The article had gone on to describe the many talents and achievements of Renuka Gupta but there had been no mention of Urmilla the sister who would have been the “yesteryear Bollywood queen” if circumstances had been different. But that was a can of worms that was best left to its own devices.
It was Avinash who had read the article first. It was Avinash who had shown it to her. It was Avinash who had called the press to showcase his outrage at the lack of empathy shown by them towards the family. Urmilla had been too shocked to react to anything he had said or done. She had stared at the headline unblinkingly and had only moved into action when Avi had jolted her out of her shock.
Now that she thought back, she couldn’t remember Avi once asking her if she was okay. He had understood the shock; who wouldn’t be shocked reading about someone’s death in the papers? But he hadn’t asked her if she was doing okay.
How had it come to this? She knew she hadn’t spoken to her sister in almost nine months but hadn’t she at least deserved a phone call? Had she been such a poor sister that she had to wait for it to be printed in a newspaper to know her sister had passed away?
As the train sped towards its destination, the wheels and the tracks made a soothing racket which was dulled by the closed windows on account of it being an AC three tier bogie. There had been a funny smell in her compartment but she had become used to it quickly. Now, she didn’t even notice it. The dull racket contrasting with the silence inside her compartment was making her drowsy.
“Here, take this,” said Avinash, handing his wife a paper cup of very sweet tea.
If it had been twenty-five years since she had travelled in a train, it had been more for Avinash. He had been stunned when he was told the only way to reach Haridwar was by train. He had hoped the thought of travelling by train would snap his wife out of her foolish fancy but it had only hardened her resolve. And so here they were. Urmilla had thought this would be her adventure but alas. Yet she was happy he was here. She couldn’t believe she had thought she could do this alone.
She took the tea from his hand and looked out the window. The landscape here was so different from what she was used to seeing in Bombay. The hills were taller, somehow less green. It also looked dusty…maybe because it didn’t rain as much as it rained in Bombay.
While sipping her tea, the question returned. She wasn’t sure which was worse – that she didn’t deserve a phone call or that she had been a bad sister.
“Avi, why did I stop talking to her?” she asked. When in answer all he gave her was a blank look she explained, “I have been trying to remember what had happened nine months ago that we stopped talking. I can’t remember. Do you?”
He sighed. His wife had been acting really strange these past couple of days. He knew it had to be the trauma but he didn’t know how long it would take for her to become normal again and it scared him, not knowing.
“You two had a fight of some sort.” He paused, trying to recall the exact nature of the fight. “I can’t remember why you fought this time – there have been so many,” he said derisively.
Ignoring the jab, Urmilla tried to think back to that day. What had been the fight? They had had lots of fights but they had never stopped talking to each other. They had never been close, even as kids, but they had always shared cordial relations. Then why had Renuka’s death hit her so hard? Why was the fact that she hadn’t spoken to her sister for nine months and now couldn’t, eat at her heart? Why was she taking so much trouble to fulfil the last wish of a sister whose death she wasn’t even informed of? Why did any of this matter?
When they got off the train, Avinash struggling with the bags, the first thing she saw was a bunch of reporters, waiting, peering, almost fighting with each other to be the first in line. As soon as they saw Avinash and Urmilla, they started screaming out questions, thrusting their microphones in front of them.
A surge of adrenaline shot through her system and a beautiful smile lit up her face. They were here for her? They wanted to interview her? How long had she waited for this moment; longer than she cared to remember. She couldn’t believe her dream was coming true…a little belatedly but coming true it was!
Before she could step towards them, Avi hissed in her ear, “Get rid of your smile you imbecile. You’re still in mourning, remember?”
But nothing he would say could dampen that excitement…that longing that was sprouting wings inside her being. She walked towards them, the smile in place, ready to finally take her place in the spotlight.
“Urmilla ji where were you when Renuka ji passed away?”
“Is it true you are here to immerse Renuka ji’s ashes in Ganga?”
“How do you feel that Renuka ji did not leave you anything in her will?”
And the barrage of questions continued. It was a rude shock to realize the reporters were here for her sister and not for her. They had never cared for her and wouldn’t start caring now. Who was she kidding? Renu had always been the darling of the cameras, not her. Even dead, they were more interested in her than the sister who was nobody.
A sudden hatred for Renu surged through her and converted her excitement into poison. She wanted to throw something heavy at the reporters, turn back and head back home.
A minute later, Avinash was standing in front of his stunned wife, hiding her from the glares of the camera, answering questions with humility and sadness. He should have been a performer, she thought. Turn the cameras on and he could give a performance that could win him a national award.
Another five minutes and the two of them were able to cut through the reporters to make their way to the waiting ambassador car.
“Ye kya hai? Humne toh innova mangi thi,” Avinash said to Narang who was their man Friday. Yes, he too was accompanying them; he was the one who had made all the arrangements to ensure his beloved Avinash sir did not face any inconveniences. What did Narang know that the biggest one was Urmilla herself?
“Sir, this was the only car that was available. I am sorry,” Narang said, hanging his head as if in shame. Like it was a personal affront to him that his master had to travel in an ambassador and not an SUV.
“Avi, let us just get to the hotel.”
Urmilla didn’t care what type the car was. It was hot (and she had thought Bombay was hot) and she could feel people staring at her. She didn’t want to be asked any more questions; especially not about her dead sister. Her thoughts were in turmoil and she just wanted to lay her head down and go to sleep.
Some of her desperation must have communicated itself to Avinash because he nodded and ordered Narang to get their bags into the trunk of the car as he opened the door for her.
Once they reached their room, Urmilla started to unlock her suitcase so she could change out of the itchy sari and wear something comfortable.
“What are you doing?” asked Avinash, unbuttoning his shirt.
“Umm I am going to change, why?”
Urmilla knew that tone and what it meant. “Avi please, not now. I am really tired.”
“Urmi I have been respectful. Despite everything, she was your sister and she died. But it’s been a week since her funeral and I need some.”
Urmilla sighed. There was no way to get out of this and he was right. He had abstained for a week. “Okay,” she said in her best soothing voice. “Let’s take a shower.”
She knew she was avoiding the inevitable. It had been two days and she hadn’t gotten around to doing what she had come to Haridwar to do. Surprisingly enough, Avinash hadn’t seemed to mind the delay. Knowing something was up she decided to broach the subject on the morning of the third day right after breakfast.
“It’s alright Urmi. It is good in fact. Let the media see what a caring and loving sister you have been and still are as compared to that horrendous witch who couldn’t even be bothered to leave a piece of real estate to her little sister.”
So that was it. She wasn’t really surprised. If there had been any other reason she would have been surprised. She wanted to remind him that the media did not care about her or him. But she did not want to give him the same rude shock she had gotten when she had descended that train, three days ago.
He then asked her gently, “Do you know what you’re going to do? This isn’t something you have done before.”
“There is an ashram here. She used to speak about it a lot. There was a guruji who she used to meet with quite often, especially after she stopped acting altogether. He was her spiritual teacher she used to say. His name was Master Mei Ling. I don’t know if he is alive or still with the ashram. I will have to check the details from the reception.”
“Why do you need to go to an ashram? I thought the plan was just to immerse the ashes in Ganga and leave. Urmi…” he started but stopped. He sighed and rubbed his neck. He was getting tired and frustrated with her, she could tell.
“Avi I have come all this way. I want to do this right.”
She could see him struggling with his anger. “Fine,” he snapped. “I am done with this idiocy. We are leaving in four days. That’s it. I am not going to put my life on hold because of some childish fantasy that you or she had,” he spat and walked away.
Urmilla stared at the retreating back of her husband. Avinash was a good man…till everything went his way. She couldn’t tell him the real reason she wanted to visit the ashram because he wouldn’t understand. In fact, she was afraid she wouldn’t even have the luxury of four days if he knew her reasons.
Ten years after Renu had become a star and achieved everything she (they) had hoped and dreamed of, she had become uninterested in her stardom or films. Urmilla had never understood what had happened to make her so disenchanted with life. Renu was leading a life that both the sisters had coveted since they had arrived in Bombay city when they had been all but twelve years old. What had gone wrong? Even now, imagining herself in Renu’s shoes, she felt she would not have had such a ‘meltdown.’ To the extent that Renu had started to despise the very things which had made her who she was? Never!
Renu had just up and left one day, leaving her stardom behind. It was the time when the two sisters had not been speaking to each other. Although, she had called Urmilla and told her she was going to follow this Master Mei Ling of Haridwar. Without being asked, Renu had shared that she had seen his photo in a newspaper and had felt an instant connection. She had wanted to explore that connection and hence had decided to take a sabbatical.
Urmilla hadn’t said anything, only listened. At the time she had thought that maybe her sister was doing this for publicity or for a role or simply because it was the fashionable thing to do. What she hadn’t admitted then but was ready to admit now; she had hoped that in her sister’s absence, she might get a taste of the mesmerizing limelight. It had never happened of course.
In fact, two months after speculations went rampant about Renu’s sudden disappearance, the media forgot about her altogether. It had been a bittersweet victory. It had lasted four months…until Renuka ji, the darling of the 90s returned, looking fresher and younger than ever. Oh, how the media had raved about it.
In the six months that her sister had been away, Urmilla hadn’t really spoken to Renu. There had been sporadic messages, emails and phone calls, however; which had surprised her greatly.
After coming back, her sister had called her and requested a meeting. That had been another surprise. Seeing her had been a shock to say the least. Even with her critical eye, Urmilla could not dismiss what the media had raved about. Renu indeed looked more radiant than ever and there had been a healthy glow to her; as if meeting this Master had somehow ignited her inner flame.
They had had a long chat that day. It was on that day, after being related for nearly four decades; they had connected as sisters. For a while after that, they had come very close to being friends. But then her film life and Urmilla’s ever present jealousy came in between and their relationship went back to sporadic calls, emails and messages.
Ever since that day, however, Urmilla had sought an opportunity to meet Master Mei Ling. Why she sought such an audience was a question she couldn’t answer. She couldn’t explain all this to Avi because she was sure it would anger him further. If she had learnt anything in the past thirty years of marriage, it was to not anger her husband.