I remember how cold it was that night.
I had taken them out for dinner; she and her mother. I’d just landed my dream job and I wanted to celebrate with her. Her mother invited herself, as I had (wrathfully) expected. To keep
things her mother under control, I brought my brother along. The mother could hardly hijack the celebration with my rather strict older brother around. I felt safer with him there; I don’t mind confessing.
There has always been a confusion about which of the two was my friend, the mother or the daughter. Radha is almost twelve years younger to me while her mother Chanda is eight years older. The more I gravitated towards the daughter the more the mother clung to me like an annoying limpet. I never denied it because it was easier to agree than to stir up a hornet’s nest with a short stick. I told myself I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. We can invent all kinds of alibis to hang our cowardice on, can’t we?!
In a word, I was too cowardly to do what I knew to be right, as I had been too cowardly to avoid doing what I knew to be wrong.
~ Charles Dickens
Radha’s family and mine have been neighbors for two generations.
Our joint families were all so intertwined that it became difficult to sort out who was whose friend. The friendships went across generations as easily as brimming bowls of savories traveled back and forth over the common wall.
Chanda’s husband Suresh had doted on his little princess. Severely disappointed in Chanda for not being an outgoing, smart and stylish woman he had hoped to marry, he had pinned all his hopes on his daughter and cherished her deeply. The limits of her gaze defined the frontiers of her kingdom. She was his princess and nothing she laid eyes on was out of reach for her.
Chanda’s relationship with her daughter was turbulent from the day Chanda realized that the child was the apple of Suresh’s eyes. The more Suresh doted on the child, the angrier Chanda got. On the smallest pretext, the child would be slapped. She was never to hear a kind word from her mother. When she grew older, the beatings became worse. If Suresh tried to intervene, he got a virulent lash of her tongue too.
This doesn’t mean that Chanda was quarrelsome, nasty woman. To the world, she was cheerful and pleasant. In short interactions, she came across as helpful and friendly. A typical Leo, she loved to bask in the attention of those around her. The trouble began when she imagined her lime-light to be usurped.
I could have understood it if Chanda was jealous of Radha because she didn’t want to share Suresh’s love with her. Though the thought is unpleasant, it would have given a semblance of rationality to Chanda’s deep prejudice against Radha. But the dreadful fact was that Chanda didn’t want Suresh’s love for herself. She just didn’t want Radha to have it. The sheer malevolence of the thought of it made me shrink from her.
Torn between these two extreme worlds, the little Radha tried desperately to hold on to her sanity with her tiny hands. It never occurred to either parent that their deep divide had fashioned a sword’s edge for the child to walk on. Neither took pity on her. Neither made an effort to reconcile their disenchantment with each other. I am sure Suresh never wanted his princess damaged so. But though inadvertently done, he was also responsible turning the tender psyche of their unformed daughter into a war zone.
A bigger shame I am yet to witness.
When Radha turned seventeen, tragedy struck the family. Suresh was the unlucky victim to a fatal road accident. If her life was difficult before, it became an unlivable hell from then on. It was Radha’s lot to bear the brunt of her incapable mother’s towering frustrations and temper storms. Forget about consoling her for the loss of the only person who ever loved her, Chanda became an untamed shrew in her savageness. Her attacks on Radha became positively brutal and violent.
Radha had always been a good student but now her grades fell. She barely scraped through her final school year. Her marks were so poor that she was compelled to join a seedy college which was a two hour commute away from her home. That suited her just fine. She preferred to spend her time with friends or just roaming the streets.
Don’t cry my son
Don’t cry, because life is a redeemed fight
Life is a fight that will demean the weak person
And will always exalt the strong ones
I was working at Bangalore those days. When Suresh passed away, I had been away from home for almost three years. Cellphones were prohibitively expensive and the internet in its nascent days. Losing touch with someone because you’d moved out of their physical proximity was inescapable. I had no idea what was happening with Radha. I was not around during the toughest years of her life.
Chanda now had an excuse to torture the child even more. Radha began to spend more time away from home. She would leave before six in the morning with barely a cup of tea and return home after eleven. By this ruse, she managed to avoid Chanda on most days. But she paid the price for it on the days when Chanda woke early or was not yet abed at eleven. There would be scars of that interview to show the next day.
With all this going on, Radha tore the lid off hell by joining a theater group! Chanda went berserk with rage. Ostensibly her fury was that Radha become a part of something immoral and depraved (in her bigoted opinion), but the real reason was that she couldn’t bear the thought of Radha finding a little sliver of joy doing something that made her happy. How dared she be happy!
No, Radha didn’t run away from home. No, Radha didn’t fall into bad company. No, Radha didn’t become a helpless substance addict. No, Radha did not get involved with an unsavory character and compound her troubles. No, Radha did not take any of the ways out cowards take. With every excuse to, she didn’t take any of the predictable short-cuts.
She merely survived!
Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable spirit.
Dear reader, do you know what it means to survive? I hope you were touched by the word- not too closely, because that leaves terrible scars- but enough to know what it takes to walk that path. Radha survived. She pulled herself together and graduated with honors. Her expertise with oration and voice modulation- a gift of her years in the theater- got her a job as a voice trainer a few weeks before her graduation results.
The evening we went to celebrate, she had been working for two years and things had begun looking good for her. She was only twenty three years old. I had returned from Bangalore a year ago. In that year, I learned, bit by bit, the horror of what she had gone through. But I really, truly learned her only that chilly winter night.
Man is the only animal who strives to be more than he is. It is the indomitable spirit within that makes him human.
By the time our dinner was over, it was after midnight. Earlier in the evening, the three of us had reached the swanky restaurant by auto-rickshaw while my fitness fanatic brother had walked the three kilometers to the restaurant. We could find no auto-rickshaws when we emerged into the street. It surprised us to find the place deserted; it was probably because of the cold.
As we began walking towards home, Chanda petulantly began to complain of pain in her legs. Thankfully, we spotted a cycle rickshaw just then. My brother was vociferously solicitous of Chanda’s comfort and amidst an air of martyred sacrifice, Chanda was persuaded to go home with him. Once they were gone, Radha and I walked along happily, hand in hand, talking nineteen to a dozen.
Shortly, we too found a cycle rickshaw. The moment we got into it, Radha began singing at the top of her voice. Her melodious, well trained voice rose and fell as it gave shape to the music that burst forth from her irrepressibly joyous heart. I was at once surprised and overwhelmed with love. As I sat looking at her and absorbing the pure notes with all my being, my love threatened to break all dams within me. I don’t remember feeling such deep gratitude ever before.
She stopped suddenly and turned to me, smiling.
“You also sing Meeta didi”, she coaxed winningly.
“Dhutt pagli! What will the rickshaw-wala think?”
She caught hold of both my cold hands in her warm ones, threw her head back and burst into a peal of laughter with such carefree abandon that I was taken aback.
“Do you really care what the rickshaw-wala thinks didi? Should anyone’s opinion matter when your soul aches to sing? Should you care what the world wants when you can hear the commands your soul whispers in your ears? Should you Meeta didi?”
Humbled in the presence of her joy, struck speechless by her wisdom, I was silent for a few seconds as her dancing eyes probed into mine. That night I saw the flame which had sustained her through all her years of trauma. I knew that night, what treasures a being like Radha guards. I also understood that chilly winter night how essential it was that a girl like Radha survives, no matter what.
“You are right Radha. To sing when your soul commands you to is your sole obligation. If the world is shocked or disapproving, so be it!”
That night we both sang at the top of our voices all the way home- she melodious, I more than a little off tune. But it didn’t matter. We sang because it was right to sing, in the dead of night… while the world slept. It wasn’t cold by the time we got home that night. I was enveloped cozily in the flame that burned true in the heart of my dauntless young friend.
This is what happened that chilly winter night.
That Chilly Winter Night