In Search Of Aasha

Aasha gave me a cultured smile as she presented me the sparkling white china cup with aromatic tea in it. But my joke was worth a laugh, I wondered a little annoyed. What happened to the Aasha that burst into a robust laughter at the silliest of jokes? I observed her closely as she resumed her work in the kitchen with practiced expertise. She was dressed as if she were about to go out; a skinny tight blue jeans with a fancy black cotton top that did not seem comfortable at all. She even had a little makeup on. Her demeanour was calm and composed and her face, expressionless. She had also lost a lot of weight since the last time I saw her. I recalled her telling me that she was joining a gym over a phone call.

This was not the Aasha I grew up with. The girl whose entry was announced by elaborate chiming Indian accessories and a pleasant laughter was not here anymore. Even though I was meeting her after almost two years, one does not expect to meet a completely different person altogether. What happened to the colourful salwars and flashy dupattas? What happened to the impatience of her character and multitudes of fleeting expressions that adorned her face twenty-four seven? What happened to my elder sister in all these years? Even though I was wondering about all these questions, I knew the answer to them pretty clearly.

As I watched the defiant school feminist make lunch for me, I was forced to recall all the articles she used to write for an online feminist portal. Some of their titles swam in my mind as I heard the rattle of utensils like a music I didn’t like.

Being a Woman Does Not Mean Compromise’.

It’s a Man’s World But Women Run It

“Importance of Sisterhood”

“Married, Feminist and Housewife”

I know those words would be accusing her of hypocrisy now and burning a hole in her soul.

The thought made me nauseous and I decided to give up on finishing the tea. The silence between me and Aasha was unsettling for me because I wasn’t familiar with such a scenario. We used to have hours dedicated to pointless banter and numerous stories about each other’s life. There was judging and giggling and even fights but never silence.

Some decisions in a person’s life really take a toll on them. There are some decisions that you want to take and some that you feel like you have to take and it’s always the latter that render you speechless, sometimes for your entire life. The decisions that take your life away from your values are the hardest to make and they leave a lasting impact. They have the power to crush your previous sense of identity and then, you are left in the dark, desperately trying to form a new one. More than often, this new shattered identity that you form is a culmination of bits and pieces borrowed from others.

After that one taxing day in July of 2012, Aasha forgot who she was. On that day she was suddenly thrown into a Robert Frost poem and was facing a forked road in the journey of her previously proud and happy life. She had to choose one out of the two and I witnessed her breaking down in front of those long-stretching and seemingly dark roads; her beliefs faltering, her convictions losing strength and her confidence slowly disappearing in the musty monsoon air, making it heavier on our chests.

Kabir had left his phone at home before going on one of his many Europe tours. Kabir was Aasha’s high school sweetheart. She had never known romantic love outside of Kabir and she never even wanted to. He was the perfect guy in her mind. Respectful, ambitious, caring and even a male feminist. At the delicate age of eighteen, Aasha was drooling over baby socks in kids’ clothing stores and imagining her dream house with Kabir.

She always yearned for a happy family life since we never had one. An absentee mother and a very busy father didn’t account for a family as such. So, we found solace and family in each other. During truth and dares, whenever she was asked what her deepest desire was, she always said she wanted a blissful and coherent family life where everyone is there for each other. I found my mother figure in her and she was trying to be the mother figure she never had.

She didn’t want to become a female President or a CEO. She wanted to become a nurturer. I knew it from a very young age. The amount of blossomed sunflowers in our balcony garden were a proof of her motherly instincts. I was a proof of her motherly instincts. She was determined to prove that a housemaker could also be a feminist. She just wanted to build a home and be the strongest and most supportive pillar of it. But now, only the pillar was visible with all its cemented strength and Aasha was nowhere to be found.

When she saw the texts and pictures of Nadia in Kabir’s phone that day, her world and beliefs crumbled like stale bread and I could do nothing but watch it disintegrate. It was just before I was about to leave for Canada.

Kabir was cheating on her. As she investigated more after her initial shock, she found out that he had been cheating on her for solid eight years now. His business trips were trips to the other woman as well and his love was divided in two.
So there she was with the forked road glaring down condescendingly on her like a strict professor with folded arms, waiting for her to give the correct answer. But she didn’t know what the correct answer was.

I expected my sister to choreograph a big confrontation when Kabir returned to pick up his phone but she wordlessly gave it back to him and wished him a happy journey. I also assumed that she would leave everything behind and accompany me to Canada to start a fresh life. She did ponder upon that possibility for a long time before choosing the road she did. But unlike the defiant rebel she previously was, she chose to stay.

Wasn’t she the one who stood by her best friend when she was procuring a divorce on the basis of her husband’s romantic affairs? I remember Aasha stringently counselling Heena and giving her numerous reasons to not stay in a relationship that had no trust or equal emotional investment. So what was different now?

You might wonder why would a girl who never compromised on her ideals and was ridiculously proud of them, not leave in such a circumstance. Wasn’t cheating, in a marriage or any relationship, in the list of ‘not acceptable 101’? Wasn’t staying with the defaulter a form of submission and unhealthy compromise?

I never had the courage to ask the reason for her staying. I never had the courage to bring this topic up again. Being the only one who knew about this limited my scope of verbal deliberation. But in my head I thought of the numerous reasons that might have made Aasha stay.

Maybe it was for her little six year old boy. Maybe she stayed to give Abeer a happy and coherent family.  The Stockholm Syndrome of Motherhood often forced you to make unreasonable sacrifices.

Maybe she stayed because she married too young and didn’t have the financial stability to start a fresh life. How would she support a kid and herself when she was financially dependent on Kabir? She wouldn’t be able to give Abeer the lifestyle he was accustomed to already.

Or maybe it was just fear. Fear of starting over and starting alone. Fear of not having a complete family again. Dread of probably not finding love again. Loneliness can be really scary when you’ve grown up with it. It makes it very hard to leave behind the person who filled in the gap. Probably she even had the fear of society, which was unlikely though. But you can never tell how strong someone’s abstract convictions are until it is time to incorporate them in their intimately private lives.

Whatever the reason might be, she chose the road that led back to Kabir and the enormous empty house that felt emptier since July twenty third. She chose the road of denial; carrying on with her life as it was.

She would never tell Abeer of his father’s liaisons, she once told me. She did not want to taint the superhuman respect Abeer had for his father. Moreover, she did not want to indoctrinate the thought that cheating was acceptable in Abeer’s innocent mind even if she was accepting it.

She never even told Kabir that she knew about Nadia. Everything she was going through was inside her body that had practiced composure to perfection. But I could see her insecurities manifesting in her appearance. She was trying to turn into Nadia now. She had discarded the Indian clothes she adored and her wardrobe was now full of jeans and dresses and tank tops. She had developed a vehement dislike for her own chubbiness which once was “enviable curves” for her. She had given away her loud laughter and garrulous character for proficient sophistication. Probably she had the banal hope of getting Kabir back to herself if she could imitate Nadia. This made me sad. My sister thought that her supposed shortcomings were the reason behind Kabir’s philandering and that shattered me to no extent.

As she came back in hall to sit beside me and ask about my work I heard the message tone of Kabir’s phone as it lighted on the table next to us. We both peered to see Nadia’s name flash on the screen. Aasha’s eyes became blue for a nanosecond before they went back to their trained calmness. She pressed the power button to switch off the lighted phone and turned towards me to resume the meaningless conversation.

My heart sank to my stomach as I searched for my sister while she indulged in small talk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Symphony of Temple bells for an Atheist

 

Life at home was different from the independent life in the northern metropolitan of India, New Delhi (also the capital). Home has deadlines dependent on sunlight; home has dressing codes which never include anything above the knee or without sleeves; home has strict prohibition of coloured liquids that unleash a novel side of the self. Rock and Metal- if ever played- are considered shor (noise) and the volume has to be limited so that it never goes outside my yellow coloured room. Late night movies are frowned upon and Hindi soap operas are hard to escape. Mobile phone and laptop are the two most hated objects while getting up after eight tops the list of most hated habits. “This child is out of our hands now,” is the dismissive guilt-inducing statement used by every Indian parent to end an argument with their young-adult child. But home is home. It is also the place where you can walk in the dark and still not collide with any furniture. It is a place where while sneezing and coughing, you don’t have to get up to make warm tea for yourself. Home is where you can sometimes forget that you have to grow up.

One eminent feature of most Indian households is the weekly visit to the mandir (temple). Growing up in a Hindu family that walked down to the closest colony temple every Tuesday and Thursday to take the blessing of Lord Hanuman and Lord Vishnu on their respective days, I was deeply religious till the age of sixteen, following all the customs, adhering to the rules of various fasts and walking down to the temple to make absurd teenage wishes to the huge decorated idol there. The temples fascinated me at that age not just because of my belief in the Almighty but because I found them beautiful. But as I grew up I gradually became a sceptic. Voracious reading and witnessing the inhuman harms done to people in the name of religion weakened my belief in the presence of God. I started to question all the rules and restrictions set by religions: Hinduism as well as others. Some incidents in my own life deteriorated my belief in a higher power looking over me and I embraced the ideology that I myself was the supreme commander of my own life with no supernatural interference in it whatsoever. I based my existence more on humanitarian values than religious customs and teachings and proudly proclaimed myself an atheist.

But pressures of family are something you cannot escape especially if you love them more than anything else. So, when I came back to live with my parents in Lucknow (a city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh) after my graduation from Delhi, the mundane walks down to the temple became a weekly feature again but this time without much enthusiasm. I reluctantly gathered flowers for my mother, grumbling how she was destroying the beauty of the garden and killing flowers. I dressed up in traditional salwar kurta which was the dress code for the sacred place and I dragged myself to the temple along with my mother, chanting complains under my breath about how pointless this endeavour was for me.

Amidst the crowd of people folding their hands and closing their eyes in an attempt to connect with the orange idol they faced, I stood with my hand crossed across my chest. Down the stairs of the main temple area I stood sceptically, gawking at the blind faith people held on to so endearingly. Suddenly everyone was in a hurry to get to the main area because matches were being lighted and every temple bell had a man standing below it waiting for a signal from the main pandit (priest) of the temple. Suddenly, the aura of the temple changed and the time of the evening aarti (prayer and offering) became quite a breath-taking spectacle. The densely bearded man, clad in bright vermillion kurta and dhoti, held a huge diya (lamp) in hand that was ablaze with about thirty flames. The pandit swirled the diya before the colourful deities forming fire circles mid-air. The only light that caused visibility, came from the huge lamp that swayed to the united rding-a-ling rhythms of almost hundred huge bells all over the temple. This lighted orchestra was joined by two men beating and thumping two massive drums musically, like waking calls for fairies. Some pandits acted like polished musicians as they brought out lovely tinkling resonances with a number of ghunghroos (a string of tiny bells tied together).  The musical arrangement of the religious custom had an absurd feature; much of the music was contributed by the clamorous but rhythmic beating of the steel plates with spoons and churning the spoons inside empty steel tumblers. The music from every instrument, identified and novel, was assimilated together to produce an enchanting symphony and the flames of the diya danced to tunes of the melody fashioned by the priests and the devotees. The soft claps of the people were synchronized with the tune of the musical presented by the pandits and all of them hummed beautifully a singular song in praise of Lord Hanuman.

That moment, like all the devotees, I was forced to close my eyes and explore the depths of the trance set forth by the enthralling harmonies. All questions, critical reasoning and scepticism disappeared for that moment and the only thing that my mind focused on was the music. I was transported into a different realm with the help of this genre-less music and I witnessed the supreme power of music. It was no more a tedious effort to please the God but a live concert for me; one in which I didn’t have to pay thousands of bucks, plus with great lighting.

No, I didn’t suddenly transform into a person with faith in God. No, I did not connect with some higher being in that musical trance. I did not feel that some supernatural power had control over my life in that moment. I was still an atheist; I was still the master of my own decisions and actions. However, I looked forward to Tuesdays since then because I wished to witness the symphony of the temple bells and enter a peaceful daze. Somehow it strengthened my atheistic streak. It made me believe that true peace and hope can be found within the material world through music, lights and beauty and there wasn’t a true need to believe in a supernatural being guiding humanity. Humanity might as well put its faith in things like melodies and rhythms of instruments and nature and create a better world. I wonder if people would kill each other if they like Rock music and the other prefers Blues? I don’t think so. I think that an atheists’ source of hope can be music and I bet Sonny John Moore (Skrillex) would agree and maybe use the aarti music for some of his works.