The Tale of Four
By: Medha Godbole Singh
Shruti scuttled about in the kitchen, giving finishing touches to the pasta salad and Matar Paneer. She garnished the Paneer with Coriander and added a dash of oregano to the salad. Cleaning the sides of the ceramic containers meticulously, she pushed them gently at a distance to a side of the kitchen counter. After having gazed admiringly at the labour of her love and being satisfied enough, she sighed with relief and nodded in approval. Then she quickly took off her apron, folded it and kept it in the drawer beneath the counter. Lightly dusting her hands, Shruti rushed to her room to change into something nice. She had been in her most comfortable tees and pajamas the entire day. Despite having taken a shower, she had not changed into a different set of clothes. Just as she was about to finish wearing her favorite earrings and complete her look – which involved a simple black skirt and an off-white or cream coloured top, the bell rang. Shruti traipsed through the passage into the dining area and across the living room. She opened the door in anticipation. Amara and Nisha were at the door. As soon as the door opened there was a resounding and exciting ‘HII’ from the three of them. It had the same ring as it had, years ago when they were students together in the university for their Masters. Shruti was sure that their squeals of delight were heard all over the fifth floor. Rather, all over the wing of the building she stayed in, in a posh locality of Pune. Hugs followed the moment the two stepped into the house. Amara plonked on the couch, while Nisha found her spot on the floor next to where Amara sat.
The two settled and Shruti also took a seat on the Ottoman, next to the couch.
“Soo, finally, we meet ladies. It’s been quite a while, isn’t it?”
Nisha and Amara looked at each other, and then at Shruti and smiled. Nisha spoke.
“Yes, absolutely. Can’t tell you how happy I am to be here.”
“Where’s Dia though? Wasn’t she supposed to come?”
Amara interjected, her face a bit twisted, as if her face was doing the thinking, instead of the brain.
Shruti shrugged, while Nisha volunteered to call her. She was just about searching her number in her phone when the doorbell buzzed.
“Ah that must be her..”
Shruti rushed to open the door. It was indeed Dia. Hugs followed and then finally the four of them settled down. A few minutes of random banter about life was followed by homemade lemon and ginger drink with a dash of mint and lots of ice. Since the summer was at its peak, that drink was refreshing.
“So, how is your kiddo? Where is she?”
Amara asked Shruti, keeping her drink on the table.
“Ah, Anaya, she is perfect. She’s gone to her friend’s for some school project. She has started discovering a world outside the home and making connections with people outside the family.”
Shruti turned to Nisha.
“How is Maya? She is, umm, 2 years old?”
Nisha smiled. One could sense her imagining her daughter toddling around happily.
“Yes, almost. She is a happy child. Babbles all the time and cannot sit still, even for a millisecond.”
All of them laughed.
“You could have gotten her with you. Why didn’t you? We would have loved to see her.”
Amara’s tone had a faint hint of disappointment.
“She’s a handful, you know. Hamein baat karne nahi deti. Wouldn’t have let us talk.. And Rajiv was at home today, so I was free and relaxed.”
“One more round of drinks, anyone?”
Shruti asked cheerfully as she got up from her comfortable spot. There were approving nods from all the girls. They were not in a hurry and there was still some time for lunch. Dia volunteered to help.
Shruti led Dia into the tastefully designed kitchen. It was just about the right size. Shruti casually asked Dia about her plans to have a child since it had been a while she was married. Dia was getting some starters on the plate and she was stirring the lemonade. Looking at Dia, she tasted the lemonade and made a face.
“Well, we are not ready. Arjun and me are in a different headspace right now. Our careers have taken off sometime back. We are settling down now. Don’t want to disrupt the rhythm by having a baby.”
There was a pause. Dia fumbled a little while setting the mushroom starters on the plate. Dia turned to face Shruti and smiled confidently and darted outside. Shruti followed her, biting her lip.
Outside, Nisha was showing Amara her daughter Maya’s photographs from her phone. She was gushing over every photograph and the story behind it. Amara initially was excited but then she felt that Nisha was going on and on and on and on. She adored kids, not like she didn’t. But she felt that women sometimes went overboard when it came to showing off their children. They hardly got tired of telling everyone how smart or pretty or talented their son or daughter is.
Amara had phased out and was absent-mindedly looking at the photographs when Dia stuck her hand out in front of her with the drink.
“Ah, thanks! That will help. You are a savior.”
Amara winked at Dia, pointing to Nisha, who was completely engrossed in the photographs.
Dia managed to hide a smile and took her spot.
“Waise Amu, it’s been what 6 years to your wedding, right? Any thoughts? About a family?
Amara took a sip and calmly responded.
“Family? Aren’t we family? Me and Kunal, his parents and mine. We are family. We don’t actually need kids to call our unit a family. Dia also doesn’t have children. Does she feel something is amiss? Dia?”
There was an uncomfortable pause after that. Dia looked a little perplexed. She gently scratched her temple as she exchanged glances with Amara.
Finally the deafening silence was broken by Shruti clearing her throat.
“Who’s up for another round of starters?”
Nisha followed Shruti to one corner of the room to get the starters. They did not notice Dia and Amara had held hands for a second and had disengaged.
Starters and general gossip prevailed for a while. Then Dia made a face like a child and announced she was hungry. She was a child – as far as the group was concerned. She was the youngest in the group. All of them chuckled. Nisha patted her on the cheek like a mother would her child.
Soon after, lunch was served. All the others too had got a dish each – veggies, bread, including Gulabjams, for dessert.
Shruti took a bite of Gulabjam from a delicate bone china bowl with exquisite floral design. It was juicy and delicious. She closed her eyes as she savoured the taste.
“Anaya loves Gulabjam. She can eat like millions of them at one go.”
“Great. You can keep the rest. I have got loads.”
Amara bit into the tempting brown delicacy.
“This Gulabjam is pure joy.”
Amara had her mouthful. Dia and Nisha smiled and nodded in agreement.
“You know it is such a pleasure, also a huge pain in the ass, to see your kids grow up. To see their personalities evolve and become evident. It’s inexplicable – the feeling of nurturing someone, being a mother. You know Dia and Amu, you girls should seriously think about it. Also, the late it gets, you know what they say about the biological clock right? I mean I don’t believe in all that. But..”
Dia was clenching her fist. She couldn’t take it. She cut Shruti midway.
“You don’t believe in all that but you are still hankering for us to have children. What is it with women? Us? Are we less of women just because we don’t have kids? Is it only when you have your own children, does the essence of motherhood and nurturing a small human strike you? You may not have kids and still be a wonderful parental figure to someone else’s child. Why should everyone have children? Oh and then there’s also the matter of population explosion. Do people think even once about how they are adding to the already burdened earth? Forget that. There are so many kids who don’t have anyone. Adoption is a great option I feel. And no, I don’t think I am going to have my own child. I don’t know about Amara, but I am not.”
Dia banged her bowl on the table lightly and went to get her purse. Just then the bell rang. Shruti’s daughter, Anaya was back. The tension in the air was palpable. Anaya’s breath could have cut through the air. Shruti gave an uncomfortable smile as she went to hug her.
“Oh bachcha, we were just talking about how you like Gulabjamuns. Wash your hands and have some.”
Anaya went in as Dia realized she had forgotten her phone. She picked it up from the glass coffee table. While turning, she didn’t realize in a hurry that there was a delicate flower vase and knocked it off.
That was the tipping point. Shruti lost it.
“What the hell Dia. That’s it. Enough. My daughter is here. Stop creating a scene. I don’t give a damn if you don’t want kids or opt for surrogacy or adopt. My daughter is here and I don’t want to have my guests creating a bad impression on her. You needn’t knock things off to prove your point. The fact that you don’t have child doesn’t give you a moral high ground to pass a judgement on others who have. If nothing, it shows your incompetency to conceive. Or you are not intimate enough with your partner. And moreover, I don’t think what you said is even the real reason for you not having a child. What is it? Tell us. Let’s just gets this done with.”
If the living room would have been a battlefield, it was sure to have been bloody. There would have been bodies torn apart and weapons lying around.
Amara looked at Dia, closed her eyes in exasperation for a split second. Nisha was stunned at this turn of events and had to hold on to the arm of the couch for support. Dia was going to respond to Shruti’s outburst when Anaya came out, wiping her hands.
“What happened mumma? What was that noise? Why are aunties looking so sad and tense?”
Shruti hastily pulled her daughter towards herself. Amara spoke quickly.
Baby, why don’t you show me your new book of puzzles?”
She looked at Shruti and Dia.
“Let’s hope we can solve the very difficult ones quickly.”
Shruti nodded in approval as Amara nudged Anaya towards her room. She then turned to Dia. Her brows were raised. Dia’s lips parted, as if to say something in response, but she didn’t say anything. She rapidly walked to wards the door. Shruti scoffed. She was expecting retaliation and was ready for it.
“Yes. Walk away. You try to escape with the slightest hint of trouble or discomfort.”
Nisha intervened. She was biting her nails. She did not like confrontations. They made her jittery. The girls had had arguments and tiffs, but this was something unprecedented.
“Shruti, Dia, stop it. Just stop it. What is wrong with you guys? Is it really necessary to spoil our get together which is happening after ages?”
Nisha banged her phone on the wooden coffee table next to where she was sitting and got up. Shruti looked at her, a bit surprised. Dia stopped in her tracks and turned and took a few steps forward.
Amara too came out at the very moment. One glance and she knew that things had gotten worse.
Dia was glaring at Shruti. Finally, she took a deep breath and tried to calm herself down.
In a firm but polite tone, she spoke.
“Shruti, I love you. In fact I love all of you. But Shruti, I want to make myself clear. I didn’t like what you said about me possibly not being able to conceive. I am hurt. Why would you say that? Can’t it be my choice? Also, I don’t run away from discomfort. I wanted to avoid discomfort for you because you will probably not be able to digest the truth. I didn’t have a child yet because I am a lesbian. I had figured it out in college. I had a major relationship, but that didn’t work out. I could never muster the courage to tell you girls. And yes Shruti, you were right, I am not intimate enough with my partner because of that.”
There was a gasp. The air around the girls hung tense.
“Exactly. You are my best friends but even best friends cannot sometimes understand you. Amara knows. So there it is. The big reveal which you wanted is done. Now you know why I don’t have kids yet. Even though I would like to have them. You mind if I leave now?”
All there was in the room for a few seconds were the sounds of breathing. It was like a lull before the storm or the silence before a gut wrenching scream. Dia turned the latch and was about to step outside when Shruti ran towards her and stopped her. She made Dia turn to look at her. Dia was surprised to see her eyes welled up in tears. Shruti pulled her back inside, closed the door and gave her a bear hug. Dia let herself go. Tears started streaming down her cheek. Nisha and Amara heaped themselves on to the two. A huddle was followed by hugs and happy tears. They didn’t notice when Anaya crept in and made her way to the centre of the huddle.