On her list
This is a collaborative piece
Text: Chayanika Priyam
Illustration: Monjira Sen
It began on the day that I had ticked off an entry on my own bucket list.
Learning to play an instrument was never on my wish list. But once I learned to play the santoor — performing for an audience that was forgiving of an amateur’s first-attempts and perhaps even supportive of it, was accorded a number on my list.
That evening, the audience was just that. I had played for a small circle of family, friends, and mentors at my university. The tunes of raag kalyan, an evening raaga, initially tumbled, but as it progressed lithely toward its crescendo pitch, I felt at ease with my own body and mind. The melody gradually danced its way with only a few mumbles of it left to be satiated by everyone.
As I reached home, my mind was still tingling from the performance. I slumped in my couch to soak it all in. The sense of quiet confidence that one feels after a performance, an act, comes with a wish to do it all over again— next time with more ease. Perhaps that’s why reprises somehow feel more relaxed and nonconforming.
I decided to make a routine out of playing the instrument, mentally shifting it out of my bucket list, even as i'd just checked it off it, and settling it comfortably into my to-do list.
I was still mulling over the details of the evening, when a familiar smell excited my olfactory metre. The essence of a potful of kheer tempered with some saffron wafted through the kitchen doors and into our squared rooms. This time too Ma had prepared her special kheer, as a way of expressing her joy and excitement for me. Per her records, second-helpings of the dish cemented our appreciation of it. As I was digging into some of it, she burst into the room, her shriek before her.
“This day has been brilliant!" Ma exclaimed. "First, your performance and now your sister has got through her dream medical college!"
She pushed me to wish my sister instantly.
"You don’t want to be the tenth person in the family doing that, don’t lose your sheen,” She added, hurrying back out of the room. It was a relief to know that my mother had such abysmally low standards for the preservation of my sheen. I smiled to myself as the added jubilation inconspicuously shifted the pace of the day.
I got on the phone with my sister, congratulated her. And within the next hour, my mother and I were making arrangements to surprise my father and sister lodging in Chennai, a three hour flight away. The next morning, on the way to the airport, my mother who was more chattersome than usual, revealed that she had never been to Chennai before. She only knew of the sarees, the beaches, and of course the filter kaapi, from her back-in-the-day neighbours.
She spoke about it as if she were reading it off a list lodged deep, deep in her memory.
Once in the southern city, swell with the stickiness of the visiting monsoons, we made our way to my father and sister, who casually slipped in conversation that they were gorging on buttas at a beach near their hotel.
Luckily for us, like a sequence in a movie, we found my father and sister perched on a slope slanting towards the sea. The moment of surprise arrived, was rejoiced at, and noted to memory. It was in the midst of those pencil-thin passing of seconds that my mother told me about her long-held wish to see the sea. She told me about the poems she would write from her window-facing desk in her father’s house in Assam, surrounded by the lush of tea gardens, the low hum of crickets and the farway hoot of the passing train. The same ones she scribbled for her family, her friends and herself. Among them, one, that was an ode to the sea and its temper. That evening at a beach in chennai, was her living her poem, she told me. Bringing to life, a desire penned years ago, made her nostalgic and perhaps even hopeful of all that the future could hold.
As our toes seeped into the grainy chest of the earth, we looked out to the sea, its vastness, its cover. The light from the fading sky played on its particles, as if playing the piano with its long, lit fingers. As rays bounced off the surface, it illuminated and dazzled the waters in a gleeful twirl, one that warmed the sight for my mother who stood facing the sea with a tender child-like smile. She dipped her feet in the waters for what seemed like the entire duration of a fading sunset. As the last of the light glowed, she went around collecting sea-shells. For all of the years I’ve known her as my mother, at that moment, she really was the girl with sea-shells at the seashore.
There have always also been, on my bucket list, the usual suspects— backpacking, scuba-diving, skinny dipping and the works. I have, gladly, enthusiastically, at times nervously and anxiously ticked off several of these. One of these, just the evening before.
But being a part of someone else’s bucket list, being there to fulfil something on another’s list, as it transpired, was much like sharing a recipe and preparing a meal together: Doubling on the fun, even when all you did was chop the vegetables, to perfect little uneven pieces.
Just like our modest company by the sea for Ma.
Chayanika Priyam is a PhD candidate at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. It is only when she has to start writing her thesis, do poems and words flow from the keys of her keyboards, unceasingly.
Monjira Sen is a music enthusiast, movie buff and is currently studying graphic design in Ahmedabad. Words are her muse and caffeine and rainy days keep her going. She hopes to one day, run her own cafe by the beach.