Friday, December 26, 2008

The Pilgrimage

A short story

Kadambari’s vision of her was something like a sepia-toned postcard from a bygone era. A long-shot with her sitting in a spotless white cotton saree, in an armchair framed through the doorway of a garden-laced bungalow. The expression on the face, as recalled through the tunnel vision, was mysteriously benign, a smile playing on the lips – very serene. Kadambari would see that image every time she went to her husband’s mofussil home-town in Vijaipur.

The very first visit to the hamlet was a bit of a culture shock for the city-bred Kadambari. The narrow crowded streets with honking buses and wayward rickshaws, the billowing dust and the grunting pigs made her want to rush back home. The only time she perked up was within the purlieus of historical monuments, walking down the labyrinthine corridors of the mausoleum of Ibrahim Rouza or ruminating at the sepulchre of Gol Gumbaz. The voices and the whispers that resonated eerily in the buildings carried tales to her - of epic love and monumental tragedies - from another time-space.

The small-town people were a complete enigma – happy, like children, in the smallest pleasures, and brave in  the face of great adversities. As the place and its people grew on her, she warmed up to it, albeit with a little reticence. For in the eyes of the locals, Kadambari thought, she was an oddity, a specimen from another planet to be dissected threadbare, unabashedly. This would leave her unhinged and she would desperately grope for an anchor. It was then she met Mrs. Chitre.

Chitre’s and Kadambari’s husband’s family ties went back a long way. Local custom demanded that the couple call upon relatives and friends, friend’s friends and old acquaintances unfailingly, and therefore, one day Kadambari found herself willy-nilly at the doorstep of the woman of the memory-picture. As Kadambari entered the gate, the garden transported her into a virtual world. It was an incongruity in that barren turf of heat and dust. Psychedelic bougainvillea curled up the walls obliterating them and heads of roses, dahlias and gladioli of every hue jostled each other dancing in the lilting breeze. The scent of the flowers and greens was intoxicating. The house seemed to hug her in its cool comfort and Kadambari instantly felt at home.

She saw Mrs. Chitre up, front and close. The regal woman in white acknowledged her presence with a friendly, but distant, smile. She was beautiful - in a motherly-sort of way. Short, a little on the plump side, with neatly parted hair knotted on the nape, and flawless glowing skin. She spoke little, smiled a lot, and gazed at a distance from time to time. For all her smiling, there was stoicism about her. When she spoke it seemed to underscore her silence – the depths of her stillness. She talked of tales here and there but nothing about herself. Her words were measured and held Kadambari in thrall. Something about her persona gripped Kadambari and all too soon it was time to leave.

In small towns, where herd mentality prevails, and everybody, especially women, are expected to toe the demarcated line so that they do not become social outcastes, Mrs. Chitre was a non-conformist. She was everybody’s acquaintance but nobody’s friend. Women moulded in orthodoxy’s assembly line could not relate to her. She wouldn’t attend bhajan mandalis nor visit temples for katha-kirtans. She did not hold haldi-kumkum soirees as was wont in these places nor celebrate festivals in their ritualistic garb. All she did when she could make time from her daily chores was tend to her Garden – an oasis she had created out of void in the midst of aridity. Her life story was something similar.

With an invalid husband and an imbecile son as liabilities, her family life was full of relentless hardships. Her husband, though not a bad sort, was not very productive or aspirational, and relied on her for emotional sustenance, and after the paralytic stroke, even for physical support. Almost every waking hour of her existence slipped in ministering to their needs and demands. Not the one to complain, she buried her desires deep down to happily be their crutch. On the heap of her sacrifices was built the paradise of her home. Adversity, it seemed, had made her gentler, more genteel. She came out on her own only in her Garden. She had poured her woes into a parched landscape and breathed life into it. Gardening was her puja, her offering to her personal God.

Kadambari grew fond of her and there existed between them a bond from their shared love for gardening. She would visit her whenever she went to her husband’s home-town; Mrs. Chitre’s Garden was to be her refuge in an alien and unfriendly world. Every time she visited Mrs. Chitre she would introduce some exotica like Daffodils or Madonna lily or Antirrhinums which miraculously flourished in the foreign soil, without much ado, under Chitre’s green thumb. Looking at the bursting foliage and flora, Kadambari would wonder whether Mrs. Chitre spoke to her plants, and if she did, what had she to say to them for them to so prosper! Did Mrs. Chitre open out her innermost desires and fantasies to them? What secrets did she share with them? Did she tell them stories of her past which not many were privy to? Did they know the real Mrs. Chitre? 

In one of her intimate moments, Mrs. Chitre had revealed to Kadambari her unfulfilled wish. She had said: “I don’t want to go on any yatra or pilgrimage in my old age; I only wish to visit gardens all over the world. Then I will have achieved nirvana.”

Kadambari was tormented by a maze of questions about this mysterious woman. It was not difficult to imagine that Mrs. Chitre must have been incredibly beautiful in her heydays. What dreams must have awakened in that breath and died unrealized? What romantic aspirations must have fired that heart? Where does all that love-energy dissipate when it does not get properly channelized or finds the right receptacle, as in a barren life such as hers? Her plebeian  and unfortunate circumstances were for all to see, and yet, the house bore tell-tale signs that were keyholes to her identity. On the wall of her room, Mrs. Chitre had painted a mural of a flock of white doves in flight, delicately blending into the pastel shade of the wall. It was the flight of a private soul, a yearning of an individual with clipped wings.

Kadambari’s visits became infrequent and she could see Mrs. Chitre age gradually. There was puffiness in the face, wisps of hair came unstuck from a well-groomed back-knot, but the smile and complexion were as radiant as ever. The Garden seemed to grow from strength to strength.  Kadambari’s own life was an unrelenting web of activities; so much to do and so little time! She did get news about Mrs. Chitre intermittently from transiting relatives or acquaintances. Once she heard that a large part of the garden had been demolished by the City Council in the process of road widening. Kadambari could picture the monstrosity of road dredging equipment shattering the peace of the place and mucking the flower beds with the detritus of its depravity. She imagined the house that had been a clandestine cove now being exposed brutally like a sore wound to unsympathetic and prying eyes. But what she could not imagine was the extent of agony the soul would have experienced and harboured. And then she heard of the demise of Mrs. Chitre.

A smorgasbord of memories flashed across Kadambari’s mind – the garden, the gentle breeze, the rustling of leaves, the mango-laden tree, perfumed jasmine riding the air, the lotus and fish in the pond, and amidst it all, a serene visage and the pristine saree. Mrs. Chitre’s desire to see gardens across the globe had remained a dream.

Kadambari had no time to visit the hamlet until many years later.  A visit to the Garden was a must. With trepidation and emptiness, Kadambari entered the gate, which had once upon a time charged her with super zeal. The Garden lay waste. The armchair in the doorway was bereft. The son led Kadambari to the centre of a diminished courtyard where the mother’s ashes were disbursed. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, there she lay in the soil that she so loved and nurtured. All energy ebbed out of Kadambari and she slowly sank onto the swing which is when she saw it. A small shrub had resiliently thrust itself through a crack in the cement and put forth the most exquisite flower Kadambari had ever seen - waving gently in the breeze, its heady fragrance lingering. Staring at the flower, Kadambari  was awestruck: “what depths, what nuances, what untold misery and yearning lent itself in making the flower beautiful in its many splendour!”