The eighth and the final short story submitted to the TOI Write India competition. For the other submitted stories – Click here
“All of us live with our past. All of us allow it to shape our future. But some of us know how to shrug the past. I think that is who I am….. ” Anita Nair ( (For more about the contest/rules click here).
Rules by the Author
1) Name of the Story: How Blue is my Sapphire
2) Must be literary fiction that leaps off the page. Literary fiction is best defined as “works that offer deliberate social commentary or political criticism, or focus on the individual to explore some part of the human condition.”
3) The story shouldn’t have more than four characters and an animal
4) The story should play out in 24 hours.
How Blue is my Sapphire
I pushed open the door of the terrace and looked at the vast expanse of sky and treetops. The view made the climb worth it. Maybe that was why Neelima had chosen the barsaati over the cramped paying guest accommodation. She could have commuted from home, but she preferred to be near the hospital. I didn’t object – she was big girl now. Besides, I am not the clingy, insecure, possessive kind of mother. I believe in letting children fly the nest, and sooner the better.
“Mom! What are you doing here? And what’s with the bird?”
“Meet Zack, my new pet. Isn’t he cute?” I put my arms around her. She leaned in for about a millisecond before withdrawing.
“I wonder that you have time to take care of a pet.” Neelima said. “What about your numerous commitments?”
Unable to resist, I shot back. “Oh he doesn’t ask for much. Unlike some other people I know.” I should have bitten my tongue for this was exactly what Neelima liked to sink her claws into.
“Is that why you dumped me at Nana-Nani’s whilst you traveled the world?”
I gritted my teeth and said in an even tone, “For the nth time, it was no joy ride. It was part of my art course and I only went to Paris.”
“For two years. And after that also you never bothered to come and…”
I sighed. “I told you I had commitments. Besides, nobody had any objections. I asked your grandparents, your father…”
“Did you ask me?”
It was a mistake. I shouldn’t have come here. What did I expect from Neelima? That she would understand? When had she ever? I still recall her teen years with a shudder – shrill, harsh, demanding and exhausting. Not much has changed since.
Ratan, my other child, was so sorted and cool. We had our moments of course but they were like a summer shower – a little wetness, a bit of a steam but oh so refreshing. Plus Ratan never bore grudges. Neelima, on the other hand, nurtured her grudges like tender saplings, watering and feeding them on a regular basis. Martyr-like, she wore her woes as if they were badges of honor. All of us live with our past. All of us allow it to shape our future. But some of us know how to shrug the past. I think that is who I am. I carry no guilt or baggage of the past. And I often wished that Neelima too would just move on.
“Oh God! The way you hang to the past. Give me a break would you? I was 18 years of age and if it wasn’t for your grandparents I wouldn’t have got married in the first place…”
“So you punished them by dumping me on them. What was my fault?”
I flinched under her accusing glare but I refused to feel guilty. “I did what I thought was best under the circumstances.” I reached out and pinched her cheeks. “In any case I doubt you would have liked staying with me. My maternal instincts are nonexistent at best.” I offered her a smile.
She jerked away. “They sure kicked in when Ratty was born.”
“Don’t call him that.”
“Why not? Did you stop him from calling me Ninima?”
“Ninima’s cute! Ratty is so horrible.”
She turned on her heels.
I put the cage on a broken down table. I could have kicked myself. If only I hadn’t made that wisecrack. But then she would have found something else. We had been over this topic in various avatars and I had failed to appease her. And I couldn’t change the past could I?
Neelima came back and poured Zack some water. She held out her hand. “What do you think Zack would like – some nuts or a tomato?”
I shrugged. “Let him decide.”
She opened the cage door and put down the food. She caressed him with a gentle hand. Her face was soft and tender.
And that hurt more than I cared to admit.
“A feast for Zack and nothing for your mother?”
“Mother can ask or help herself.”
I wondered if a slap would have hurt as much. I walked to the edge of the roof to hide my emotions.
“You should have had an abortion.” She stood beside me sullen and stiff.
For a moment I dearly wished I had. But then I realized that she was offering an apology in her own way.
“What!” I turned to face her. I gestured between her and me. “And forgo all this?”
Neelima looks beautiful when she smiles. Triumphant and relieved, I smiled back.
Ice broken, she held me by the arm and led me inside – rather like a cat dragging her kitty. “Why did come Mom? And why didn’t you call before coming?”
“Because you never pick up my call.” I looked around. “So messy and dusty.” Instinctively, I straightened the pillow and folded a rumpled sheet. I hunted for a duster.
“Yes, ever since you called at the clinic,” she said, “to discuss about your maid stealing vegetables…”
“But that was an emergency!” I protested. “I didn’t know what to do.”
“And you thought I would know?”
“Well,” she had me there, “you always were a smart kid, school topper, a doctor to boot…
Neelima held out a glass of lassi. “Are you patronizing me Mom?”
“Why would I do that?”
“Just seemed like that.” She shrugged. “Besides, I know you don’t approve of me.”
“Nonsense.” I took a tentative sip of the lassi. I smiled. “Just the way I like it.”
“It’s always about you isn’t it?” Her tone was conversational.
I stared. “What do you mean?”
“Just the way I like it.” She mocked me.
“Yeah so?” I was all at sea. “I was praising you. Didn’t you say just now that I didn’t approve of you? So.” I raised my glass and took a sip.
“And that is all you can find to approve of? Nothing else? And in any case, if you wanted to convey your ‘approval’ you could have said you made it well. But no, the way you like it is more important and special. Because you are special and all of us are useless hangers on determined to pull you down.” Neelima’s pitch rose and her lips twisted in a sneer.
Hands shaking I put down the glass. “What on earth is this about?”
Eyes glittering, she stood with her fists clenched. “As if you don’t know.”
“I don’t.” I said in my most patient voice.
“Your acclaimed painting Freedom where you show yourself trapped in a house while the rest of us are having fun outside. Even there you are bigger than all of us put…”
I was taken aback. “You saw my exhibition? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“It matters. And interesting that you should interpret it that way – I only meant to depict that once the family is out and having fun, she is free to do her own thing.”
She wore a disbelieving expression but she didn’t argue further.
“Did you even like any of the paintings?”
“All of them were nice. Especially the one of the sea.” She hunted about the fridge. “There’s only bread.”
“I make very good bread upma.” I offered, pleased with her compliment and interest in my art.
Neelima threw her hands up. “See? Again it’s all about you. While I can do nothing right. You are the best in everything. You keep the best house. You make the best…” She choked.
Shocked, I could only gape at her bewildered. “Sometimes I just don’t understand you.”
“Sometimes?!” Her voice was bitter. “When have you? Oh forget it. Why did you come here?”
I stilled. Perhaps I should have talked to Ratan first, got him on my side. Neelima would of course take her father’s side.
“Call Ratan over for dinner tonight. We can talk then.”
“Why tonight?” Neelima was instantly up in arms. “Tell me now.”
“No. I can’t do this twice over.”
“Twice over?” She loomed over me. “Are you well? Any health…”
I looked up. Her eyes reflected the panic in her voice. “Relax. I am fine. Call Ratan will you?”
“You call him. He is your darling.”
“Why do you hate Ratan so much?”
“I don’t hate him. You hate me.”
“Me? Hate you? Why on earth would you think that?”
“You let him go on the rafting expedition but you didn’t let me go.”
“I didn’t let him go! I said no to him as well. You listened. He didn’t. What could I do?”
“You could have said yes to me.”
“But I didn’t say yes to him.”
She flounced off.
Despair stole over me. Why were we always at loggerheads? Why couldn’t we just talk like two responsible adults? What was it about our relationship that had embittered her so much that she misconstrued anything and everything I said? I was trying hard to make up for my earlier follies but she needed to meet me halfway.
Neelima reappeared carrying her purse. “I called Rats. He will be late and he wants you to cook Biryani.”
Delighted, I laughed. “I knew it!”
Neelima looked at me with a sour expression. “I doubt if you even know what I like to eat.”
“That’s not fair!”
“Who said life was fair?” She turned to leave. “I have texted you a number. You can order whatever groceries you need. I am going to the hospital.”
“Wait! At least tell me what you would like to eat?”
“Upma.” The door banged shut.
I winced. My fault. I had forgotten she hated upma. But why couldn’t she be as straightforward as Ratan? So much easier to understand and deal with.
When Neelima returned it was past 9 pm. She headed straight for the kitchen. “What did you make?” She lifted the covers.
I waited, smiling.
She turned. “Avial!”
I couldn’t help but laugh at her delight. She heaped her plate and dug in. I put my arm around her. “Darling if you want or expect something from me – ask! I am quite dumb that way.”
“But you are my mother,” she objected, “you should know.”
I warred between tears and laughter. What to do with this crazy, sensitive, prickly uppity daughter of mine?
Ratan came in a little later. He greeted me with a broad smile and a bear hug. “Hi Ma! Where’s my biryani?” He grabbed a plate.
“Wash your hands!”
But he had already begun. “You make the best biryani in the whole world.” He spoke with his mouth full. “What’s that? Avial? Yech!”
Neelima glowered at him.
“Why the bird Ma? I mean you and a caged bird don’t really go together.”
Ratan understood me. I smiled. “Zack is a gift. He has been caged for so long that he has probably forgotten how to fly.”
“You could try.” Neelima said.
After dinner, Ratan lay down on the folding cot. “Ma can we talk in the morning? I am sleepy.” He grinned endearingly.
“No. Let’s talk now.” Neelima held out a pillow and sheets.
Ratan grabbed the things and turned over. “Goodnight all.”
Neelima looked at me as if it was my fault. “How come he always gets his way?”
I shrugged. “Perhaps it’s because men don’t hanker for others approval the way we women do.” It was a moment of epiphany for me. After all, wasn’t that why I was here?
Next morning, Neelima had her revenge.
“Get up Ratty.”
“Go away.” Ratan mumbled. “It’s not even morning.”
“No way Rats. Get up now.” Neelima pulled at the sheet. “Any later and you will say I am late for college.” She held out a cup of tea.
“No worries, Ninima,” he peeked out, “I am bunking college today.” He grinned and went back under.
“You can bunk. I can’t.” Neelima was firm. “So let’s just have this talk shall we? Mom?” She looked at me questioningly.
I put down the cup. I suddenly wished I hadn’t come. I should have just sent an email.
Even Ratan sat up.
“I am separating from your father.” I played with my fingers.
Neelima put a hand on Ratan’s shoulder. “Is there anyone else?”
“I am moving in with Stu.”
“Stu?” Ratan threw off his covers and stood up.
“Stuart, the artist from Paris?”
I nodded, feeling dull and heavy. Ratan looked shell-shocked but Neelima was cool and composed – the lull before the storm.
Ratan looked at me pleadingly. “What about Dad? And what will people think?”
“Your father has agreed to a divorce. People don’t matter. You do.”
“Why now Ma?” Ratan asked. “After so many years?”
“I am 45 years old and I am tired of ‘adjusting’. I feel as if I have been leading two lives – doing justice to neither. No matter what I do, I always feel guilty about neglecting the other. I want to be free. I want to just draw and paint the whole day or night if I so wish.”
Ratan began collecting his things.
He shook his head. “Nothing.” He picked up his bag. “I just remembered. I have an important class this morning. Got to go Ma.” He thrust his feet into his shoes and picked up his mobile. “Bye Nini, bye Ma.” A final wave and he was gone.
Now, even my son would hate me. Tears choked me.
“Do you love him?”
I gaped. “Of course! Otherwise why would…”
“Does Stuart love you too?” Neelima was cool, clinical.
“Ever since the first time I went to Paris.” I cleared my throat. “Initially I didn’t. Or perhaps I was scared to acknowledge my feelings. Besides I had responsibilities.”
“What if it doesn’t work out?”
I spread my hands. “At least I would have tried. All my life I have wondered fantasized. Now, finally, I will know. That is if,” my eyes strayed to the empty doorway.
“You haven’t decided?”
“How can I decide? It all depends on you both.” Poor Ratan. I had upset him. Was my happiness more important than his? I broke out in a cold sweat. I put a hand to my throat. I felt as if I was suffocating, drowning…
“Did Stuart gift you Zack?” Neelima was stroking Zack.
Confused, I said, “Yes.”
“Maybe you should fly before you forget how to fly.”
Unable to believe my ears I gawked at her. “But what about Ratan?” My voice was hoarse.
“Don’t worry about Rats. I know how to manage him. Maybe I will shift back home. Be with Dad.”
Emotions assaulted me. Uppermost was guilt. “I don’t know what to say…”
“Then don’t say. Just…Just fly.” She gave me a tight hug before withdrawing. “I hope you are on the pill?
I began laughing but ended up crying. My daughter held me and rocked me like I never had.
Thank you for reading. I really would love to know what you think, brickbats included…