I just recently came to know that a child cannot remember its early childhood. And it all clicked. I try – force – myself to remember all the early details but nada. I cannot remember anything. There are, of course, many and many instances of my later years as a child. But they are mere snapshots from which I cannot draw general conclusions. Therefore I would start my story at 12 years 10 months precise. I don’t have many pictures of mine of that time. Therefore I cannot tell you how I looked like; I just hope you realize and sympathize with the fact that I like to visualize myself as an angel kid.
I was used to a shrill sound of a small and sturdy woman piercing my ears. I had got the source of that sound as clear in my mind as any summer sky, right to the buttons on the front of the frilly gown and the long black locks tied expertly in a bun using nothing but a mere wooden hair stick. I liked to see the usual frown on my mother’s face – Mutti as I called her – when she came to wake me from the slumber and get me packing for school. She used to respond to my morning smile with an even deeper frown, depending upon how late I was. Today, the voice was squeaky and whispering. It is a wonder I heard it since mighty alarm clocks have failed to get me up. I slightly opened my left eye to check on the world. They snapped open, on their own.
She was smiling yet not looking at me.
She was looking through me. Yes – the same bun, the same gown… but wasn’t she worried I would be late? She never spared me on Sundays and holidays. Did she come in early? It was 7.15: nope. Was it my birthday? No, not for another couple of months. A flood maybe, or a curfew? The alternatives whizzed past me, more ridiculous than the previous, when my mother sat across me at the corner.
She touched my legs as if reaffirming something.
My mind had lost its ability to think. What may seem innocuous to you was actually a taboo in the house. We were not touchy-feely people. Mutti, too, seemed different. She was not as tidy today. Some loose strands escaped her otherwise immaculate hair. The eyes were moistened. After a minute of absurdities flowing through the air, I moved to get up. Mutti suddenly snapped in her usual posture.
“You are awake already?”, she asked me, surprised at the possibility.
“Oh yes, I heard you come in. What were you thinking? You seemed different”, I said diplomatically. Though I tried to hide my amusement, it would have been peeking through, since she now acted all innocent.
“Smoking weed again ,huh? I want you ready in 10 minutes.” Back to routine. I started gathering my uniform when she added, “Otherwise, you will miss a surprise!” Mutti was a very predictable lady. Whatever it was that she was hiding, that must be big enough to shake her up.
Though I was cynical about actually getting a surprise, it intrigued me. I couldn’t miss whatever it was. I used to take up much more than my allotted time quota to take a shower but not today. I brushed my teeth in the shower itself. No time for hankies today. I didn’t wait for warmer water today. No wipers in bathroom. The backside of my shirt didn’t get ironed: hidden by the coat anyway. Winters used to slow me down, but today I had a perceptible energy. It was 7.23 when I tied my shoes. 8 minutes! Mutti might even start sniffing my arms to check if I had really taken a shower. That got me smiling. Her sudden change was rubbing onto me.
Yet I suppressed this urge to surprise her as I didn’t want to ruin her own “surprise”, but curiosity was killing me nvertheless. Two minutes later I couldn’t resist myself and ventured out. I yelled a little ‘Tada!’ and trotted down the stairs. But sitting on the dining table was a familiar stranger. It made me slow down and I walked down the remaining stairs as decently as I could manage.
“Hallo? Du okay?”, he enquired.
Definitely Mutti’s relatives. Did I tell you she was brought up in Germany? Though she was of Indian descent, she was fluent in German. I picked up several words here and there, though we were settled in Delhi now.
“Ya, I am fine. And you? Would you like some water? Or tea?”, I asked politely. We were not used to having many guests over, and could only mutter what other mothers asked me.
“Na it’s fine. I have one already”, he slightly waved our black cup in his hands, “your mother makes beautiful coffee as always.”
I smiled and wondered how fake I might be looking. My eyes searched for Mutti. “She is in the kitchen”, he declared matter-of-factly, “preparing breakfast for us.” It was the last straw. I had given the man enough chances to prove himself but his arrogant know-it-all attitude rattled me, as if a stranger knew Mutti better than me. It took me another 10 minutes to find out that he had a solid ground for this behavior.
“He is your father”, she explained to me.
Getting ahead of me? Sorry, rewind. Just when the formalities had died and we were searching for threads of conversations, Mutti had arrived plus a random book I might have thrown on the floor the day before and minus the loose strands of hair. She was my usual Mutti, all business-like.
“Haven’t you finished your cup honey? You used to like it more than the world before”, she chirped uncharacteristically.
“I have, matter-of-factly. I just couldn’t help myself and got me another one. You’ll have to miss out on one today”, he smirked. I stood between both of them like furniture. For once, the house might be any other, so much was the strangeness I felt right then and there. There was a tension between the two that I couldn’t comprehend.
“Here boy. Sit here”, she motioned me to my usual chair. She smiled again, more to display the love we shared to this man. We did love each other; it’s just that we never got time to express it. Humor, not cheesy lines, made our days. But the man needn’t know that: he only grew restless and I felt my blood froze. I was typically fiercely protected by Mutti for she knew how I felt in unpredictable situations, but she deliberately threw me headfirst into this. There she stood behind me, her hands on my shoulders – another gesture merely for showing off. All this drama made me all the more apprehensive of the guy.
I sat long enough to quickly chew through my share of breakfast and sat unhappily in the confusion. The man had been alternately eyeing Mutti and me, but uttered nothing. Suddenly she started, “Might you want to learn who this lovely man is?” I nodded. “He is your father”, she explained to me.
She had told me about my father before. He was supposed to look like me, and now I knew why the hair and jawline looked familiar. He was an Indo-German product who had red hair (not quite), German looks (can’t verify) and was a haughty-shy mixture that had drove my mother crazy and forced her to have a divorce and come to India where her parents – her only support system - lived 10 years ago.
She had always been brutally honest in whatever I asked her, so this man was not a mystery to me. I was 3 years old when she departed with me for India. It was more difficult to her than me; I was a gullible child, she was a fully mature woman who had to change her country, her culture, her language – all at once. This she never told me, but I tried to stop speaking Hindi and couldn’t go beyond a day. She would laugh at my attempts, simultaneously praying may such a day never come. Then her stories would follow how she had to wave, stutter and basically make a fool of herself in front of local shopkeepers and auto-drivers for 2 years.
The man smiled for the first time. “I am Nirmal”, he put forward his hand but I just gaped at him. How could this man behave as if nothing had happened? I never wanted a father figure in my life; it was natural for me to have Mutti beside me, but the stories she told me wanted to hate this man with my guts. She was never a vengeful woman; rather quite the opposite. But I always knew my mother never exposed her burns and wounds, she wrapped them deep inside her bosom. It was evident how much she had accomplished. It seemed like she never rested. I may not remember Germany or my father, but I clearly remember the day when I saw my mother sleeping. It was unfathomable to me that it could happen.
I was one day struggling to sleep; at 2 am everything seemed dangerous for a 7-year-old kid. But it was thrilling too, to see a street so void that it seemed like an old photograph. I just sat there in my room when nature called me. I hopped to the next room where Mutti usually worked but she was not there on her desk like always. I panicked and ran into the room. She was sleeping in her bed but woke up suddenly hearing the movements and sobs. She answered each of my questions: how she worked two jobs at once and never had time to sleep. That the time of her sleep never coincided with my waking hours but she did sleep after all.
I took my time to put my hand forward but shook his hands as quickly as I could manage. I didn’t want to give the impression that I wanted to be with him. Mutti seemed tense too, ”Why are you here for?”
“I don’t know”, he said staring at me, “I wanted to see my child. It is not as it used to be.”
“You are right, we have moved on”, Mutti sounded bitter but I remained silent.
It was not an emotional moment for me. I merely sat there comparing the dream with the concrete. And wondered when my bus would come. Coming down early meant I was waiting for the bus for the first time, rather than the other way round. Funny names came up for this quick brown fox. Mutti would be scandalized but still laugh later when we would discuss the strange morning. I tried to recall when I asked Mutti about my father but couldn’t find any such memories. But I do remember the very many questions I used to ask her.
She would be such a dreamy lady then, looking up at the sky as if she was a witch remembering old spells, fondly. She always described her fights as disagreements. And that would lead to her favorite theory: that all men want to remain in the state of minimum disagreement and explained all the fights and crying around us as a corollary of it. How the baby gets his way on his crying, how he has to stop if he doesn’t, how her parents came to India, how she followed them to this unknown territory… it was all merely an outcome to minimize the disagreements around respective people.
Suddenly bus was honking outside. “Mutti I am going. Bye and take care!”, the love was really flowing out of the edges of my small heart now. It didn’t have space for any ex-father in it. She looked at me prettily and smiled for the umpteenth time that morning. Expecting to hear her out later that evening, I climbed the bus to the utter surprise of driver. “Hey”, I declared, “there is a first time for everything after all.”