Living Light Has Its Roots in Love and Mortality

Thames by Southbank on a foggy day in London. Photo by Pallavi Singh.

In the life I am yet to live, I won’t be able to walk in the rains again. The last time I did, my father had called and asked me to return home. I was in London, studying. My parents had my two-year-old daughter with them and they were tired raising her. They were also terrified of being left alone. This happened to me at a time I was prepared to never go back.

But then, the call happened. “Dad, I am getting a job here. You know, it’s tough!” I exclaimed with joy. “No, just come back here. We can’t go on like this,” he said, sounding annoyed. I had stayed up the entire night, not able to sleep out of excitement. I had to beat the five hour time zone difference to be able to speak to him and deliver the news of my imminent employment. Hours of anxious wait had turned into sorrow in just a few minutes. I was on the beautiful riverside stretch between my school and hostel, and it had begun raining. I kept walking, allowing myself to be drenched. My tears wouldn’t stop. Here I was, close to getting a job in a city I had begun to love excessively. But now, I had to go back home.

The phone call left me devastated. It wasn’t the moment I felt like I was losing out on the grand dream of being in a charming, liberating city, with the opportunity of raising my daughter there, all by myself. It was the day I realised my parents had grown old. Old enough to feel anxious while I was away. Old enough to refuse imagining a life without me. I was their hope — their responsible, emotional first born willing to walk the distance one needs to, to make them feel secure about never ending up in an old age home. And here I was, denying realities and planning to uproot myself from the place that nourished me.

I have been trying to be a good daughter most part of my life. I reckon this must have something to do with my early years as a rebellious child. For the umpteen number of times I ran away from home — for love, as protest or simply to unleash an avalanche of suffering on my parents every time my sister spied on me, I have been trying to be the good child my parents can be proud of. In another life, I could have been a vagabond with zero responsibilities, but I will save that dream for my afterlife.

I returned and was quick to notice the abundance of books, clothes and furniture in the house. My mother had a hard time managing all of this. “Why can’t you just lighten all this stuff? Sell if you will, or donate. It’s all very old, anyway,” I told her one day. She just started at me and retired to her room. That night when I got back to my house, I could spot a familiar pattern. I had returned with three large suitcases full of clothes, books and souvenirs from London. And to accommodate most of that, I had bought two more large cupboards. They were neatly arranged in the ante room attached to my bedroom, vintage and rarely opened. In the other three cupboards in the house, all the stuff and memories were tightly packed. I had so much to dispense and such little courage to discard what I didn’t need — my high school loafers, my cropped shorts and body cons, my favorite black tights imported from the US, and a motorbike I rode to college. In addition to this, now, there were many boxes with my daughter’s clothes, shoes and toys! I stocked all of them neatly, in the hope that when she grows up, they’ll amuse her and be precious relics of her childhood.

This immediately reminded me of the large wooden box in my parents’ home — with small quarter plates and glasses from my childhood, and numerous designs for knitting woollen sweaters. The day I got married and left my parents’ home, my father opened the box, held the tiny socks from my infancy in his hand and cried all night. My mother later told me: “For over a year from that night, he couldn’t accept the fact that you had gotten married and left our home. He grieved your leaving home, leaving us.”

I was at pains to explain that I hadn’t left; that departures were mistaken constructs of the mind. When I outgrew my experiments with growing up, leaving was the act I never wished upon myself. Even marriage was treated as an act of extending the family — at least in my mind, this is how it stays. I played down all the hype around the marriage — I didn’t wear any diamonds, or bangles, or sarees, did not even talk about it. No makeup, no bling, no honeymoon. On my return to work post marriage, colleagues at work found me in a red t-shirt and blue jeans, minus any rings or roses. I acted as if nothing had happened.

I was desperate to escape any questions that would remind me of the act of departure marriages are. “How does it feel? How are your parents feeling? When will you go visit them again? Are you missing them?” People wanted to ask me, if only I would let them. I was quiet, quieter than before, and working my head off. I didn’t want any questions. Questions were reminders of this grim change that world wants to see in us when we marry, and I had shut my heart to forbid any acceptance of truths I didn’t believe in.

In the years since my return, my parents moved in with me and every week, we agree to disagree on what we need and what we don’t. Suddenly, home feels heavy, laden with unnecessary rituals of living. Why would we need the treadmill when there are three gyms on the campus? Why don’t we sell the window ac we don’t use anymore? How can we utilise the spare room at the back? How many planters to keep so they are watered and keep blooming?

How much do we need to eat to survive and live healthily? How often can my father take me for fresh vegetable juices and walks in the morning? How many clothes do I actually need, and compared to the stocky wardrobes, how much have I saved for old age, retirement or personal calamities? How can they help me face job loss, career changes or simply, sickness? Each of these questions are important and tied to how we, as family, have come to evaluate our needs and our discretionary spends. Suddenly, life is about calculated measures and unfathomable warmth.

A few months ago, I found myself rummaging through my closet middle of the night, restless. I have been buried under the sheer weight of my clothes often — scores of dresses and lahengas lying unadorned, unattended to. That night, my wedding lahenga glistened in the dark — a charming powder pink with heavy embroidery in silver and gold. Not very long ago, I had spent a crazy amount of money on it, just for one night of celebrations, and gleamed in pride that I could pair it with silver, diamond and gold — such flexible fashion that I believed would endure a lifetime of unfailing desire to look and stay young and beautiful. That night, overcome with excess of entitlements, I had wanted to donate it.

In my constant urge to give away lies the guilt of exuberance, of not living lightly, of taking mortality to be a foreigner that will never visit us, of being disrespectful of simplicity, and most compellingly enough, of being so arrogant about living that our own fragility looks like an old woman basking in the glow of an anti-ageing magic potion.

I now wear a handful of shirts to work, and shawls to beat the cold in winter. “I don’t need much,” my mother favorite sentence echoes in my ears every time I think of the shawl tearing off from excessive use, and yet, very greedily, I stock the clothes only hoping to bequeath them to someone who’ll love them as much as I do.

“Who’ll wear them when you die?” my mother asks me.

“Burn me with them when I die,” I say.

A few weeks ago, my grandmother expired. I spent years with her, speaking to her of my dreams and my struggles but never really grasping her taste in clothes, food and other things she craved. During her last rites, my mother asked me to gift her things she loved most, so she could carry them with her to the other world. I didn’t remember much, except beetle leaves, Sehwag’s matches, and red bangles. But rummaging through my everyday life with my parents is now a laboured walk through the present where love and loathing haven’t turned to memories.

Devotional songs playing on YouTube all day have become the morning music I shall stock up in a pen drive. A box full of samosas, veg burgers and nutrela nuggets. Several photo frames of Lord Shiva. A pen, spectacles and a copy of Batuk Bhairav. A kesaria stole and deep maroon lip paint.

A Kindle full of books for my father, a box of deliciously cooked mutton, kaju katli and a watch with brown leather strap. And, a car perhaps (a miniature of his favorite model).

So, I am keeping a mental record of things they will need. And this list laughs at all the exuberance I have spent on over the years. I realise, to give up is to embrace richness that comes from owning little. In the end, I know, I too will need very little.