She had thick black hair that kept sliding on her face. She would jerk them back with a certain poise that seemed so cultivated yet charming. That is her, my 16 year old daughter, Durva! She was going to write her Kathak dance exam on that unfortunate day of May 3rd 1999. A day before her dance buddy Varsha had called up. She wanted to take her as a model for her sister's hair styling exam that very day. I told her that Durva had taken a day off from school to appear for the Kathak exam in the afternoon. But she insisted that her sister’s practical would be over by twelve, after which Durva could appear in her exam. I thought it was too distracting for my daughter to deal with two things in one day. But Varsha kept calling till late night and I had to give in. As promised, Varsha and Durva were ready to go on their scooties at 6. 30 a.m. the next day. Me and Pramod (my husband) were leaving for our morning walk. Before starting the vehicle, Durva looked back and waved at us, ‘See you Mom' and left. That was the last time we saw her.
She had turned on the main road and had driven barely a furlong when a school bus hit her from behind. She was crushed under the wheels. Nobody took her to the hospital. The school bus driver did not stop. He ran away with teachers and children in the bus and parked it at the depot. My son, Shantanu, had taken her to the hospital by then where she breathed her last.
It was during the early days of my job after this tragedy that the horticulturist of the hotel gave me a small plant of Cassia Javanica, a deciduous tree that is supposed to bring good luck. He told me that it would bear pink flowers. I came home and planted it between two rather well grown trees outside our house. The plant seemed so puny, so vulnerable and so overshadowed by the two trees. I would watch it daily while watering other trees. One fine day, I realized that the plant was not growing, overawed as it was by its neighbors. While I scrutinized the little cassia jawanica sapling, I realized that the branches of the two bigger trees were pressing on it from all sides. My plant had not grown even after a month. It rather seemed to be struggling to survive. ‘So are the two big trees pressing on you? Is that the problem with you, Baby?’ I asked the the saplimg. It imagined it to be nodding in agreement.
I had begun to empathize so strongly with the tree that when I looked at it I would feel a gnawing pain inside me. I wanted to embrace the little tree. I wanted to rock it in my arms and tell it, ‘Oh Baby, I know you are tiny. So what? You have the potential to be big. Don’t be scared of the two bullies on your side. The big trees do not know your power.’
I felt a strange connection with the puny plant. I would just stand on the terrace and look at it. I could not stop comparing its timid demeanor to Durva during the nascent days of her schooling. During the crucial and anxiety ridden period that the beginners have during school, she told me that the senior girls of the primary section did not let her sit in the bus. ‘They speak such fluent English Ma and I can’t’, Durva had shared diffidently with utter innocence. She was just five then. I made her mug up a few sentences of defiance in English. We practiced them till she got it right—I am not getting up from my seat; I am going to tell Ma’am that you don’t let me sit; ‘No, I will not give up my seat.’
Durva had then shared with me that she could successfully speak one sentence in the bus that day—I will not give up my seat. In a week’s time, my daughter had outwitted the senior girls with unexpected defiance and her flair for English.
As I pruned the branches of the big trees, there was enough space for my little tree to breath—spread its arms and reach out to the sky. And it did. In just a few weeks, it gained height as if aspiring to touch its neighbors’ height. Soon it went beyond them. We laughed together. I celebrated my tree's victory, my baby was winning. Six months elapsed. My tree grew bigger but did not flower. I again cajoled it, ‘Come on, you are a big guy. You are supposed to bear flowers.’ Within a few days, I could see a tinge of pink at the tip of the branches. Was it a promise of flowering? Indeed it was. Within next few days, the tree was abloom with small pink flowers. I was very happy to see my baby bloom. Till this day, I do not know what that connection was. Yes, I still talk to my tree. It is a grown up entity now, bearing pink flowers year to year till this day.
In 1999 while I was working as the Manager Public Relations at ITC Rajputana in Jaipur, Rajasthan, I was a member of the Sales Team. I was supposed to fulfill all the requirements of the groups who wished to see the splendour of Rajasthan in cultural variations of music food and décor. A lady Tour Leader from Switzerland had wanted organise a thematic evening for her group which was scheduled to come the next year. The group wished to savour Rajasthan’s balladeers, sing desert couplets with Kamaicha, Khadtaal, Sarangi, and Dholak—all the folk instruments indigenous to the deserts of Rajasthan. Made of copper string wires, wood and leather, these musical instruments are an accompaniment to the singers. The music they create needs no transliteration! It conveys the happy verve of welcoming the guests, the sorrow of the lovers separated, and the rhythmic steps of the beloved ready to meet the lover husband who had been away to the far off lands. Sometimes, Kaalbeliya dance group from snake charmer tribe are arranged to entertain the foreign guests with their sinewy pirouettes to the accompaniment of ‘Been’ and high pitched singing.
While I was away for a few months following Durva' s death, the Tour Leader from Switzerland had come at the scheduled date. She had asked for me as I was responsible for various cultural and ethnic inputs for the thematic evening. When she enquired about me, she was shocked to know about the tragic event.
A few days after I had resumed my job, I received a card from the same Tour Leader saying, ‘Your daughter’s memory is cherished’. She wrote that she had planted a sapling in Durva’s memory in her town that had grown into a little tree. I just held the card to my heart and cried. Somewhere in a far off foreign land, amid many plants and trees, there was a little tree planted in her memory. I cried for the loving caress the gesture offered to us, the parents. A soothing thought that somebody somewhere thought of doing that. I felt such loving gratitude for this lady I barely knew.
Another time, I had a strange experience when I was standing in the corridor of the hotel. I was told that an old journalist friend had checked in and wanted to meet me. As I walked through the long empty, carpeted corridors of the hotel, my daughter seemed to be walking alongside me. She had always loved my work place. As I neared my journalist friend’s room, I saw a sparrow perched on window sill of the corridor window. Simple thing–nothing special. As I looked at this little bird chirping and shifting, I felt something going out of me and merging with the bird. Yes, with the bird. A sudden realization dawned on me. The truth just traversed through me that the bird was another soul and all the souls in the eternal, fathomless space were one. She, the Bird and I were one single entity – One Soul. A flash of ecstasy ran through me watching the tiny bird. I knew then, the Bird, my daughter and me were a part of a vast universal entity. I knew it with a certainty no one could question. The truth will stay with me till death.
I cannot forget one morning, a morning after a sleepless night with no promise of a joyful day. Feeling suffocated in the bedroom, I came out to the veranda and sat on a chair watching the dark night fade. A slow breeze made the leaves rustle softly. Some unknown bird kept calling. The morning felt hollow and devoid of freshness. Everything was steeped in her absence. Where are you?—I kept asking. And then a sound caught my attention and I saw a calf rubbing its half-grown horns against the steel gate of the house. She must be hungry, I thought. I went inside and brought stale bread for it. When I offered it to her, she did not seem to be interested in eating. Instead she began licking my hand. A strange sensation gripped me. She continued licking my hand and I kept stroking her head. She was a baby calf seeking love. I gave it to her. I did not realize that I was shedding tears of fulfillment – the fulfillment of a mother while caressing her child. I did not realize when the calf went away perhaps to its mother. The bread in my hand had gone damp with sweat on my palms
I looked at the bread in my hand. Through an assimilation of some kind, I realized that I had not thought of my son in so many months. I had not thought of his sorrow all this time. It was as if he was not there. I almost grudged his presence as my heart was unable to offer anything to him. In my self-centered all-consuming pain, I had forgotten that he was the one who had carried Durva, his sister to the hospital in his arms. O, how could I forget that? How!!
Gradually from that moment onwards, love flowed back in my life. I connected to my son and husband who were, as if, isolated and absent during my motherly, self-absorbing mourning. I still wonder if the calf was a messenger, Her missive to remind me that She, our daughter had a sibling who needed love — my love.
‘The Tree, the Bird and the Calf’ is an excerpt from her unpublished book.