Homecoming

Nandini & Prakash have been married for years and their marriage is far from happy. Envy, apathy and buried secrets have created a highly dysfunctional family which has taken the biggest toll on their daughter Devyani. But can there be light at the end of the tunnel?

Thwack! Her hand came down hard on his cheeks. So strong was the blow that Prakash
staggered, and almost fell off the chair. As the cup from his hands shattered, the sound of
birds fluttering away hung in the air for some moments. Seconds later, his hand came
flying across her face, and after that there was no stopping him. It was the ringing of the
doorbell that brought the madness to an end. It was time for the servants to come, and
normalcy returned; rather a semblance of it.  


The whole thing had been so unexpected. A while before, they were sitting in the
verandah overlooking the patch of lush green that was their garden; silently reading the
morning newspapers, sipping steaming cups of tea from the tea pot neatly ensconced
under an embroidered tea cozy.  Nandini was lost in her own thoughts, she had not gone
beyond the first page of the paper. Mutt, their dog lay curled beneath her feet, enjoying a
rub on the belly from time to time when her foot moved over him.

Nandini’s mobile rang. It was Devyani, their daughter who after finishing school had
flown off to the USA for further studies. This was the first time she was away from home
and ill equipped to manage the daily chores, all on her own. From grocery shopping,
cooking, washing and making their own beds, everything had to be done by the students
themselves. Yet Devyani had managed, never complaining to her. With different time
zones, it was late evening in USA.  Devyani must have returned from the university and
as instructed called in to let her know she was back in the hostel. Picking up the phone,
she did not miss the smirk on Prakash’s face. Some rude comment floated from him. As
usual she ignored it. She wanted peace. Years of listening to his snide remarks at
anything and everything she did or said, had broken her completely. Yet she held on, just
to keep the family together.


 But now her patience wore thin. He had retired a good two years before she had and for
Devyani, these two years had been hell. “Oh! So, you want to become a translator”, when
Devyani had joined Mandarin classes, or “Now it is photography. Do you even know how
to hold the camera?” his taunts always cut her short, discouraging her from picking up
any activity. Devyani had such a melodious voice. He had made no bones of his
displeasure dropping off Devyani for the music classes, so much so, that she sang no
more.  Nandini would comfort her, brushing aside his sarcasm as not being intentional.
“That was the way he always talks to people, best to let them pass”, she would say.
Nandini had grown used to it and made light of it, ignoring it as a silly habit of his. But
Devyani could hardly understand why her father was so rude to her, when she had
always followed his diktats. She had seen him being gentle and playful with her two
brothers; elder to her by a good ten and twelve years.   So tortured was Devyani by his
comments about whatever she and Nandini did, that she wanted to get away from both
at any cost. The last year of school, all conversation between father and daughter had
stopped completely, and yet each time Prakash was around when Devyani called,
Nandini could feel the tension in the air. 


 Nandini could hear sobs at the other end of the line, and as she tried to understand what
Devyani was trying to say, Prakash’s sarcasm floated- “Here goes two hours out of the
window”. And that smirk on his face; she could not contain herself and her hand flew to
slap him tight across his face, after which all hell broke loose.  “Hello, hello…” Nandini
spoke desperately, but the voice at the other end had gone dead. The only sound that
came was the static crackle on the phone. Devyani must have sensed the tension and cut
off the call. Nandini knew Devyani would not pick up the phone now, maybe for a couple of days even. Her mind was awhirl, what could have happened to upset Devyani to
make her cry. She yearned to be close to her, to comfort her.


She thought of the events of yesterday. They had gone for a wedding. Nandini had not
been feeling well, but since the wedding reception was in the extended family of his, she
made a special effort to attend. Everything had seemed to go well. It was almost
midnight when they left the place. Even with the traffic thinning out, they would take at
least an hour and a half to reach home. Darn, these weddings at farmhouses and people
with no respect for time! The newly-weds had made an appearance a good hour after the
time indicated on the card.  So it was that they had gotten late returning.  Nandini
dreaded this; trapped in the small space as him. She knew she must hold her tongue,
because any conversation with Prakash almost always turned into a bitter argument and
with the driver in front, she could ill afford a spectacle. She asked the driver to switch on
the Radio. A song by Mukesh floated in and she hummed it silently. The ringing of the
phone broke the spell. “The daughter must have woken up now and must be needing
some guidance from an ill-equipped mother”, Prakash had muttered. She stiffened. She
knew Devyani would refuse to talk to her if she knew that Prakash was close by. Luckily,
it was a call from her friend whom she had met at the reception, wondering if they had
already left. And then came the next comment, “Only widows wear white at weddings”.
Nandini had worn a white brocade sari with gold motifs. She had gone the extra mile,
wearing her gold jewelry and jasmine flowers in her hair, and she had caught some
glances at the gathering. She knew she looked good, and yet…  She wanted to throw open
the door and jump out of the car.  But all she could do was to clench her fists and remind
herself, “Hold your tongue, don’t say anything “.


Nandini had just completed her B.A., when she was married off to Prakash, an officer
with merchant navy. Prakash would be at sea for six months in a year and Nandini had
plenty of time on her hands. She completed her post-graduation and finally a PhD. She
began teaching at the college, then at the University. She was much sought after
and would be occupied with her seminars or lecture tours or selection committees. Over
the years they had two sons and a daughter. Whenever she had to travel, Nandini always
ensured that the children were never left alone. She always called her aunt over to stay
with them. While Prakash doted on the boys, he barely tolerated the girl. Devyani sensed
this and avoided as much as possible any encounter with her father. Things came to a
head when Prakash retired. He was home all the time and with Nandini busy with her
work, and the boys settled in their jobs away from home, Devyani had to bear the brunt
of her father’s taunts. If Nandini was late coming back home, Devyani would have to
hear him mocking her mother, often hinting at Nandini enjoying the company of her
male colleagues.
Things came to such a head that Devyani tried to slit her wrist when Nandini had gone
out of station. The next six months kept them busy with trips to the doctor, counselling
sessions and Nandini cut down on all her tours. It was also time for the board exams and
Nandini wanted to be close at hand.


The results surprised everybody, but most of all Prakash. Devyani had done exceedingly
well. Not wanting to stay with them anymore she had applied to universities abroad, and
with a scholarship in hand, Devyani had flown off to New York for a course in
Architecture. They had both gone to drop her off. It was not without its dramatic
moments, Prakash’s gibes never left them at peace. They finally bid their adieus. Nandini
did not know whether to heave a sigh of relief or to cry at having her daughter so far
away and not in the best of health. Devyani had finally escaped and Nandini hoped that the distance would heal her. However, she worried about her constantly, and waited for her phone calls each day.


With just the two of them at home now; having retired soon after Devyani left; Prakash
became more demanding and more ruthless with his criticisms. They had little
conversation in any case. For hours they would be in the same room, with nothing to talk
about. Their relationship was in a mess and their daughter in a still deeper mess. She
had struggled with her emotions the first year, but her depression and panic attacks
became so overwhelming that she was advised to take medicines. Nandini longed to be
close to her, hug her and assure her that she was loved, that she was the only reason for
her to go on, and how she looked forward to her homecoming. And now this…
Nandini opened her laptop. She knew Devyani would not pick up her calls.  She thought
she would write an email to her. As she opened her email account, she found Devyani’s
email in the Inbox. As she clicked on the mail, the words tumbled out:
“Mom, you can’t believe how much I hate myself, so much so that I have no desire to
continue either my course or even to live. Henceforth, I am not going to call you or
bother you with any of my problems. Please do not try to reach me either.”
She stared at the email message on her computer, her mind racing so fast that the
words blurred together and no longer made any sense. Just three lines, but enough to
make her life–the life she’d worked so hard and sacrificed so much to build–begin to
crumble around her.

Nandini knew she couldn’t postpone the decision anymore. The time to leave had come.
It would be homecoming for all three of them!

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