Happiness is a Collage
This collection of fifteen stories leads the reader into a world that is at once Indian and universal. The stories explore love, life, loss, and relationships.
A painter derives inspiration from a long lost love. Every night after going to bed, a woman scours a vast desert for her missing husband. A young woman strides through two worlds. A son experiences the miracle of his father’s immense love. An actor’s wife struggles to keep her husband from slipping into his reel life. And a busy professional tries to factor in pregnancy and motherhood into her hectic life.
Among those traversing this space are a henpecked billionaire, a homeless boy, a middle-aged wife dealing with infidelity, and a seeker finding solace with a lion and a deer.
This transcontinental flight will take me to Delhi in a mere nineteen hours. From one side of the planet to the other, from the land I want to call home to the home that is calling me back, the journey will take less than what the earth takes to make one spin.
The hostess gives me a small bag. A pair of socks, earphones, and a travel eye band. The man in the next seat is already surfing the list of movies on the small screen in front of him. He has a bag of salted nuts and a chilled drink and is all set to binge on Bollywood.
The hostess brings a fleece blanket. I cover myself and slip on the eye band. I don’t plan on sleeping but surprisingly, I sleep for five hours. Thirteen hours to go. A hostess stops beside me. You were asleep, she says. Would you like to eat now? My throat feels parched and the words don’t get past it. She is back with a bottle of water.
“You can take whatever you want from the pantry,” she says, reminding me that the flight also has self-service.
I eat a sandwich. After some time I bring a slice of cake. There’s packed rice pulao. It barely has any vegetables in it but I like it. I like it much better than the sandwich and the cake. I drink tea, coffee, fruit juice. For the rest of the flight I eat and I watch bits of Hindi movies. I watch them without the headphones. The man in the next seat notices but doesn’t say anything. I take it as a sign he must have lived out of India for a fairly long time because we Indians love offering advice. We Indians. The airplane must have entered the Indian atmosphere for me to have had that thought.
I have been so easily reclaimed. Is it because I hadn’t morphed at all?
Within three hours of landing in Delhi, I’m on the flight to Indore. I’m not surprised to see my father at the airport. We are meeting after eight years. Two young boys stand beside him. They touch my feet as a mark of respect to an elder. One calls me bua, the other massi. I murmur a blessing, wishing them a long life and prosperity.
I’d told Frank there were different words for each relationship in India.
“My brother’s son calls me bua, my sister’s son calls me maasi.”
Frank had been impressed. “That’s because you set great store on family relationships.”
Steve had laughed. “Don’t kids grow messed up having to remember so many relationships? What happens when they have two or three sets of relatives? You know step-whatever and step-whatever?”
“Divorce is rare. There’s never been a divorce in my family. I didn’t know a single divorced person until I came here.”
“So what do they do when things don’t work out? Lump it?”
In the end, the result had been the same. Frank had married me. Steve had lived with me. Frank had ended the marriage. Steve had ended the relationship.
I catch my father looking at me. His eyes are tired and the slope of his shoulders speaks of defeat. His hair has thinned and the pouches under his eyes make him look haggard. He is what, sixty-five? Did I do this?
“Your brother wanted to come but the boys wouldn’t agree to stay back. We didn’t know how much luggage you had and we didn’t want to crowd the car,” my father says while we wait for my luggage.
But I know. The boys are here so that the ride home will be made easy with their chatter. And it is. I ask the usual questions and they trip over each other’s sentences, telling me about school and friends, and the ongoing cricket league matches.
We reach home at ten. My nephews spill out of the car and rush in, announcing my arrival. I drag my feet even though I know the moment cannot be stayed. My brother, his wife, my sister, a niece who was born the year I left, I see them all but my eyes skid over their contours. I hear them, I even reply but my answers are monosyllabic.
Then I see her and the air in my lungs, trapped like a fluttering bird, gushes out. It is not her intention to hold back; the boys have rushed to her and are holding her up with their talk.
“Maalu,” she murmurs, folding me in her embrace.
The awkwardness that my father couldn’t hide, the distance my brother and sister couldn’t overcome has no place between a mother and daughter. I lean forward and bend until my head rests on her shoulder. In that moment the only thing between me and gravity is the thin, bony shoulder under the folds of a soft cotton sari.
The moment passes. I recover, or perhaps ghosts from the past slip between me and my mother.