I found myself lying, yes bare-faced lying, to my own daughter so smoothly the next morning.
“Dad it’s Saturday morning, where are you off to?” she asked. “Those Brahmakumari people visit the old on the third Saturday; they’re coming to see you.”
I first spoke the truth, and then told the lie.
“Please, beta, it’s very late for me to be saved by any Brahmos.” I stopped myself in time from calling them ‘Brahmos Missiles’ (that’s India’s supersonic cruise missile; we made it with the Russians). My daughter had once rapped me on the knuckles for that joke.
Now I could hear the edge in her voice: “This is not the Christian church—they’re not ‘saving’ anyone, Dad. I wish you would listen. It’s just part of their outreach to the Hindu community here, dad.”
“Well then I want to stay out of their reach,” I said, still trying to laugh my way out of this.
Then came my lie, delivered so glibly, I was ashamed and impressed at the same time with myself: “And anyway, I have decided to walk in the Golden Gate Park today. One of your friends told me that some Japanese people practise their Taiko drums in the Park on Saturdays.” I used to play the tabla till quite recently, and I am quite a fan of that Shivamani percussionist chap, so this was a plausible story, that I wanted to go see the Japanese drummers in the Golden Gate Park.
City of dreams: Wing Commander Brahme’s love story is set in San Francisco, where his daughter lives. Thinkstock. (Right) The Counsel of Strangers: Omo Books, 169 pages, Rs250.
My daughter gave an I-give-up sigh. Really, why couldn’t I, like the other Indian Pas and Mas here, get religious and ritualistic in my old age, the sigh implied. Then she spotted me putting granola bars and yoghurt into my bag, and said: “There is Lonavala chikki and Chitale’s bakarwadi, Dad. Take that.”
“I hate that stuff,” I said with uncalled for vehemence, I realised, as soon as the words came out of my mouth.
My daughter gave me a quizzical look. My son-in-law looked up from his paper and said mildly —“Real Amru you’re becoming Dad, preferring granola bars over chikki.”
I smiled and stepped out quickly. We Indians ask each other too many questions. And the elderly are not supposed to have any privacy at all.
She runs lightly up the BART station steps. Today there is no laptop. There is a big portfolio bag strapped across her shoulders. She wears light blue jeans and a neat, loose beige shirt with the face of a Scots Terrier embroidered above the left pocket; walking shoes. On the train, with the whole day in front of us, we don’t speak at all. The urgency to make the best of the train journey is suddenly taken away. And I may have missed it a little, except that the anticipation of our day together, the Park that I was eager to walk in, and the prospect of watching the Taiko players (I wasn’t lying fully to my daughter, I did want to see them) made up for it completely. And that sitting silently on the train together, today side-by-side, both of us suppressing smiles, caught up in some kind of secret, is something that no one can take away from me ever. Whatever did or did not happen later.
I really didn’t know right then whether Netra was as taken up by the moment as I was. For me, even getting off at the station together was a sign of a certain ‘us’ness that I had missed for a while in my life and had not hoped to find again. And I said to myself, easy, soldier.
But I need not have. She too was happy, excited, almost child-like. The two of us stride purposefully towards the Park. She must be about 5 feet 6, as I said, or a little taller. I am 5 feet 11 in my socks, and not yet bent, as you can see. I notice that the top of her head comes somewhere a little above my shoulder.
When we get to a spot that we like, she spreads out a sheet on the cool green grass and lays out our picnic menu. Ham and lettuce sandwiches, asparagus soup in a flask, and some liqueur chocolate, yoghurt and granola bars. In the portfolio bag, she has brought with her everything that is precious to her to show me, she says.
As she sits cross-legged on the sheet, I notice parrot green socks; she is firmly in picnic mode. I’ve only seen her in work clothes up until today. Today her hair is not tied back neatly. It is bunched up loosely and held against her head at the back in a big oval piece of curved and carved Indian leather, with a stick going through it. A couple of strands of it are loose. Even in this casual dress she is neat, fresh. Her skin is a rich honey brown colour, under the California sky. You wonder how a man, and an old one at that, noticed and recalls so much? About that day, I could tell you in the minutest of detail. Ask me the colour of the thermos flask, and I will be able to tell you.
We start on the sandwiches. “Not samosas, but they’ll do, I say”. She eats slowly, neatly; I wolf down her sandwiches in 4 bites each. It is the first time that we are watching each other eat, and we are both a little self-conscious. She then begins to take things out of her portfolio—a few photographs, a tiny silver pendant in which there is a lock of her son’s baby hair in a ribbon, from almost 30 years ago; along with it a curved nail from the claw of a recently departed old dog. I laugh when I see this, and it seems the easiest thing, under the California sky, to lean across and caress her face. She holds my hand in place and the large brown eyes look at mine —“Ulhas,” she says, my name, a very slight question in the way she says the word.
My now old-fashioned first name on her lips comes out so gentle, more like a breath let out slow. It says so much, I feel enveloped in her. Up until now she’s always murmured a pretend-formal ‘Wing Commander Brahme’ or ‘sir’ or the more teasing Ezra or Ezra Pound. Today the word Ulhas changes us. We sit silently for I don’t know how long.
Then she takes out the last of her ‘show and tell’ things. It is her ‘hobby that now pays serious money sometimes’, she tells me. They are medium-sized paintings. What she has brought to show me are colour copies. The originals she has given to those who commissioned them. At first glance they look like Indian miniature paintings. Groups of people standing on elevated platforms, a wedding in progress. Or just a couple seated on the Indian version of a love-seat, surrounded by fruiting and flowering trees, a few deer, birds. Some are groups of women playing on rope swings hung from a banyan tree.
When you looked closely, they weren’t just figures—they had faces with recognizable features; some wore Indian clothes, and some even wore dresses and jeans and skirts or suits and wedding gowns I saw. Some of the romantic or dancing couples were old, greying, blond, brunette. The detail was amazing—from the clothes and footwear and faces and hair to the foliage, the butterflies and the details of the metal railings or the ornate seats.
In some, instead of deer and peacocks, there were much-loved family dogs and cats and babies worked into the picture. The borders were worked in gold paint. The faces and clothes she got from photographs of the occasion that was celebrated in the painting. I was gob-smacked by the planning, the sheer hard work in the execution, and the originality of the idea. The titles of the paintings, worked into a design at the bottom, stamped these pictures with the quirky Tri-netra touch.
Erinn, Pushing Eighteen said one—which showed a pool party, the birthday girl standing regally in a sari on a diving board—her friends below, some in the pool, some outside, dressed like gopis. Her parents stand behind, about to push her off the board.
Another one was Ed romances Frances—50 golden ones. The couple wear formal Western clothes, but are exchanging heavy Indian flower garlands under a parijatak tree in full bloom. Friends and family stand in Namaste poses.
A third showed a bunch of boys, lolling about on mattresses, Indian-style. Food and wine everywhere. A nautch girl dances in the centre. It was a pre-wedding bachelor bash. The title: Zakk’s Last Hurrah.
They were amusing, audacious, sentimental and beautiful, all rolled into one. A lot like the artist herself, I thought, not out loud, only to myself.
There were many more, of people’s favourite dogs and cats and horses and grannies and engagements and christenings and weddings and graduations.
Her signature was a small brown eye at the right of each painting—a ‘netra’.
I looked at each one carefully, slowly, as she watched amused and pleased at my interest; sometimes she would lean over and explain the context, the occasion, the people.
Lounge columnist Gouri Dange is the author of The ABCs of Parenting. Renuka Shahane and Denzil Smith will read from The Counsel of Strangers on 26 August at Crossword Bookstore, Linking Road, Bandra, Mumbai.
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