by Nandini Seshadri
Bhaskar didn't want to go through the living room, but there was no other way out of the house. If he had wanted simply to sneak out for the evening, he could have wriggled out of the window in his room and jumped the compound at the back of the house, but there was the small matter today of having to transport all his belongings with him. Whatever else he might have been willing, or able, to drop from his bedroom window, he wasn't going to risk damaging his violin. Moreover, he doubted it would help matters if he left home without telling his grandfather.
There was a loud cough in the living room. A moment later, Bhaskar heard his grandfather shuffle into the puja room to start its daily cleaning. Now would be the perfect moment to slip out with a couple of small grips. He looked down at the various bags and suitcases littering the floor. How many trips would he have to make to get them all outside? Four... maybe five. He had attached a sidecar to his Vespa to help carry it all, but he would still probably have to tie one of the larger bags to the back seat to make it all fit. He checked the fastenings on the biggest bag for the hundredth time: inside, cushioned by all the clothes he owned, was his violin case, which in turn was lined with crumpled sheets of old newspapers to keep the instrument in place during. This bag was going to take the place of honour in the sidecar; he didn't very much care if he left everything else behind.
He selected a small but heavy pouch containing his polishing kit[??] and one of the medium-sized bags and straightened his shoulders[??]. It was now or never. He walked quickly into the hall, crossing it in four long strides and was just about the step out of the threshold, when his grandfather called out to him, "You're leaving already?" It came out as, So you still think you're leaving?
"Yes, I'm leaving."
His grandfather grunted. "I suppose they won't let you in after dark." He sounded pleased at the thought.
"I have my own key, dadaji. They don't make any rules, I'm just a tenant."
There was no reply, but Bhaskar still did not move, waiting for a sign that would tell him it was alright for him to continue moving his things to his scooter, and despising himself for being powerless to move without such permission.
His grandfather padded out of the puja room with blackened oil lamps clutched in both hands. He wore a white dhoti that was pulled up to show his stringy calves and knobby knees, the sacred thread that he never took off lying across his chest. He looked frail and colourless[??], and he knew it.
Bhaskar said, "You should wear a shirt, you'll catch something. You're already coughing."
"I can look after myself quite well."
Bhaskar turned and walked out the door. He tucked the pouch into the compartment under the back seat and deposited the bag into the scooter’s front basket, then kicked hard at a pebble near his feet. It flew towards the house, hitting the front gate with a satisfying clatter.
He walked back to the house, past the living room where his grandfather was sitting on the settee silently watching, and into his room. The setting rays of the sun cast a baleful light on the bare walls. His shelves were empty now of the trophies and medals he had packed into the large green suitcase. The room looked as if nobody had lived here for years, with marks where his Judy Garland poster had hung--the poster he had had to fight tooth and nail to keep even though there was nothing racy about it. To his grandfather they were all the same--the heroine of the Wizard of Oz and the other loose women of the decadent West.
Bhaskar picked up a suitcase and a large bag. Almost immediately the bag began slipping from his shoulder, and he had to stop in the living room to get a firmer grip on it.
"Why do you have to take all your things?” his grandfather said. “Just take a little clothing... try it out there for a while.… Otherwise you'll just have to carry all of it back when you get homesick."
"Dadaji, I'm not coming back to live here," Bhaskar didn't care anymore if he had put up with sulks and sullen pretences if concern. He was not going to be manipulated into staying any longer.
"Yes, yes, you've told me many times how you feel. There's no need to repeat it. I was only saying it would be easier for you…" his grandfather said, staring with apparent interest at the brick wall of the neighbour's house.
"What would be easier?"
"Why are you angry? I never said anything to you," his grandfather said, and went back into the puja room.
Bhaskar thought he would feel better if there were open hostility to his going. He would know his ground then, and he would be able to hold it. But what use was resistance against...nothing? It was as if he were throwing all his weight into a punch and ending up hitting thin air, off balance and ridiculous. He knew it was just a tactic on their part to make him feel that way. But important moves, whether for good or evil, are fuelled by conviction and never abandoned. People only give up the fight when they start thinking they look like fools. Nothing would please his grandfather more than if he was having that effect on him.
He put the bag in the sidecar and was tying the suitcase to the back seat when his neighbour, Parvati Aunty, called to him from her yard.
"Are you going now itself, beta?"
"Yes, Aunty. Just getting my things." She wasn't really his aunt, and he supposed he was long past the age of needing to prefix elders' names with 'aunty' and 'uncle', but the habit was hard to break. He wouldn’t dream of calling her plain ‘Parvati.’
Her gate creaked open and she came out to survey his progress. She gave the sidecar a tug as though afraid it would break loose and seemed only slightly mollified when it didn't. Then she helped him with his knots, pulling at the ropes with an unsurprising strength. Bhaskar didn’t doubt that she could beat him at arm wrestling. He supposed it was due to the yard work she did. His own arms and hands had mostly been employed holding a violin.
"So, where will you be playing next?"
Bhaskar regarded her, a bit startled at how she'd been following his thoughts.
"Kasturiji told me we should start rehearsing for Gandhi Jayanti. The TV people have contacted him."
She nodded reverently. "Great man, great man. And he took you on as his sarangi. You should be proud."
He knew she didn’t mean to be insulting. "I play the violin now, aunty. I'm not a sarangi. And Kasturiji and Dadaji go back a long way.… Nowadays, without influence, one can't get anywhere," he said, trying to hide the bitterness in his voice.
"True, true," she said, as if disappointed the conversation had turned to such worldly topics. "But it is a good opportunity, so you must make us all proud. Don't worry about your dada, I am right here if anything happens. Young men should concentrate on their career. And don't go getting mixed up with women and all that. I know how you musicians are."
She was just teasing him, but he wasn't in a mood to play along. "Thank you for everything," he said, hoping to end the conversation. "Dadaji was my main worry, but if you are here he will be alright."
She patted him on the cheek and said, "What are neighbours for. Now, you take care and visit us at least once a month."
"Bless you, beta," she said, and he watched her walk back to her yard.
He gave a shove to the suitcase on the back seat to see if it would hold, and it did. He walked back to the house, feeling better than he had all day. "Young men should concentrate on their career." He was right to leave, he needed to concentrate on his future. He was leaving his grandfather's house, but he was right to do so and it was going to be alright. He must pursue his fortune and destiny. He would never have to be in his grandfather's debt again.
And then there his grandfather was, rubbing oil onto his bare, spindly legs. Bhaskar came to a halt as if he'd just been slapped.
He had forgotten that it was the time for him to give his grandfather his daily massage. He had been so busy with his packing that he had forgot. But the old man had to learn to look after himself, hadn't he? He was perfectly capable of doing so. For all his show of weakness and general pallor, the man was sturdy and fit. But there he sat, his face contorted with feigned effort, massaging his legs up and down a couple times and then pausing to catch his breath in a ridiculous pantomime of weakness. There was no reason why he should have abandoned his cleanup of the puja room to do this now. There was no reason for him to sit right in the middle of the living room instead of in his usual corner on the back porch. There was no reason for him to parade around the house wearing nothing but a dhoti, showing off his thin, brittle body as a proclamation of his vulnerability, his mortality.
Fighting to keep the anger out of his face, Bhaskar swept into his room, picked up the largest bag, the heavy one containing his clothes and violin, and strode out again, trying not to buckle under the weight. He pushed open the living room door all the way with his elbow, causing it to slam against the wall. When his grandfather looked up, Bhaskar turned slowly to face his eyes stonily, willing him to see the resolve in his own eyes, letting him know he wasn't fooling anyone with his old-man theatrics.
But the bag got heavier and heavier, until Bhaskar knew he would have to break the stare-down first so he could put it down. He turned away and walked quickly towards the Vespa, at least saving himself from the humiliation of dropping the bag in front of his grandfather.
He did drop it, though, when he had almost reached the scooter. It fell on his foot, one of the buckles scraping a thin line of blood across his skin. He picked up the bag again and settled it in the middle of the sidecar. Then he strode back to the house, cursing at the thought that he had two more trips to go, cursing the world, cursing the unfairness of his weak shoulders and weakening will.
"What did you do to your foot?"
He thought he was safe in his room, but he had been invaded here, too.
The old man had put on a shirt. His expression was gentle.
Bhaskar watched in a kind of paralysis as his grandfather wet a piece of cotton with Dettol and rubbed it across the cut, which was now bleeding freely. After bathing the wound he went to get something else—a plaster, possibly. Suddenly Bhaskar snapped out of his trance and found his blood was drumming in his ears as he tried to hold back tears of frustration and confusion. He had to get out of this house. He grabbed the nearest bag, leaving the green suitcase that was full of his medals and trophies, and exited as fast as he could, ignoring the pain in his foot.
After he had settled that bag on the scooter, he dreaded going back into the house again, even if it was for the last time. His grandfather was beginning his evening prayers in the clean puja room. Bhaskar stood petrified at the prospect of being asked to assist him as usual--hand him flowers and the water and incense when he was done. And how would he ever get through the formal goodbye? How could he touch his grandfather's feet, ask the old man’s blessing for his new life...and then leave?
He couldn't go back in there, not if he was to follow through with his plans. He had never lacked grit. He had always been at his best when facing a challenge or a fight, even glorying in it. He could fight neglect, scorn, rudeness, even emotional blackmail. But he could not confront his grandfather's gentleness.
He climbed onto the scooter and sped away, leaving the green suitcase behind. The twilight air was silent except for the buzz of dragonflies circling around the streetlights.
(Nandini Seshadri was born in
Bangalore, India, which she still calls