"Run Paati (grandma) run," her granddaughter let out a warning cry.
Tulasi hastened her pace and got hold of Karuna who was a few steps ahead. Once hand in hand, she looked around. There was nothing.
"Why did you ask me to run, you wicked girl?” she glared.
"I saw monkeys on the tree and got scared," confessed Karuna.
Diffusing the alarm, Tulasi held her close, “Never run from them. Just let them be. They will not harm you." Feigning confidence was never easy but she tried. Tulasi was scared of them too.
They were walking on the uneven elevated ground near the Reservoir Dam. They descended towards a small temple by the river. Her younger son Somesh was one of the assistant Engineers at the Dam site. The elder one, Harish was an engineer too but he had chosen to work with a telecom giant in Sweden. Her two sons were like the two pillars of a nation. Government and private sector divide was not just limited to their jobs; it had seeped into their lives as well.
Tulasi liked getting up late, quite unlike many from her generation. This solved a lot of problems. No rush for the bathroom. No hurried newspaper reading. She prepared lunch, so her daughter-in-law Komala was more than happy to prepare breakfast and leave for work. Komala was a veterinary doctor in the animal husbandry and dairying department. A surgeon. To have the peon deliver a hot dabba of lunch in the afternoon was a privilege very few women enjoyed. She could not have been more thankful to her mother in law.
Getting posted to small towns wasn’t new or difficult for Somesh. Getting Komala posted there as well was.
Trappings of a modern house did lure Tulasi. She would have preferred to live with Harish in Sweden. An imposingly self-indulgent life that she had always lived in Chennai wasn’t so easy to abandon. But her husband’s death had taught her many a great lesson. Absence of just one person can make so many lives change, she realised it then.
Somesh insisted that she give up the comfort and luxuries of city-dwelling to be with them. Harish insisted too. His exhausted enthusiasm made it easier for her to make a quick decision. So here she was, walking down the evening pathway that had been paved by many before her.
Karuna liked to go to the temple. It had a big courtyard for children to play. Evening outings were their only excursions. Some days all four would hop into the Jeep and go to the Lake nearby which was becoming quite a tourist hot spot. The government had plans to convert it into a water sports arena. “Someday I will get out of here, go back to the city and live a life I have always lived.” Tulasi spent her every uneventful day hoping for this, “This cannot be the rest of my life”.
Today was different. Tulasi wanted to explore more of the Dam. She looked at Karuna playing with other children who had accompanied their devout parents or grandparents. She wished she had come alone. She wanted to walk to the middle of the narrow bridge on the Dam. She had been there once with her son. The river looked beautiful and the open service spillways made such a ruckus. The force of water was captivating.
It would be nice to see open floodgates release the locked waters. It was therapeutic. Symbolic too. Life in a small town was not her dream. She wished she could let go of her emotional bankruptcy for once and open the padlocked emotions.
Splendid flaming red skies called out to her. Tourists were not allowed on that part of the bridge. The evening patrol shift would change and most of the people knew Tulasi well enough to raise the blockade barrier. More she looked around, more determined she got to get to the dam.
She had to do something about Karuna.
She spotted some other women from the colony. She walked up to them and asked, “Will you be here for the next half hour?”
“Yes,” they replied in chorus.
“Will you please keep an eye on Karuna then?” she asked.
Their puzzled looks soon turned into smiles when she said “I have to discuss something with Pujari ji’s (priest's) wife. Their house is close by”. A blatant lie was better than any talk. It saved an explanation.
“Why was it difficult for people to accept that she wanted to do something other than just Puja-path (praying) or gardening? Why does grey hair bring with it a notion that life is over?” She wasn’t even sixty. Why couldn’t she do anything just for the fun of it? She paced towards the Dam and missed the city life more than ever.
The red had already turned into orange. She had to reach before it got pink and be back before the indigo. The sky was her clock. She started climbing uphill in her chappals. Once on top, she marched with the focus of a soldier in battle. She had to be careful. Thoroughfare pathways have a funny habit of turning when least expected. There was still some time before she could reach the guard post on the bridge.
It was windy. Holding the saree pallav (drape) around her, she reached the wooden barrier. The guard got up, “Namaste mata ji”. He craned to look behind her, “is Sir also coming?” She smiled and said “Yes, he dropped me here and has gone to pick up Bhabhi ji and his daughter from the temple. We wanted to walk over to the bridge to see the sunset. What to do, I walk so slowly na”. Once again, a blatant lie was better than a whole lot of explanation.
He let her pass.
She felt like a little girl.
Once on the Dam, she was a free bird. The sun had already started setting behind her and the shadow grew longer in front as she walked, almost leading her. It was fun to watch. She wanted to beat her shadow.
“What a pity, you won’t lead me anymore”, she thought and turned around. She held the railing tight and started walking to the top of the spillway, backwards. Slowly. Taking one step back at a time. This was fun. Pink sun on her face, wind in her hair, water all around. It was divine. All she wanted now was to reach the platform in the middle, under which the water gushed. She remembered how her heart pounded as she stood over it on her last visit. It sounded exactly like a busy road under a railway bridge in the city. "How would it be this time?" she wondered.
It took her some time to reach there. It was calm. The water slits were closed. The flood pumps were motionless.
“Why is it so calm? Where is the buzz as you approach? Where is the deafening noise? Why is it so quiet? Why are the pumps not on?? Still waters looked so dead,” she wondered in dismay.
She wasn't here to be serene and tranquil. That was what her life was anyway. Idle and lifeless. She was here for the loud, forceful zesty currents of the waterway channels.
"All this trouble and no thrill, what a waste!", she thought to herself. There was no point standing here anymore. She started walking back.
The sky was slowly turning deep purple. She had to be quick. She hoped that no one went to Pujari ji's house looking for her. She felt guilty. Why did she have to give in to her whimsical longing for adventures? Karuna must be alone and scared. Her exhilaration slowly turned into regret. If only the pumps were on and she could have seen the open floodgates, she would have been so happy. Everything seemed like a mistake now.
It had taken longer than she had estimated. The lights on the metal bridge came on. She was leading her shadows now. They made fun of her. They were her only witness. Her multiple shadows were a proof of her act. Gloomy silhouettes of her carelessness. All she wanted at this moment was to reach her granddaughter and hug her tight. She had never been friendly enough with the colony ladies for them to take Karuna home without being asked. Tulasi cursed herself, “How could I leave a young girl alone like that?”
It was already dark by the time she reached the sentry gate. The guard got up. She wanted to be invisible. His body language was different. He was a different man. He though she was an intruder. He tried to stop her. She didn’t want to. She ran around the barrier stone in her chappals. He ran after her. Once in a while she looked back at him and her almost extinct shadows. He was catching up on her. There was no point in trying to escape now. She slowed down and looked back at the Dam like a bad dream. Her only thoughts were that of poor Karuna sitting alone in the dark. She was about to stop when two screeching headlights brought her thoughts back to where she was. The night patrol was here and they hadn’t seen her.
They stopped just in time, a few centimetres away from her. Somesh got out of the Jeep. Thoroughly confused, he asked “Amma what are you doing here? Where is Karuna? What happened?”
She had no reply so she stood still.
“They had a technical problem so they called me to open the Dam floodgates but what are you doing here and where is Karuna??” he almost screamed demanding an answer this time.
"That is what I am here for too, to let go of the floodgates" she wanted to say but said nothing. The opposite happened. Something seeped in. The realisation that maybe this was the rest of her life.
Living in the past and living in denial had taken her far away from the reality.
She couldn't face him. The jeep headlights were on. Right in front were the longest shadows she had ever seen of herself.