How many times have we had a ‘sorry’ stuck in our throat, times when our pride and a sense of ‘I’ (the ego) overrules everything and we let relationships go to the pits?
To most of us, offering a word of apology is a sign of weakness. It means we have surrendered. We are deeply embedded in the belief that apologizing means admitting our mistake and giving the other person an advantage. More so if we consider ourselves the sinned against and not the sinner.
The people in the story ‘Half-Empty Coffee Cups’ could have been any two people on earth bound by any kind of relationship (gone sour) friends, divorced couple, lovers, siblings….why…even a parent and a child. Any two people who went their own ways for reasons that can’t be specified.
In our lives too, we often don’t figure why we nurture hard feelings, why we break relationships, why we become estranged with people who once meant so much to us. When small things lead to the big break, we label it as ‘incompatibility’ for convenience sake and silently carry the burden of a strained relationship for the rest of our lives. We may pretend that it doesn’t matter, but deep inside, it does, because we know things could have been better. We know we could have saved many a heartburn if only we had relinquished our pride.
Have we ever thought of reaching out to the other in such instances without doing postmortems of the past?
It may not fix the fracture, but it can unburden us. Sometimes, all it takes to liberate us is uttering a ‘sorry’ that has lain trapped inside. We may not be able mend the fences, but we can at least free our soul, even if it is years after we have crossed swords and parted ways.
The male protagonist in the story didn’t have any earth-shattering revelation to make, nor did he seek much from the meeting. He just wanted to release himself from his inner prison by saying ‘sorry’ for letting the relationship go awry.
It took years for him to conquer his ego, apologize and break free. He should have done it earlier, perhaps.
She read the menu card from back to front for the third time in half hour and placed it on the table. She had arrived early at the South Indian restaurant because she had needed time to settle into a cozy space of mind, preparing for the imminent meeting.
Except for the bottle of Bisleri that had replaced the steel jug and the upgraded manner of people, nothing much had changed from the last time she had come there.
In those days, people came to eat, now they were there more to converse and catch up. Those who came alone then read newspapers or magazines while they waited for the food. Now they fiddled with their phones. Everything else remained the same – the menu, the interiors, the smell of coffee and the masala dosa from the neighbouring table. Even the memories they evoked had not altered in all the years she was away. Every corner of the room reached out with old familiarity and shook hands with her.
Her eyes eagerly sifted through the people walking in. Shortly, he would arrive. It was a meeting that he had arranged and she was surprised that he had chosen to reach out after all the years. Why did he want to meet her?
They had parted at a point when they had nothing to say to each other. They didn’t even seek explanations from each other. They split so lamely that she could not even remember who was at fault, to begin with. Some departures are like that, she concluded. They happen not for a reason except that the time is up. One should move on without leaving ugly stains behind. The pain shouldn’t linger lifelong. It must eventually die down.
She opened her mail box and read the message he had sent her a week ago and briefly regretted accepting his invitation. Snatches from the past flashed before her eyes. There was no resentment left for her to express. In the light of the fading past, she had very little to speak to him. The thought of having to force a conversation with someone for whom her sentiments were ambivalent made her consider if she should leave without meeting him. She had no appetite for cloying ruminations.
Just then she saw him at the entrance, his eyes flitting around and stopping at her. He looked worn. The old playful smile had matured and it matched with his greying hair. She wondered if so much time had indeed passed.
‘I am late. Thank you for waiting.’ he said, pulling out the chair.
‘No, I came in early.’
Moments of uneasy calm passed. They were fraught with unspoken thoughts that struggled to find a medium of exchange.
‘Nice to be back here. What will you eat?’ he asked leafing through the menu.
‘Coffee, may be?’
‘You look tired,’ she said noticing how lifeless his eyes had grown from what she remembered of them.
‘All night I was rehearsing for this meeting, you see,’ he said, half-jokingly and motioned to the waiter. ‘Are you nervous?’ he asked after placing the order.
‘I don’t know.’
‘Were you not rehearsing anything to say to me? It is not easy to revisit the demons of the past.’
‘No, not really. The hard feelings have all been spent. It doesn’t matter anymore.’
‘To me, it does. I have been waiting for this day for several years,’ he said choosing his words carefully. ‘I have something to say to you. A confession of sorts. It took a long time for me to summon the courage to look you in the eye again and say it.’
‘You really didn’t have to drag you through this, really. We had moved on and found our own spaces. There are no regrets.’
‘We had moved on with life, probably. But my soul has been suffering. It won’t be redeemed until I say it to you.’
‘I wonder what it must be,’ she mused aloud. What uncouth truth did he want to shake out of the cupboard now?
‘Sorry,’ he said, looking intently at her and paused. ‘I owe this one word to you. It has been languishing for years, imprisoned by my mulish ego. I want to let it go and be free now.’
She searched for words to say as he placed the money in the voucher flap and handed to the waiter.
‘Things could have been better. I confess that I didn’t try enough and I let you go. I am sorry.’
She took a deep breath and ventured a placating smile.
Unable to say anything further, he stood up. ‘I must go. I have a flight to catch tonight. I hope you accept my apology,’ he said abruptly and left her waddling in waves of silence.
The waiter took away two half-empty coffee cups as she sat considering the poignancy of the moment. She slowly opened her handbag. Inside one of the compartments was a folded paper, yellowed and softened with age. She smiled smugly as a vague sense of vindication swept over her.
The note read –
‘I don’t rant anymore.
I now wait in silence, absolute silence
that one day
will stir you from sleep and
bring you back to me.”
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“How about your children?’ I got asked again yesterday.
‘No, we don’t have children,’ I said smilingly.
‘Oh, I am so..so.. sorry,’ the lady was very apologetic, almost as if she feared she had touched a raw nerve inadvertently and hurt me deeply.
I took her hand in mine, smiled and said, ‘No, you don’t have to be. It’s OK. I am fine with it.’
I have been in this position numerous times. It invariably happens when I meet people for the first time and have a conversation, especially with women. Interestingly, it has not always been this courteous.
I have had instances of people telling me that I am lucky to not have the hassles of parenthood. Occasionally, I have also had people telling me with a twinge of disdain that I would never understand the struggles of a mother, could not imagine the stress that comes with it at every stage of life and it was easy for me to wax eloquent on exam pressure, adolescent behavior and other parental concerns. I have even had people comment that I look young and slim for my age only because I never bore a child. Perhaps. Perhaps.
But here’s the real thing. I am a mother. In several ways. Every time someone apologizes when I say we have no children, this is what I want to tell them with my touch.
‘Don’t feel for me. I don’t feel deprived. Not because I have overcome it. Not because I have resigned to life and its vagaries. But because I have been a mother, without bearing a child or rearing one.
I have been a tutor for 18 years. And being a tutor is not the same as being a teacher in a school. The difference is the love that grows between me and my children in the long years that they spend with me. Every time I have taken a student in, I have felt as if I became a mother again. I adopt them for the period that they are with me, feel responsible, feed them with every nugget of knowledge, wisdom and love that I can and pray for their well-being.
I do whatever I can to bring out the best in them and not for a split second think that I can be sloppy in my duty.
It is unconditional, because I am fully conscious that they are not ‘mine’ in the real sense of the word and will leave me as soon as the time is up. But then, they would have left me even if they were ‘mine.’
The absence of possession makes me feel free. The fact that the children who come into my life, my students or others that I know, are not essentially ‘mine’ helps me love them equally. I have loved them impartially. I have accepted them into my life without judging their qualities.
There is no selfishness in my affection for them because there is no string attached. And at some point during our journey, they become part of my soul, and that is enough for me.
Today, as the world celebrates Mothers’ Day, I want to give all the mothers who handed their sons and daughters to me for a point in time a hug and thank them for giving me my moments of motherhood. I want to tell them that in a strange, unintended way, they added more meaning to my life.
The roughed-out doodled sheet is lying unattended on the table. The husband’s glance falls on it as he passes by. Curiosity piqued, he takes it and asks, ‘What is this?’
I shrug. It is an instinctive response that doesn’t mean much.
‘You made it?’ he asks, saucer-eyed.
I nod and smile, feeling very self-conscious.
‘How did you do it?’ I notice the streak of disbelief in his voice.
‘One stroke at a time,” I say, taking the paper back from him.
‘But it looks so complicated.’ He can’t wrap his head around it. He turns it around a couple of times to figure what it is.
‘It isn’t so complicated when you do it one stroke at a time. Isn’t that how dreams are realized and goals are achieved? Isn’t that how milestones are reached? One step at a time?’
As he looks on, still stupefied, I explain to him that when I began, it was just a small patch of doodle signifying nothing. Then as the sketch slowly grew on the paper, bit by bit, something seemed to emerge out of it. It made me follow a blind instinct that led me to a certain shape. I soon realized I could indeed convert this random, mindless doodle into something meaningful.
‘Thus, this!’ I say waving the paper in front of him.
‘And what exactly is it?
‘Umm… I think I will call it Bird of Heaven, perhaps?’
‘And where did you learn to do this?’
‘Nowhere. Just improvised on the kolam (rangoli) drawing skills that I acquired as a kid. It seems there is this new art form called zentangle. I don’t know how to zentangle, but I know how to draw kolams.’
Then I add, ‘Actually, there is nothing miraculous about it. No rocket science or genius involved. I just drew on my old skills, put a new spin on it, developed bit by bit, and voila!’
He gives me an acknowledging smile and taps my head. ‘I know what you mean. Good luck on your plans for the new venture. It looks challenging at this point, but I know you will get there, slowly, one stroke at a time.’
‘Yes, I will,’ I say, tracing the plumes of the Bird of Heaven with my finger. ‘All beginnings are often insignificant. Just a dot, a line. And when you persist, it becomes a whole new picture. You don’t know how you made it, but you did, after all. Is this what ‘no looking back’ means?’ I ask reflectively.
It was late morning on Easter Sunday. I rang the bell at an acquaintance’s house and waited. There wasn’t much movement inside, making me wonder if the people in the house had not returned from the mass yet. I rang again. It took a while to be answered.
‘Who is it?’ It was the full-time maid, Lincy’s voice.
I replied. She had joined the family only recently, but knew me well.
‘Happy Easter,’ I said happily, as soon as she opened the door. She greeted me back, with a mild smile that didn’t quite reach the corner of her eyes. There was something missing in it, but I don’t make much of it at that time.
‘No one in the house?’ I asked, noticing the calm behind her. It was clear that there was no one in the house.
‘Yes, there are. I had a son. He passed away a year ago. He was the sole earning member in my family. He used to take care of the whole family. I have a daughter and a grandchild. Exactly a year after my son died, my son-in-law abandoned my daughter, and married someone else. She and her child are now with my husband. That’s why I am here doing this job. Why do all misfortunes come together?’ Her voice broke into shards of pain.
I stood gasping, watching the middle aged woman begin to sob and give details. The quietness in the house from where she had emerged seemed to deepen and assume a sinister quality.
‘No, Lincy, you must not cry on a good day like this,’ I said, lowering my voice deliberately to soothe her rising anguish.
‘There is no good day in my life. No Christmas, no Easter. I have only this sorrow. I can’t even weep here openly. I do it when I go out to dump the garbage every day.’
I felt a lump in my throat. I am a mushy, emotional thing. It takes very little for me to feel the sting in the eyes. People’s sad stories can rob my sleep. It can throw me off balance.
Empathy, at times, can be severely punishing. It can make one feel utterly helpless and incapacitated. And on occasions, it makes us adopt their pain. It can be very debilitating. But that cannot take away from our responsibility to offer succour to those who need it, can it? But then, what does one say to a woman who is telling a life tale of such acute distress?
Every pain is extreme and unparalleled for the person enduring it. The cruelest thing one can do towards them is to philosophize and undermine their feelings. A lesser evil is to compare it to other people’s dire conditions in an attempt to assuage this person. The ‘you are better off than millions of others’ maxim that trivializes her woes.
So I cut all the crap and said with the deepest sympathies that I was capable of expressing in that moment, ‘I understand your pain.’ I put my right arm out in an attempt to give her a gentle hug.
‘Oh, I am sweating, and will be smelling,’ she said, trying to avoid my embrace and wiping her tear-streaked face on her sleeve.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ I said, and gave her a hug. I caught a faint smell of raw fish on her. It was probably the closest witness to her story. I heard her whimper on my shoulder and fought to hold my tears back. I had no means to mitigate her pain. All I had was a sparing expression, ‘I understand.’
But that seemed enough to her. A minute later, she gave me a smile, held my hand gratefully and said, ‘Thank you. Please pray for me.’
I promised her I would. As I began to walk away, she called out from behind, ‘Don’t tell these people about it. I haven’t told them anything.’
It was shattering to think that she was spending her days without giving the people she worked for (and lived with) a hint of what she was suffering silently. I didn’t seek explanations for it.
Later that day, when I heard of the bombings in Sri Lanka, I added several anonymous people in my prayer along with Lincy. I wished I could tell each of them,
‘I can’t change the situation, but I understand your sorrow. I do.’
My words would have travelled and touched their lives in ways unknown surely?
I stare at the screen, trying to fix my next round of Filter Kaapi. I don’t feel inspired to write a story. Speaking anything now seems superfluous. Such have been the events of recent times.
I fidget uneasily as my thoughts steer towards the state of the world and the human condition. A collage of nasty images clogs my mind. Of blood-rivers, broken roofs and battered lives. Wherever one turns, there is a myriad of miseries. Mankind’s collective pain slowly creeps up and cramps my gut.
Sometimes, nothing makes sense. Neither words nor silence.
I linger in the numbness for a while, and then, in a sudden moment of awareness, I get dislodged from my passivity. I must take responsibility; there are no excuses.
It doesn’t help to merely shake the head and sigh when there are transgressions of this scale. I cannot pretend as if I have no role to play in all the evil that’s unfolding around me. As if my slate is clean and the mayhem is someone else’s doing.
Propelled to act in a moment of remorse, I punch in forcefully –
THE WORLD ISN’T A MESS. I AM.
I haven’t learned to love enough. Without boundaries. Without self-interest. Without reason. My love is still narrow and meandering. Not vast and gushing. I haven’t stepped out of my confines and known the universe. I haven’t evolved enough to feel the oneness. I have failed the world. Miserably.
To set things right, I must become the ocean, I must become the sky. I must become the heartbeat of every bloom and butterfly. I must sweep into my arms every grain of sand and dissolve without resistance, like salt in water. I must be infinite in my capacities. Breaking, disintegrating and then coming together again.
I must know this for certain – life begins only when cells unite. Life sustains only when the united spirit thrives.
As I stare into the screen, oblivious to the surroundings, I realize that this terrible chaos I see around me springs from my innate blindness. I have no one else to blame. Awash with guilt and shame, I make a promise to the universe –
I shall do my bit to clean up the clutter. I shall strive to love, to forgive, to bond and to transcend the boundaries. Truthfully, without faking and putting up false claims. If I can’t love fully, I will not harbour despise at least. Help me clear the spite, bleach the stains and sanitize my inner space. And in moments when I lose sight and err, fill me with light, and inspire.
As I wind up without writing a story today, a line from an old wisdom alone repeats in the head –
‘Dhiyo yona prachodayat.’
(May He enlighten our intellect.)