It was the sound of the door opening that would wake him up every single day. The door opened at the same hour every morning and served the dual purpose of letting the light in and would also wake him up. The rusted hinges and the loosened board that scrapped over the floor seemed to have been designed for the latter purpose. Or possibly not fixed because of that. And while he could shut his eye and turn over to avoid the light and the breeze that came in when the door opened, he couldn’t do the same with his ears. The sound broke all barriers and gave him a lifelong hatred of rusted hinges and the sound of wood scrapping over marble. But then he didn’t know it. Then, like on every other day, he just woke up cursing that sound and the door and the woman who had opened it all his life. The woman he had known as dai and known from the days his own mother left his father for someone else when he was barely able to call her back. Would she have stayed back if he could call out to her? The thought came to him often, but never with the slightest hint of reproach or sadness. He considered himself lucky that she had left at a time when he was too young to have had memories that would rot with time and turn into some other feeling. She was now just the pain in his old father’s knee, the constant stream of water from his eyes that doctors put to old age, but he knew was a long-due flow of sadness that he had dammed up to shield his son from the flood. Now, either the son was old enough to swim against the grief, or he was too old to care, or fight any longer. But for now, it was sound of the door that troubled the son more than all this.
It was only when he turned to look that he realized that there was a change from this routine. The sound was still the same. The light and the breeze from the hills beyond were the same too. But the person who had pushed the door back was not the dai, and as he reached for his shirt to pull it over his naked chest, he realized that this person was as shocked as he was with this sudden intrusion of the sounds on an otherwise calm morning of a spring.
Dai had never mentioned her own family. Nor had she ever left his side to have one of hers. His loss was her gain, he had always thought. That she may have wanted something outside of this circle, wanted something that she could claim she had made and not acquired was never discussed, never thought of. But this girl, this young girl who entered his life with that screeching sound and an expression of alarm looked so much like her mother that she couldn’t have been anything but her daughter. And yet, never had Dai once mentioned her, nor denied her, as she would later explain.
Littu wasn’t just her daughter in name, or in the way she looked and carried herself and hurried about the house from one task to another as if that was the only way to go from one room to another, or from one end of the veranda to another. She became, much like her mother, an obvious part of this house, and more importantly of this household. She became, as he would understand much later, taken for granted. But what hurt most when the realization finally swept him off his feet one day, in a land far away, in a place that had no relation to this stage of his life other than a rusted hinge that creaked as it opened into his hotel room that he took shelter in to pass time till his flight was due, was not that he had taken her for granted, but that she had allowed him to.
But on the first day they had walked into each others lives, as he opened his eyes to Littu’s expression of alarm and the obvious disgust at the sound, he thought he had found a soul mate. It wasn’t love or anything. Just that he felt exactly the same way and had felt like this for so long and always alone, that to see someone feel the same way about the sound was in itself an act of reaching out to him, across the few steps that lay between them, the few steps that she never took. Not on that day. Not on any other day.
The next day, he was up before the sound hit him. And a good thing too, for the sound was not as loud as it been till now. It was still there. How could it not be? But she had tried her best to lift the door as much as she could before she shoved it in. The effect of the slight gap that she managed to insert between the floor and the board helped muffle the scrapping sound a bit. And at the same time eased the pressure off the hinges. But he was already awake. And he felt touched by her show of concern, hoping it wasn’t for her own eardrums, but for his. That’s what he wanted to believe. So he went with that. As for her, she just peered in, saw he was up, smiled and then retreated back into the room on the other side that he seldom went to. His own point of entry and exit were from the door on the opposite side where his room opened into the small gallery as did his father’s and another room that was their study and his father’s office for the few clients the retired lawyer still serviced. The room with the door that served as his morning alarm opened into a small room where Dai and Ganja — his father’s Man Friday — both kept coming into or leaving from the backyard into which it opened. At the far end of the backyard was the room that Dai stayed in. And maybe that girl too? Though he had grown up playing in the backyard watched over by Dai, it had been some time since he had ventured there. There was no reason really for him to have stayed away. He hadn’t turned into one of those young men who grow out of gratitude towards their childhood nurses when they grow out of their teens. Nor was he steering clear of nostalgia. If there was really a reason why he seldom went there any more, now that he was thinking about it, wondering if it was the girl or her mother who was pottering about in the room beyond, it was probably because that part of the house was as important to him as the front was. As parts of a house go, both belonged to him as much as he belonged to them. But the front was where his life was being lived now. Just the way it was lived in the back when he was small. If you had to, you would draw meanings for his absence. But really, that would be interpreting an act because you wanted to, not because it was warranted. He shrugged off the meaningless thoughts, and went on to thinking why the area had now come up in his mind. Now that this girl was here, this girl he had seen just twice, would Dai or Ganja link it to the girl’s presence should he go there now? Would they notice that he had stepped here after a really long time, and that the only reason he did so now was because of this girl? They would — at least Dai would — put the twos together and conclude that he had other things on his mind. Or was this too, like his trying to reason out his prolonged absence from that part of his house, just a scenario conjured up in his mind.
He shook his head clear of these random thoughts and let his head fall back on the pillow again, watching the ceiling and the beams of wood that supported the tin roof above. The tin roof would soon get colder in a few weeks’ time, and the sheets that he was under would get replaced by heavier quilts and blankets and when that happened, it would take the combined effort of the door’s noise and Dai’s shouts to get him out of the layers of cotton that he would wrap himself in.
Would she shout too? He sprang up straight and went out to the gallery and threw open the window that opened over the valley below and tried to get a sense of the time it would take for winters to sweep in. He would have to wait.
Between that day and the winters lay his annual trip to his grandmother’s house. The old woman with whom he shared his loss. The loss that he knew as mother, and the loss that she knew as a daughter. It was an annual pilgrimage for him. A journey where he tried to stir up emotions and feelings that he lacked in himself, and hoped that he could get his grandmother to rub off a bit on him. While she would wait for him to try and absorb some of his indifference to the loss. She had been trying for years now. Even though when he had just started visiting her as a small boy — dropped at the doorstep by his father and picked up from the same spot in a week’s time — she had taken him in with a sense of protection. She throttled up her own feelings to make the boy feel stronger, and for some time even took credit for the boy’s indifference. But she had soon realised that it wasn’t she that had made the boy stronger. If anything, whatever little strength she had now to cope up with the loss was gifted to her by the boy, and only the feeling of guilt towards her son-in-law, and the anger, were her own. She had known that for sometime now. As she had known that he had long replaced his mother with her, and perhaps his Dai has well. But when he went there the next time, she saw with her eyes that had lost most of their vision, that he had another woman on his mind. A woman who she thought must have been around for long, must have spoken to him for great lengths of time, a woman on whose shoulders or lap he would have put his head on and spoken of things that were long buried under the silently falling slivers of time. It must have been a connection nursed over a long, long time. Or how else could he have finally found feelings that even she didn’t know existed under the casing of a walking, talking and laughing human being?
He spoke of little else. The woman, who was but a girl, was there in all his talks. It seemed there was more than one of her. Or how could she be with him when he was walking the street that ducked behind the pine trees before springing up like a playful child right in front of their house? And when he looked up at the kitchen window she would be there too dusting flour off her hands, parts of her flitting in and out of view like a distant car on the road that was alternatively marked with sunshine and the dark shadows of the tall pine trees? And when he said she was sitting opposite him when he went to meet his friends for a coffee and then realised that he had gotten late for his father’s chess game, and he rushed back home only to see that he needn’t have worried for she was there, already close to letting him win. He spoke of the girl like his grandmother had long back wished that he would speak of his mother so she could stroke his hair and run her fingers over his creased brow and cup his face in her palms so the tears would run back towards the eye, retracing the watery lanes. She was old enough to know that it was her own sorrow that she wanted reflected in him, so she could console him like she wanted someone to console her. He could have. He had always been strong. But then he was too young to feel a pain that he hadn’t experienced himself. So that’s how it came to be that an old, old woman was now finally learning to bury her own senses in the heightened awakening of this young man.
For him, this week when he had stayed with her seemed the longest. For her, it seemed the shortest.
He returned home happy, eager, anxious. She saw him leave with a sorrow that was bigger than the one she had lived with till this visit. For the first time she saw him leave for a woman. And she feared that she might bring out the emotions in him that she had failed to.
He reached his hometown late in the night and despite the aching and the desire to stay awake to see her walk in to wake him up, he overslept. And when he did wake up, it was to a bright day. The door was open, the room beyond bore signs of the usual morning activities having been dispensed with, and there was a strange stillness. The sort that took you back to lazy summer afternoons when you have nothing much to do except wait for the evening and friends when you would make up for lost time with a flurry of activities. He looked at his watch. It wasn’t that late, but it was later than he was used to being woken up. And more worrying still was seeing the door open. Could he have slept through the noise? Through her looking in on him? Maybe she had walked up to where he slept to get a closer look? But why would she. He had made her a part of his life. Why would she bother?
He threw away the cover he was huddled under. Having returned from his grandmother’s place where the days and nights were warmer than they were here, the night here had seemed cooler to him than it usually did. He had taken a few steps into the room, and peered outside at the room outside. All was quiet. Dai must be busy in the garden helping Ganja trim the hedges. Or would have gone to buy vegetables at the market. She could have taken the girl along. Or not. He wanted to walk over to the room in the backyard where they lived to see if she was there, but he was equally terrified of finding her there, as he was of not finding her there. He turned and went to meet his father instead.
His father was in the garden reading his newspaper. Ganja was rubbing some oil into his joints.
“Good morning Baba.”
He went and touched his feet. He hadn’t met him last night, choosing not to disturb the old man in his sleep. His father looked up from his newspaper, smiled brightly as he always did when he saw his son, and blessed him. Then he looked at his watch and smiled, this time a little cunningly.
“So you overslept. The trick worked, eh Ganja?”
Ganja looked up and laughed his toothy laugh. In age, he was somewhere between the two other men. But he felt closer to the older man as he had done little in the past few years other than look after him. His own life, his routine, his very existence was meaningless without the father’s presence. They shared a strange bond, a strange relationship that his own son could never give a name to. If he were allowed to fill an empty notebook to explain it, he doubted he still could.
“What trick Baba?”
It was Ganja who explained.
They had fixed the door when he was away. The sound of it opening hadn’t reached his father’s ears in all these years. Nor Ganja’s for by the time he came to the house for his day-long activities, it was already open. So he hadn’t heard about it, or heard it, either. Dai must have been deaf to it, having opened it all these years every morning. It was her daughter who finally brought the matter to Ganja’s notice, and also how it disturbed his sleep every morning, when all the door needed to be opened for was to let the breeze in. So they had fixed it. And look how it had helped. He already looked fresh this morning. He didn’t feel fresh. He felt cheated, deprived, a bit hurt and mostly at a loss for he still didn’t know about the girl’s presence.
“Yes. I did sleep well. Thanks for fixing it finally.”
He got up and dragged his feet over the hedge that marked the end of their property, and also of the flat land on which their house stood. Beyond the hedge the hill dropped a metre or two to where it met the road as it wound in, going down deeper and deeper after skipping over the road, till it vanished beyond a curve and into the little market that in his childhood seemed so big and so far. Growing up was a balancing act in itself. While the market had grown in size and number, his own perspective had changed from his smaller years and because of his size and stride it now seemed that it was actually nearer and much smaller than he remembered from back then. He was still looking over when he saw Dai appear at the curve. She was holding her old shopping bag and must have bought enough for two or three days. Why was she carrying the load herself when she had her daughter’s help?
Anxious for his own sake, he walked towards the little gate and down the road to help her with the bag. “Why are you carrying all this yourself?”
It was true that most mornings she would only bring enough for a day’s supply, always wanting to get her vegetables and milk fresh from the market. And if she ever shopped for more, she would take Ganja along. But he had never rushed after her to relieve her of her load. That was suspicious enough. To ask about the girl’s absence would only add to it and give away his feelings.
“The market will remain closed tomorrow. Some rally or strike in the city below. I didn’t know that when I left. Or would have taken Ganja with me.”
She was walking faster now, now that he had taken the bag. But he was under a strange cloud. His heart seemed heavier. He had no idea if the girl was still here. Nor was he close to finding out.
“So you got the door fixed?”
The old woman looked up, puzzled, not catching on immediately. Then she smiled. And nodded.
“Even I didn’t know. I hadn’t opened the door all these days. Nor closed it. Until this morning.”
He was even more confused now. Dai had opened the door this morning, but hadn’t shut it last night. Where could the girl have gone between those hours?
They were at the gate now, and Dai took the bag from him and went to the kitchen. Leaving him without an answer.
There was nothing left for him to do but follow her to the kitchen. Dai was setting up things to start preparing for breakfast, when he couldn’t resist asking, though he still chose to not ask openly.
“So who closed the door yesterday if you didn’t?”
Dai looked up at him. He may not have thought of her as the mother he never knew. But she had raised him like a son.
“My daughter did. Like every other day. And it was she who asked your father to get the door fixed.”
She had answered his question honestly, and had even gone further. But she knew he hadn’t yet got his answer. She picked up some potatoes and started peeling them as she spoke.
“She is not here. Last night she left for the home she grew up in. My sister’s house in the other village. The house she was born in. The house I avoided going to all the years she was growing up. She didn’t know I was her mother till last month. You didn’t know I had a daughter till a few days back. Only my sister knew, I knew. And your father knew.”
Here she paused. To get over a rough patch on the potato, or to draw in a breath that would help the rest of the words come out without a pause.
“Your father knew, because she is his daughter.”
She never did cross the length from the door to his bed, though she did come further than she thought she could have, all the way from her mother’s sister’s place to her mother’s room, next to her father’s. And he never thought of her as a sister. But he couldn’t think of her as anything else either. The only thing he could hope for was for the door’s hinges to start rusting again, and for the lower boards to come loose and start scraping the floor again.