As Mira got out of the taxi, she heard the crows caw louder. The memories were faint, but she knew that mother would’ve sensed her arrival. She had always been intuitive that way. The prodigal daughter was back home. She wanted to get in before the neighbours saw her. There’d be a hundred questions, and she was in no mood to answer any of them. She looked at the grand old home that belonged to her ancestors, and waited for that feeling of homecoming. Nada. Zilch. She could never fit in anywhere.
She’d flown out of this nest eight years ago. In these eight years, she’d discovered a lot about herself. Travel makes one wiser, and yes, it had been the same for her. She had grown older, wiser and stronger. And yet, she was back here. In a place she didn’t want to be. She tried asking herself what had brought her back here. There were no answers.
Mira watched as her mother set the plates and tried to make her feel comfortable. It amused her. She’d last met her four years ago, when she’d flown out to Mumbai. Mother had stayed with her for six months. She looked older now. The lines around her eyes were more prominent. She was but the shadow of the woman who’d nurtured her day and night. Mira willed herself to feel anything, anything that would make her feel alive, but it just didn’t happen. She closed her eyes and tried to breathe.
The food was good, but she had no appetite. No sense of smell or time. No will. If only she could cry. Mother had sensed her pain, somehow. It didn’t surprise her.
Mira had always hated the place. They had come down to the village when father had died. Mira had been thirteen and a rebellious brat. She’d been angry at the whole world, angry with it for snatching away her happiness. She’d lost the one person whom she adored. She’d been angry at her mother when she tried to tell her that her father would never come back. Her mother had held her close, sometimes whipped sense into her. It didn’t calm her down. It spurred her to fight against the unfairness of it all.
The growing up years had been hell. While mother bore everything with a patience that infuriated her, Mira fought them. At every turn. She punched every bully, drowned every scream. She knew that mother could never understand her anguish. She wondered how her mother could go on without the man she loved. For mother always smiled, and always had something good to tell her. The days when her courage failed her, mother would be there, with her arms open. And so she hid her tears in her mother’s soiled sarees. Her mother couldn’t answer Mira’s questions, but she told her that it wasn’t the end of their life. She egged her on, and Mira started to believe that there was a life out there, waiting for her. She learnt that happiness indeed existed. And so she bore their taunts and waited for her day.
The day she got the job, she promised herself that she would never come back. She wanted to take mother with her, but she didn’t go along with Mira’s plans. Mother wanted to stay back and take care of the old house that had been bequeathed to them after her father’s death. Mira tried persuading her, but wasn’t successful. And so the distance grew. She’d see her mother once in two years. It was often mother who’d travel all the way to see her. Mira couldn’t bring herself to come back to the godforsaken place. She grew, from a wide-eyed innocent to a hardened career woman. Or so she thought. She had the whole world at her feet. A job that she loved more than her life. And the guy. The one person who made her believe in the childhood she never had. He brought into her life colors, and flowers. Happiness and trinkets. He made her feel like a woman.
They were associates. He was technically her senior, but the friendliest of the lot. She was a hard worker, and he seemed impressed by her brains rather than her looks. It gave her more courage to come out with her ideas. She wasn’t too keen on him, but gradually he won her over with his sly wit and charm. She was now madly in love with him, and it seemed to her as if she’d never lived before him. Though they were seeing each other, they managed to keep their affair under wraps for the longest time. Mira wanted to tell her mother that she’d finally met the man of her dreams. And then she learnt the truth.
The food was getting cold. Mira had been sitting by the window, watching the fireflies in the garden. Kamala looked at her and wondered if she could make her happy again. Her little girl had always been unsure of happiness, almost guilty to embrace it. She couldn’t see her defeated. The sad little figure reminded her of someone long dead.
That evening they sat in the courtyard, watching the crows create a ruckus over the bowl of rice mom had placed outside.
Mira wanted to scream, but no words would come out.
Mother asked if she’d be staying for long.
“I don’t know, ma.”
And then, she could hold back no longer. She told her how she’d found about his betrayal. He’d used her ruthlessly, and she’d believed in him. It had been all lies. When she found out that he was married, he’d coolly shrugged off the whole matter and told her that it wasn’t a big deal. It had all been one clever business proposition.
“Everything I worked for, ma, everything’s gone. I took pride in my work, and believed him when he said that he’d be by my side. I’ve lost everything I believed in. He betrayed me. I was such a fool. Never realized that he was using me to gain his own ends. He’s killed my spirit, ma! I don’t know if I can trust again.”
Kamala held the girl close and deliberated on it for a while.
“Remember that summer when we first came home?”
Mira looked up, and tried to remember. It had been so long ago. She tried listening to what mother wanted to stay. Her mind kept wandering.
“You were angry that we had to shift here, and I didn’t know how to tell you that we had no other place to go.”
“Do you miss him, ma?”
She smiled at the question, and said, “Not really.”
“Your father was a good man. The best father you could ask for.”
“And was he a good husband?”
She knew that the answer was going to affect her, somehow she knew.
“Your father never loved me, Mira. And I never had the guts to end the marriage. I was ready to do anything to be with him, while he was trapped with someone he couldn’t love. He wasn’t unfaithful to me, but I do know that he loved someone else.”
So, she hadn’t been born out of love. So much for all the things she’d believed in! Mira looked at the greys in her mother’s hair, and suddenly realized that she didn’t know her mother at all. How had she lived with it for so long? All these years she’d been too busy to ask. Too caught up in herself. She felt the lump in her throat grow bigger.
She walked out into the night. She heard her mother call out, but she didn’t want to stop. She crossed the little pond beside the house and walked on into the grove. It was pitch dark. There was a rustle and she felt something brush by. Some creature. She didn’t know how long she sat there. She’d always questioned her mother’s smiles and her happiness. She’d mourned her dead father, but never once felt grateful for what she had. So, she had one parent who’d gone on and one who had stayed back. And she’d forever waited for the one who wasn’t coming back. Never looked back at the one who’d waited with arms open, always holding her safe when she fell.
That was the moment Mira realized that she wasn’t weak. Or inadequate. There was so much of positivity left in her. She’d always triumphed where everyone else had failed. She’d prevailed where others gave up. She looked back on all the moments where she’d cried in anger and frustration, and all she could remember was her mother’s smile. It had been that smile that had given her the courage to go on even when others said she’d fail. If her mother said it was possible, it was. Oh, how blind she’d been all this time! Now she knew why her mother smiled. For love isn’t always what you get from others, it’s also that which is stored in you, as an inheritance. That which you give yourself. Her mother had given her all her smiles, not because she had to, but because that was what she was. It was the same happiness that bubbled in her, that had never stopped her from giving up. She wasn’t done yet.
Kamala heaved a sigh of relief as Mira walked into the house. It was almost dawn.
“I’m sorry, Mira. You didn’t have to know. I had no right to tell you that!”
Mira looked into her silver-grey eyes that had lightened with age, and said, “You had every right to, ma!”
Kamala was surprised when Mira sat at the dining table and pointedly looked at her plate.
The aroma of freshly cooked rice filled her senses. She felt the grains under her fingers and as she took the first mouthful, burning her tongue in the process, her eyes filled with tears. She savored the first morsel and realized she’d never tasted anything better. She was crying now, crying uncontrollably as she felt her mother wipe her tears away with the tip of her saree. She heard the birds bring in the morning and looked out at the rising sun.
She had finally come home.