Short Stories >>White Hair, Red Roses
By Sundri Uttamchandani
Translated by Nandita Bhavnani
What had I done for her anyway? I had only taken a spoonful from my Ovaltine tin and mixed it in her milk. Raising her large eyes, how profusely she had thanked me. I thought, in the mornings, I mix an egg in my Kiki’s milk and give it to her, or give her Ovaltine or Bournvita at night, but she never thanks me!
When I plucked fresh vegetables from my garden outside the cottage and made a soup for her to drink, then, standing casually at the doorstep, she told my Kiki, “You are lucky to have such a father.” She retorted, “He is only concerned about food, I have been telling him for many days to buy me a couple of nylon saris.”
Gopi placed a finger on her lips and told her, “What will you do with so many saris, do you have too few clothes already? And there are such few Sindhi homes on this mountain, so where will you dress up and go?”
Observing her manner, I felt like laughing. At night, before sleeping, she said, “Baba, wake me up early in the morning, the two of us will go to see all the trails and peaks around here.”
In the morning, I had barely called out to her when she jumped up in bed. Kiki turned over, pulled the quilt over herself and said, “My friend, you go by yourself, I’m very sleepy.”
Gopi, wearing a green skirt, and skipping along, with a red ribbon streaming from her hair, went ahead of me, as though she was already familiar with all the roads. When she stopped to pick flowers, I too, with the help of my walking stick, quickly turned down the road going down the mountainside. When I looked back, she was coming along, swaying like a peahen, putting red roses in her hair. In the red rays of the morning sun, what was this luminous light that I saw on her rose-adorned face! Her face awash with youth, seemed more pure than the leaves shining with dew. I said, “You don’t look nineteen at all. With so much studying, you have become as yellow as a sunflower. If you stay a month with your friend, then you’ll see that I will send you back looking like a red rose.”
With the same large eyes, she again looked into my face as though she was looking for reassurance, “Really?”
I nodded to say yes.
Two weeks went by. That day, coming down the mountainside in the morning, she said, “Baba, now I have really picked up. The exhaustion of my exams has quite gone. I think you could put me on the train tomorrow, so that I can go back to Ammi.”
What a blow! I felt as though all the trees and trails on my mountainside, all the lonely valleys in my heart, which had filled up with her arrival, would all become empty tomorrow.
In a very cajoling manner I said, “I won’t let you go, Gopi, let me fulfil my duty.” And expressing my feelings to some extent, I said, “What can I say, Gopi, I need you so much that I wish you would not go away even for a second.”
“If I go away, you will forget me in a few days. Like me, many of Kiki’s friends must have come to stay here.”
“Have you thought me so weak-minded then? Apart from that, many of Kiki’s friends have come here to this mountain, but none like you …” I tugged her plait down, turned her face upwards, and tried to see my reflection in those large eyes.
She clapped her hands childishly and said, “But Baba! Just see this lake! We have never gone by this trail before …” Her large, deep eyes widened with amazement, like flowers blossoming on the vine. Should I look at the lake, covered with leaves and plants, or at the bottomless depths spreading inside the two round windows of her face. I laughed and said, “The lake is very deep.”
“No Baba, it is quite shallow.”
“This is your habit. If I say, let’s go by this road, you point to the other one. If I say, let’s go to the top of the hill today, you say that today you want to see the beauty of the flowers in the valleys. Now I have understood you completely.”
“No, that’s not the case, Baba, the lake is surely shallow, otherwise how could it be covered with so many flowers and leaves? The water is only a little above the ground …”
“I say tobah!”
“I’m telling the truth.” Again she turned the two windows to those depths towards me and, smiling, said in a soft voice, “The lake is really shallow, otherwise there would not be such an odour in it.”
“There is no odour, it’s the fragrance of the flowers and leaves.”
“Now it’s your turn to contradict me.”
What joy there was in saying tobah to her!
The third week went by. Thanks to her increased appetite and the cold healthy mountain air, Gopi had truly become a rose. All that remained to be seen was the sunrise from a mountain top. While the stars were still out, Kiki, myself and Gopi left the house. By the time we reached the mountain top, the darkness had lifted. Kiki sat down to drink tea from a thermos, but Gopi kept walking ahead. The gentle rays of the sun and Gopi enveloped in the fog … a beautiful dream … She was advancing, and my desire, to see for a longer time her luminous splendour, ran ahead with larger and larger strides.
I said to myself, “I wish she would look back, let her look for the birth of the sun that has risen in my small heart … oh … watch out, watch out.” It was just one more step. I caught her tightly by the waist and saved her. Flying in the sky, unaware of the ground below, she would have fallen into some ravine in a second! But what was this! When I saved her from the ravine, and when my hands touched her soft body, I felt as though I myself had fallen into some ravine … Fear was spread wide in her eyes. Casting a glance at the valley below, with those same large-lensed binoculars, she said to me, “How well you take care of me, Baba!”
“Baba! Baba!!” I heard this word resounding again and again in the deep valleys situated inside me. But only the word kept echoing. Despite my wanting to, the father of Kiki within me could not bring himself to answer her with “Daughter”.
Kiki was drinking hot tea and, pulling the collar of her overcoat higher, was blowing “Phoo … Phoo”. Going to her, I said, “Your friend has been born again today.” She was very attached to Kiki also. She came and embraced her so tightly, just like a small child hugs its mother. It is difficult to describe the emotions that my heart experienced for Gopi. Yes, the struggle to call her “Daughter” was like trying to sail a small boat on the surface of the ocean of my heart. Unaware of the tumult, the churning, that had erupted in my depths, it floated above it all.
We were returning, when she asked, and asked again and again, “Why are you silent?”
“I’m not silent!” But she just didn’t believe me. The roiling in my heart had churned up each vein. I felt as though she was calling “Baba! Baba!” on the slopes and valleys of a remote mountain, and even though I could hear her calls, I could not see her. All around me, the entire universe was twisting the sixty years of my past. In the babbling of the brook, I could hear a kind of mocking laughter. My heart twisted. But two voices continued to echo in the empty valley spread wide: “Baba … Gopi …” “Baba … Gopi …”
That day, after returning home, I don’t know why but I stood for some time in front of my dressing table with three mirrors. The white hair on my head, like the babbling of the brook, was teasing me with derisive laughter from the mirror. But, there was still red blood coursing through my face. Grinding the cigarette butt under my foot, I started laughing. But as I glanced up, I felt that the person laughing in the mirror had an endless, billowing ocean of tears beneath his laughter. Two small dewdrops fell on my cheeks. I gave a sudden start – are years unable to age a person? Otherwise why would there be this pain, akin to adolescent love and, more importantly, tears in my eyes!! I felt like laughing at myself. But what were these two swords which could not find any place in the scabbard of my tired body. These lines of grief on my face!! I had scraped grief up and thrown it away. I had bought three properties in this hilly region, and when I had bought the third property, I had felt that the grief at the passing away of my wife Sita had been completely erased. Someone might well laugh – “Money and love are two separate things. If one is lost, how can the other fill its place!” But the amount of effort I had put in to earn the money was perhaps far more than that needed to keep Sita happy, and all four of my children were happy, out of whom three were in far-off boarding schools. Only Kiki had stayed behind to look after me and grief had fled far away from me. Today, suddenly, in which corner of the sky had these clouds amassed, ready for a storm? I had to move away from the mirror. I sought deliverance from the sickness in my heart in the soft touch of the couch.
“How much I’ve looked for you,” shouted Gopi as she came inside. “I’m leaving this evening only. Let me eat the last meal with you.”
Hey Ram! It was as though someone had kicked the smile in my heart like a ball. Agitated, I said, “How can you go! Don’t talk rubbish. Are you a child or what?”
She looked into the mirror and smiled. Perhaps this was the first time that she had realized that she was truly not a child now, otherwise her cheeks would not have glowed with rosiness, and her eyelids would not have become so heavy. Saying “Come quickly”, she ran away. Sitting at the dining table, I thought, “After all, what had this young girl brought with her. The house just felt so complete. I clearly remember that even while Sita was alive, the house never appeared so complete to me. It had not been her fault either. Brought up in a large house, all the time, she would get annoyed with the shortcomings in my small house. Nursing her desires, she had passed away in her youth. “Why Baba? Today you are not insisting that I eat the vegetables. Nobody else will insist that I eat, the way you do.”
Saying “Yes, yes …”, and freeing myself from my thoughts, I filled Gopi’s plate with vegetables. She started laughing. “So much? I just didn’t like to see you so quiet, I have become used to the fact that you are always so chatty. But Allah! Allah! I forgot to buy a holdall. In what will I pack my bedding?”
The flutter of her hands and the row of beautiful teeth biting down on her lower lip seemed to me like the tumult of the waves of a white-foamed ocean.
I told her, “Eat quickly. We will go and buy a holdall from the bazaar.”
In this hilly region, at the height of the afternoon, there is the coolness of a beautiful spring morning. Even then, the hill roads are as deserted as they would be in a city at the height of the afternoon. We had bought the holdall and were on our way back. On the empty flower-shaded road, leaves that had dropped from the trees were flying here and there. On the left, clouds were amassing in the sky. We kept walking higher towards the bungalow.
“Since yesterday, I have noticed you have become very quiet.” Gopi’s voice gave me a sudden start. She was plucking a red rose from a branch overhanging the road. Overwhelmed, I spread my arms to embrace her and said, “Since you are leaving.”
Gopi did not free herself, but I could not understand how such a soft-spoken girl could become as hard as a straight piece of wood.
Gently pushing me away with her hand, she said in a completely normal voice, “Let me put on that rose” and, fixing the flower in her plait, walked on ahead of me. I tried to reason with myself. Nothing had happened, but I don’t know why a sense of defeat had arisen somewhere deep inside me. Walking ahead, I said, “I had hugged you as though you were my child, Gopi!”
Gopi laughed and said, “I thought so too.” But the sudden disappearance of laughter from her lips could not escape my sharp eyes. What was true and what was false – who could tell? Truth and falsehood were mixed up with each other like sweet sherbet and water. My conscience attacked me inside. This is no sherbet, it’s only water. Pure water filled with a longing. I deliberately lagged behind.
Every day we would walk together. Today what fight had occurred in a moment?
Suddenly she stopped. I overtook her and asked, “Why have you stopped?”
‘For you’? It was exactly these habits of Gopi’s that slayed me. My children have become so big, but none of them had reciprocated my attachment like this. None of them would have waited for me like this. What was all this happening? Could my children never learn in any school this talent of comforting a person’s heart that Gopi possessed? I felt like asking her, “Where have you learnt so much wisdom, little Gopi?” But before that, she had already fixed her eyes to the ground, and walked on saying, “Extreme attachment is not good!”
I felt as though I had walked into a pillar – whether the pillar was made of steel, or iron, or cotton instead – but the blow was severe.
“Then had I become extremely attached to you?” But who could say these words? And how? How the truth in these words had twisted my heart since yesterday!
And, reaching the bungalow above, we saw that Kiki had left tea on the table, with a tea-cosy on the teapot, and had vanished somewhere, and in front of the tea-cosy was a letter. Gopi quickly tore open the envelope and read the letter and collapsed in the chair. I stopped pouring tea into the cup. “What happened, what happened?”
Gopi’s eyes filled with tears. Taking out a handkerchief, I wiped her eyes.
“I don’t know why but when I see you cry, I too am moved to tears, Gopi.” And my eyes truly began to swim with tears.
With her large, round, tear-filled eyes, she said, “Ammi has received a telegram about my elder sister Shanti’s illness and she has already left to go to her.”
Putting a hand on her head, I said, “It’s good that the letter reached in time. There is some good in everything.”
“What good is there in Shanti’s illness?” She broke down and started crying with great sobs. In the next room, Kiki put a finger in her spy novel and came running, astonished. Saying, “What happened to you?” she sat down in the chair next to Gopi.
Sad and upset, I went and stood by the window. The sky had now become completely dark. It had started to rain gently also. Suddenly the wind picked up. I closed the window and put the rose on the glass. The wind became stronger and the rain too became heavier. The glass became blurred, and the view of the hills and valleys spread out far below was obscured. I came back to the same place, where Gopi and Kiki were sitting. Gopi was now quiet. Kiki sighed heavily and went back to reading her novel. I don’t know why Kiki had left me responsible for her friend in this manner, as though by her stepping into this house, the responsibility for her joys and sadness had fallen on me. I sat down on the chair next to her. Suddenly, she leaned against the arm of the chair and started weeping again. “What good is there in Shanti’s illness?”
I put my arm around her and gave her a gentle squeeze. Now my mind was absolutely out of control and, dropping my shoulder, her hair …
Whether she understood or not, I cannot say. But she gradually slid away and went and stood near the window. I felt as though my entire body was burning with some kind of heat.
“Why have your eyes become red?” Kiki asked as she came in from the door opposite me. There was a pile of dhobi-washed clothes in her hand. Had she been taking the clothes from the dhobi in the next room then? Why had I suspected that she had left me responsible for her friend? But the suspicion had worked like acid. My mind had lost its moorings, my mouth was reciting Hari Om, and behind my closed eyes were scenes of my walks with Gopi. Sometimes she was running with a rabbit under her arm, sometimes, dressed in a green frock, she was hiding among the creepers and asking, “Where am I, Baba?”
“Baba … Baba … Baba” It was this word ‘Baba’ that could not fully resonate inside my heart …
I went inside the kitchen and told Kiki, “Your friend is very poor, isn’t she?”
“Yes, she is indeed poor.”
“Where will her parents get her dowry from, to marry her off?”
“That’s exactly why so many of our middle-class girls are left unmarried.”
“I say, let her stay with us permanently. You will also enjoy it …”
“That way her mother is a go-getter, she will get her married to some poor boy.” And so saying, Kiki sighed deeply.
When I emerged from the kitchen door, I saw standing in front of me Menaka … no, Gopi … The fire had died out in her red teary eyes. A wall of strange disbelief stood in these large eyes, behind which were pushed all lightheartedness and favours. Downing the shutters on my restless eyes, I went towards my room and, while going, I heard her telling Kiki, and telling her sternly, “Baba won’t give me permission, but I will leave by the seven o’clock morning train. My sister Shanti doesn’t live all that far away. It’s only a journey of six hours … You are really right when you say that your Baba is a sage!”
It was like the blow of an axe on my heart … Sage?
- Ammi: Mother
- Baba: Father.
- Kiki: Nick name or informal term for young daughter.
- Tobah: A cry of repentance, God forbid; often used sarcastically.