Saturday, 15 August 2020

Shagun Marwah, Short Story 2020 Longlist

A Call For Help!

“Sweetie, could you be a doll and quietly fetch me a salt shaker from the kitchen without drawing your Mom’s attention?” Dad whispered the words as softly as he could into my younger sister’s teeny-tiny ears, almost like an undercover agent out on a dangerous mission. Obediently, she put down the first bite of her wholewheat roti dripping with shahi paneer, oblivious to the fact that the gravy was, in fact, bland and better yet deserved to be on her plate than inside her mouth for now.


To be honest, we weren’t surprised. Mom was never really a great cook. She baked the most scrumptious desserts in the world, yes, but when it came to Indian cuisine, she could turn even the simplest of curries into the most complicated ones, almost as if she wanted to keep us guessing the nature of those dishes for a while.


But it was understandable. Mom had as little experience (or rather interest) with cooking as Dad with fashion, me with Mathematics and my sister with green veggies. So, none of us complained. These were tough times, and we had to learn to sail through them together. After all, it had only been a month since the lockdown was announced, and Mom was already spending more time in the kitchen than she ever did before. Partly because she sincerely wanted to learn; she finally had the time to do it right. But mostly, because she wanted to take her mind off the fact that she had nothing else to do anymore. A few weeks ago, she was the Marketing Head of The Palatial Hotels. She loved her job as much as her team loved her work, but due to the sudden dip in the economy, like millions of other helpless employees in the country, she was laid off too.


“Here, dad!” my sister jumped onto her seat as soon as she handed out the plastic shaker to him, proudly. Her timing was perfect for Mom was still on a call with Nani, enough for us to add the required amount into the gravy to make her believe that it was delicious from the beginning. But I knew this girl couldn’t be trusted with a salient task.

“Ohho, Misha! You brought pepper, not salt,” he said, almost resisting a facepalm.

“Don’t worry, Dad. I’m on it!” I announced, rushing into the kitchen with lightning speed. Unfortunately, I may have been a minute or two late as I saw Mom enter the dining area and swiftly pull out a chair right next to mine. Looking at me from a safe distance, she casually winked, as though she knew the sole reason for my approach already.


“If you’re looking for salt, it’s in the top cupboard with all the other spices,” she said.

We were caught, and I knew there was nothing left to say that could convince her now.

“I’m sorry honey. I know you tried really hard, but the gravy was just a little bland - very little. But kudos for efforts! Really!” Dad immediately came to rescue, kissing her hand.

“I agree with Dad. The paneer is cooked to perfection, Mom. It’s so tender and juicy.”

“You know I love you guys, but let’s admit. We all miss Radha’s delicious food! Oh, what I would do to drink that flavourful cup of tea she used to brew every morning - with fresh leaves of mint and chamomile. It used to be so calming!” Mom admitted wistfully.

“I miss playing with Radha Didi. She used to make me laugh,” my sister continued.


Radha was a 32-year-old woman who had been working with us for over ten years now. I was only a child of fourteen when she was called upon to help Mom with all the household work full-time. It was the year Mom decided to rejoin her office after my baby sister turned seven and was, thankfully, not as cranky as she used to be as a toddler. Especially not after Radha didi came to stay with us. She worked like magic, for we all instantly fell in love with her. It seems that even after all these years, we continue to remain spellbound by her genuine, unconditional care. She’s our family, and we’re hers.


“Did you get a chance to talk to Radha didi, yet mom?” I inquired while slicing paneer into bits with my spoon and adding it into the well of a roti filled with the orange gravy.

“Not yet, honey. I tried calling her number as well as her brother’s, but nobody responded. I don’t know where she has disappeared ever since she went back!”


It had been a while since Radha didi visited her hometown, a small village called Dhanak in the Pauri Garhwal district of Uttarakhand. A few weeks ago, she was informed that her mother had fallen ill. Ordinarily, she would turn to her brother for help who ran a tea stall in Bhimtal, earning warmly enough not just to feed his own family and their parents back in the village but send his daughter for studies in Shimla too. But this time, it wasn’t all about the money. She knew she had to be there come what may. She told us that she had a weird inkling that her Mom needed her more than ever.


Then again, who could blame her? Even if someone didn’t consciously think of the worst possible outcome, there was a melancholy so intense in the air at this time of the year that one couldn’t keep steady the track of their thoughts even if they wanted. Anyone who felt or looked even remotely sick was instantly victimised as a potential patient of Corona. Radha didi wasn’t as dramatic. She knew that her mother had been keeping ill for years. But it had been a while since she saw her mother’s shrivelled face. So, only a week before the nationwide lockdown, she took the earliest train to the hills and bid us all goodbye. And that was the last time we heard from her or saw her face.


“When will Radha didi come home, Mumma?” my sister questioned, gloomily.

“Soon, my love. It’s just a matter of a few days more. Everything will get back to normal.” Mom consoled while gently wiping away the gravy bits from the corner of Misha’s lips. I don’t remember the last time Mom did that. Radha didi was in the habit of doing that, following it up with “Messy Misha made a mess again!” and her bouts of ceaseless laughter. It was nice to see Mom spend some time with us too, though.


Actually, I don’t remember the last time my family sat at the dining table to have a meal together. Mom usually ate while working with her laptop placed right in front of her on the bed and a plateful of food on her lap, which she unconsciously devoured without even looking at it. Dad would always come in late, for his evening meetings with the families had the maximum potential of turning into a success. He owned a business of real estates, and these families were his clients whom he sold houses, flats and apartments located in and around the bustling suburbs of New Delhi. As for Misha and me, we were the only ones who ate both lunch and dinner together - with Radha didi.


To be honest, I missed her quite terribly. Not because of her countless good qualities or the way she made each one of us feel but due to the mere fact that sometimes, I took her for granted. I didn’t realise just how much I needed her presence until she was no longer around to wake me up. And though I tried to be as optimistic as possible, there was a weird feeling in my stomach that I couldn’t seem to digest, an uncomfortable thought that I couldn’t shake off ever since she left - a sense of uncertainty, even of guilt, maybe. I don’t know why or what it was, but it made me want to close my eyes shut and think of the future when everything would be alright - just as Mom had promised.


……………….


It was 5:45 when I woke up with a jolt. My throat suddenly felt sore, so I reached out to the nearest bottle of water that lay on my untidy bedside desk. It wasn’t as cold as I wished, but somehow, more than enough to quench my thirst in the middle of the night. As I checked my phone, I realised it wasn’t midnight anymore. It was the exact time when Radha didi used to wake me up for my morning Yoga class, and Misha for school.


I lay awake on my bed for a few minutes, with films of happy, colourful images playing themselves in my head like a slideshow of cinematic memories. I wonder what Radha didi must be doing at this precise moment. If only I could talk to her, just hear her voice a little; that would make me content. Or see her face and do a video call, perhaps? I wanted to call her on Whatsapp, so much so that I even reached out for my phone, but immediately enough, something stopped me, and I could feel that it wasn’t the right time. She was always the first person to wake up this early at our home. “Let her sleep peacefully at least when she’s in her own home,” my mind dictated. But I knew I had to do something, get this whirlwind of thoughts out somehow. I could no longer resist.


So, I got up from my bed, freshened up, brushed my teeth, washed my face and within a few seconds, I snuggled back into the blanket with a journal and a pen in my hand. I had been doing this since I was a little kid. It was my Mom’s idea initially. She knew that I had attained the habit of overthinking from her. That unless I vented out all my emotions, they would keep bottling up inside me and lead to mini volcanic bursts. So, she suggested that every time I had something to say to a person which I couldn’t express verbally or thoughts rushing through my mind like a storm with bolts of lightning, I should take a diary and start writing in it. Write as much as I could, as much as I could suffice. Even if my hands begin to hurt, I should continue writing until the moment my mind feels as light as a feather in the sky, free to wander effortlessly in life.


As a result, here I was, attempting to write an open letter to the one person who had spent every ounce of her energy in keeping my home and family safe, sane and startlingly satisfied for the past ten years. I decided that this would be her ‘back to home’ welcoming present. I would read it out loud to her and explain and translate every sentence or word if I had to; that would make her smile. But I wanted to do this more than just to make her happy. I wanted her to know what she truly meant to all of us.


It turns out that I had a lot to say, but this was all my mind had allowed me to express:


Dear Radha Didi,


I wanted to start this letter by apologising to you. Do you remember that day when you found this diary while cleaning my room? I shouldn’t have gotten mad at you for keeping this elsewhere and not where I usually placed it. How would you have known of all my secret possessions and hideouts? I’m sorry I didn’t speak to you for days, seemed unnecessarily rude and even refused to thank you for that incredible Jhangora Kheer, a Garhwali sweet that you prepared especially for me. It was so yummy I couldn’t resist sneaking into the kitchen later and having some more when everyone fell asleep.


But you still forgave me without questioning my actions even once. Now that I think about it, my mind reminds me of a memory I had long forgotten. One day, when you saw me writing in this diary with such alertness and passion, you said that this is what I should spend my life doing. That’s when you told me to write something for you too. But I shoved it off as a joke and never thought about it since then - until now when I started missing you. Well, now, look at me. This whole letter is just for you, didi. Only you!


Thank you for being the rock of my family, and not letting it crumble into a million pieces like most of the other working families at the slightest inconvenience today. From day one, you were like a burst of sunshine into our lives. You made me and my sister feel so loved and special, showed such respect and loyalty towards every aspect of your work and to each one of us that Mom never spent a second resenting her decision of going back to work. It’s because of you that she lived the best years of her career without worrying too much about healthy meals or homework or our daily sleep. She was confident that you took care of it like a mother, and she was right. No matter how swamped or tensed she was with work, you also never let her feel guilty or irresponsible for not giving us enough time. Instead, you gave us all of yours and in fact, encouraged Misha and me to be as hardworking as Mom, learn from her spirit and make her proud of us too. You admired her strength, and because of that, we were inspired by her.


Thank you for doing your work with so much love and care that it never seemed as if you were a stranger hired for help. You took care of our home and family as if it was your own. Undoubtedly, it is and will always remain yours, no matter where you are.


Thank you for giving us the most amazing food experiences of our life. Whether it was your delectable Garhwali specialities like Aloo Jhol (a hearty, potato curry), Dubuk (a traditional, black bean dal) or Kandalee Saag (a dish made of Bichu Ghas and spices) or mouth-watering versions of Gulaab Jamun, Mutton Biryani and Jammu-style Rajmah Chawal, you are the sole reason why none of us ever felt the need to visit restaurants or order from out. Whatever you made represented a part of you in it - a hint of modernity but with the wholesome goodness of traditional values. Not only did you give us a taste of your hills but also improvised our favourite treats in the world, which we ended up loving tenfold. I wonder why you never feel the need to quit our job and open a restaurant of your own in the hills. Maybe, I’ll help you do that someday. We all will.


Thank you for taking care of my sister’s tantrums ever since she was a little kid. I know she can be a handful sometimes, but if there’s anyone whom she listens with such unwavering concentration, it’s you. You’re extremely special to her - maybe, even more than all of us. The way her face lights up when you tickle her or make her laugh is equivalent to a sky, tremendous with stars. The way she respects your judgement when you scold her for doing something wrong is commendable. With you, she’s not afraid to be herself. You’ve seen her act like the worst bully in the world and the quietest, sweetest little child too and the fact that you still love her in every way and treat her the same is what gives her faith. So, thank you for making her feel so special every day.


Thank you for being my Mom’s soul-healer. Since you were the only woman closest to her age who was neither intimidated by her success nor despicable of her working hours, you were better than all her best friends combined. Not only did you support her unconditionally during the worst of times but made her endless cups of tea with atta biscuits - which she relished - when she was forced to burn the midnight oil. When she sprained her leg, I remember how you massaged her ankle and heel for hours with your gentle fingers and peppermint oil, soothing the pain and stubbornness away. Praying for quick recovery each day, you became the best doctor this family had ever gained.


Thank you for being so kind and patient with my Dad too. We all knew he was short-tempered initially - the kind which made people so upset that they left and never returned. Mom had to endure it for the longest time. We all did. And I know you had to deal with it too. I apologise from his side. He has improved significantly, I promise. Being the breadwinner of the house is at times, weighty enough for the person to feel crushed. Frustrated, he must have taken his anger out on you when you misplaced his files while cleaning his study or when you sent his favourite shirt out for laundry on the day of his most important meeting. Thank you for understanding him without any words.


Lastly, thank you for everything mundane, small, big and beautiful that you did for me, every single day. For waking me up in the mornings on time, for feeding me with scrumptious Aloo Parathe whenever I wanted, for your words of encouragement whenever I scored less in Maths, for wiping away my tears whenever I fought with my pals, for calming me down whenever I felt unloved by Mom and Dad, for sharing your favourite childhood stories of mountains at night, for decorating my room to perfection on every birthday, for standing at the bus stop in scorching heat and carrying my heavy backpack as soon as I’d step out of my school van, for bringing me lemonade in summers and hot, sweet teas in winters, for letting me teach you a few words of English, for watching my favourite movies with me and laughing at the same times as I did, for all the Garhwali songs you taught me so well, for your unequivocal affection, for your precious smile, for your existence in our lives… and for countless other things, I can’t seem to remember right now - most of which I can’t certainly thank you enough.


Last but not least, thank you for being you. Welcome back - we missed you!


Soon after I penned down my feelings in the diary, I slept like a baby who had just been fed with warm milk and could finally dream in peace. But I didn’t know my dreams were about to come crashing down. Mom and Dad called me into their room and gave me the kind of news that left me shaking from head to toe. Radha didi was no more. The infection had spread from the old mother to her only daughter, who had agreed to come in contact with her despite the consistent warnings and unfavourable symptoms.


As Mom and Dad discussed how’d they break this terrible piece of information to little Misha, I sat on the edge of their bed, frozen, wondering why I hadn’t thought of calling her a few days ago. What had stopped me from telling her how much she meant to me? Or that I needed her just as much as I needed my own family? But most importantly, why didn’t she feel the need to call us when she knew the dangers that lay ahead?


Was there nobody else she could turn to for guidance or direction?

Was her call for help nowhere as important as ours had meant to her all these years?


Clouded with endless questions and the most painful thoughts I had possibly endured, I held the diary close to my chest one last time and went back to sleep, knowing that this year was bound to be the slowest one so far. And I had lost the will to write about it.

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