SUNFLOWERS
short story
by
E. Harikumar
included in the collection of stories Canadiyil Ninnoru Rajakumari (A Princess from Canada)
Translated from
Malayalam by
E. Asoka Kumar
 

SUNFLOWERS
E. Harikumar

 

Last evening he was travelling from Delhi to Mumbai by train. Today, again, he is on his way to native place by train. In between,less than a day was spent in Mumbai. Went to Chembur and met the girl. He would now be reaching Thrissur the day after, well before sun rise. It would be six in the morning by the time he reaches home by taxi. Mother would not have slept. Fear that she may oversleep and might miss her son’s arrival. Would raise her usual concern when she sees him; he thought….. ‘You have thinned a lot’.

Opposite berths were occupied by an elderly couple. They smiled at him. Husband asked.

‘How far are you going?’

‘Thrissur, he said. And you?’

‘Thiruvananthapuram.’

He wished they would not talk much. He preferred, as far as possible, to be left alone during train journeys. He loved to indulge in reveries; to refresh old memories; pamper old wounds and like a precious pearl, cosset the rare moments of happiness in life. This is possible only during journeys.

  He thought of the girl he’d met in the morning. Her flat was in one of the double storied buildings in the fertilizer colony. He got their address from mother’s letter, urging him to come home this time, via Mumbai. ‘There’s a girl there. Just meet her. If you like her, we can make it during this visit itself. Her parents were very close to us.  No matter what; you must see her.’

  Mother’s grievances continued pouring in through her illegible handwriting with crisscrossed sentences filling up every nook and corner of the inland. After receiving each letter, he would smile; would read that letter again and then would think. ‘I shall come mother, I shall; but after some time’. After working for ten years, he too wanted to have a family of his own. For that he has to start afresh. For the past ten years, he had been toiling to support a few relatives he personally disliked, thereby ruining his own future. Such memories put his mind in to a tizzy. Took out a sheaf of papers and started writing to his mother; hurriedly scribbled four or five pages.

‘’I spent better part of my life for your brother and his children. Now, to start a life of my own, I have to start from the scratch………….”

Letter was posted only in the drawer of his writing table. For the next four or five days, he read that letter meticulously; over and over.

Once the angst within subsided, he tore those papers into shreds; then wrote in an Inland letter.

‘You are right, mother. I want to marry. But need some preparations. Do you have anyone in mind? We will finalize everything in a year or two. Mother, please don’t worry.

He realized that his mind had drifted. He wanted to think about his visit that morning to the fertilizer colony to see the girl. Along with that he wanted to daydream about her. The girl was beautiful with wheatish complexion. Had a shapely figure and wearing a sari, she was standing at the door step with bowed head.

 ‘Dear, come and sit here.’

Her father said.

‘It’s okay father. I shall stand here.’

‘He is the son of our Bhargavi chechi, dear. And he has come to meet you.’

 She walked slowly and sat at the other edge of the sofa he was sitting on.

‘What’s your name?’ He asked.

 ‘Nirmala.’

 ‘Studying?’

‘No, I have completed B.A.’

He realized then that he has nothing more to ask; could have asked many more questions though. What do you want to be? Hobby? Do you read books? Who is your favorite author? But that would seem contrived. He was not interested in presenting a questionnaire before her. He believed that, it should not be based on the congruity of the answers to a questionnaire that two persons like each other. It should be on the compatibility of their minds. He believed that, if a boy and a girl sit together for half an hour even without talking, there could be vibes between them; provided their minds are compatible.

‘We had a letter from Bhargavi’, her father was saying. ‘But we did not tell Nirmala about it.’

His hair was grey; may be on the verge of retirement.  

‘I have seen Dasan when he was a kid. How old he must have been then?’

‘Six years’, Nirmala’s mother chipped in. ‘When Kesuettan and Bhargavichechi were leaving Mumbai, Dasan had just completed his 1st Standard. Our daughter was not even a year old then. As a kid Dasan was very cute with chubby cheeks and bright eyes. He was fair too. He would come wearing his little shoes. And stooping with hands on knees, would watch for quite some time, Nirmala lying on her back, playing.’

Nirmala smiled.

Dasan did not remember anything of that sort. However, he did remember going to the house of a really beautiful lady before leaving Mumbai; a house with a garden full of flowers. Was it this lady?

A wooden sofa with its frame meshed with cane; writing table and a chair in one corner; a picture calendar hanging on the wall. That’s all. Interior was done in a simple manner. However, he liked their presence. The feeling that those three are not alien to him provided comfort.

As he was about to leave after lunch, Dasan told them.

‘I like Nirmala. Whether she likes me; you may write to mother.’

He considered it rather unfair to leave them without a clue.

‘Why not; she likes you too.’

Bhavani said.

He had noticed how comfortable Nirmala was in his presence. From the pleasant expression on her face at the time of saying goodbye, he could gather that she too liked him.

Now, when he was alone in the train, that bit of information filled up his mind with happiness. If he had not got the confirmation that Nirmala liked him, probably he would not have been this composed. By now, that lean wheat complexioned girl living in one of the apartments in Chembur has become part of his personal life.

‘Who all are there living in your house?’ It was the elderly woman sitting opposite.

‘Mother….’

A long pause ensued.

‘Father…?’

‘Died…’

‘Oh!’

‘At the age of forty eight; a heart attack.’

He thought of his father who died when he was fifteen years old. Following heavy loss in business in Mumbai, it was decided to settle down in their home town. The apartment was sold to settle outstanding debts. With the balance amount he started a small shop. Before long that too ended up in loss. Last two years were really miserable. Father’s failing health, irritable nature and issues related to creditors. When father quarreled with people, even though it may not have anything to do with him, he used to hide in a corner of the house and weep silently thinking of father’s plight. He used to wonder as to how kind and loving his father had been when he was a child staying in Mumbai. Continuous setbacks in business spent father; made him obstinate and irritable.

‘Is mother staying alone?’

Query again from the elderly woman.

Dasan hesitated for a moment; then nodded.

He wouldn’t know for sure. Is she staying alone? He knew that uncle’s daughter Renu used to come and stay there. But mother never mentioned about them in her letters. She was aware of her son’s aversion towards them.  

Dasan thought of his maternal uncle. Mother used to tell him about uncle’s ill luck that followed him relentlessly.

‘Bad luck affects some people for sometime;’ mother said once. ‘But for some, it hangs around all through their lives. My brother was in the second category;’ she continued. ‘From childhood onwards, he was very unlucky. Nothing that my brother did would end up alright. Even those simple things that any other child could easily perform, if done by my brother would end up a disaster; either he would break his hands or bruise his head. He failed in exams because the questions would never be from the portions he studied. Ill luck continued even as he grew. I still remember his wedding day. On that day, there was torrential rain with heavy wind. Trees were uprooted. Bus services were disrupted. All of us walked down to the bride’s house; a distance of almost eighteen miles, all wet in that rain. We could make it there, just before the auspicious time for the wedding; that’s all. If fate is so unfavorable, what can one do? He tried doing business three times; each time ended up in loss.’

Dasan recollected that his uncle never had a regular income. He remembered his father financially helping uncle. But when father himself was going through tough times, Dasan did not know as to how those people; his uncle, aunt and their two children survived. As for him, his bad days started after reaching Delhi in search of a job within two years of his father’s demise.

Train was approaching the Western Ghats. Its rhythm slowed. Mountains and tunnels would start appearing now. Dasan had a faint memory of his train journey along with father and mother, twenty one years ago through the same route. He was six years old then. During the journey, he watched, eyes wide open with surprise, the mystery of the outside world suddenly disappearing as the train entered long tunnels. Reason for the sudden darkness outside the train was known to him only much later.

He remembered the six year old kid sitting by the window seat all tensed up. It was as if watching own childhood in a mirror. The boy was tensed up because the small paper sachet he was holding tightly contained sunflower seeds. He was going to sow those seeds in the garden in his native place and cultivate them. That was a great responsibility undertaken. He held that paper sachet firmly in his hand.

Before leaving Mumbai, they had been to a house to say good bye. When he saw blooming sunflowers in their garden, Dasan asked for its seeds. He still remembers the beautiful lady wearing a sari with patterns of flowers imprinted on it, placing in his small hands the seeds carefully packed in a paper sachet. After that he never left that sachet unattended. He kept it on the floor only during the short span of taking bath. Even while sleeping, he held on to it as if it was an invaluable treasure. And when they were travelling by train the next day, it was that sachet that he took care of more than his toys.

Train entered the hilly sections of the Ghat. Mountain ranges on one side and deep abyss on the other. In between were the tunnels that brought in rich darkness inside train compartments. Again his mind flashed back to the journey he made as a six year old. He was sitting by the window fully absorbed in the mesmeric world outside. When they started from Mumbai, it was unbearably hot. As the train reached the Ghats, cool breeze started blowing. That caressed his eyelids. The train’s rhythm acted as lullaby that slowly closed his eyes. He slept for a moment. That moment in sleep acted as a weak link in his vigil. His hand stretched out of the window holding the sachet of seeds loosened, and the packet of seeds slipped from his hand. 

Dasan remembered that he woke up suddenly and started crying aloud. As far as he was concerned, he had lost everything. More than the loss, it was his commitment to the seeds, a silent promise that he would carry them safely to his garden and provide them with the atmosphere conducive for sprouting and growing that had been broken. Everyone in the compartment gathered around to know what happened. When they saw that it was only a packet of seeds that was lost, they returned to their seats. Some of them consoled him. But he could not be pacified. Even after reaching his native place, the thought of those lost sunflower seeds brought tears to his eyes for quite some time.

Dasan realized that, the spot was almost nigh. He still remembers the waterfall on the left side. It was near this place that he’d lost the seeds. He looked outside. In wondrous exuberance, Dasan jumped up and ran to the door of the compartment, and holding on to the bars of the train bogie, stretched out to have a full view. There on the hill slope in the valley, a big sunflower garden had been laid out. He saw thousands of sunflowers in that garden. It was as beautiful as a yellow carpet spread over. He saw wind making ripples in that yellow carpet of flowers. He wished that sight would never disappear. But next moment the train entered a tunnel and that glorious landscape was cruelly whisked away from his sight. Once the train exited the tunnel, he looked at the valley hoping to see the garden once again; but that side of the valley was blocked by the mountain ranges.

He went back to his seat.

He was sure that the seeds were lost in that area only. A playful wind freed those seeds from the packet and distributed them in the valley. Sun seasoned those seeds. Earth lovingly protected those seeds in her bosom till the first showers of monsoon touched them. Rain awakened the seeds and opened their little eyes. Those plants grew, blossomed and made further seeds. Again in summer, seeds were hidden in the bosom of the earth. The phenomenon of nature’s creativity repeated itself without fail for twenty one years. Thousands of people who travelled by train in this route must have been wonderstruck seeing this breathtaking scene. If those seeds were planted in his personal garden, they would have been limited by the dearth of space from spreading in all their glory.

It was sundown. The mountain ranges slowly faded into oblivion.

‘Do you have any siblings?’ Query again, from the elderly couple.

‘I am the only child of my parents’ Dasan said. But I had to shoulder the responsibility of two more; he grimly said this to himself.

Questions that came from travelers sitting opposite were like small pebbles rolling down the mountain top. By the time they reach the valley colliding with each other, they would form an avalanche.  Each of those questions cascaded snowy memories in the valley of his mind.

At the age of seventeen, he started working to earn enough to look after his mother. But its benefits were reaped wholly by his uncle, aunt and their two children. The money he sent to his mother ultimately reached the hands of his uncle and his children. He got wise to it rather late.

He remembered the days when he loitered in front of the restaurants in Connaught place afraid of entering with the limited cash in pocket; counting and recounting the coins left.

It is a sin to make a teenager who had started working at the age of seventeen to roam around on an empty stomach at mid-day; he mulled over.

Later one day, he got in to a tiff with his mother.

‘It was not once or twice in a month mother, but several days. Did you think that I was enjoying a comfortable life there and was sending you the surplus amount. One third of my salary was sent to you every month. Do you have any idea as to how I lived in that big city with the balance amount? When my friends went out for movies and to restaurants, God only knows as to how I avoided them, telling lies. How difficult it was for me to hide the torn socks and the shoes that were damaged underneath, from others. Mother, you will never understand such things.’

‘’You are right my son. But Babu and Renu are much younger to you. And they are my brother’s children. What difference is there between my children and my brother’s? To me they are my children. Being the eldest, is it not your responsibility to take care of your siblings? What if, the kids cry of hunger?’’

Mother’s explanations were never convincing to him. Therefore, every time he returned from his native place with a heavy heart.  

‘One day your attitude would change’, mother once said. ‘And an end would come to your troubled days too. I am praying for that.’

Whatever it be, by the first of every month he would send more money to mother than he could possibly spare. Days of semi-starvation ensued as before. What was left was a mind filled with rancor.

Even my right to daydream is lost, Dasan thought. He wanted to daydream about his fiancée. Looks like, a restless mind does not have the right even for that.

Afternoon….deserted fields on either side of railway lines….sweltering heat inside the compartment…. he tried not to think of anything. But memories are like uninvited guests. Shifting attention from them wouldn’t do any good. They would be present there.

Letter from mother: Renu’s wedding has been fixed for the 20th of next month. Groom is working in Bangalore. Looks like a good alliance. Brother has absolutely no money with him. He is really worried. You are the only hope. Even if it is by borrowing, you need to send the amount. You can pay back the loan in easy monthly installments. After this, you don’t have to send me money for some time.

If I don’t send money, how will mother survive? Dasan thought.

His reply was quick. No, I cannot raise any money now.

Mother’s letter came again.

‘I have not mentioned anything to brother about your response to my previous letter. He is hoping that you will be sending money. I am also hoping for the same. Send money at the earliest. Hardly one month is left for the wedding.’

When he took loan from credit society and sent to mother, he told himself.

I gave in again.

He recollected that it was only last month that he could finally settle the loan account. Now for his wedding he would have to take loan again.

As expected, mother had not slept the previous night. She was there by the time taxi reached the gate.

‘You have not put on weight. In your letter you had written that you have put on weight.’

‘That was to make you happy, mother.’

‘Okay. Did you see Nirmala?’

‘Yes’

‘Did you like her?’

‘A dark skinny girl’ he said.

‘She is not dark. She is fairer than you. Skinny! She will put on weight after wedding. Tell me, do you like her?’

‘Yes, I like her.’

Dasan noticed the glow in mother’s eyes. I’ll never be able to win with this lady, he thought.

The door to the bed room was only half closed. A woman opened the door and stepped out. When he realized that it was Renu, he fell silent.

‘When I heard the sound of Dasettan’s taxi, I got up from sleep.’ Renu said, braiding her hair. He forced a smile.

‘Renu is here with me for the past three months.’

‘She came along with her kids when she heard of the problems with my leg. Her husband is still in Bangalore, staying alone.’

‘Problem with your leg, mother? What happened?’

‘Aunt fell down and broke her leg and it was in plaster for almost two months’. Renu said. ‘Aunt was not able to walk. It was only last month that the plaster was removed.’

He had noticed the small wilting when mother walked. But mother cleverly managed to conceal the real problem from him.

It was not that serious. If I’d informed you, you’d have come rushing. Anyway you would be here in two months. I thought it okay that you knew of it then.

He heard steps outside. Uncle stood outside the room with his close cropped hair, faded shirt and dhoti.

‘I wanted to come to the station’. Uncle said. ‘But was laid up with rheumatic complaint, so couldn’t...’

Uncle had the habit of speaking without looking at anyone’s face; he keeps his head slightly bowed with face slanted to the left. Decades of failures have laid low, his confidence.

It is good that uncle did not come to the station, Dasan thought. May be he’d planned it that way. Uncle must have been scared of a possible confrontation. Of late, he had been behaving very rudely with uncle.

His feelings had been hurt that much.

It was five years back. When he got down at Thrissur station, he saw uncle waiting. That was quite unusual. Taxi stopped at the small house where uncle was staying. Dasan looked at him questioningly.

Bhargavi is now staying here.

He was happy that mother was staying with uncle to avoid a solitary life in a big house. As he entered the house he realized that things were not the way he understood. Mother had exchanged her double storied house with uncle’s two room hut.

‘Why do we need such a big house?’ Mother said. ‘He has a daughter. She is old enough to get married. Can the wedding be conducted in this small house? If a good alliance comes, they will not be satisfied with this small house. Your uncle did not approve of my proposal; but I insisted.’

Dasan stood dumbfounded. Mother had exchanged a five bed room double storied building for this small hovel costing not even one tenth of that big house. Mother’s love for her brother had crossed all limits.

We can make a bigger house than this. You are capable of that. Renu is your sister. You too will be interested to conduct her wedding in a grand way, won’t you?

For the next five years he did not come home. Renu’s wedding was conducted four years back.

He noticed that Renu had put on weight. When he’d met her five years back, she was thin. Five years and two deliveries have made her a big woman.

‘Dasetta, have tea.’ She brought tea for him.

‘I am going’ uncle said, setting off.

Bathroom was outside the house. When he came back after bath, mother whispered to him.

‘Show a little more concern towards Renu. Do you know how much she loves you? She always talks about you with affection; about the childhood days when both of you played together. When my leg was fractured, it was she who took care of me. Babu is good at studies. He is first in his class. And he always says that after getting a job he wants to help Dasettan.’

Despite all miseries, it was much easier to love and get loved during childhood days.

Renu’s children were sleeping in the bed room on a mattress spread on the floor. Elder one woke up and sitting upright rubbed his eyelids with both hands. When he saw Dasan, he came near to his chair and lifting up his face exclaimed.

‘Uncle…you came when I was sleeping!?’

There was surprise in his eyes; and fondness too. It was then that Dasan saw Renu’s baby girl coming crawling on all fours. She stood up holding on to the leg of the chair and stretched her hands out. She wanted him to lift her. He grabbed her and lifted her up. She smiled at him showing the two little teeth about to appear. Then surprising him altogether, kissed him on his stubble ridden face.  

Dasan remembered an incident that happened when he reached home on leave from Delhi for the first time. He was sitting on a chair in the veranda when he saw Renu coming through the main gate, alone. She must have been six or seven years old and was wearing quite a big frock for her age. There was dust on her bare feet from almost a kilometer walk. She came near him, kept her hands around his shoulders and lowering his face, kissed him on his cheek. And she went back without uttering a word. That was how she expressed her affection towards him! Knowing that he has come, she walked almost a kilometer all alone to see him and give him an affectionate kiss. She did not wait even for her father or mother to accompany her!

He glanced at those two cute faces one after another. They looked exactly like Renu when she was a child.

She has just got up from bed. She may pee on you.

It was Renu coming from the kitchen trying to take the baby from his lap.

It’s okay. Dasan said. Please give her back to me; let me hold her, he said.

He was not ready to part with that adorable soul, soft like a bundle of pure white silky cotton that came to him with a clear message of love. He cuddled her tight.

And he remembered those fully blossomed sunflowers in thousands that he saw from train the previous day in the valley of the Western Ghats.          

Translation by:  E. Asokakumar


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