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
“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
“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
“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
“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
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
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
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
“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!