Autumn Leaves

“In what way can a revelation be made but by miracles?”

Lekha drearily dragged her feet as she walked with her mother on the narrow road lined by open gutters on both the sides. It was evening time and the breeze that blew on their faces was slightly chilly but in a pleasant way. There wasn’t much conversation between them in that short ten minute walk that would take them to the D’Souzas’ house where they were invited for Christmas. In spite of the silence between them, Lekha’s head throbbed with an ache. Her mind was full of voices, a giddying pandemonium. On the side of the lane, a stray dog was lying in a hollow in a mound of gravel he appeared to have dug himself. He lay there absolutely still ignorant of the sounds of the vehicles passing by. He was so still that Lekha found herself staring at him for a moment longer than necessary wondering if he was still alive, until his ears suddenly stood up and Lekha mentally scolded herself for her morbid thought. She couldn’t help but feel morose all the time these days.  She turned twenty-four last month but in her mind she feels much older, much more worn out than her twenty-four year old body would show. Her heart was heavy with the remnants of the argument she just had with Akhil. Akhil, who serenaded her in a crowded coffee place when they were both eighteen and head over heels in love. Akhil, her boyfriend of six years. Six years! She found herself repeating in her head several times. Had it really been only that long because it felt like a lifetime to her. Pieces of their argument resurfaced in her head, and she cringed without realizing her mother’s eyes on her.

“What is the matter Lekha?  ”, her mother asked looking concerned. Lekha just nodded her head carelessly. They had begun fighting a lot lately, especially since Akhil moved to Pune to complete an assignment which in his words was unavoidable and vital for his promotion in his company.  The physical distance had somehow magnified their differences and Lekha felt hopeless when she thought about how badly they had been treating each other lately. And then of course there was Priyanka, just her name made Lekha feel sick to the stomach. But mistakes happen with even the best of people.  Love isn’t about a bed of roses anyway.  Akhil is her first love; they have almost grown up together.  In the daily late night conversations, they have discovered the world together with all its beauty and unsightliness; their hopes and disappointments felt real only after they were expressed, eyes closed to each other. But even those conversations had begun to feel like a luxury these days. More often than not exhaustion took over affection.

They reached an iron gate in the shape of half squares, the black paint peeling out at its corners. “This seems like the place” Lekha tells her mother pointing at the name of the building- Haria Park. Alongside the gate is a small cabin built in concrete, reeking of the smell of kerosene. Thru a small window, the watchman calls out to them and tells them to make an entry in the register for visitors. As she signs, Lekha glimpses the inside of the tiny cabin and sees a stove in one end of the small space, a few clothes hanging on a hook on the opposite side, a newspaper in what looked like Marathi was spread on the floor. For a moment, Lekha felt strangely voyeuristic, like she’s seen something intimate, something she wasn’t meant to witness.  After she entered her details in the register, Lekha and her mother walked into the lobby of the building and stood for a moment to look at the assembly of name plates displaying the names of all the people who resided in the building. Against the name plate for flat no. 304, they found the name Ernest D’Souza. Lekha smiled at the strangeness of the name.  Her mother pressed the button for the lift and they heard a creaking sound as the lift came towards the ground floor.  As they walked into the lift, surrounded by yellowing veneer on three sides, Lekha thought of the young boy- Dean D’Souza, who came to her mother for tuitions, of his innocence, of his obedience to his mother so strange in today’s day and age for a boy of his age. Lekha was curious to know what kind of household a boy of such naivety belonged to. Lekha remembered other children she had dealt with, boasting of a lengthy string of relationships and heartbreaks at pubescent ages, disrespectful of their parents, brutal in their ambitions.

As the lift stopped on the third floor, they stepped out to find themselves surrounded by commotion. All four doors on that floor were wide open and people were freely walking in and out across the corridor. They looked around with confused expressions on their faces for a while until the boy’s mother stepped out from one of the flats and greeted them in her usual warm and hearty manner. She was simply dressed in a beige housecoat in floral printed cotton. Her straight black waist-length hair was tied in a bunch at the nape of her neck and her ears were adorned with gold hoops. Lekha noticed fluidity in her body language which was absent when she sat awkwardly in their living room, waiting to take her son back home from tuitions. She wished them merry Christmas and led them thru one of the doors. Lekha and her mother seated themselves on the slightly worn out couches in the living room. The first thing that Lekha noticed was a sticker at the top of the entryway into the corridor which read: GODISNOWHERE. Lekha found it strange that an inscription that said God is Nowhere should find itself in a house that was so obviously religious. Though her knowledge about religion especially one not her own was limited, she was sure of the difference between atheism and religion. Her eyes wandered towards a wall unit that occupied most of the living room’s left wall. It was large, sand-coloured and was a humble tribute to all the milestones of various members of the family. Wedding pictures, childhood snaps, certificates that she couldn’t read from that distance, small and big trophies that looked like they have lost their shine shared cramped spaces in different parts of the wall unit.  And the festive signs of Christmas were all over the house, glittering streamers were stuck with the help of cellophane tape across the walls in the living room, a big shiny silver ball was hung in the middle of the ceiling, Santa masks of different sizes and shapes were hung at different places in the room. There was one that had real-looking white beard and moustache hanging from it and another one that broke into a Christmas carol when someone stepped close to it. It was difficult to not feel the spirit of Christmas in this house.

But Lekha’s heart couldn’t be any gloomier. She felt a surge of resentment towards her mother who dragged her here on a day when all she wanted was to curl up on the couch and sulk. She wondered about how much easier it is to feel sad when you are surrounded by lights and the sounds of laughter of strange people. She resented the frivolity of such social visits, the pointlessness of it all. And the fact that today she felt like the victim. The boy’s mother appeared thru the rather cheap looking curtain that divided the living room and the corridor that led to the rooms inside. Lekha wondered how many rooms the house had when the breeze blew the curtain to one side. Plates of sweet and salty snacks were displayed in front of Lekha and her mother in quantities impossible to finish. A bright green coloured sweet shaped into diamonds caught Lekha’s mother’s attention and she asked the hostess what it is. Thus the conversation begun to flow of which Lekha only caught bits and pieces something about cooking guavas for hours. Lekha lifted a piece of the green sweet and unmindfully took a bite, a burst of sweetness and the distinct flavor of guavas filled her mouth. She occasionally looked at the hostess and smiled approvingly though she had no idea or interest in what the conversation was about.  In her mind was another conversation, a debate actually about the meaning of being happy with someone, she thought of Akhil and tried to recollect the last time he smiled at her warmly enough to make her heart melt. She thought of the years that have passed between them, of the long-past romance and the ugly fights. She wondered about love and loyalty.  About the mistakes committed and the number of compromises they have both made in the name of love. The prices they have paid.

“Merry Christmas everyone”, a hearty male voice exclaimed. Lekha turned to the door to see a very old man dressed in nondescript trousers and a bright floral shirt entering the flat with a big smile on his face. The boy’s mother introduced him as her father-in-law who everyone called Nana. A demure and rather tiny old woman followed him and they both seated themselves on the couch beside Lekha and her mother. Greetings and introductions were exchanged. From the minute they walked into the room, Lekha was pulled out of her stream of thoughts and found herself filled with an increasing and strange sense of optimism and awe.

Nana was well into his eighties and looked his age. The woman next to him was his wife, about five years younger to him, named Gloria whom he fondly called Glo. Lekha couldn’t help but admire the effortless way in which they were oriented to each other, almost as if they were but a single entity. The way Nana snuck a compliment into a conversation piece when Glo least expected it and the blush on her wrinkled cheek afterward. They are looking forward to their fiftieth wedding anniversary next April. Fifty years, Nana reiterates and looks at Glo and says, just flew by. At moments like this Lekha felt as if she almost did not exist in that room, in their world, it was just them, and no one else. A strange tug in her chest choked her and for a minute she felt breathless. The conversation steered toward Nana and he animatedly described his life story. Orphaned at a very young age, Nana fell in love at the tender age of twenty-one with a petite sixteen year old girl. Those days he spent his nights in the railway waiting room, unemployed, broke and without a family. During that time of his life, he found love, that he said saved him from a life of shame. He remembered standing outside her balcony and singing “Autumn Leaves” on his guitar. She shyly accepted his love on the condition that he asks for her hand in marriage from her mother. He protested, he had nothing of his own, but she insisted and he, obedient to his heart’s every desire obeyed.

A twenty-one year old, tall and lanky Nana stood outside the door of his lover’s house. He says he stood there for a long time till he gathered courage in his heart to knock the door. And when he did, a plump woman with an apron around her waist opened the door with open arms. She was expecting him, and the first words that she spoke were” Come in my son” At that point she didn’t know what those words meant to an orphaned boy with nothing in the world to call his own. In those words says Nana, he found strength that lasted him a lifetime. It wasn’t easy after that, to build a life from scratch, but love made it possible smiled Nana. Lekha toyed with the facts told to her in her mind, weighing them for their reality, well aware that the heart’s memory magnifies the good and eliminates the bad. But who could contest what she was seeing with her own eyes? Fifty years is a plethora of opportunities for mistakes but she couldn’t sense the slightest strain of bitterness in any of their exchanges. The look in Glo’s eyes was still of a sixteen year old girl, newly in love, full of optimism. Is this possible she wondered, her pessimistic mind grappling to find one loophole, one contradiction that refutes it all. But nothing. They were still in love.  And then everything else fell into place, Dean, his mother’s large-heartedness, the open doors, the household Lekha found herself admiring built on two people’s love and faith in each other.  Her eyes once again wandered to the sticker above the entryway and suddenly she realized what it really said: God is Now Here.  Nothing had changed except for the way she looked at it and yet that made everything change.

As they rose to leave, Lekha and her mother could not help but carry a part of this household with them. A part that almost seemed like a misfit in the life they lead but a part that will endure nonetheless. Lekha and her mother stepped outside the Iron Gate and Lekha reached into her pocket for her cell phone to begin a conversation that will end her relationship. Yet she can’t help but feel like her life has only begun.

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