Vanaja stood at her balcony, sipping warm jasmine tea and looking at the bright blue bits of a pleasant autumn sky she could discern between the thickly packed leaves of their mango tree that fanned her with the coolness of a lilting autumn breeze. She was on a high and it definitely was not because of the jasmine tea; it was caffeine-free.
She turned around and looked through the balcony door into her living room. There, upon her work table, instead of her laptop, sat the reason, or reasons for her inexplicable joy—little jars of color, some brushes, pencil, eraser, sharpener, and a brand new drawing book.
She smiled to herself as she recollected her conversation she had had with her father earlier that day.
‘Appa, I have joined an art class. Very soon, I’ll be making all the beautiful paintings I have always desired to paint.’
‘Art class? At your age?’
It was as if her second sentence was unsaid, and the excitement that quivered in her voice was non-existent. But it didn’t surprise her at all that her father only focussed on her first sentence. She had expected this reaction from him. After all, what else could one expect from someone who had given up on life decades ago and was expecting a death that didn’t seem to have any intentions of visiting him!
Her father. The only one left of four parents that she and her husband shared. She wanted him to know, and irrespective of what he said, just his knowing was blessing enough for her. Vanaja didn’t find it irritating; she was beyond all that now. She had better things to focus her energy on than losing it over meaningless irritations, be it her father’s negative attitude or the world at large. Moreover, she loved her father dearly.
Her father. Winter had come upon him unannounced when his wife died all of a sudden. Maybe, she too didn’t want to leave him. And her children. It was as if she hadn’t lived life fully. But her sojourn on this planet—in her physical role as Vanaja’s mother, as her father’s wife, as someone’s daughter or daughter-in-law, as someone’s friend — was over and she had to move on.
Her father knew that and had eventually come to terms with it too, or so it seemed because he had soon resumed his daily activities. Yet, Vanaja felt he never did pick up his life again. It was twenty years now, and he still went through each day with just one thought, one desire. To be reunited with his wife.
Living with that one prayer, he became winter—cold, pessimistic, irritable, unreasonable, uninspired. A far cry from his usual encouraging self. Vanaja was surprised at how he had transformed physically too. From a man of handsome features and stature that made heads turn and look at him again, he had, quite too soon, shrunk to a shadow, a wizened old man with white hair and white flowing beard.
‘Yes, Appa, art class. The art teacher takes classes for adults too’
‘Adults must mean someone in their thirties, not fifty, like you.’
Vanaja smiled at the typicality of her father. Of course, her father couldn’t see her smiling. He didn’t have a smart phone with which they could video call. It didn’t make a difference anyway; he wouldn’t have understood her smile.
‘No, Appa, she does. In fact, some of her adult students are as old as sixty and seventy. Even you could learn art from her if you wanted.’
‘Me? What will I do with art lessons? I am almost eighty, and at my age, every day is a step towards the grave. Those old people must be out of their minds. And you are foolish to get into this at your age. I am sure these are not free classes. You will have to pay for them. And the cost of art materials! What is the need for these classes now?
You may not be as old as yet, but you are not young anymore. For how many more years do you think you can go to work and earn? Shouldn’t you be saving for your old age? As it is, you are just out of an unfortunate crisis that’s drained you of your bank balance. Or, is this another way to make money? By selling your paintings? If that’s the case, then it makes sense.’
Vanaja winced at the reference to the “unfortunate crisis” that had drained her husband and her not only of their bank balance but also their peace of mind, social respect, and to an extent, their health too. It was like a long-drawn-out summer when sweltering heat and rising temperatures affect mental patterns, lead to fatigue, and nothing seems to happen except the escalation of discomfort with just no relief from the onslaught.
But Vanaja and her husband were a pair of warriors, never giving up, rising every time they went down until the “unfortunate crisis” was a thing of the past. It definitely was not easy, they made errors of judgment, they often slipped and faltered, but they also learnt a lot of life lessons along the way.
It was a couple of years now since temperatures had begun to cool, and Vanaja was thankful for the autumn that was setting in. The black and white family drama of summer was gradually getting grey overtones and though Vanaja was grateful for the changes, she felt their life could do with some colour now. Their years of summer had taught them not to look for colour from outside but to bring out the hues and shades within them to light.
‘Appa, I am not going to learn the art for selling purposes, at least not now. I am going to learn the art for the sheer joy of learning, for the joy of fulfilling a wish that I have, for long, been nurturing. Don’t you remember how, as a young girl, I used to finish off all the art supplies that you had to buy me for school? Don’t you remember how you would take me to art competitions and I would cry because all I got were participation certificates, and maybe an occasional consolation prize, but you would be so proud of me, nevertheless?
Do you know why I got only participation certificates? Because the prize winners went for art classes or had someone to guide them with their art. Both you and your mother encouraged me, but you didn’t know the nuances and techniques of art to guide me. I had, since those school days, wanted to go for art classes, Appa.’
‘Your mother wished so much to send you for art classes, but we just couldn’t afford it then. The most we could do was not compromise on your basic education. We could just about manage to send you to a good school. By the time we could afford, you had grown up, and life was scheduled with board exams, university, and marriage, one after the other.’
‘I know, Appa. I am not blaming you for anything. All I am saying is what I couldn’t do earlier, I am doing now. You spoke of life schedules. Sometimes life does get into a pattern and we find ourselves unable to avoid the schedules. But, should life always go by schedule? Why can’t one do things out of the pattern? Look at mother. Was that an age to die? If everything had to go by schedules, then she shouldn’t have died when she did, at fifty-five. In five years from now, I will have reached that age, Appa.’
‘Did you know that about two-three years before she died, your mother had asked me if she could take up music lessons once again?’
Vanaja didn’t know. What was her father saying? That must have been soon after her daughter was born.
‘You knew she was a trained Carnatic singer, didn’t you?’ asked her father.
Vanaja knew, or rather, she had come to know about her mother’s dormant music talent only after she herself was married and had had her child. In fact, it was her baby daughter who had brought the story out.
Vanaja had gone to her parents’ for her delivery. One day, after the baby was born, Vanaja was having an unexpected episode of anxiety and her cheerless mood was affecting her baby. When the baby just wouldn’t be consoled and Vanaja’s distress was shooting up, her mother took her granddaughter in her arms and sang.
It was the first time Vanaja had heard her mother sing. Vanaja could make out that it was no ordinary singing; though her mother’s voice cracked a bit, Vanaja could make out the nuances that could come only from proper, in-depth training. When the song was done and her sleeping baby was gently laid in her cradle, Vanaja demanded she is told the story behind her mother’s hidden talent.
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Her mother had grown up listening to her grandfather who, though not a legend, was still a well-known Carnatic singer of his times. Sadly, none of his children or grandchildren, except for Vanaja’s mother, inherited his passion for music. Vanaja’s mother learned all she could from her grandfather, and after he died, continued her music education under the tutelage of another guru. When she got married, her parents-in-law not only put a stop to her music lessons but also forbade her to sing anymore.
She was told that married women who took to music neglected their duty by their husbands. Being a gentle and meek girl, Vanaja’s mother acceded. Since no one else in the family was interested in music, nobody gave much thought about this talent being buried. This was why Vanaja never got to hear about this from anyone.
But now that she knew, she was enraged. What a cruel thing to do, she exclaimed. The past is past, she declared, but it’s never too late to start afresh. She pleaded with her mother to join a music class. Her mother smiled and sang another song for her granddaughter. Halfway through the song, she choked and stopped. Vanaja thought she was crying but her mother was smiling shyly, shaking her head and saying that her shortness of breath wasn’t allowing her to sing. Vanaja’s mother often suffered from severe bouts of asthma attacks, so Vanaja didn’t exhort her mother again after that.
‘Mother had asked you if she could take up music lessons once again?’ a surprised Vanaja questioned her father. ‘And what did you tell her?’
‘I said that people would laugh at her if she went for music lessons at her age. But two days later, I felt I had disappointed her and told her to look for a teacher who would be willing to teach her. She responded with her usual smile and convinced me that she was not too keen about the idea and had merely asked. She said that singing was beyond her now because of her asthma and I believed her. But now I realize that she didn’t want me to be hurt, so she smothered her desire to get back to her music.’
Her father went silent for a minute and Vanaja too didn’t know what to say.
‘Vanaja. I now feel that your mother’s asthma was not some illness. It was all her music trying to come out, but the more she kept suppressing her songs, the severe her condition became. She took that one last chance but I put a lid on it. Vanaja, your mother didn’t die of asthma; I killed her.’
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Her father wasn’t crying but she could hear his heart ripping to pieces. She wished she had been close by. She wanted to give him a hug and alleviate his pain. But they were miles apart and all she could do then was console him over the phone.
‘Appa, please don’t be hard on yourself. None of us knew what we were doing—not you, not me, not mother.’
‘Yes, none of us knew then. But now I know, yet I am repeating the same story all over again. I am sorry, Vanaja if I had sounded discouraging when you told me about your art class. Please forgive this old man with his old habits. Go, enjoy your art classes. My blessings are always with you.’
The jasmine tea was calming. She walked up to her desk, put the empty mug upon it and looked at the jars of colours. She knew where she had found them. They were the colours of her fall. Then she picked up her brushes and held them against her cheeks—the brushes with which she was going to paint her autumn in vibrant colours. And when winter came upon her, she knew it would be a season of bliss. There was so much to love about life.
Vidya Shankar, a “book” in the Human Library, and an editor with Kavya-Adisakrit (an imprint of Adisakrit Publishing House) says poetry is not different from her. The author of two poetry books The Flautist of Brindaranyam (in collaboration with her photographer husband, Shankar Ramakrishnan), and The Rise of Yogamaya, she has received several literary awards and recognitions. She also adds meaning to her life through yoga and mandalas.