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The

Music Box



















Rina Dass



Copyright © 2015Rina Dass

All rights reserved.



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Udita APT# 060904, 1050/1 Survey Park, Kolkata - 700075



This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters, organizations and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities, is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved by author. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the author. Published by author.

The views expressed in this book are entirely those of the author. The printer/publisher, and distributors of this book are not in any way responsible for the views expressed by the author in this book. All disputes are subject to arbitration; legal actions if any are subject to the jurisdictions of courts of Kolkata, India.




ISBN: 978-93-84923-70-9




First Published: May 2015


Price:`309/-



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Contents















This book is for you Ma



PROLOGUE

Anjoli held the music box in her hand and watched the gilded cover glitter in the sunshine. Nothing that she had received could give her as much happiness as this childhood gift . Just holding the box gave her a thrill. It was solely for her listening pleasure, for her to treasure, keep for a life time.

There was a time when Anjoli had lent this most precious box to a person she loved dearly. The box had found its way back to her though the journey had been clouded with tears and sadness. The young girl was lost in the mist of the past but the music continued to delight the others who came afterwards. It could work the same magic of soothing troubled hearts, the tune never grew old.

Through the years it had lost its sheen and gloss but as soon as the lid was opened, the music worked its joyful wonder. It was as if this beloved box with its enchanting melody contained the joy and wonder of life flowing in abundance, of beauty and grace that existed even in the darkest hours of the night.











PART ONE

THE JOURNEY

Chapter 1

I pressed the door bell with the usual three long and two short rings, my signature tune for Dida to answer the door. I braced myself for a longish wait as it was Dida’s siesta time, it took her a while to come up to the entrance. The door was opened so quickly that I almost toppled over. Didn't need much guessing that it was Ma waiting on the other side.

“Where’s Dida?” Unable to hold my curiosity I asked in the same breath, “Didn’t go to the office, did you?”

As we walked in to the kitchen, one wave of the maternal hand was signal enough to lower my voice.

“We went to the visa office and by the time the interview was over, it was too late to go back to work. Since I had no idea how long it would take I had planned to take the day off. Do try to speak softly. Don’t wake Dida up, she has had a long day and is resting.”

“Hmmh. . . .What’s for tea?”

My mother pushed a plate of sandwiches, they were from the same lot that had been packed for our school lunch. Before I could register any complaint my mother had taken refuge in her bedroom and closed the door with a finality that brooked no interference.

Gulping down the sandwiches I made my way to Dida’s bedroom. Dida and I are fighting a war regarding privacy. Now that I am sixteen, I can express my views about reserving the rights to admission. As far as Dida was concerned these civilities are not meant for her. I pushed aside the curtain to find Dida resting but not dozing.

“Hey Dida did you get the visa?”

“Millie don’t you think you need to knock, to announce your arrival. Not just barge in.” remarked Dida.

“Oh come on now, you must be dying to tell me what happened.”

Dida was never one to let go of the chance to pay me back in my own coin so she made me wait for a couple of minutes before she took off on her day’s adventure.

Before proceeding further with Dida’s trials to get the visa I should present a dossier on my family members.

We are a family of six, my father’s parents, my parents and my brother and I. My grandparents have always lived with us and it is really difficult to imagine life without them. This made it easier and convenient for everyone including my parents as Dida is always there to keep a vigilant eye on us. Dada is one of those reserved old gentlemen who help you with intellectual activities but isn’t too good dealing with what I consider “Life”. Younger brothers are generally an inferior order of humanity, mine is no exception. Football and cricket are his major interests followed by how to wreck my entire life. My parents are I guess like most parents, can’t do without them but really wish they would grow up and move with the times!

Dida has always been very special because she is so unpredictable, with a nose that can smell trouble before others get a whiff of it. One can never predict her reactions or responses but on our behalf she can drive a good bargain not only with my parents but find a solution to the trickiest of situations. She is more with the times than a lot of adults I have met and that is saying a lot.

Dida has a daughter Usha, my aunt, who according to family history, is so bright and brilliant that she went off to the higher halls of learning in the West and never returned to her homeland. Currently she lives with her family in USA. Our aunt and family do the occasional India holiday but such trips are few and far apart. We remain more as faces in the family album. My aunt had invited my grandparents to visit with her family but you know how it is, never seemed to happen. As for us we had to be content with vacations in India. No chances of our joining the jet set, zooming off to exotic shores or rubbing shoulders with Hollywood celebrities!

This time my aunt was very insistent that her parents should visit USA. Dida decided that she would take up her daughter’s offer. Of course there were the usual family councils on whether Dida who had never gone abroad could be trusted to fly half way across the world.

Angered by this sexist attitude, she resolved, there and then that she would prove all the men in her family wrong. Once her mind was made up, she would travel or die!

Dida very often discusses her plans with me because she feels that I am more informed than my parents who are only clued in to corporate business. Any conversation with Raja, my brother is limited to grunts and hunger pangs. Consulting me is one of Dida's limited options. She accepts that I am the face of modern youth and my parents will soon become outdated!

The two of us had discussed this issue and resolved that it would be very demeaning if she couldn’t tackle Mission USA. The first step towards accomplishing the journey was to obtain a visa. I had heard the most horrific stories of trying to get a visa to the promised land of Indian dreams. Dida had managed to overcome the first hurdle. In my opinion that was commendable.

Dida answered in a long suffering, weary tone, “Oh! I spent hours standing in the hot sun, without a drop of water, waiting for the queue to unwind its way in to the consulate.”

“Is that all you can remember,” I said.

“How can I remember with my brains on a slow sizzle in the hot sun? All I wanted was to sit under the shade and ease my tired legs. They should provide a separate enclosure for senior citizens. If I had to wait any longer I would have collapsed.”

“How did you answer all the questions that the Americans asked you?”

Dida at her self -righteous best, sat up immediately and spoke in her haughtiest tones, “I was taught to speak English in school so don’t sit there, making monkey faces at me.”

“Ok did the man speak to you in English or American?”

“Not a man but a lady. She did have to repeat herself though as her accent wasn’t quite what I’m used to. Let me remind you before it escapes my mind, I didn’t need a translator like many others including some men.”

“Did she ask you any tricky questions?”

“Not really. I guess she was getting tired of the long line of applicants. But she wanted to know why your Dada wasn’t accompanying me. Even a foreigner thinks that a husband should escort his wife. Certainly your Dada doesn't consider that, does he? Now that the visa has been granted I guess I really have to go.”

Dada had made it clear right from the beginning, that he was not leaving his native shores no matter what golden land lay across the oceans. “I have had enough of travelling in my life. I refuse to suffer the lumpiness of strange beds, the indignity of body searches and the upside down body clock of jet lag any more. At my age I need my creature comforts. My home is my castle.”

If Dida wanted to go places she would have to do it on her own steam. My eligibility as a tour companion and guide was neither mentioned or considered.

“Are you still undecided, I thought the entire family would now have to acknowledge your superior will power? Ma isn’t going to let you hear the end of it after having taken the day off from work to drop you at the consulate.”

“Hmm decisions, decisions. I need to think things out. Mira will be hard pushed to balance both the office as well as the home. The first person to complain will be Miss Gourmet Palate.”

“Are you referring to me? Don’t forget your dear husband and son, their delicate digestive systems are unmatched in this world! I can try to survive on junk food and as far as Raja is concerned quantity keeps him going.”

There was a rustle of the newspaper followed by a timely barb from Dada “The visa was only a talking point. It is time Anjoli accepted that being a queen bee in the kitchen doesn’t qualify her to fly across the seven seas.”

Nothing could have got Dida going faster. She was hopping mad and she swept out with a derisive glance.

“Dada, your evening tea will be laced with arsenic,” I said making a hasty exit.

It never helps to be a peacemaker in the marital discords of oldies. The dinner table would be where the real battle would be fought and conceded.

Dida was a bit preoccupied but there was no discussion about the visa. Dinner was just the ordinary weekday affair with the gripes and groans about everybody’s daily drudgery.

A week was over, Dida's lack of initiative had made me lose interest. Just as I had settled down in front of the computer to do some serious online chatting, Dida knocked, actually waited before coming inside. Repeated reminders paid in the long run. Dida was also falling into line.

“Come in and hurry up I’m on the computer and online.”

Slipping in silently, Dida asked me if I could help her to mail my aunt. Dida is enthusiastic about all new gadgets and keen to use them. Unfortunately it ends up as a do or die contest between humans and machines and she does make a bad loser! It is surprising how the kitchen gadgets accept her superiority but she is convinced that the other tools have a personal grudge against her.

All through the years that my aunt has lived abroad, the post had carried weekly bulletins about the home and country. She had relied faithfully on the postal services of all nations and they had tried not to fail her but like most deliveries they were uncertain in their arrival. Dida’s life changed when the internet with its irresistible speed infiltrated our household. It was instant gratification. Dida was eager to master this machine no matter how long it took her. No one in the house wanted to teach her, as it was a grim session of hammering away at the same set of instructions. Though most days I was ready to give up in despair, Dida's tenacity was unflagging. The training was coming along at a slow pace so more often than not I was her scribe.

Dida spoke softly.” Could you mail your aunt to tell her that she should send the necessary details?”

“You’ve decided. So when are you going?”

“No need to stare so hard. I’m definitely old enough to know my mind. Do you ever take me seriously? Soon you will learn I mean what I say."

This was her usual dialogue, delivered to all mankind when they failed to heed her ultimatums or dire warnings.

“ Is this for real?” I asked not quite believing her.

“Why do you think I’ve come now? I know that this is the time you chat with your friends and no one can disturb you. Ask Usha to email at the earliest.”

“No one! Say that again. I am at every one’s beck and call. I’m bonded labour. Except for Raja everyone in the family doesn’t even blink a wink if they need my services.”

My message got an immediate response “Am thrilled. I shall call back as soon as possible.”

“No,’ said Dida, “Ask her to mail details. I’ll inform every one after it has been fixed.”

“I don’t think that is right. You need to let the rest of the family know in advance. Schedules will need to be reorganized.”

“You follow my instructions. Leave me to manage the rest.”

Not being in a mood for arguments, I completed the task to find that she had already left my room.

My aunt mailed all the information in the next ten days. Accordingly I relayed the data to Dida, the rest was her business not mine.

Weekday breakfast times are not when the family is at its best as each one of us is grappling mentally with the day looming ahead. Today we were all running late. Conversation mode was not welcome. Not an auspicious time, to spring surprises, as her newspaper horoscope would have advised. Dida had her own reasons and the news was out. Early in the morning every one’s brains are on standby. I sneaked a quick look at the family but nothing showed on their faces.

Ma was the first to react, “No offers, no notice and you are ready to leave!” Everyone looked blankly but Dad seemed to have understood.

He patted Ma’s hand and said “Mira, Ma is talking about her visit and you are already in the office trying to get the staff to accept a revised contract about the pay package.”

We knew that my mother had a difficult week ahead in the office as some of the staff was threatening to go on strike if their demands were not accepted. The last few days she had been discussing strategies with the men in the house. The tension was too much, she wanted the crisis to be over. Ma apologized immediately but I wondered if the significance of Dida’s travel dates had sunk in.

Generally Dada is silent during breakfast, as the newspapers are priority reading, he remarked sharply, “Your experience is limited to haggling with shopkeepers. Anjoli do you have any idea about the complexities of mediating with office unions? Is this the time to bring up such trivial issues?”

Dida wasn’t to be put off so easily, “All of you should know well ahead to plan your appointments and meetings without blaming me afterwards.”

Before any more comments could be made, Raja said, “Dad we are late, traffic is going to be bad. I’ll barely be in time for my geography exam. Come on, hurry up!” Everyone made a beeline for the door while Dida looked a bit upset. The keyword was action; now that the departure dates had been notified.

By the time I was back from school the telephone appeared to have been welded to Dida’s ears, the news was being passed along to family, friends and foes. Tea time was when we exchanged notes; I filled in with what had happened at school and heard the neighbourhood gossip. Since Dida was busy with a proclamation about her overseas odyssey I looked for Dada. Waving wildly and taking a minute off the line, I was told that he had gone out for the day. Guess he must have tired of the phone ringing and had left to find peace in a quieter household. After several minutes, Dida seemed to have finished informing the inner circle of family and friends, the ones who were on the VIP calling list. Others could wait, by tomorrow it would have percolated to all and sundry.

“Your morning newscast didn’t have the expected impact, did it?”

“I didn’t want to upset anyone at the start of the day but needed to get over with it. Now that the itinerary is almost ready I’ll be honest, I’m feeling a bit nervous. Your Dada is right, it is a long way to go. I haven’t travelled much. I don’t know whether I’ll be able to make the trip on my own.’

My heart went out to her as she looked a bit unsure and wistful, so unlike, her usual confident self. Hugging her tightly, I said, “Come on, you can do it. If astronauts can circle outer space, you can do almost the same, flying across the globe. Let us wait and hear what Dad has to say about your travel plans.”

Dida still looked a bit apprehensive but I hoped she would convince herself to go through with the trip.

The next few days saw a heavy influx of family and friends. You couldn’t have guessed the number of world travellers we knew. Of course most of them had not ventured beyond the limits of the city but there was always someone’s third cousin or uncle who had flown across the continents in seven days and was waiting impatiently to take the first passenger rocket to the moon. All our conversation now revolved around luggage allowances, clothes and gifts. As the days went by Dida was getting more worked up. She kept on asking Ma if she would be able to run the house on her own.

When she thought we were not within hearing distance she would ask Dada if he would be comfortable in her absence. Dada was very patient with her unlike his usual taciturn self. He reassured her, saying just what she wanted to hear, “We are going to miss you but we will survive."

Disbelief instead of smiles greeted the news that Dida's visit would be for sixteen weeks.

“I didn’t know I would be away for so long.” she wailed.

Neither did we. It seemed an awful long time for us too. Dad explained that her ticket was valid for four months so she might as well make the most of it. Dida was a bit confused by it all and looked at us accusingly as if we were trying to bundle her for eternity in to outer space.

Dada had the last word, “Anjoli it is time that you got to know Usha's family. Who knows you might want to extend your visit.”

There was a long silence as Dida tried to figure out the implications of leaving home sweet home for four long months. She didn’t appear too comfortable but kept her fears to herself.

The time arrived to get Dida outfitted. Ma kept dragging out all the bags that we possessed. Nothing seemed to meet Dida’s requirements while Ma was ready to quit in despair. Obviously there was no case large enough for her clothes and gifts that she wanted to carry. Ma was not up to the daily task of packing and unpacking as Dida required Ma’s presence while she endlessly rearranged stuff. One day Ma just packed the suitcase, locked it, stowed it away from Dida’s restless hands. Dida looked longingly at the suitcase but didn’t have the courage to ask again. She knew Ma’s patience had been tried to the breaking point.

Her bags were packed, her tickets were bought, she was ready to fly and the waiting was killing everyone. Endless litanies of do’s and don’ts plagued us day and night. All of us had arrived at the stage where ear plugs no longer seemed an option but a necessity.

Mercifully it occurred to Dida that her internet lessons were incomplete. We had agreed that Dida would stay in touch via email. It would only be possible if she could handle the computer independently. Strangely enough Dida’s typing skills were not bad though a trifle rusty. It seems that there had been cause for her to learn to type. Now she settled down to learning what she thought was a complicated technical training of using “Word” to send mail. Remembering the password always eluded her so she wrote it down on bits and pieces of paper, only to lose them promptly. By the time she was ready to leave she could find her way in cyberspace.

D Day arrived. Dida was stressed out and fidgety but she put on a brave front. All of us went to the airport to see her off, Dida had fallen strangely silent. Dad seemed to be looking around for some one. He hurried towards a young lady who was encircled by a sea of well wishers who were trying in one breath to say good bye as well as give her a whole bunch of advice. This young lady and her son a toddler were going to USA to join her husband. They would be the escort service.

It was time for Dida to join the long line of passengers to go through all the checkpoints before she boarded the plane. We were all feeling a bit overwrought and worked up when Raja held on to Dida like an infant and kept on repeating, “You are coming back, aren’t you.” Dad had to extricate him out from the folds of Dida’s sari. We needed to leave before it became an all round embarrassment. Dada kept looking back for as long as he could while Dida marched off resolutely trying to keep her fellow passengers in view. All the excitement was over and we were a pretty silent lot that made the journey homeward.

The phone bell ringing in the wee hours of morning heralded Dida’s safe arrival in the land of cattle and oil. Given the time of the morning, the call didn’t last for long as everyone tried to snatch the last bit of sleep before the day began. Time was ticking for the mail to flood my inbox.

I waited patiently for Dida to reset her body clock and may be try her hand at the computer. It took her about two weeks to get started. As expected, the first few attempts were brief and interspersed with typos. In a few days more, the trickle became a steady stream of news from across the oceans.

Chapter 2

Dear Millie,

Flight too tiring and long. Your dad has a trusting nature. It worked the other way round. I was the escort as they were travelling first time too. Boy was a handful ran up and down the aisles. I didn’t have to worry about dying of a blood clot on a long flight. The brat kept me jumping every few seconds, while he dodged food carts and other passengers. The mother was too busy getting sick or catching up on her sleep. I was glad when I stepped out in USA, free of their company. Next time will attempt journey unaided.

Dida

This is what I liked about Dida, her enterprising spirit put her several notches higher than many elderly people who were too scared to experiment. Hardly had she recovered from one international flight and within a few days she was planning the next one.

Short bursts of news came my way as Dida wrestled with the whole process of mailing and looking for the password. Praise rather than criticism was the need of the hour. Lines for communication had to be kept open. Practice would help hone Dida’s computer skills.

It is for totally selfish reasons that I needed to be in touch with Dida. She is one of the few adults who did not carry tales, respected my opinions and would not interfere unless the situation got out of hand.

Dear Dida,

I hope you are over the jet lag and the journey. We aren’t doing too badly, managing to meet deadlines. We have a new cook who is trying hard to please all of us. How are you getting along with Samir and Reva? They must be happy to have you spend time with them. Raja is keen to know if Samir is a basketball fan.

Next week is the annual school fest, I want to stay over at Dana’s house. But in another ten days it will be Dana’s birthday and she has invited me for a sleep over. What do you think will be Ma’s reaction? Which is the better option? Mail asap.

We are missing you.

Love

Millie

Dear Millie,

Usha has set up a computer for my personal use. According to her it is no big deal. It took some time to remember all that you had taught me. Thank you for all your efforts as they are being put to good use.

I am gradually getting to know Usha's family. Samir and Reva are well mannered kids and try to spend time with me. They have a packed day with several activities after school hours. Samir is preparing for exams necessary for college admissions. Reva is a quiet girl, keeps to herself. Usha and her husband Sudeep work long hours, much like your parents. I have a lot of time to myself and do miss all of you.

If you had to live here you would love their sense of privacy. The bedroom doors are always closed. No entry without knocking!

Your mother will not allow two sleepovers and neither would I. Try your luck with Dana’s birthday rather than the school day.

Has your Dada been getting the letters that I have been sending by post? Why don’t you try and get him to email me.

Dida

Gradually Dida was settling down in her new home. She seemed to be meeting a lot of my aunt’s Indian friends and their families but there wasn’t too much news about my cousins. My aunt entertained quite a bit and Dida was happy to exhibit her culinary skills. She had complained in one of her letters that no one ate lunch at home, she too was getting used to eating sandwiches. Weekends saw her cooking to feed an army, the company and activity made her happy. At home, there is always an unending stream of family and friends. Dida enjoyed the chatter and laughter of people, old or young.

Dida’s emails were coming with great regularity. The visit was going according to expectations.

Dear Millie,

I have travelled thousands of miles but I’ve hardly had the opportunity to meet the native inhabitants of this country. All I meet are Indians like Usha and her family. I’m very curious to know how the locals live. The Americans are not to be found anywhere on the streets; as a matter of fact hardly any of them can be seen outdoors. Only unending lines of cars speed up and whoosh down the highways, disappearing in to the horizon.

Usha told me that she would take me to the malls if I wanted to see people. She expected that I would enjoy the open spaces and the freedom of moving without being knocked or pushed around at every corner.

When I told her that I wanted to meet an American family she was at her wit’s end. Indians are a part of my life, but the only Americans I see are on the TV and that is no way to know people. The surroundings are so similar to the those in American shows that are aired in India. Neatly mown lawns, gleaming houses, big cars but no people walking around!

Finally I decided to take matters in my own hand. Usha’s neighbours are a young American couple with two toddlers. They wave and greet me if they see me but there is no conversation of any kind. One afternoon while out in the back yard I saw Beth playing with her children. I called out to her and introduced myself. Beth was slightly unsure but warmed up after a few more exchanges across the fence.

Usha has a very long list of what the Americans like and don’t like. People are the same all over the world but she is more than particular to maintain the social norms. It is better not to tell Usha about my conversations with her neighbour. In India I know almost all the residents in our building. Social interaction is limited to weekends as none of their friends live close by.

Most of my life I have lived in a crowded city. Too much of wide open spaces make me feel lost and lonely. I must confess that I miss the dust blown in by the summer storms, the shrill blare of cars, buses and trucks pressing on recklessly, regardless of safety. The hundred and one smells and sounds that remind me of home.

Dida

Dida’s friendliness paid off and Beth invited Dida for coffee. All those over the garden fence chats made Dida feel at home with Beth’s family. It came as welcome news that Beth had gone back to college after she had the two kids. Dida was all for education, improving one’s self, as women of her generation had lacked the courage and faith to look beyond the threshold of their homes .

Beth's life was very hectic and Dida wondered if Beth’s mother or mother in law could lend her a helping hand.

One day she couldn’t help but ask, "Do your parents and parents in law live in another city?”

By now Beth had got used to Dida’s way of speaking. Earlier she felt a bit uncomfortable with too many personal questions but she realized that they were not only from two diverse cultures but also far apart in age. Luckily Beth was easy going and friendly and Dida’s queries were not misunderstood.

“Yes. Mrs. Basu our families live in other towns and it is difficult for any one of them to come and help us out. Unless it is an emergency we wouldn’t like to bother any one of them. I don’t think that my parents would be comfortable staying too long with me.”

“Well” said Dida, “we stay with our son and his family as we would not find it easy to live by ourselves. Though there can be problems, in our case, the arrangement has suited all of us. My daughter in law also works. I would like to believe that she is able to leave her home and children in our care, with greater peace of mind.”

"An extra pair of hands are always welcome but you know we guard our independence very strongly. At the same time I don’t know how well I would cope with others interfering in my life.”

“Hmm, you call it interfering but we consider it our duty to do whatever we can for our children.”

Some of Dida’s statements made Beth feel that Indian society was too tradition bound and family oriented but she agreed that people were the same all over the world. The two women, old and young had not only struck a rapport but she was well liked by Ann and Sam. Dida would keep an eye on the kids while Beth was busy with her chores.

At times Dida’s English ran in to problems with the kids but they managed and enjoyed her company. Dida listened carefully to the rhymes and songs that Ann learnt in school and sang along with them. Dida's family had been comforted by her lullabies and loved to hear her sing. Her songs could cast a spell, wipe away their tears and make them smile.

There were days when day care or babysitters weren’t available and Beth had a tough time managing the kids and her classes. Dida had suggested that she would only be too happy to look after them. Beth had an open mind about the offer.

Usha had to be informed before any arrangements could be made. Beth felt that it was better if Dida sorted it out with Usha. She said, “Mrs. Basu, I don’t know your daughter very well so it would be better for you to clear it with her.”

Dida felt that Usha would have no objections about being helpful and neighbourly. The moment Usha heard it she was ready to hit the ceiling.

“How could you plan like this behind my back? What will every one think about me? Why do you need to do a nanny’s job? You are here on a vacation. Would you behave this way at home? Can the children understand your English! This isn’t India, people here are more particular.”

Dida was nonplussed by Usha's flare up. She believed that Usha would welcome the spirit of enterprise and goodwill. Instead she was up in arms.

“Beth genuinely needs help. Managing her kids will not be a problem. She is comfortable about leaving the children in my care. It gives me something to do as I'm by myself during the day. Why should that upset you?”

“This is not India where people aren’t fussy and are casual in their approach. Should any of those kids get a scratch or a bruise Beth will not hesitate to sue you. If there is an emergency, a bad accident will you be able to deal with the situation? You can’t drive. You know nothing about how the systems work here. How could you agree without first discussing it with me?”

Dida was slightly alarmed at the mention of lawsuits as by now she had heard enough about lawyers and compensations. Anyways most of the TV reality shows were about losing and winning money.

Usha made babysitting sound like a high security job for the president of USA. Dida had seen some of the babysitters who came to care for the next door kids. She wondered if those teenagers ever heard anything as their ears were permanently plugged with earphones or their attention riveted on their phone screens. If Beth’s children could survive those babysitters they were definitely safer in Dida’s care.

“I think I am experienced and old enough to manage Ann and Sam. Don’t forget I raised you as well as your brother and then Millie and Raja. If Beth wasn’t sure she wouldn’t have asked me. Promises aren't made to be broken. I gave my word to be there on Thursday afternoon and I will do so."

Annoyed at not being able to dissuade her mother Usha walked out in a huff, praying that better sense would prevail. “I hope that you will reconsider your decision and not cause problems for yourself or for me.”

The warning did not deter Dida as her mind was made up though Usha’s parting words made her extra cautious. Thankfully the afternoon with the kids passed off well. Sam slept through as it was his nap time, making it possible to keep a vigilant eye on Ann.

Needless to say that Dida felt very smug that she had been proved right. Beth was grateful that Dida had taken good care of her children.

Dear Millie,

There is more to Usha’s family than meets my eye. Usha is very conventional and inflexible in her attitudes. I think her children are scared of displeasing her and aren’t always very open with her. They fear incurring her anger or disapproval.

Usha has had to work very hard to get to her present position in the office but that doesn’t mean that she should be critical of others or think that her way is the only one. Public approval rates very high in her life and she wants that not only for herself but her family. I sense an uneasy distance between Reva and Usha though I can’t put my finger to it. May be the usual generation gap with an American twist?

I did spend two hours with Beth’s children, her daughter Ann is an adventurous youngster and Sam a peaceful infant. I had to be on my toes so that Ann didn’t get in to serious trouble .Sam needed just a bottle. I had noted down all the important phone numbers in case of an emergency. You know that I am a careful and well organized person, used to having children around me. Usha's fears were unfounded. If I could fly half way across the world by myself then it doesn't need rocket science to look after two toddlers for a few hours.

Beth has promised to teach me how to bake an apple pie. Both Sameer and Reva like apple pie and it would be nice to be able to bake their favourite dessert. American grandmothers are supposed to be good bakers.

Dida

Chapter 3

The vacation seemed to be going through some unexpected hiccups. I was debating whether to speak to my mother about this. May be Ma could help resolve some of the issues as it wouldn’t be nice if Dida had to cut short her vacation because of minor misunderstandings. Before I could put my thoughts in order there was a raging storm in Usha’s family and Dida, most unlike her nature, had decided to take sides. Whenever there was a difference in opinion between my parents regarding the two of us Dida was careful to remain neutral. Right from the beginning she had made it clear to us that my parents had the last word. We respected her because she didn’t throw her weight around and rarely interfered with our parents’ way of raising us.

It would appear that Usha was very ambitious for her children, willing to provide all the facilities if they fell in with her plans. She had come abroad as a naïve young woman with a sharp mind plus a willingness to work. It had not been an easy journey to arrive at her present status. She was still sore from the scars of the battles that she had fought both at work and in her personal life. The system had rewarded her in many ways but had also prevented her from understanding her children's perspectives.

Certainly some of her failings were those of most adults and in particular parents. There is a definite nagging tone that most parents develop through the years and it is a rare offspring who does not to have to deal with it. Parental behaviour and attitudes can transcend all international boundaries and cultures, they are ageless and constant.

Sameer and Reva were being groomed to become doctors and engineers and while Sameer didn’t appear to object to his parents’ plans. Reva was proving to be a growing obstacle in the pre- planned future. Dida had witnessed a few skirmishes between Reva and her mother but they were nothing major. I knew that Dida wouldn’t intervene unless the whole situation got out of hand. True to her character, she waited and held her counsel.

Dada was too private a person to ask if Dida had mentioned any specific incidents regarding my aunt and cousin. There were times when Dida found it easier to confide in me but she must have given some indication of the strained relations in her letters to Dada. Dida hadn’t mentioned if there was any feedback from Dada. The rest of the family didn't seem to know much about the way events were shaping up in faraway USA.

Dada had also been getting Dida’s letters by snail mail. A few times he had mentioned to my parents, “I should have gone with Anjoli. She seems to be getting worked up; living in a different social set up is too much for her at this age.”

Dad was a bit taken aback by this and said, “Ma isn’t the kind to make trouble but she can be touchy over certain issues. If I were you I wouldn’t lose sleep over what is bothering them. After all Ma and Usha are meeting after a long time. Obviously adjustments have to be made.”

But the next mail wasn’t a storm it was a hurricane.

Dear Millie,

How do I begin, I’m besides myself with anger as well as anxiety. Last night I heard both Usha and Reva arguing loudly. All of a sudden I heard Reva slam the door and the sound of a car speeding away. Usha had retired to her bedroom. There was nothing I could do. It was impossible for me to fall asleep with a granddaughter driving crazily in the night.

I must have fallen in to a dreamless doze when the doorbell rang. Sameer answered the door. Muffled sounds could be heard. I recognized Reva’s boyfriend Andrew’s voice in the hallway reassuring Sameer that Reva was fine and to let her be by herself. Thank God that the child had come to no harm and whatever was the matter it could be dealt with later. Differences are a part of life; but you don’t just vanish in to the night leaving every one worried and witless. This kind of behavoiur can't be condoned.

I’ll let you know exactly what went wrong but now I need to calm down.

Dida

I thought of sharing the news with Ma but had second thoughts. Dida’s next mail might provide some clues. There were times when I had felt like walking out of the house but hadn't the nerve to carry out my threat. I had a sneaking admiration for Reva but also felt that she hadn’t done the right thing. But maybe she needed to be reckless to prove her point. Sometimes you needed to shake people out of their minds before they understood that you meant business. I hoped that things hadn’t got too much out of hand and that peace would be restored between my aunt and my spirited cousin. Going by Dida’s mails it seemed that my aunt had been trained by the Gestapo and her role model was Hitler!

The night’s drama had taken its toll on Dida and she had woken up late. By the time she was ready to face the day, everyone seemed to have gone off to work or school. There was a note stuck to the fridge asking Dida not to disturb Usha as she was tired and had taken the day off from work.

As a mother, Dida was worried for what her daughter had gone through the night before. Did children ever understand how they could kill their parents with their thoughtlessness? At the same time she couldn’t figure out why her highly qualified daughter could handle a managerial team in the office but couldn’t deal with her teenage daughter at home. Usha seemed heavy handed as well as intolerant with her own children and could not reach out to Reva.

Everyone had had a bad night and Dida decided that the best solution would be to cook some family favourites while waiting for the situation to unfold. She always held the view that a well cooked meal was one of the best ways of bringing the family together. As she minced and chopped, stirred and fried her mind kept working on the troubles that beset the family even though all her energies were directed towards the pots and pans in which meats and vegetables simmered and sizzled as they turned in to delicious curries and gravies.

While Dida was cooking Usha emerged from her room and flopped despondently on the chair. Biding her time for Usha to speak, Dida poured out a hot cup of tea. There was silence as Usha sipped her tea , probably trying to think her way through last night’s tempest. Dida’s heart went out to her daughter but she was sensitive enough to wait for Usha to begin speaking.

Dida thought to herself, “Does anyone ever know what makes others tick?”

Usha had left home when she was a young girl returning only for short holidays. Dida had wanted her bright and intelligent daughter to make use of every chance that gave her the opening to go ahead. In spite of a lot of family advice and criticism Dida had not hesitated to encourage Usha to go abroad to study and further her career. Neither had she disappointed her mother; she had won almost all possible prizes and scholarships. Dida’s heart had swollen with pride and love for her hard working daughter. Aspiring youngsters in the family were asked to look upon Usha as their role model. Her career as well as her married life seemed to have a fairy tale ending of the" happily lived after" types.

Circumstances were making Dida take stock of the situation and ask herself if she really knew the middle aged woman sitting in front of her. Being pragmatic Dida accepted the need for reassessment but she didn’t know how to broach the subject. Distance and time had created gulfs that needed to be bridged.

Usha sat and brooded, lost in her thoughts. After a long silence she looked at Dida and burst out, “Aren’t you going to ask me what happened last night? What that silly child said and did?’

“Obviously you don't see eye to eye and it has distressed both of you and led to Reva's thoughtless behaviour.

There is so much that I don’t know about your life and your family. Unless you tell me, how can I help you.”

May be Usha expected a sympathetic answer or just silence but this was definitely not what she wanted to hear. She looked accusingly at her mother and said, “You have never been there when I needed help. I was always the prize cow, to be exhibited and to brag about to the world at large. Who cares about what I do to keep everyone happy?”

Usha’s sharp words startled as well as upset Dida but she didn’t want to aggravate her already irritable daughter. It would be wiser to hide her hurt feelings instead of raking up the past.

“I know that Sudeep and you work hard. But that is true of many families not only here but in India too. Your brother and his wife also are a working couple. Reva should be able to speak to both her parents as much as you must also listen to her. May be she doesn't confide as she thinks you will not allow her the freedom to make her choices .”

Dida had hardly finished speaking when Usha broke out, “Mira and Anish are lucky as both of you look after the house while they are at work. We have to manage all fronts without any help from family. It is not easy to carry such a heavy work load but if only that silly girl would realize that I am doing it for both of them. She doesn’t hear a word of what I have to say and is set on doing what she thinks best.

The children were born in this country, this is where they belong and call home. But for us, acceptance did not come easily. Our accents, our clothes, our colour, our ignorance of social and cultural norms set us apart. We had to prove ourselves at work and elsewhere. Do you or the children know the loneliness and frustration that Sudeep and I faced? We went through it all because the children would have the advantage that we didn’t have.

We have been careful to see that the children were part of the mainstream, without losing out on the values and ideals that have allowed us to integrate and move up the ladder. Nothing is free. Who stands to benefit if they follow their parents’ advice?”

Dida wondered what it was that Reva wanted that had set them at loggerheads. May be it was Andrew, the American boy friend but even in India boy friends were no longer taboo. If that was the case then Usha was being unrealistic. The children had been born and raised in this country and saw themselves as Americans so Andrew was not an unusual choice or was he? Dida wondered if she should voice her thoughts about boyfriends in general. After all her other granddaughter Millie had boyfriends too.

She said, “Usha are you upset about Reva’s boyfriend being an American?”

“No, Andrew isn’t on the top of my worry list. It is Reva, she is so obstinate. Thank goodness she has boyfriends. If she didn’t she would stick out like a sore thumb among her friends. If that happened, it would be another problem. Andrew is more sensible than most boys of his age.”

Dida couldn’t help but think that Usha saw life as a series of mathematical puzzles that could be solved if the right formula was applied. Life was more like a maze with unexpected twists, turns and blind endings.

The phone rang and put an end to the thaw. It was an urgent call from the office. Usha decided to go back to attend to some crisis. She was better off at work than trying to deal with an intractable daughter and a critical mother.

Usha’s outburst had also upset Dida, as she had not pictured herself as an uncaring and boastful parent. Would Dida have to mend fences so that there could be a dialogue among all three of them?

Dida's thought it best to speak to Sameer and try to get some idea about the undercurrents. Time was running out to resolve the issues as she was midway through her visit. At least Sameer would be able to tell her the reason underlying his sister's clashes with her mother.

Dida was not eager to involve Sudeep. She had not had much chance to interact with him and they were formal with one another. Possibly Sudeep would be the last person in the family she would like to consult. But if matters came to a head then she would take help from any quarter. Dida had observed Sudeep and Reva working in the garden. Father and daughter didn’t speak much but shared an easy relationship.

Dida wished to seize the earliest opportunity to speak to Sameer and when she could get him on his own. Luck was in her favour as Sameer was the first one to come home. Dida got to the crux of the matter without giving him a chance to escape to his room.

“Sameer, I’m worried about what happened last night. What is the problem between Reva and your mother?”

Sameer was taken aback by the frontal attack, as he didn't really know his grandmother. Relationships took time to build especially if the meetings were few and far. He was an affable, happy go lucky teenager who managed to get along with almost everybody unlike Reva who was moody and unpredictable. He looked around, wishing that he wouldn’t have to actually answer that question. Dida just kept on staring, willing him to answer her, then and there. The poor boy was cornered; there was no way he could escape.

“Oh you know Reva can never agree with Mom’s suggestions. She is supposed to take some advanced courses to help later on in college. Mom was angry with Reva's point blank refusal.”

“Why?” asked Dida.

Experience had taught us that when Dida started questioning she was worse than the KGB.

“Reva wants more time to practise music to enter a good conservatory. Mom wants her to opt for courses that will help her to try for medical school. Reva has good grades, she could pretty much get what she wants but she sure doesn’t want to apply for medical school. All of us know her first love is music while Mom’s sights are set on her becoming a doctor. These arguments have become more frequent in the last few months as it is time now for Reva to enlist for the courses. Music is Reva's life but sadly not a part of Mom’s .”

Dida nodded her head while mentally deciding on her next ploy , “So what are your plans?”

Sameer heaved a sigh of relief at not having to speak any further about his sister’s ongoing battles and hostilities. “I haven’t quite made up my mind. There’s still time.”

He hadn’t answered Dida’s question but she let it pass. May be Usha would learn from her experiences with Reva and be more amenable to Sameer's needs.

Sameer waited for Dida to continue or allow him to move along. Dida watched carefully as if trying to read more from his expressions rather than his words. She remembered he had just come home from school and must be hungry.

“I’m so sorry to have kept on nattering. Come and have something to eat. I made one of your favourite snacks and it is still fresh and hot.”

The matter seemed to have ended for the time being. Dinner that night was very quiet, everyone was preoccupied and no one seemed to have noticed that Dida had cooked such a great meal. Dida was a wee bit put off that nobody had praised her efforts. All great artists like to be complimented on their creations and Dida was no less. She noticed that they had all eaten heartily even if they hadn’t acknowledged her art! Reva appeared to be sulking and Usha was preoccupied with her work. The men had left for their own rooms.

The atmosphere wasn’t right but Dida had decided that she wouldn’t take too long to work out her strategies. The people she needed to talk to were Reva and Usha. A rebellious adolescent is highly combustible; needs timely and careful handling. If Dida wanted to help she first needed to understand her own daughter.

Dear Millie

I haven’t been too successful in finding out why Reva had hurtled out of the house that night. In the end it doesn’t matter though I hope she didn’t do anything silly that she will regret later. The TV shows are full of stories about the kind of problems that young girls face just because they didn’t stop to think before they acted.

I find that I don’t know my own daughter. Somewhere along the years I’ve lost her whereas she thinks I abandoned her. Parents often draw up plans for their children's future with the best of intentions. The goals are achieved but success seems hollow. I am unsure if Usha was pushed to become who she is today. If so, Reva shouldn't suffer the same fate. Usha was so self motivated that we didn’t have to do much. She knew her mind and pursued it with single minded determination.

Nothing can be done unless both Usha and Reva are willing to understand each other's views and talk without losing their cool.

People are unpredictable and it doesn't always pay to stir troubled waters. Do you think Reva will hear me out or give me the cold shoulder?

I’ll let you know how it works out.

Dida

Chapter 4

Gardens were not only a luxury but a rarity in our city. Parks were grassless and brown where the tired masses stopped to catch their breath, youngsters jostled with one another for just a bit of space to run around. Dida had lived her life in a concrete jungle.

This garden was not only big but well tended by the two most interested gardeners Sudeep and Reva. It was a green, secluded, peaceful oasis. They mowed, watered and planted with great care and zeal. The flower beds were in Reva’s care while the lawns and the kitchen garden were Sudeep’s. After her arrival, Dida had happily accepted the task of watering and doing whatever tasks were allotted to her. Just being out in the open with so much of greenery was heaven. It was a bonus to be able to use all the garden fresh vegetables and herbs.

Next morning everyone else had left for work except for Reva and Dida. Both of them were out in the garden, lost in their own worlds. Dida was rudely jolted out of her reverie by Beth’s voice over the fence.

“Mrs. Basu, Mrs. Basu, can you give me some time.”

It took Dida a few seconds to realize that Beth was calling out to her. She looked up to see Beth waving frantically and saying, “I’m worried as Sam is down with fever and needs to be rushed to the doctor. Do you think you could look after Ann as she will be home from day care?”

Dida volunteered promptly “Oh dear! Yes I can do that. Don’t worry.”

Beth rushed in and out in a trice, “It won’t work. You can’t drive and Ann has to be picked up. I need to ask someone else.”


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