Mastering others is strength. Mastering oneself makes you fearless.
- Lao Tzu
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Tej crossed her legs, pulled ankles in and sat there trying hard not to stare at them. What was this thing falling on her like a new emotion ? Her new shoes hurt, everything hurt as if that were normal - 6 pm light sweeping leaves in the park; a young mother and child in identical blue black hair, a boy in crutches, two joggers, one in dreadlocks. Why was everything clean fresh showered, wasn't the earth supposed to mourn a passing, a death - it's stupid box, and meaningless speeches. The girl missed her parents, but this was more. This was more than what tears were for, this was too wide, too low, too too much to comprehend. She uncrossed her legs and stared at her new sandals. Black. Shiny new, hurtful pinching new. Nice. Now can we go home. Where what was home, hey why was she in black sandals?
An older couple smiled at her. They held hands lightly, hers in his elbow, half in the space between them. What were they, 60, 70, 80? Hard to tell. Too brisk for 80, maybe 70, but this sharp? He whispered something in her ear, she leaned at him, then pulled away like they had been doing that a long time. Like ballet.
Tej could not take her eyes off them. The lady wore a white full sleeved pullover over grey kurta and suede pants. And well-worn running shoes. He was a head taller than her, 6 ft? Steel grey hair, a Sean Connery. What must they have been at 24, 25, who were they anyway, casual park people, a short walk here before they went back home? Tej shut her eyes. She could just see their home - quiet restful, like them, pinewood desktop, a dining area and kitchen, much loved cushions and hand-quilted covers in the bedroom, framed pictures of their children now in some other part of the world, a wedding picture of them, she in silk gold embroidery, he in ghee coloured sherwani ? She shook herself. "What is wrong with me!"
Her words fell in her throat, fell like tears that could arrive, just half there,
dearest God, what is this but a breath here and gone- the way they went, her Ma and Pa in one insane moment of rash driving. There would be a case, a hearing. There would be the rage and the ebb. All eyes would be on her asking if she could forgive the boy arrested on charges of drunk driving, a battery of charges leading to manslaughter. What was there to go to court for, a death penalty had already been meted, two of the best people that had ever lived were now six feet under. Flowers at their twin graves were still fresh: mogra, lilies, white, pale mauve, pink, their green stalk leaf a bright bottle green. Ay, Life : how It could look innocent, pure, guiltless. Where did It go? No way she was pulling out year-end decor and pretty greeting cards from twenty years ago, no giving in to cousin Sheila's insistence on a family night, let them go ahead. ‘Sean Connery’ and wife were on a return amble, how dare they have that much peace. Tej turned away but it was too late, they saw her and smiled. Something ran through Tej’s chest.
"Hi,” the lady said, a low-voice velvet and husk. "We see you every evening these days alone, where are your ... uh.. parents?" Tej now recognized them, they were from the flower shop.
"Yes, lost them both. An accident. Thanks for asking. Sorry I haven't seen you or said hello. You knew them ?"
"Not at all, but we saw you three. What a lovely thing to have a daughter, we always thought. Never had kids." He was still smiling. One gold tooth, and dimple in left cheek.
"Shocking, this accident, but how are you child, where do you live, and..."
"Lara, I'm sure she's doing fine, but just in case you ever need anything, here this is us – house next to the flower shop, the Salins. I'm Henry. This is Lara.” He took out a visiting card.
“Tej. I'm Tej. "
It was nearing 7pm when she walked in their gate, twilight was indigo, deep purpling indigo, an Indian December, Bangalore bright with Christmas decked trees, windows, roofs, terraces, lanterns, and the mist in it all and her hair. She wound it in a knot and followed them in. Inside, it was like she had expected, like a hearth, not exactly pinewood this and that, warm yes, but rustic almost : pottery in stages, someone here was an artist, there was an easel, a stack of finished canvas, brushes in extra large jars. Over it all hung the smell of turpentine, varnish and fresh paint.
"We paint, now and then, it's how we met at the JJ school of Art, Mumbai. Bangalore back then was not so crowded you know. It was a honeymoon here, still is in many ways. No pressures. Sell ? Nah. Hardly sell any paint, or pottery for that matter, who cares na, stay happy, what else ?”
He brought in whole wheat biscuits, chicken garlic, hot leek soup - shreds of ginger, one or two smashed pepper, and corn. For a long moment and between sips, Tej
didn't know what to say, then she gave them little details about the office, her long hours and early marriage break up.
And how now at 27 she was washed out, not even sad enough to feel much.
(She didn't tell them that last sentence, but it kind of hung in the air, waiting to be understood).
Lara hugged the girl with her eyes and Tej felt it strange, new, beyond experience; more than when Ma hugged her, this was warmth in winter. Ma’s was Spring-summer-baby calves leaping off a stall, bruised grass for the leaping joy of calves. Lara’s eyes moved away, she understood?
No one knows too much about these things, but now and then we pass each other's windows. Now and then we might even walk each other's doorways, sit in another's chair, walk another's shoe, in another's mile, it is a fleeting honor. Often, but rare, we might touch another's vibrance, in sorrow or joy.
Tej could not understand this, much ; she had to live more, like Lara had.
The older woman had seen another life, years of almost too much love, not with her parents, but with him. With Henry.
Henry was old school, colonial Indian Metro nice guy, an artist and a natural Richie-rich with coffee estate in hilly Coorg, they grew it with pepper and cinnamon; Lara loved everything about him- his quiet parents in Coorg’s South Indian green hills, their four bedroomed villa and one son Henry, three dogs, four coconut trees, jackfruit, mango, plantain leaf a tender green in early noon Mays before monsoon. She had had no parents, she grew up with kind aunts and uncles here and there, there were no wounds in Lara's heart just the gratitude of a woman who walked through valleys, hills and plains and came out on the arm of Henry. The Chapel at Madikeri had all his people and few of hers, it had mist going through their morning wedding, mist and Poinsettia in the hedges in the gate way as she stepped into their white ambassador car with white bougainvillea all over every visible bit of fence. Someone forgot to get her a bouquet, it was a rushed hurried wedding simply because they decided to hurry with it, and they didn't really really stop to think, hey there has to be a bouquet?! But Henry, later, brought her bouquets every excuse he had. If she sprained her neck, or was on a hormonal low, if there were too many clouds that day, or if he was tired. He got her roses, lilies, bird of paradise, orchids...
he got the shop for her on her birthday and she spent hours each day snipping off ends and clearing jars, they ran out of jars and put the flowers in buckets, copper
ware kitchen vessels, larger mugs, it was worth it. Lara had those kind of filled eyes and Tej saw it – it ran into her a bit, she couldn't imagine how, but there is a way these things run into us from each other, some of these unguarded times when we forget to close our doors and windows, and eyes.
Her new friends gazed with words she could not read altogether, not just yet. It was going to dinner. Without any preamble, Lara Salins, brought in three bowls of spaghetti - tossed baby corn fry, mince cutlets gold brown in chipped porcelain and bowl of marshmallows.
They watched a movie and then half of another. She would never recall what they saw, who or what was going on where. This went to days all that winter, mid traffic snarls, carol singers, and mist in the Gulmohar trees between Tej’s apartment and the Salins’. They met at the park and would follow each to the other’s place without invite and formality, the way shadows mingle in markets and road crossings, without having to ask. A season had been stolen out, taken out of her being, like a rib torn out, a hollow that would fill with its own brand of filling with an emptiness. And it reared a new thing with no name for it, some call it healing, some call it peace. Perhaps it is a change of seasons of the soul, a new solstice, a leaving and an arrival together. It made a person, like a Harbor with many ships. Tej never found a proper word for the way she felt as all this began.
The flowers every Sunday at her parents grave wilted, like her wound, it wilted - wilting, the dying of a wound itself, the end of That kind of losing. The kind of event that caves us out for filling, it whets our appetite for a quenching. Perhaps this was the reason for winter. It would come again, but not like before. Back then we thought this was all there was, a bitter cup, an ending, an Over, but not now. Once you know winter’s secret it sets you up for Spring and harvest, and cusps between : gold in brown grey pavements, electric wire overhangs, made-up potholes and ink black eyes of people in the streets searching, searching, not half knowing how close we all are to miracles. Perhaps this is the purpose of Human beings – to rake out our winters, and then spring in new fields on each, or self : not just us us us… each for their own…but in the aftermath of loss, an inter- field smudging of borders, with or without consent- it just happened, you were fortunate, worth a Fortune measured in a currency man has probably not yet stocked. This new emotion, the cusp of spring, arriving in our hoard of nerves, our supplies of health : in that Place between life, the
dead and the dying, this secret transaction some call healing. Towards the middle of her life Tej bought a flower shop, she went for walks in that park and learned the secrets of Leek in Soup, Mince Spaghetti and how people found a new piece of themselves in food or flowers, how we are different from each other, why some of us walk different from the other, in the way we hold hands, or do not; the way we might fold them, or shut our eyes; in how one might tilt their head to a bird, or the sound of it. Some of us - birdwatchers, some not. Some of us tea drinkers, soup haters, depending on the stories we attach to each, depending on the way we weigh our stories, the way we harbor or discard them, some of us, just watch others, Watchers of Life, Watchmen of the way we do, or do not need each others’ proximity or remoteness, our solitudes and our noises – conversant, or mutant, they reproduce us in cycles, in cluster-meteors of eternal edgeless days breaking out in flowers and the sweat of monsoon umbrella stacks in corners of shops;
among congregations of mist thick memoirs, hiding, leaving, arriving They Linger, past present future, perhaps even in the aroma of first rain- Petrichor and rain lilies: a memo of a future season, but nothing like the past, it is more us than we ever used to be, more than we thought we could be, a new present absence, memoirs of a tomorrow that balance new with the old, yes there is always more after the rejection of the dying. They reject us, they walk away, but we continue with what was. If that's unfair, there's no way enough to say it to the cluttered left overs, It was all too much, too much among the living remnant, of those living among the dying, among the dead, and those who live like the dead – Grateful, ungrateful Livers, Tej stared:
after years and years of that, she saw there was at least one nameless emotion :
this thing between contentment and discontent, a searching seeking place –
it's Contentment was that it understood discontentment; it was Discontent when it was content: she settled for the former with a grin.