I still have Ammi’s shawl. Big, black, warm. Beautiful.
I’ll always remember her as she used to be in the mornings, huddled up in her shawl , warming herself at the stove, sipping her first cup of tea, while the rest of the house still slept, in their voluminous blankets.
We would walk across Mall Road from the bus station, and the cold, clear air and the clean, blue lake would almost bring tears to my city-weary eyes. We’d cross the horse depot, and I’d smile at the smell of the stables. I felt so happy. Then the fork, and the cobbled path up to the back of the house. I’d be gasping for breath. The walk seemed shorter now, but I always remembered the first time I walked there with Anwar, and it had seemed like miles to my city-lazy body.
It took me almost 3 or 4 years and that many visits to mark for myself, the door of our house. The second door after the tailor’s, across the big, ugly plastic water tank. The wooden door hammered with tin was sure to be open by then. The servant boy, after lighting the wood stove for Ammi, must have hurried out, a few minutes ago, to relieve his bursting bowels.
The door would swing with a loud creak, as we walked in. My heart beat fast, anticipating Ammi’s pleasure on seeing us. Her hoarse voice would cry out, “Who is it?” And we would not answer. But tiptoe in quietly, wanting to see her surprise and her joy. Her face would light up.
She was so beautiful, her skin like ancient paper, slightly yellow and translucent, with age. Her eyes bright. Her long hair, black over her frail back. Later, when Anwar’s older brothers died in a car accident, it became white in one go.
Anwar would hug her, and make raucous noises, as he always did. She’d punch him, and complain, and get mock-angry, but she was happy. I’d beam silently in the background, and she would look over his shoulders at me, with love.
Her face registered disappointment against her will, at my plainness. If only I was beautiful, she would have been happier still. But I was nice anyway.
Each time I went to Nainital I loved her more. But each time I went with my heart more and more burdened with sorrow. Each time I was more and more torn apart between the urge to lighten my own heart of its despair, and the reluctance to lend her more pain. But sometimes I would burst out into tears, and she would know. She knew my pain more than I did, because her son had given her the same pain for many more years than he had me. The difference was that she continued to love him, and I grew to love him less and less. Chafing at the bond of marriage.
There came a time, when the lake, or the air, or the horses, or her love, could not tempt me anymore. I came away. With her shawl. I have it still. Her love, I don’t. He is her son after all. And I divorced him.