatnagar2000@yahoo.co.in and cell: 91-9818377608.

 
 

Gulmohar Blossoms
(a short-story)
By Mohinder Bhatnagar

 

It was a bright November morning – a perfect day with fine weather in Delhi. I and my wife Sanjana had just returned from our morning walk. She was in the kitchen making tea for two of us while I had picked up the day’s newspaper and had settled down in my easy chair in the balcony of our second floor flat. The maid who did the daily chores of cleaning and dusting would come in another hour.

Sanjana turned on the radio in the living room hoping to hear some bhajans early morning. She was however disappointed when the radio blared out: “Yeh duniya ootpatanga … yeh duniya khel tamaasha … yeh tedhi medhi bhaasha….” She cursed under her breath and vigorously started searching other FM stations. Not able to hear anything of her taste, she gave up after a while and turned the radio off. Meanwhile, the kettle had boiled and she again busied herself in preparing tea.

Shortly, she came out on the balcony with two cups of tea on a tray and set them on the small table before me. Of late, she had developed arthritis and walked a bit slowly. I was avidly reading a telephone company’s ad on the front page and remained immersed in it for quite a while before Sanjana said somewhat irritated, “Leave the paper…tea is getting cold…,” she was never comfortable with my reading the newspaper. She felt as if I deliberately ignored her.

“You can go ahead, Madam” I said apologetically without taking my eyes off the ad.

“Have I ever taken anything before you?” she replied.

She was right. She always drank or ate anything only after me. By observing this ritual she thought she somehow showed her devotion to her husband as an Indian wife. She was by no means an orthodox woman; she came from an educated family and herself held a Master’s degree in Economics though she had opted for a home-maker’s role after marriage. Being educated she had her own views, which more often than not came into conflict with mine especially in our family matters.

As Sanjana was waiting, I picked up the cup and returned it to the table after taking a sip. Now she was at peace. She held the cup in her hand, took a few sips noisily in a deliberate attempt to draw my attention to her. Having gone through the ad, I folded the newspaper and dropped it to the floor. Immediately I realized that my action would attract frowns and barbs from her. Being a stickler for orderliness, she reprimanded me daily for ‘throwing’ the newspaper onto the floor. She was indeed a model house-keeper; not even a speck of dirt could be found anywhere in the house. ‘Cleanliness is next to godliness’ was her avowed motto.

But strangely, today she did not notice my indiscretion; she was lost somewhere else. I followed her eyes and found her longingly looking at an unfinished nest, which a squirrel was painstakingly making on a branch of the Gulmohar tree opposite our balcony. The tree had burst into a feast of beautiful dark red flowers which now fully covered its otherwise patterned green leaves. The view of red flowers from our balcony was just out of this world. The slight nip in the air indicated that winter was about to set in. It was time for squirrels to build their nests and store food for the cold season.

“Squirrel’s nest…hey!” I asked with an intent to broach her favorite topic.

“Yah…see how much labor she is putting in; carries the dry leaves and twigs in her tiny mouth and makes hundreds of rounds up and down the tree everyday. But she does not mind putting in all this labor of love; she does it for her offspring. Doesn’t she ever get tired?” she wondered.

“They are not human beings! They don’t have to read newspapers and drink tea like you and me.” I replied in jest.

“You men can never understand…God has given them immense strength…after all they are mothers! After they give birth to their offspring, they will tend to them until they are able to fend for themselves. Then the ‘children’ will desert the nest never to return. Next year, she will again repeat the whole exercise, hoping that perhaps this time her ‘children’ will continue to live with her. Year after year, she would keep hoping against hope. But you said they are not human beings…good for them…at least they don’t have any false hope in their heart” she had now turned philosophical.

I wanted to counter her views with jest but today there was such an earnestness in her eyes that I did not feel like piercing the web of her gossamer-like delicate thoughts; she was entitled to them. She was a mother, which I could never be. I had no access to her inner feelings as a woman and a mother. I didn’t have the heart to tread upon her pristine thoughts.

“You have such beautiful thoughts, Sanjana! How much you care for such small things; you are indeed a gem,” I said sheepishly unable to match the delicacy of her fine thoughts.

“Don’t be such a naive before me. You have borne high responsibilities with a smile. You have never failed in your duty. You are much superior to me. What do I know about the outside world?” she said looking into my eyes. Thoroughly steeped in Indian culture, she would never acknowledge that she could be superior to me – her husband - in any manner.

The squirrel took short breaks…looked at us briefly as if seeking our approval of her efforts before once again resuming the most important errand of her life. Making of the nest was the only thing she cared for in the world; she was running against time. Sanjana was particularly fascinated by her shiny glass-like eyes which glowed in the sunlight as two blue marbles.

Such were the delicate and sweet nothings which we were sharing when the telephone rang. I left my cup on the table and went in to respond the call.

“Hello, Papa…how are you? How’s mom?” It was our son Manu calling from Toronto. I looked at the clock; it was seven in the morning, which meant that it was 8.30 pm in Toronto.

“Hi, Manu! Have your shift timings changed? Earlier you used to call in the evening” I asked, with a nagging fear that something was wrong because it was seldom that he called us; it was only our duty to call him. And on the few occasions he had called us, his calls had always spelled trouble for us. Every time, he had made one or the other demand, which we scarcely found ourselves capable of fulfilling.

“Actually, Papa I have lost my job…it was last week…I didn’t want to tell you because it would upset you and mom. There was that supervisor in the company who had never liked me and had been looking for some excuse to oust me. I have been scouting for employment but have not succeeded so far. There’s lot of racial discrimination here. Now winter is also setting in; there will be still fewer jobs available. This is not exactly the country you and I had thought to be before my immigration. I have not slept the whole week. Job or no job, expenses have to be met. Now I am left with no money; I am even unable to afford my meals. I’ll have to leave the accommodation by the end of this month if I am unable to pay the rent. But I have nowhere to go. I will better come back to India. You have to send me an air ticket for returning. Please do it fast, there’s only a fortnight left.” He said all this in one breath so that I could not interrupt him.

“But, Manu, don’t lose heart so soon. Nobody who goes to Canada comes back like this. You have to keep trying; something will work out. In any case, what will you do here? You had gone there because there were not many opportunities available here. Having spent so much of money, time and energy you’ll be back to square one. Have patience for some more time; don’t take any hasty step. You can in the meantime pick up some odd job to keep yourself afloat.” I tried to give him a piece of my mind but in the mildest of words, as he was prone to flaring up all of a sudden.

I was surprised that even a country like Canada, which was called the ‘land of opportunity’, did not suit my good-for-nothing son.

“In that case, Papa, you will have to send me some money…I can no more live on rent; this is a very big expense. I need a house of my own...down payment is around 50000 dollars; I will somehow manage the monthly mortgage…” he was now throwing the bait before me.

“What are you talking, Manu? From where do I bring such kind of money…that means twenty lac rupees…I have already spent all my savings in sending you to Canada…Here, I and your mom keep thinking that you will soon get settled and will also call us there. But on the contrary, in spite of having been there for two years, you are still looking towards me for money.” I was now completely out of myself.

“Papa, I have an idea…you have already spent so much of money on me. You want to come to Canada; I am also very keen to have both of you here. After all, I am your only child. We can all be together here if I am able to buy a house of my own. Why don’t you sell off your flat in Delhi and give me the money. Later both of you can come here.” I knew he was conning me in giving him the money by selling off the only roof on our head. There was no doubt that once he got the money, he would completely forget his parents.

“I don’t think it is possible…still I’ll talk to your mom…call me later.” I wanted to buy some time.

“Papa, I’ll call you in the morning…I mean your evening” he said and disconnected the phone.

I plodded back to the balcony with heavy feet. Manu’s call had hit me like a brick. Sanjana who was still engrossed in watching the nest, asked whose call it was. I narrated the whole conversation to her.

“I knew he was never sincere. Remember, how he always played with our emotions as parents? He knew that being our only child, he could extract anything from us. Though not good at studies, he used to manipulate his grades and indulged in all sorts of ploys to extract money from us for the bad habits he had acquired from his friends. How ever much we tried, but he didn’t even complete his education. What great dreams we had about his bright future!” she sighed.

She caught her breath for a moment and continued, “I don’t know where we went wrong…what did we not do for him? I thought that once he goes to Canada, he would be on his own and we would be spared of any further agony. Your entire provident fund has already gone into his immigration. He has completely ruined us. Now he wants to deprive us of our only possession – this flat. You had to struggle all your life to own this small flat; what does Manu know about the struggle…I am sure even after we give him the money, he is not going to call us there! This is only another ploy. He is a crook. He is like a vulture feasting on our flesh…parents feel blessed when a son is born to them…but see how sons repay their parents’ debt!” Sanjana’s heart was bleeding; she was deeply hurt.

She was very emotional about the flat which she used to call her ‘little nest’. She had put an inscription at our front door: “Home is where the heart is…my heart is here!”

Sanjana had had enough of Manu’s misdemeanors. Today, she was in tears because he had planned to snatch her nest from her. She started crying.

How beautiful had been the beginning of the day! She had been watching the squirrel’s nest with fondness. But one phone call from Manu had changed everything. The day was spoiled. It was still the same pleasant November morning, the same beautiful flowers. But now the crimson hue of Sanjana’s broken heart was vigorously competing with the deep red color of gulmohar flowers. The squirrel had disappeared somewhere; she had perhaps taken a long break.

Sanjana felt tired and suddenly looked very old. She had been quite bubbly before Manu’s phone. Now, she complained of her arthritis and slumped into her chair gesturing me to take away the tray and cups. Engrossed in her own thoughts, she was no more looking at the squirrel’s nest.

After about an hour, she got up and went into the bed room and remained confined to her bed all day. Today she did not even get up to prepare lunch and asked me to make do with the left-overs lying in the fridge. I knew, more than her arthritis, it was Manu’s phone which was troubling her. This was her usual wont. Whenever she felt perturbed with Manu’s wayward behavior, she would retreat into her shell and keep brooding.

I could not bear her agony. I wanted to share her grief; I wanted to comfort her by assuring her that come what may, we would not part with her beloved nest. But I didn’t know how to give her heart; I was myself completely devastated. So I let her lie in bed to grapple with her thoughts on her own.

To keep Manu away from my mind, I watched TV and read the newspaper all day, almost word by word. Sanjana kept lying in bed, sometimes crying.

I prepared evening tea around four O’clock and went into the bedroom to give her a cup of the brew. She was lying in bed staring on the ceiling. When I placed her cup on the side table, she held my hand and asked me lovingly to sit beside her on the bed. Then she propped herself up against the head rest.

“Don’t keep worrying all the time…you have worried all your life…now it is time to relax,” Sanjana said suddenly with a faint smile on her face. I felt relieved to see her smiling again.

“But it is you who is worrying; not I,” I replied, “It is you who have been lying in bed all day.”

“It was due to my joint pains, you know that,” she said mischievously, “Anyway, Manu will again call in the evening. What have you decided?” There was no fear or hesitation in her voice; it appeared that she had already made up her mind and was asking me only as a formality.

“What can I decide, Sanjana? Manu is a fool; how long can we keep catering to his whims? He is no more a child; he is a young man. We have sent him to the best country in the entire world. Still, he is making a mess of his life. I don’t care, let him come back….” I replied.

“I am not asking you about Manu…he is a fool, I know. I am asking you about the flat,” she clarified.

“What about the flat? This is your flat – your nest. You have made it bit by bit. It’s not a house made of brick and mortar but it is a living heart in which both you and I live together. You have furnished it lovingly with your own hands…how can it be sold? How can we imagine someone else to be its owner? It is like selling our own heart…” I could not finish as tears welled up in my eyes.

“Those days are gone. After Manu suggested that we should sell off this house, I do not feel like living in it. This house has now become a stranger to me… it does not belong to me any more. But Manu, good or bad, is after all our own son. I have given birth to him; he is a part of us both. What shall we do with the house if Manu is in trouble? There’s no use clinging to it thinking only of our self-interest…he’s our only child. After our death, the house is anyway going to belong to him. He will sell it off when we are no more. Thus the selling off will only be delayed for some time. In the process, we would antagonize our own son. He may snap all contact with us and may not see our face even at our death. What shall we gain if we keep the house and lose our son?” Sanjana’s stand was today diametrically opposite from what she used to think earlier about her nest.

“But Sanjana…” I tried to argue with her but lost my way when she gestured me to keep quiet and listen to her.

“I know what you want to say…that he is not in any trouble…he is only befooling us…he has conned us all his life, what is new about it?” she paused for a moment and continued again, “You have always claimed to be a practical man away from emotions. Why are you so sensitive about the flat? I used to call it a nest; that’s my problem not yours.”

“What has happened to you today…what are you saying?” I could not restrain myself.

“You still do not get me correctly. When Manu is going to call us to Canada, why shall we need a flat here?” She continued with her logic.

“But what happens if we give him all the money and still he doesn’t call us to Canada?” I was still not convinced. I knew that she had taken this decision much against her own wishes only to save me from confrontation with Manu; her heart was bleeding. She would lie crying in her bed all night when I would not be looking.

“Now, that’s enough. Don’t keep arguing endlessly. I will myself talk to Manu when he calls in the evening. You unnecessarily lose your temper with the boy. I shall tell him to go ahead with his plans,” she said emphatically closing the matter.

It was no use arguing with Sanjana any further. She picked up her cup and drained it in one sip as tea had become tepid by now. Then she got out of the bed and busied herself in the kitchen. Her arthritis had gone; she appeared to be completely at peace.

It was late in the night when the telephone rang; we had already retired after watching a movie on the TV. We had not however talked much to each other throughout the evening; there ran a strain of uneasiness between us. She did make a couple of comments during the movie but receiving no response from me, she also kept quiet.

I did not make any effort to pick up the receiver as Sanjana had said that she would take Manu’s call. I feigned sleep and heard her slowly going out to the hall and picking up the receiver. Before Manu could say anything, Sanjana had already started speaking.

“Yes…Manu? I know you had talked to your papa in the morning. You will get the money…twenty lac you said…ok…if not by the end of this month, maybe in another month. Selling of property takes some time, you know… your papa?...you need not worry…I have talked to him. He has never said no to me for anything in his life…now he is asleep; it’s quite late here, you see! Ok, bye.” I heard a click when she replaced the receiver.

Next morning, she excused herself from going for her morning walk, saying that her knees were not cooperating. When I came back after an hour, she was already sitting in the balcony, looking at the nest the squirrel was still making. Her eyes were red and swollen; I didn’t have to guess why. Today gulmohar flowers had lost their deep red hue to the redness in Sanjana’s eyes. A number of blossoms had been blown off in last night’s gale and were lying on the ground ruing their fate.

“How right you are! These squirrels are indeed so different from we human beings and much luckier too. When their little ones go away, they at least leave the nest to their parents. But human beings are so cruel that they snatch even that comfort from their parents in the evening of their life,” she said philosophically.

When I opened the newspaper, she almost snatched it from my hands. I was surprised; she had never been interested in reading the newspaper. Even when I used to be on official tour and out of the house for some days, on my return I would find the newspapers still rolled up and un-opened. On my asking, she would respond, “I have more important things to do than reading newspapers.”

Today, she wanted to look up the column “Senior Citizen Homes”. Lucky if she finds a gulmohar tree there!

***