The shrill, curt sound of the doorbell half woke Kaushik. Instinctively, he brought his left wrist close to his face so it touched the nose and tried to read the time. He always slept with his watch still wrapped around the wrist. It looked like 4 AM, but he couldn’t be sure without his glasses. He sensed it was still dark outside. Making no attempt to move, he allowed his woozy consciousness time to determine whether the sound belonged in this world or in his dreams. 4 AM wasn’t what one called usual doorbell ringing hour. Besides, if indeed it had rung, it would ring again.
It did. Kaushik started to get up but heard footsteps and the door unlock. He sank back into the softness of his bed, glad that he had, in Suresh, a flatmate who slept light and that he could now go back to sleep without being unduly disturbed.
He was out of luck. Soon, he felt someone shaking him by the shoulder. He heard Suresh’s voice:
“Hey man, wake up!”
“What’s the matter?” Kaushik mumbled, followed by an irritated click of the tongue.
“Wake up man! Your Mom and Dad are here!”
“Yes, your Mom and Dad are here. Get up man!”
Kaushik got up wearily and dragged himself to the drawing room, his mind still largely vacant and unable to register what was happening. They were there alright, his Mom and Dad, instead of 500 kilometers away in Ahmedabad, where Kaushik expected them to be. The door was still open; a small suitcase lay across it. Outside, a man, shabby and unknown, stood peering in uncertainly, brushing his hair with both hands.
Kaushik’s Mom and Dad smiled warmly, thrilled to see their son, even though somewhat disheveled. Kaushik’s face contorted - eyelids flapping agitatedly over barely open eyes, forehead creased to help the eyes focus, cheeks stretched upwards to accommodate the extra skin the forehead demanded, lips gradually widening in an effort to resemble a smile and the cheeks stretching further as a result. It gave him the appearance of an indiscriminately overfed Oriental.
“Who’s that guy?” Kaushik asked.
“Oh, he’s Rajesh, the driver. Your Dad didn’t want to drive on the highway at night.”
“Why’s he standing there, then?”
“He’s a little sleepy, you know. We told him to come up with us. If you have some spare bedding, he needn’t sleep in the car.”
“Yes, we have it.” Kaushik said. He turned to Rajesh, the driver, and asked him to come inside.
Suresh, all this while, unsure what the appropriate thing for him to do was, stood in a corner shifting his weight from one foot to the other. He ached to go back to bed again; there were precious few hours left until he’d have to get up and ready for work.
“Suresh, you can go back to sleep if you want to.” Kaushik told him, half embarrassed. He knew the feeling; when Suresh’s parents had once visited them for a few days, Kaushik had hung around for a day before hastily packing a few things and moving to Ashish’s place for the interim.
“No, I think we should make two beds here. The driver and I can sleep here. You and your parents can rest inside. That way, I won’t disturb you when I wake up to go to office later.”
“Yes, we could do that. Let’s get the mattresses out then.”
The ritual of surprises had gone on for years between Kaushik and his parents. He no longer recalled when it had started. But he remembered dozens of them, over the years – on birthdays, his parents’ anniversary, new years, without reason even. On his mother’s birthday, Kaushik and his Dad would order cake and buy gifts in secret. They’d sneak those into the house when she wasn’t there and hide it in places where she’d be unlikely to stumble upon them. In subsequent years, since she now specifically searched for the packages, they kept it with a neighbor. At midnight, after pretending to go to bed much earlier, Kaushik and his Dad would lay the cake on the table and wake his mother up and they would have a small celebration. When midnight became too expected, they moved it to 3 AM and then later, until one on occasion, they didn’t wish her until the following evening, by which time she was on the verge of tears, convinced that her husband and son had forgotten.
The same custom was replicated on Kaushik’s birthday and his Dad’s, by the other two members of the family.
When Kaushik left home to study in Dhule, it appeared the ritual would slowly fade away from their lives. Instead, it gained in strength. Every once in a while, Kaushik would decide to bunk college for a week and board a bus to Ahmedabad, without informing his parents. He would reach Ahmedabad early in the morning, bleary eyed but excited, beaming with anticipation even before he’d knocked on the door. Inevitably, it was his mother, who opened the door, for it was still too early for his father to have woken up. She would squeal with delight when she saw him, kiss him on both cheeks and then rush to wake his father, shouting “He’s here! He’s here!”. His father’s reaction would be a little less hysterical. They would embrace and his Dad would comment that Kaushik should be using more deodorant.
Sitting inside, they could hear the snores of either Suresh or the driver from the other room. In Kaushik’s experiences, Suresh wasn’t much of a snorer and he, therefore, surmised it was the driver.
It was Wednesday. Kaushik’s Dad oversaw business in one of the hundreds of small manufacturing units run by enterprising Gujaratis in Ahmedabad. The unit was located in an industrial area and planned weekly power cuts shifted throughout the year. All the factories scheduled their weekly offs in accordance. At this time of the year, it was on Wednesdays.
“Yesterday evening, I came back home and we were thinking what we should do on my day off,” his Dad explained, “And your mother said we could go for a long drive early in the morning and return by late afternoon, and then maybe have dinner at a restaurant in the evening.”
His Mom butted in, “And then your Dad said how about starting for Mumbai yesterday evening itself, spending half a day with you and then returning to Ahmedabad.”
“Oh. So you are here for only half a day?”
“Yes, we’ll leave after lunch. Just thought it would be fun coming here like this.”
Kaushik laughed. He was, at that point, towards the latter half of his six month break from work. He hadn’t told his parents he’d quit for a long time, not even, when he’d travelled to Europe. It was on his next visit to Ahmedabad after he’d come back that he had eventually broken them the news. They had taken it better than Kaushik had expected. Nevertheless, as the days went by, they grew more anxious. Kaushik’s mother called him several times during the day on one pretext or the other, her heart aching that her son was spending entire days alone and unoccupied, although he insisted he was having a good time and there was nothing to be so concerned about.
This surprise visit, Kaushik sensed, was their anxiousness brimming over.
Kaushik’s Dad, now halfway through his fifties, was a dark, pot bellied man who had aged better than his peers. He still retained a head full of silken, largely black, hair and the lines on his face were yet to dig deep. A thick black moustache hid his upper lip almost completely. He must have been quite unremarkable in appearance as a young man, although the only evidence Kaushik had of this was in the grainy, black and white photographs he was shown. But at this age, while his friends struggled with baldness, rheumatic knees and weakening eyesight, he was fit and intact.
Kaushik’s Mother, on the other hand, must have been an attractive woman in her youth. She was still very presentable for her age, although she had put on a bit of weight and her joints creaked with arthritis. After marriage, she had to move to Ahmedabad; Kaushik’s Dad had migrated there in search of work half a decade earlier, leaving behind him the disintegrating West Bengal of the 1970s. Now, close to three decades later, she still spoke Hindi and Gujarati with a Bengali accent. She had never worked professionally, happy to make a home and raise her son, instead. Her world view was simplistic but she was capable of the occasional inspired observation, perhaps without being aware herself of just how inspired they were. She had once pointed out, about a year ago, how all of Kaushik’s friends had always been transient.
“You seek to befriend people who you think know more than you do. That is good. But you grow tired of them once you feel your knowledge and understanding has surpassed theirs. And then, you just move on”, she had said.
Kaushik was amazed by how accurate the observation was. even though it was put in so plaintive a manner. He wondered how she could be aware of this and yet look forward to and talk about his future marriage and life afterwards without the least bit of apprehension.
Although, he had continued the unannounced visits home through the years, Kaushik’s parents had never visited him before this. Not while he was in Dhule for four years, nor while he was in Lucknow for two. They had, of course, paid him the occasional visit but they had always informed him first. He had taken this as a sign of his parents’ acknowledgement of his having reached an age where he would begin to have a life beyond the one they knew of. That the number of secrets he kept from them could only increase in the future. Kaushik was immensely grateful to his parents for this; it had saved him the sticky situation of having to actually explain it to them. He had debated if he should stop his own surprise visits to them; acknowledge that they too had the right to a private life, but every time he did go, they appeared so utterly overjoyed, that he decided to carry on with them.
And now this. He wondered what to make of it. Was it that he had been mistaken all these years in presuming what he had and that the real reasons were merely logistical? Or was it that their perception of all the secrets he now kept from them, the life he now lived had gradually become so disturbing that they had to come see for themselves? They knew he enjoyed the odd bit of alcohol once in a while; he had told them himself. Since then, they had always quizzed him on how regular his drinking habits were. “How many times a month? More than once?” He always evaded a straight answer, aware that the true number, though sufficiently low to be a cause for even the mildest alarm was still too high for them. Perhaps they had decided to drop in like this to check? There was one empty bottle of beer on the kitchen platform, Kaushik found, when surveyed the apartment once his parents were settled comfortably into bed. The bottle was coated with dust. He decided there was no reason to remove it.
So then, why had they come? Hadn’t Kaushik himself thought a few moments before that it was because they were concerned he was lonely and despondent without work? Could it be that it was a combination of these reasons? Was he a little miffed that they had come? He wasn’t sure.
Possibly, in some corner of their sub consciousness, the odd misgiving had always lingered, without their having realized it. It may have played a part in their decision to come, but Kaushik knew that even if it did, it did so behind the scenes, moving surreptitiously between those other thoughts and emotions they could access. He knew they loved him too much to ever doubt him seriously.
As a kid, Kaushik had insisted upon sleeping by his mother’s side. He enjoyed the touch of her arms; warm from the wrist to the elbows, slightly colder above it. Through the night, he slept with one hand gently rubbing her arms. When he grew up a little, his parents suggested to him that he start sleeping on his own bed. He tried but could not. His mother would sit next to him until he fell asleep but he would wake up soon after she was gone. Kaushik would stare at the ceiling for a while, angry that his mother no longer loved him like before. Eventually, he would take his pillow and barge into his parents’ bedroom and tell them that there were cockroaches in the other room and he was afraid. Instead of sending him back and making him learn the hard way, his parents would, uncomplainingly, make space for him between then and he would lie there blissfully for the rest of the night.
Kaushik was into his teens before he finally rid himself of this habit. By the time he grew up enough to understand what this might have meant to his parents, how much it might have taken away from their own lives and needs, there was nothing he could do.
His parents smiled through this and other sacrifices and continued to love him. It did not even occur to them that they should hold it against Kaushik. Kaushik wondered if he’d do the same for his own kids, when they came around. He found it hard to believe that he would.
The morning passed by cheerfully. They had breakfast together, chatted about this and that. Towards noon, they went to a pricey restaurant for lunch; Kaushik was eager to demonstrate to them the secure state of his immediate finances. A couple of hours later, they were on their way back to Ahmedabad, no more or less worried about their son’s future. Kaushik returned home to make up for the morning’s lost sleep.