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A Hole In the Heart of My Family

ritu bhalla

(Suparna Singh is Director of Strategy, NDTV and Managing Editor of ndtv.com)

For over 20 years, I came home everyday to the same man at the front door. About a month ago, he left, carrying with him nine small bags and a few bundles of clothes tied together, their cheerful prints and colours at odds with the ache that seemed, like a strong-willed rope, to have corralled us together one last time. Isn’t that what pain does best – string together people who are coming apart?

We came undone at the gate of the house he had entered as a young cook, him getting more portly and me thinner as we grew older.

A car filled with people waited for him, all of them headed to the hills, to small villages where they would scatter away after a nine-hour vacuum-packed journey, shoulders and knees rubbing and bumping together like some sort of bouncy nursery rhyme. He nodded to me and muttered something that sounded like “okay” except I know that is not a word he ever used.

“Let me know how you are,” I said, putting my hand on his shoulder, adding a muffled thank you that may or may not have found its way to the intended recipient. In a garden where we had stood hundreds of times, together or separately, he looked at me and cried. A reliable habit of breathing back tears, consolidated through my teens, failed to bail me out. So I cried too, while he allowed me to pretend I wasn’t.

The last person from my family he would encounter was my father. Both are men of few words. In the many years that they lived and operated in concurrent spheres of influence in the home that expanded to fit us all, they interacted frequently using an unwavering routine to speak for them.

There they stood, these two men with a vast collective history. He nodded at my father, who reached out and pulled him in for a hug. In the space above my neck where my head usually rests, features convulsed, not really able to work together. I felt that rope tightening its hold while the people waiting in the car stared with equal measures of impatience and curiosity.

Then he was gone.

For more than half my adult life, he was the person I encountered in the kitchen. Cursing the cricket team on the TV set was an essential ingredient in his cooking. He eschewed anything Bollywood, but I caught him smiling often at Amitabh Bachchan on Kaun Banega Crorepati as he ate his dinner. I tried sometimes to ingratiate myself into this calculus of man and television, only to be rebuffed. This was not a man who wanted to talk. To me. He would spend hours on his mobile phone (no Bollywood caller tune); if I happened to walk into a room where he was in the midst of a conversation, it was made clear that I would have to retreat. He was big on personal space.

I did not know, for years, how many children he had. When I asked, he would meander into a different equally short conversation about a leaking tap or a burnt-out light bulb that needed attention. Slowly, over years, he would say he was going home for a child’s wedding, and I totaled those occasions to learn he had a son and three daughters.

When it was my turn to get married, he was in unprecedented form, cheerfully directing an ensemble cast that included free-lance cooks and tent virtuosos. “Here, here” was his preferred form of instruction. He did not wish me on my wedding day, though like other members of my small and close family, he breathed life into every part of it.

The most talkative he ever was with me was when we drove together to get him his first pair of reading glasses. He was nervous about failing the reading test. I told him I hadn’t passed it in many years, that passing was not the endgame in this case. When the letters came up, they were in English. The doctor propped up a hastily-drawn chart and off we went, to fail gloriously, celebrating the result with spectacles he chose. Pick another set, I said, for backup. In case these break. He smiled broadly and we returned with the extra pair.

Like a contained prophet, he helped me find the way to missing suitcases, leftovers and laundry with economically-given advice. I made do with “In the loft” or “near the washing machine”. With my little niece and nephew who visited every year, he was generous with exaggerated gestures, offerings of large helpings of ice-cream, oddly never refused, and some Hindi. “You want?” I would hear him ask, assent being granted gratefully by the visitors.

Like all family, we did not live together in a continuum of harmony. Points of difference were made and felt as we filled the geography of lives and space shared and yet carefully demarcated, both sides seeking with equal vigor the exit and entry points of privacy. My only real complaint was that he absolutely refused to oblige me by throwing out a plastic tray that was an assault on the senses. I would hide it when I left for work, and when I returned, there it would be, the hideous landing place of the slices of that evening’s dinner. I don’t know why that tray was indispensable for him. I learnt to live with it.

When he said last month that his right arm appeared to have gone numb, a family friend who is a doctor advised a scan.

He thinks he’s 47, nobody in his village has a birth certificate. That’s what he said after his first MRI showed a body streaked with cancer on the march. Months, said the doctors. For two weeks, my father and he visited top doctors and hospitals, always returning with a report that included high up the battering phrase “Stage 4.”

He talked to us and his children. He said he wanted to go home. The doctors agreed that was best. We worked out the practicalities of ensuring a regular delivery of medicines to his village; it was the sort of twilight that we stood in as we discussed this on the front lawn that would be of limited supply.

So after all the check-ups had been completed, and the stacks of medical papers filed into large binders, he said he’d like to leave. His son came down to collect him; they would carpool together back to their village in the SUV that was turning around now away from our corner. He didn’t turn around. I hadn’t expected him to, but I had waited – just in case.

The intricacies and logistics of our lives, shared for so many years, will extend long-distance. He will need help from the city; he will come back to see doctors; there will be calls for updates. All this I know.

Along with this. Every night, when I walk through the gate and past the garden to the front door, there is a hole in the heart of our family. The solace is it will never go away.

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