Saksham had seen his mother cry many times – she could cry at any advertisement where a child was being horrible to their parent – but he had not seen her inconsolable before. Usually, a joke here from his father, and a funny face there from him and she would forget her tears and laugh her laugh that filled her entire face. But this time, he had the sense that no funny faces or jokes could stop her from crying.
They were in his grandparents’ house which was only ever this full during summer vacations or a wedding. It was a duplex, with a small garden in the front that was filled with flowers and grass so green that Saksham wanted to roll in it. His father had strictly told him not to. It has ants, he said, and we don’t want to trouble mom right now okay?
He had nodded solemnly. No, he did not want to trouble his mother right now, when she was mourning her father. Nanaji is gone, she said, he is gone. Saksham was old enough now to know what gone meant. They had packed their bags and driven straight here. It had been an hour and the atmosphere was quiet and still. His mamu was here, and his mausi and cousins. While the adults were commiserating in nani’s room, the children had the run of the house.
Raj, Saksham and Gauri were outside. They had been given the task of watering the plants. But they knew it was a classic adult technique to get them out of the way. Raj had a pinched expression on his forehead and Gauri was silently crying. This, Saksham thought, I can fix.
“What’s your first memory of nanu?” he asked.
The reaction was instantaneous. They smiled. Gauri spoke first. “He brought me a new dress for my birthday. I don’t know how he knew I wanted the green one! Mom would have bought the pink one.” Her nose wrinkled in disapproval.
“We all know Gajju’s favourite colour is green because Ajit’s favourite colour is green,” taunted Raj.
Gauri turned pink but she did not take the abuse. She kicked Raj on the shin, even though he was the oldest among them. Raj dropped the pipe he was using to water the plants – more like watering the floor amended Gauri sneeringly – and hopped in place.
“I have told you several times not to call me that.”
“Call…you…god are you wearing iron inside those shoes this fucking hurts…what?”
Saksham said, “You’re not allowed to say that word.”
Raj only raised an eyebrow. Saksham swallowed and raised his hands in surrender.
Gauri wrapped her arms around her waist. “Stop calling me Gajju!”
“But it’s so much fun.”
“Raj if you don’t…”
Saksham tuned them out. Raj and Gauri had been playing this game for the past three years. Every time they would meet, one of them would give the other a horrible nickname. He was glad neither of them wanted to turn their attention to him.
He picked up the pipe and continued Raj’s work. He liked watering plants. It was one activity he did with his nanu every time they came here. Nanu would water the plants and tell Saksham stories about each leaf, flower and petal. When he was young, he had wondered how nanu knew so much. His awe had only grown when he had read what nanu had told him in his school books.
Nanu was a poet. Saksham’s mother liked to hum his poems while she cooked or answered her emails. He knew that nanu had written something for every grandchild when they had been born. He had read his many times. He still did not know what it meant exactly. But he liked how it sounded when his mother sang it to him.
His brain was so far away, he didn’t notice when Raj and Gauri had stopped bickering and were asking him a question.
“We were thinking,” said Raj with a roll of his eyes, “what we can do to help perk up our parents again.”
“Oh,” said Saksham. “I tried, but it did not work.”
This time Gauri rolled her eyes. “A simple joke or monkey face will not work. We need to go big.”
“Gajju is right – it has to be something totally big.”
“That’s what I said. You’re just repeating what I said.”
“No, I added…”
Saksham shook his head and walked to the tap to close the water. He wondered ideally who’d tell him stories now.
The three young adults had been relegated to the drawing room this time while the siblings and nani were conferring in nani’s bedroom. The other halves were in the kitchen. They had been given the duty of feeding everyone.
The quiet of two days ago had turned tense that morning and Raj, Gauri and Saksham didn’t know what had changed. Perhaps it had something to do with the blue and white urn that was sitting on the coffee table, in front of them. The adults had screamed at each other while standing around it and the three of them couldn’t understand why they would fight over a fancy vase.
“Maybe we should hide it,” whispered Saksham.
“Are you mad! They’re fighting because it is here. What do you think they’ll do if it disappears?”
“As much as it pains me to say it, Gajju is right. They will tear the house down, and each other.”
“But why are they fighting?”
Raj and Gauri looked at each other like they were having a silent conversation on who got to explain the complex adult fight to the child. Saksham huffed in annoyance. Ever since Raj had turned 17 and Gauri 16, the two of them had started to treat Saksham like a child. Okay, he was 14 and still not allowed to do a lot of things they were allowed to do but still! It was annoying.
Gauri drew the short straw. “Half of them want to keep the urn and the other half want to err gently throw it in a river.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Gajju,” said Raj with obvious relish, “you’re not explaining it right. The urn has nanu’s ashes. Your mom and my dad want to keep it and her mom and nani want to get rid of it.”
Saksham digested this for some time. “We should definitely hide it.”
Raj and Gauri had another one of their silent conversations. Then both of them nodded and grinned.
The plan was executed with a finesse that was quite extraordinary for three people who found, much to their amazement, that A the urn was shockingly heavy and required two of them to lift, and B there were no good places to hide it with so many adults going to and fro. They finally hid it on the terrace since no one would go there.
The result of the exercise though did not go as per plan. Saksham’s mother wailed that they had lost the urn, his mamu came close to pulling his mausi’s hair in anger – he had not known adults could turn into his classmates when under stress – and nani had screamed herself hoarse, trying to control her children.
The young adults had relocated to the stairs leading up to the terrace, half out of fear that if the parents found them out they would be punished and half to keep an eye on the urn.
When they were called for lunch, they were unsurprised to see that the siblings were in different rooms and the spouses and nani were sitting at the table. Saksham took his plate and went in search of his mother.
She was in the room adjacent to the dining table. She was sitting on the bed, her food untouched but she was rifling through a book. She looked up when he came inside.
As soon as he saw her tears, the story of their subterfuge bubbled out. He didn’t even take a breath to pause or breathe as he told the story. He cried too, because he knew he was in trouble and he had promised his father he would do nothing to trouble his mother. To his utter surprise though, his mother laughed.
“Oh honey, your nanaji would have loved this! I can just about…hear his…laugh.” The tears came again but she was smiling so Saksham took that as a win.
“You’re not mad?”
“I have a plan.”
And so, mother and son hatched another plan and planted the urn in nani’s wardrobe where it was found that night. It almost fell but was saved at the last minute by Raj’s heroic jump. He bruised his knees but claimed it was worth it. What was not worth it was Gauri’s nickname for him – flying frog.
As it turned out, all Saksham had needed to do to get the adults to laugh was provoke a fight between Gajju and Maindak. And the urn…the ashes were taken to a river and the urn became a fancy vase in nani’s drawing room.
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