Monday, February 18, 2013

An Unwritten Letter

She hugged me tenderly. And she held me close in her lap, soothing my hair with her weathered, bony hands. "Sshh, my love, it's going to be OK," she said. Her soft voice somehow reminded me of the discomforts I had braved and my cries turned to sobs. She held me till I had cried myself to sleep. I took her address but did not write a letter.

I was 12 and with my cousins, one also 12 and her sister two years older, I was on my first trekking adventure to the Himalayas. Things had gone wrong from the start. When we reached the Ahmedabad railway station to leave for New Delhi, we could not find the man who had arranged the trip. He showed up minutes before the scheduled departure, teary-eyed. He said he had failed to book our tickets. He promised a full refund for those who chose to drop out, and said those who still wanted to go ahead with the journey had to go in an unreserved coach. Things from New Delhi to Manali and back would be as planned, he said.

A group of about 20, a cluster of a large extended family with children our age and elder college-going sisters and brothers told our parents they would take care of us. Another group of four, all college-going guys, also wanted to go ahead. Three-four parents backed out. Ours asked us what we wanted to do. With less than 15 minutes for departure, we had to make a decision fast. The three of us decided we would go and jumped in the train.

We grabbed window seats and grinned animated goodbyes. We were too excited to notice the petrified faces of our parents; they were still trying to make sense of our hasty departure and their audacious permission. "The moment the train got out of sight, I thought I had made a wrong decision. I was scared of your grandmother," my mother later told me. My paternal grandparents were not enthusiastic about three girls going alone; my maternal grandmother had resigned by cooking three bagsful of deep-fried Gujarati snacks to last us more than a month. Both the sets, especially my paternal grandmother, were vocal about their displeasure after they got to know of the unreserved travel.

Something must be said about traveling in a general compartment in India. The general ticket from Ahmedabad to New Delhi, a distance of 578 miles, costs under Rs. 200 (less than USD 4) now; then it was cheaper. That ticket just gives you the right to board the train and does not guarantee a seat. You have to fight for seats. As we were a mixed group, we could not board the ladies' compartment. The guys did a good job of encroaching the seats, though, and the thirty-odd group made a comfortable nest in a space for 12.

That train ride to New Delhi was a party. We sang songs, played dumb charades and cards, listened to music, binged on cheap, spicy snacks sold by vendors hopping in and out of the train at different stations. We rarely slept in the 24-hour journey to New Delhi. Those who dozed off had toothpaste slathered on their face; I woke up to the smell of mint. There were no mobile phones, our parents lived in suspense and prayers till we called late the next night. We had a small common room in the Swaminarayan temple but the limited amenities did not matter much in our excitement for the onward journey. The temple had strict rules: no non-veg food and no liquor. The devotees served piping-hot food, unlimited and free, three times a day, and the foodie in me was over-joyed.

The next day we took a bus to Manali. Our base camp was by the Beas river. We used ditches for toilets and washed our dishes. My cousins said they would share their chores but often bickered. I tried to make peace once, and one of them told me to back off: "This is between us." Images of those cold nights when we sat by the flowing, freezing waters with a grumpy face to wash dishes with soap and river-sand, our fingers stony and numb, still make me laugh. In spite of minor differences, we sisters kept our unity.

On the highest camp the air was thin, our stomachs grumbled, and it rained continuously.

My cousins wore these smart yellow raincoats that my aunt had bought from the U.S. These were thick and durable, with hoodies and pockets, and best part, they could fold in a 6-inch bag. One rainy evening the camp instructor and his sister - whom we immediately disliked for their fake sweet-talking- somehow coaxed my cousins into giving them both the coats. I came to know when I found them crying in the tent. "Chor!"* I shouted, "Let's go, get those back." But, my sisters were not as assertive as they used to be back home; they let go. “I am not crying for the raincoat,” my cousin said, “but it was a gift from mummy. I miss her."

In the silence of the mountains it was easy to translate one small disappointment to other and tears flowed freely.

One night, as I lay tucked in my sleeping bag, teeth clattering, I entertained a random thought: What if my mother died. I cried the whole night imagining life without her. Once I called home and asked to talk with my grandfather. Mother warned me before handing him the phone; "He's missing you a lot," she said. He did not speak, but mewed like a kitten on the other end, my grandmother quickly took the phone from him.

We had an eventful climb to the heavenly Himalayan peaks and came back to the base camp where cherry trees were dotted with the fruit. We had one day to explore Manali. We bargained to buy at atrocious prices little gifts for family, I had my first taste of vegetable Manchurian on the recommendation of a new friend; we exchanged addresses and returned to New Delhi, to the same temple.

That evening, my sister pounded the bathroom door and asked me to come out immediately. From the crack, I saw she was crying. She told me she had opened the snack bags grandma had packed to find liquor bottles instead. I rushed to our room and the three of us had an emergency conference.

"I don't know what to do, they will kick us out." 'They' meant the temple, the Swaminarayan sect had a no-tolerance attitude to liquor, so we were told. We sat and sniffled, not knowing how to dispose of the bottles, fuming at the college guys who, we assumed, had bought them, cursing them for trying to use us to bootleg the bottles to our dry state, Gujarat. We finally told a woman from the extended family cluster and she took the bottles away and disposed them. An hour or two after the liquor episode, we got to know that we still did not have reserved tickets for the next day's train travel.
That was it. I began to moo like a calf that is tied away from its mother. All I said over and over was, "I want to go home. Now!"

And that was when she came to sit by my side. My foster mother, because that is what she became for those small hours.

She was intuitive about how to calm an unruly child. She asked me about my family, my city, and maintained a clever stream of questions to keep me talking. I answered her questions between rubbing my face of the tear stains and repeated the same questions to her.

She was in her 70s. The faded image I have saved of her brings up a skinny small woman in a light-blue cheap synthetic saree and an old white cotton blouse. She tied her silver-grey hair in a bun as small as a tennis ball. She wore thin gold bangles and wore a rosary of tulsi beads on the neck. She said she had no kids. She stayed with her sister and nephew in Mumbai.  She had come to visit the city with her sister who joined the conversation at will. But it was mostly the talkative childless woman who took me under her wings. I do not remember her name.

As we packed our bags the next morning, she sat nearby. She was overjoyed when I took her address and promised I would write. She asked me to visit her without fail when I visited Mumbai. She gave me landmarks, ‘behind this temple, near this sweet store’, many instructions too precise to remember, and I said simply said yes to everything. She had put enough love and assurance in my system for my homebound adventure.

Our camp leaders were not able to get hold of tickets and we travelled unreserved again. I returned home to my grandparents who hugged me like there was no tomorrow. My mother finally heaved a sigh of relief. “Your grandmother would have killed me if something had gone wrong!” I told my grandma all about the granny who had stopped my sobbing and grandma said she couldn’t thank the kind woman enough. I saw my small address book as I was unpacking but could not get myself to write a letter. I was too shy to put on paper the difference she had made, I was too shy to thank her, love her. A few years later I found the diary again, but kept from writing thinking it was too late. “May be she’s dead. May be I’ll look like a fool.”

It’s been fifteen years now but I still suffer the guilt that this unwritten letter has branded on my heart. Of all the unwritten letters, this unfaithfulness hurts the most.
*Chor= Thief

Gauri Gharpure 1646 words April 2, 2012
This was written as a personal essay assignment for my favorite professor, The New Yorker's senior editor, John Bennet's class
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