By: Debadatta Pati
‘Mile sur mera tumhara’ was my mother’s favorite song when I was hitting puberty. I was twelve, maybe thirteen. I don’t remember the exact time when she started humming this song all the time. The song had become something of a rage in India back in those days, in the late eighties. My mother would be chopping the onions, while the cumin seeds would have had drowned in the hot oil in the oak, and the kitchen wares would be all around her. Then she would put the chopped onions in the oil, and you could hear her humming this song. I heard this song so many times on the television but it was nothing like when my mother sang. Sometimes, she would sing louder. She hardly went for anything other than songs which were patriotic or religious in nature. That was something I could never really make out.
‘Mom, where did you learn singing like that?’ I would ask.
‘It just comes along.’ She would say. ‘Not everything is taught to you.’
‘Then why won’t you consider a career in singing? Maybe, you could have sung that song.’
‘Well, I am happy to sing it for you. And that means the world to me.’ She would say, kissing my cheek.
Shortly after that, I tried my luck in a singing contest in school. I always hummed lots of songs and in my head, they sounded quite well. So, I thought to give it a shot. I started practicing in front the mirror. My father tried to talk me out of it. Well, technically he ordered me not to go with the singing thing. There were other contests, like quiz, discus throw, athletics and what not. He always pushed me for those competitions. He and my mother would come to cheer me in soccer games. I couldn’t understand what was the big deal about singing? And, surprisingly, I found my mother too didn’t oppose him. She did not advise me against it but she was not with me, in this.
Anyway, I enrolled my name for the singing contest. My parents were not in the audience, which actually made me a little nervous. However I was hell bent on making this thing happen, and I was determined to pull this off, make a point to them. My name was called after 3 students. The girl who sang before me was really good, and there was a huge round of applause for her. I got on to the podium and stood before the microphone. It seemed like everyone was waiting to crush me down with all the stares and whispers and deadpan expressions, as if they were all incapable of experiencing thrill or joy. I took a long breath. It relaxed me a little. Then I started singing while people clung to their affairs of being joyless. The whispers continued. In the midst of singing, I realized that I should have talked to the guys with instruments first. They were playing the instruments, and I caught on after a little while, which pacified me inside. My song got over in 3 minutes maybe, and the audience was so unmoved. A few of them clapped, and that was it. What the hell? I felt like I would pass out. My head was bursting. I went to my seat quietly and thought how I couldn’t strike a chord with anyone. I just couldn’t figure out what went wrong.
The next day I did, when a group of my classmates passed me derisive glances. One of them walked to me and said, ‘Hey, you know, all the donkeys have left the town?’
‘What?’ I muttered, unable to figure out where this was going.
‘They have to hide their faces, now that their brother is a hotshot singer.’ He said and they all started laughing. Something went off in my head and I pushed him. He pushed me back, and we started fighting. A few bruises on my face and a wound on his and the interference of others took it to stop.
But in my heart, I harbored a grudge against my mother. I understood that I was not that much of a singer. Still the resentment wouldn’t go away. There were lots of things to do, and I didn’t have to dwell on it although every time somebody went up the podium and sang, it felt like I was in a corner of the earth where no human is ever going to set feet.
I considered myself as a rebel afterwards which meant I acted on my own. Soon, I got in to some trouble with some neighborhood boys and things took a bad turn. I left home at 19 and had a series of jobs till I turned 24, and returned home, when my father was on his deathbed. The rebel in me had been dead then.
In a hypothetical world, the way it seems till now, my parents and I would have lived happily, having reconciled our differences. My mom would have sung from time to time which she had done for ever, and that might have poked the resentful but cooled down room in my heart, but because a long time had passed, I wouldn’t have cared much. You would think that you would settle down, and try to make up for lost time, be on the mend. Mornings with sunrise, nights with stars and moon. You would have three meals a day, maybe have a girlfriend or get hitched as per your parent’s wishes. So far so good. You had made some mistakes, and now you would let things take care of themselves.
So what actually happened?
I found a decent job in a bank after two weeks. Everyday I woke up in time, had breakfast, chatted up with mother, went to office, came back in the evening. I sometimes helped her in preparing dinner although she never really liked it. So I would sit down there, and listen to her singing. After so many years, we were slowly getting in to the routine of things. I could still remember the first time I had heard her singing that song. So many years have passed, so many things had happened but when she sang it, it seemed as if around us time had stood still although we have all grown up.
However, we live in a real world, and things happen just as they are meant to. Shortly after my arrival, my mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. She couldn’t sing anymore. The disease had messed her up badly. With treatment, she could speak with less difficulty but singing was out of question.
During that period, I realized how much I missed her singing. Onions getting chopped –cumin seeds go in to the hot oil- green chilies by her side. Everything in order but an important thread that connected them all was broken more or less for me. As if I was watching a rainbow and it had lost one of its colors forever.
My mother’s wish was for me to get married before she was dead, in sync with most Indian parents. Now that she was ailing, I decided to go for it. I had to do it anyway. A few years didn’t really make a difference.
‘I couldn’t gift you anything for the wedding.’ She said in a broken voice. At that time, she had some difficulty in walking and I told her that having her with me was the greatest gift.
3 years after that, my mother passed away. She had just woken up, brushed her teeth, and asked me what I wanted for breakfast, when she had the heart attack.
Several years passed. I had a daughter. The song again made to the evening news having been rerecorded. My wife and I decided to shift to a new place and rent the old house. While rummaging through our old stuff, I found several old family photographs, my mother’s diaries and old cassettes. Most of them were ruined anyway.
‘Can I play these cassettes?’ My daughter asked.
I gave her my nod. There was a black and white photo of my mother in her late twenties. She must be newly married at that time. I started counting. I was born in what year? 1975….
That was when I heard her voice, breaking in to my world like a flash flood. The same song. As if watching her photographs had somehow pushed me decades back, somehow altered the way time moved. How could I ever forget that voice? I sat down, chin in hand and tried to visualize if I would ever noticed her recording a song. Perhaps, she did it when I was not around.
Outside, a gentle wind swayed the branches of a mango tree by the window and made way for sunlight for one or two seconds. It fell on my mother’s photograph, and the song got over. I stared at the photo for a while. She had given me the greatest gift of my life, and all my gratitude and apologies seemed mundane before it.
My eyes started welling up. Everything that was lost and found lay before me and time had taken a back seat.
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