Ruhi could hear her heart pounding in her ears. Her hands were shivering, knees knocking like time against the needles of a clock.
She looked at herself in the mirror. Her eyes were shimmering. Her recently straightened hair, added with extensions was gelled into a sleek side part. Her long ivory gown was bejeweled with pearls and precious stones. She took a deep breath as her eyes followed the deep plunging neckline of her gown. She breathed heavily again and whispered to herself: “It’s okay. You got this.”
The stage was adorned with flowers on the floor and sky lanterns on the top. She stood in front of the mike and rehearsed her first verse in a whisper.
“You got this,” she whispered to herself again, as the curtain raised. With each inch of the stage revealed, the murmurs among the audience died down into deep silence and aroused into thunderous applause, all in a split second.
She looked around the stage, arresting the audience with her glance. That smile. The audience waited with bated breath, their eyes glistening with tears at her sight. She smiled at them and embraced them in her warmth. Slowly, as the faint music started playing in the background, she held the mike and closed her eyes. She let the fleeting breeze kiss on her lips. She started swaying like a floating leaf in the breeze. When she spoke, at first, it was barely a whisper. Then slowly like lulling a baby to sleep, she lulled the audience to ecstasy. She recited her verses like a prayer.
Ruhi walked back to the dressing room barefooted. She never wore shoes on the stage where she performed. Poetry was for her, her closest moment with God. She respected it more than anything in the world.
Her PR team kept checking the edited video footage of the show. Some of them had to be aired in the late night news. Ruhi glanced through them with a smile. She nodded yes to the footage Mabel, head of her PR team, had personally selected. She loved it. She hugged Mabel for her efforts and appreciated her team. Then she retreated silently to her home.
At her home, she fed her dogs Patty and Peter. She tried to video call her mother, but she wasn’t online. Ruhi knew why, she had even expected it. She knew she could call or message, but for her own personal reasons, she dreaded even the thought. Some long, untrodden roads are better left that way. May Frost forgive her!
She filled her bath with bubbles and slowly descended into it. This is where she comes to cleanse off the tiring day, the sad thoughts and memories from her past. She dipped herself inside the water holding her breath for a few seconds. When she could bear it no more, she came bursting to the top, gasping for breath.
“Gasping for breath
Water filling me tight
Where love once used to be.”
She remembered her lines from one of her poems. 4 poetry books, numerous awards, a few unbeaten records in the bestsellers charts for the last few years. Is this what I leave behind God? Patty came through the open bathroom door to check on her.
“Mamma is saying her prayers, Patty. Don’t be worried.”
Everyone worries. Patty, Peter, her team, her therapist. They know it was a hard week for Ruhi. She had a video call with her mother a few days back about her father’s health. Her mother wanted Ruhi to come back home. Back to India, to forgive and forget. She had forgiven a long time ago. Or so her therapist tells her. She didn’t feel the need for revenge or anger. Yet, what do we call that burrowing emptiness at the depths of our hearts? Is it pain? Is it love? Is it grief? Or is it just the fatigue from the years of living and slowly fading out?
Her garden in the balcony and her bookshelf was the only evidence of her existence at her home. She could live like a stealthy mouse: munching something out of the refrigerator or dining table, falling asleep in unlikely places like under the sofa or on top of the study table, she could collect all her belongings (except books and plants) in a small travel bag and leave at a moment’s notice. She lived ad hoc at her own home.
On one such day, she was tenuring her plants: cutting away yellow leaves, adding manure, soil and water wherever needed, adding a stick or thread for support if they showed traces of bending or breakage, washing them with water to remove a week’s dirt. That is when dad walked in. He looked at her garden for some time. Barely 30 little pots, crowded up in a small balcony. They lived in a flat. Dad had covered the balcony’s opening with metallic grills to keep the pigeons away. The holes in the grills had remnants of hurt pigeon feathers, from the time they ignored or tried to force in through the grills. It also had shoots from her money plant and bridal jasmines creeping and tangling for support.
“All the flowers are outside?”
“The Jasmine flowers. They are all blooming in the branch that grew outside the grill.”
“Yes, they bloom where they like dad, just like us.”
“They will bloom where I want them to bloom. Give me those scissors!” Demanded dad.
“Don’t listen to him, Ruhi.” Mummy shouted from the front room. “Philip is drunk.”
“A drunk man knows better.” Dad took the scissors from Ruhi and cut the branches of all plants that grew beyond the drills.
“I don’t care about the money plants. But the jasmines, when they bloom I want them to be ours. Keep the Jasmine pot in the corner where it can’t grow till the grill.”
Ruhi was extremely fond of the plant, Dad had just cropped like a military man’s hair. But she knew arguing with a drunken man was useless. She had seen it in the purple blotches on her mother’s back. She retreated to the kitchen without saying a word.
Ruhi breathed heavily in her bathtub.
Mermaids, mermaids don’t have tears. So Ruhi tried to blink them away too.
“One of these days, you are going to stop seeing me as a doctor, Ruhi. And we are going to go on a date to orchards and vineyards just like you wrote in your diary. Long walks and very long conversations, just the way you like it.” Parimal smiled at her teasingly. Dr Vikas Parimal, Ruhi’s therapist.
“That’s so sweet, doc. But that means you are a very bad doctor. Because I think I am going to be sick again.”
“What makes you think that?”
“I can’t put him out of my thoughts.”
“…which means you still care.”
“But how can I ?”
“I don’t know, Ruhi. That’s what makes humans such complicated things to understand, right? There is no right and wrong when there is love.”
” Has anything changed? Or is it just me being a fool again?”
“Just tell her… tell her I’m sorry. “
Ruhi woke up from her sleep. She looked through the nearby window and saw the wings of the aeroplane She was flying in. She was traveling from US back to India, just like her mummy wanted, but just for a week. And then I will be back. She promised herself.
Can sorry mean anything, if you don’t correct your mistakes?
Ruhi couldn’t recognize the frail man sitting in the wheelchair. Could 8 years do that to a man? Liver sclerosis. She remembered all the time mummy warned him about it. He still chose to learn it the hard way. She couldn’t believe it was the same man from that night.
Ruhi was 18 years old then. It was the last day to submit entries to a love poem contest. Ruhi was typing the poem on her dad’s laptop, copying it from her diary. Dad barged in out of nowhere, saying he wanted his laptop to Skype call with his school friend in Canada. He was drunk as usual.
“What are you doing in my laptop?” He demanded. He tore the diary out of Ruhi’s hands and read the lines.
“What is this? Huh?”
Slap. “Huh? Say!” Slap. Slap. The laptop fell on the floor and its display broke. He choked her neck.
“You slut. How dare you use my laptop for such cheap things! Who is it for? Who is it? Is it that Saleem boy?”
“It’s for a competition dad.” Ruhi wailed.
“What competition? You were mailing him! You think I’m a fool? Just because two of your stupid poems got published somewhere you think you are more intelligent than me? You think you are powerful enough to cheat me? I will show you.”
He kept her arms on the table and punched it again and again. In between the punches he shouted:
“Never write. Never write.
Never write anything like that ever again…
Slut! Slut! Slut!”
Ruhi felt ashamed of herself for loving her dad all these years, despite the way he treated her mother all those years. Yet she had loved him, until he showed his devil face to her. The clots in her mother’s body were hers now. The pain hers. The fear hers. He beat her every time she opened her mouth. He beat her to prove he is powerful. He beat her asking if she would complain about domestic violence. He beat her until she begged for her life.
Ruhi didn’t leave the bed for four weeks. Not because of her physical wounds. She couldn’t forgive herself for being such a big fool all these years. How could she excuse him every time he beat mummy and followed it with a sorry?
Dad sat on his sad wheelchair in the front room. The room was all dark. Ruhi drew the curtains apart and opened the windows.
“Open the balcony door.” He requested. They hadn’t talked for years, even before she left to the USA to study creative writing with full scholarship.
Ruhi opened it for him.
“Look at that, moley (daughter). Your flowers… they strived all these years. Just like you.”
Ruhi walked into her balcony garden, now unkempt. Most of the pots were empty. But her bridal Jasmine had grown all over the walls, crept into other plants and shot out of the holes in the grills. She kept growing and growing, breaking her way through the now rusted iron drills. Just like Ruhi kept writing and writing and writing… until the whole world had to stop and take notice of her. Until her voice mattered. Until her voice was heard. Until she felt strong again and full again and free again.
Tears leaked out of her eyes, the calluses she had formed in her heart through all these years of isolation were giving away, some old wounds were revealed. The marks of people in her heart. The stretch marks of a heart growing, expanding, to fit in … more love. The thumbprints of a legacy left behind. Her love marks in this world.