This story is by Manju Patnaik and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I love drinking chai in the evenings. Today, sitting on the verandah of this house, drinking chai accompanied with a plate of hot pakoras only heightens the experience. This house is special. The garden in the front is in full bloom with jasmine, hibiscus, and bougainvillea. On both sides of the house and in the back is the fruit and vegetable garden with sapodilla, pomegranate, mango, banana, coconut, guava, moringa, and more. My tropical paradise, in a bustling metropolitan. I was the first to arrive. My sister and cousins will be arriving tomorrow. The eight of us grew up in this house and for the last time we will be spending time together in our childhood home.
My grandfather (thatha) built this house in 1971, just before he retired from his crusades with the United Nations. The house is exquisite. On the outside the shell pink facade is whimsical and the inside beautifully designed. The formal drawing room with its three-storey high ceiling and central crystal chandelier made many a person gape at the beauty of this room. The floor to roof French doors on both ends of the room and well-placed windows in the higher parts of the walls fill the room with natural light. My grandmother (mama) collected exquisite artifacts from their travels together. She had decorated every room tastefully. But it is more than just a beautiful house, it is a home. It is my childhood home. My memories as a little girl begin in this home, and I will cherish them forever. I am sure my cousins feel the same.
After we completed our schooling we scattered around the world, each of us chasing our dreams. With our grandparents gone, our parents collectively decided to arrange for the sale of the house and its contents. Age had caught up with them too, and they were no longer able to care for the house. The moment the decision was made by the parents, we decided to come home one last time.
The cousins are spending the next month in our childhood home to reconnect, reminisce, and take back the mementos that mama had left for each of us. As I walk through each room in the house, I realize that I love it the way I remember it. Now it is only an exquisite shell one would find on a beach, empty. The essence of home left with my grandparents. The aromas from mama’s kitchen and the clicking of thatha’s Remington typewriter are long gone. The comforting smells and sounds are now missing. I yearn for them. I yearn for that time.
As I go to bed, I think back to my emotional state just before coming home. Spending time with my cousins was important, but I really needed this month to think about my future. To our family and friends, it seemed like I had it all – a beautiful family, a warm home, and a dream career. Contrary to the facade, my marriage was crumbling. After twenty-one years, the rift that started during the first year of my marriage had gotten wider. A rift created by our egos and no-compromise attitudes. As the years passed, the lack of communication between us only added to the distance.
We had grown so far apart that there was only silence. I had forgotten that love once existed between us. The pain and loneliness pushed me to the edge of an abyss. The longer I stared out into its calm darkness, the stronger was its pull. The void ahead seemed to promise me peace. One more step towards the abyss, and I could put a stop to the pain. Before I took the step, the call from home became the lifeline I needed.
The eight of us are here now. I savoured my time alone last night but seeing us all together fills me with joy. The kind of joy I had forgotten. Over numerous cups of steaming South Indian filter coffee and a wholesome breakfast of crispy masala dosas we talk about life and our childhood years in this house. I was the most gullible of the lot, believing everything I was told. Their favourite story to recount is the one about the haunted guava tree, right outside my room. Gullible twelve-year-old me, fell for it. I remember many sleepless nights.
We spend the rest of the morning reminiscing. After lunch, we gather around the trunk that was left for us. We are excited, knowing mama, there would be something special for each of us. Each gift would have a unique connection to us. The oldest cousin opens the trunk and inside are eight neatly wrapped packages, each package has a name on it. At this point, there is silence in the room; we miss her. I quietly grab the package with my name and head for some solitude. I think the rest do the same.
I shut the door to my room and flop down on the bed. I unwrap the package to see mama’s carved mahogany jewellery box. In it, she stored her daily wear jewellery and it used to sit on her dresser. I nervously open it to see a stack of letters. As soon as I saw the letters, I knew that these were the letters thatha wrote to her. The first time he travelled for work was when he first wrote to her. For the next fifty years, he never stopped writing her letters. The family knew these letters existed, but no one ever had the privilege to read them, these are now mine. Precious and priceless.
I spend the next four hours reading the letters. The letters are filled with details of the mundane like what he ate for breakfast that morning, sweet nothings, and the time they spent together. I am most surprised to read the sweet nothings. I have to say there are some blush-worthy parts. These letters contain his most private messages to her, and I am privileged to read them. To read my stoic grandfather quoting undying love, made me realize I was wrong all along about their relationship. Their marriage, contrary to what I thought, was not just a compromise. Thatha was a total romantic!
In one letter, he writes, “Don’t let their questions bother you. I know living with my family is hard. The women are old and gossipy and think they know it all. Hear them out and ignore them. Only think about me and our time together.” He does not reprimand her for complaining about his family, only provides a patient explanation that slowly veers to coaxing her to think about him. I know they faced many challenges, but the letters throw light on a relationship that stood strong despite the challenges’ life planned for them. Through the letters, I realize that even though they came from very different worlds, they were an unbreakable team. They made sure to leave their egos at the front door. At the bottom of the pile, I notice letter addressed to me. I recognize mama’s handwriting.
As I read the last letter, I realize mama was deliberate in leaving me the letters. Her letter to me is about the commitment, perseverance, and limitless patience needed to make a relationship work. The last few sentences in her letter to me are, “My darling, put your ego aside because it will limit your love. Do something simple the next time you see him, just hug him.” Thatha’s letters to her always started with “My darling” and always ended with “yours lovingly SC”, and the in- between said it all. They had learnt to beat the physical distance, family interference, financial difficulties with love, commitment, and boatloads of patience. The gift from mama gave me a lot to think about for the rest of the month.
The month is filled with love, laughter, and tears. With promises to meet more often as we head back to life. On the flight home, I am a mixed bag of emotions. Happy to have had this time to myself, sad to be losing a cherished connection to my childhood, anticipating the next time all of us get together, and nervous at what I will do when I walk into my home.
The taxi pulls up to our house, and I only see my beautiful children and our dog await me in the front yard. I am disappointed not to see him. Suddenly, I see him walk out the front door to help me with my baggage. After he pays the taxi driver, we take the baggage in. The kids and dog are all clamouring for my attention asking a million questions an hour. Our eyes meet over the chaos, and as I start to take a tentative step towards him, he looks away. Maybe I will take mama’s advice and hug him.