19 April 2009

The ride home

Manjula exited office with an unspoken sigh. It was Tuesday, a day of little consequence work wise but one that suggested a much longer time to go before she could forget the incessant air conditioning buzz of her office. As she approached her scooter she began to tie her hair behind her back. By the time she got to her scooter she had draped her dupatta tightly around her head and was ready for her helmet. The last act was to wear her protective gloves and socks; in the dusty route between her house and the office this garb was her insurance against getting dust in her hair and an uneven tan on her hands and feet.

As she turned into the main road her mind went into automatic and she followed the route she had been taking for the past four years without checking either mirror or traffic lights, stopping only when others did or, an angry honk propelled her to swear and weave out into a crater sized pothole. Today, her mind was on automatic but not bereft of thoughts. Time was short; she had to commit by tonight or else. "Or else..." she thought softly. Amma would be waiting for her with a cup of coffee and some evening snacks. She wasn't accustomed to these gourmet welcomes but they had increased in frequency as the deadline approached and she remained noncommittal.

Appa had asked her two weeks ago, exactly to this day, to take out a loan. She was the elder child, he said and was the only one practically able to pay back such a sum. He was willing to put up his plot in the village as collateral but it was she who had to sign the papers and liable to pay back the amount if Bopanna defaulted. The conversation has taken place after dinner, while she was reading the newspaper and enjoying a cool evening out on the portico, surrounded by jasmine flowers. She didn't want to be disturbed but her father didn’t notice and prattled from start to end without waiting for her response. Bopanna wanted to go abroad, England actually, to pursue higher studies in accounting. He had identified the college and was ready to apply. He only needed a loan to pay for the tuition; Appa had enough for travel and lodging. They had spoken to the bank manager and Appa could not take out the loan because he was retired. They needed a salaried person. She said she would think about it.

That was the start of a domino. Appa never expected her to register any opinion other than meekly agreeing. He didn't know how to respond and neither did Bopanna, who was quietly listening to the conversation from inside the house. Manjula had overheard this phrase several times in office while she marketed time share holidays and today, she felt she had earned the right to use it: "I will think about it." As she said this, she felt despair. Why did she have to shoulder this responsibility?

Manjula and Bopanna were four years apart. They went to the same school but after 10th standard their lives were acutely different. She worked hard to get into a good college, held a part time job to pay tuition and walked several kilometers to save on bus fare. She lived a life of denial convinced that once she graduated and got a job, she could enjoy a life of choice. Bopanna on the other hand, meandered through college, begging Amma for pocket money which she doled out from the house budget and with some effort cleared the B.Com final exam. She wasn't actively discriminated as the girl child but there was always a subtle expectation that she wouldn't be demanding. It was her salary that gave them a respectable lifestyle after Appa retired and an administrative glitch lost him his pension.

Manjula was stunned not because such an expectation was made off her but because, this time, she didn't want to yield. Her own brazenness shocked her. He was her younger brother, family, after all, and yet, she wasn't convinced that this was a good decision. After the conversation, an eerie silence descended in the house. The next day everything moved in routine but the air became heavy and communication, monosyllabic. Amma didn't talk about the 'conversation'; she went about her housework but conveyed her emotions by looking at Manjula from the corner of her eye. She didn't chastise or scold; she merely looked, a visual communication far more powerful in unsettling Manjula than verbal aggression. Bopanna avoided her.

Each evening after that day, Appa spoke to Manjula - sometimes softly, sometimes angrily, occasionally abusive but always pleadingly. He wanted this for Bopanna. A chance to send a family member abroad for higher education. A chance for their family to climb out of the lower middle class bracket. Why didn't she see how it would alter all their lives? Why couldn't she be generous? After all, it was only a signature and Bopanna would pay the loan when he got a job. Manjula just nodded through these tirades, benumbed and sad. Why didn't Bopanna talk to her about this himself? Why use Appa? and Why did they do all the groundwork without consulting her?

Today she had to deliver an answer. Yes meant a loan taken out to educate her brother at the cost of losing her choices. No meant a stifling home environment bereft of joy and togetherness. Devil and the deep blue sea? She prefers the sea; at least she could swim. As she rode home, the duppatta flying like a flag behind her, she knew this situation had to be resolved today, right after dinner. As the traffic light turned green and the traffic pulled out, she made the right turn to her home. Her selfishness may cost her sanity and there didn't seem any way out of it. She would have to say yes.

She opened the gate and parked her scooter. Amma came out and requested her to get some milk from the store around the corner. She obliged, her mind made up but her heart very heavy. The shopkeeper caught her eye and she mouthed, "Milk." The store was busy so she let her eyes wander over the neighborhood adverts: day care, Lakshmi temple fund, summer camp for children, paying guest accommodation, an endless display of a world that she never sampled. She collected her milk and headed home. Dinner was laid and consumed. She walked into the portico as was her habit with the newspaper tucked under her arm. Appa followed.

"Manjula, are you going to sign the papers?" No preamble to the discussion tonight, it would seem.

Manjula sat on the floor, opened the newspaper and laid it out.

"Appa, we shouldn't rush into this decision." She would buy time; that was her strategy before she ultimately relented. She averted her gaze back to the newspaper and continued reading from the back, as she normally would. "Maybe Bopanna should work for a year or two before moving abroad-- get some experience. I have heard that helps to get a better job." This line of argument appeared as she scanned the advert section.

Appa snorted and with a heavy breath unleashed a tirade of such magnitude that Manjula thought her newspaper would fly away in the gale force of such a speech. Ungrateful, selfish, modern, uncultured were some of the adjectives he liberally sprinkled his harangue with. Manjula just sat and read. An ocean of calm. Her brain already shut out Appa as white noise and she was busy listening to the symphony of her inner child, delighting in the comic strip and enjoying the printed word. Then the words jumped out at her, again: paying guest accommodation. No, she thought, what would her family think? But it seemed so simple. She could continue to support them but move away. A bold gesture: girls in her family were expected to stick around till they got married. But, if she did move, she wouldn't have to listen to this speech every night. Running away always seems like such a bright idea when it first occurs!

She looked up. Appa was done. She stood up, newspaper in hand and walked inside. Appa followed. Bopanna approached her " Akka, please." Amma implored her and upbraided her; all in the same look. Manjula was tired now, really tired but radiant. She handed the newspaper to Bopanna, " You should look for a job." Appa knew he was defeated. The eerie heaviness lifted in her heart and she felt free. Tomorrow she would seek out the paying guest accommodation.

Footnote - I conceived of this story while on one of my long runs. When I first thought of the story it didn't have an ending but my friend E encouraged me to write it without one and while I typed it out the end wrote itself. Hope you enjoyed it as much as I liked writing it. Comments and criticism on writing style welcome.


  1. Hi Megha,

    I loved the story. Its simple, yet powerful and it could be anyone's story...

    Love your blog and the ramblings in general.

  2. thanks Eera and Shoots. Means the world to know you read the story.

  3. hi megha,
    i too read your blog but never commented on any.The story is great but also try and look at from the parent's angle,there are always expectations in some form or the other-material(as in manjula's case) emototional or mental.from your generation point manjula took the right decision.my generation would have handled it differently-----mama