by Poorvi Gaur
It was a happy sunny afternoon at the Lodhi garden. The birds were flying high in the sky making circles and echelons while the dogs, cats, rabbits and other animals of the park soaked in the winter sun, running around, chasing each other. Rows of winter jasmines, marigolds and crocus outlined the garden, housing thousands of bustling bees that left trails of fresh pollen wherever they sat. It was a scene right out of Claud Lorrain’s idyllic allegorical paintings.
Mrs. Mathur and her sons sat on their usual picnic spot, their red polka-dot bed sheet laid carefully, half under the sun and the other half, under the shade of an old Ashok tree. It was the perfect spot in the whole garden, right in front of a view of the park’s artificial lake. The beautiful white ducks with their picky orange beaks whistled as they swam in the lake, looking ethereal against the silent winter sky.
“Boys, would you like some fruit?” asked Mrs. Mathur, a woman who appeared to be in her late thirties. Her face wore the look of a tumbling youth and her cheap makeup did little to cover it. Behind that sad face, you could say she was a beautiful woman. She wore a peach polo tee and a pair of blue jeans with brown Skechers. Back in her days, Mrs Mathur would have never dreamt of the winters without her lean heel leather boots but after the birth of Avi and Joy, her feet preferred the medicinal touch of the Sketchers. She wore her hair in a tight pony tail clipped together neatly with hairpins. She opened a big brown jute basket that was kept behind the plastic baskets and pulled out two steel plates and a knife along with a bag of kiwis, strawberries, apples and plums.
Her elder one sighed with embarrassment as his mother began peeling the apples on her steel plate. “Oh mother, why do you always have to make a kitchen wherever you go? I asked you if you needed anything to be chopped or something, why didn’t you let me cut these stupid apples from home,” Avi cried. “Because Avi, your little brother wouldn’t eat apples that changed colours from white to brown. You know that no-” Mrs. Mathur replied in a monotone but Avi had already sunk his eyes back into his phone so she stopped and went back to her chopping, passing apple slices to him and Joy.
Avi was a young boy but Mrs. Mathur’s eldest. Mrs. Mathur had had Avi six months into her marriage and despite the hushed talks in the families, she and her husband had always protected their love child from any questioning stares. Avi was only sixteen but the boy had seen a lot in the past year when Mr. Mathur died in a car accident. ‘Such a tragic death,’ his relatives kept murmuring as Avi performed his father’s last rites. He still had dreams about that day when Mr. Mathur had passed away. His best friend, Jay had tried to correct him, “Nightmares, you mean.” But Avi didn’t mean nightmares, for even though it was the worst day of his life, it was the last day he had seen his father, the last day before the reality of his life had sunk in.
“Mother, can I go feed the duckies? Pleeease?” Mrs. Mathur’s six year old jumped with excitement. Amused at her little one’s enthusiasm for the ducks, Mrs. Mathur nodded and Joy, almost on cue, swept up and ran towards the lake with apple slices in his hand.
Avi looked up again and watched Joy run towards the lake. “Mother, there’s a sign right there that says not to feed the ducks.”
“Then go get him back, Avi! I can’t do everything at a time, I’m only human,” Mrs. Mathur said indignantly. “It’s time you understand you’re the man of the house. Your father is gone, it’s been a year now. You need to start speaking up and leading us. Don’t you get that?”
That was it for Avi. He pushed Mrs. Mathur’s hands full of apple slices away and crept back onto the sheet, all the way to the other half, under the Ashoka shade, distancing himself as far away from his mother as the bed sheet allowed. He got up to get Joy back. Mrs. Mathur murmured something silently. Piqued by her action, Avi sat down again and shouted, “Well mother, I get I’m fatherless. You don’t have to repeat it every single minute of our existence. I’m so tired of all this! You said you want me to lead, right? Then why didn’t you listen to me when I said let’s not go on this stupid picnic this year?”
Mrs. Mathur looked at Avi disappointingly. “You know your father loved these. At least think of him before shouting at your mother.”
“Father is gone, Ma! He loved these picnics and god knows how much I loved these picnics. We’d play frisbee. Father would tell me about all the birds and flowers you see here. But guess what? He’s dead and I don’t know what to do without him here!”
Anger flushed into Avi’s veins and tears flowed down his eyes. Mrs. Mathur had stopped her chopping and was looking at the grass, picking on it silently all this while.
His mother’s silence irked him. “You’ve gotten us here and look, we’re making a fool of ourselves! Joy is feeding the ducks, you’re peeling apples in Lodhi gardens and I’m Googling colleges abroad.” Mrs. Mathur looked up at Avi, “Abroad? You want to go abroad, wise young man? And what about your family, or have you thought of that as well?”
“There is no family, mother! There are just us three, stuck together. Somehow trying to make it work, but it’s far from working, mother. I hate my life and I hate you!” Avi stopped.
He was usually a quiet kid and even today, he didn’t mean to but words had just stopped registering in his head, flowing out uncontrollably. Frustration and the year-long hurt had invited itself to the Mathurs’ annual picnic party and there was no going back. Mrs. Mathur, on the contrary, was never a silent listener but today, she had been quiet.
“Oh mother, say something!” Her silence was killing Avi.
Mrs. Mathur called out, looking away from Avi’s direction, “Joy, come back. I’m setting lunch. Come, eat.”
Avi watched his mother set the lunch for the Mathurs’ annual picnic. Mrs. Mathur opened the lid of one of the plastic baskets and out came almond butter breads, jam tarts, freshly baked coffee walnut cake and strawberry cupcakes. Theirs was a small family but each member had a different favourite dessert. Joy loved jam tarts while Avi enjoyed coffee cakes and their father, he loved his strawberry cupcakes. Mrs. Mathur, ever since her boys’ birth, had worked very hard to maintain herself and eating cakes and tarts was a big no for her, hence the almond buttered breads.
Avi watched her as she lay the desserts on the plates. The Mathurs always ate their desserts with their main course. Late Mr. Mathur was the one to blame.
As she laid out the desserts, Mrs. Mathur’s mind was racing. There was so much she wanted to say out loud but her voice seemed to die on her lips. Thoughts of guilt, fear, hopelessness ran carelessly in her head like the rabbits of Lodhi garden. Of course she had never told her sons or anyone else but often, and too much lately, she’d wonder if her husband would’ve made a better single parent for the kids than her. He definitely would’ve been a bigger hit in the Mathur’s annual picnics. She pictured her husband in the garden. There was something about picnics that made Mr. Mathur go gaga. Or maybe, it was the other way round, she thought and smiled.
‘You know it’s a picnic well done when there’s a good sense of discovery. What’s in the food basket, what’s in my burger, what is that bird over there?’ Mr. Mathur would tell his family.
Mrs. Mathur moved over to open the second basket and out came the delicious contents, boiled chickpeas salad, ham and lettuce mini burgers, spicy tofu rolls and cold pizza. It was everything that Mr. Mathur loved. Avi noticed water drops on the mini burgers and looked up at the sky. There were no signs of rain. It was his mother. He wanted to say something, something that would undo everything that had happened, the shouting in this picnic, the whole of last year, his father’s accident, everything. Instead, he noticed tears rolling out of his own eyes, this time more severely and unapologetically.
Mrs. Mathur looked up with teary eyes but continued to look away from Avi. Avi dragged himself on his knees to his mother’s side of the sheet and picked up the broken grass his mother had been picking at.
“I’m afraid I will forget him when I grow up,” he said slowly.
After what seemed like a very long time to Avi, his mother finally looked at him. She had tears in her eyes too but he saw a smile gradually growing on her face.
“You’re a silly boy. Oh, Avi. You’ll never forget your father,” she said. “You know when my father, your Nanaji, passed away, I was devastated. I would cry for days and nights. I forgot to eat or to even feed you guys. Your father, you know how much he hated crying right? He let me do that for some time. One day, he sat me down and told me something. He said people who love us too much, too dearly, when they die, they become a part of us. It’s only logical, he had said.”
She took the uprooted grass from Avi’s palm and threw it away.
Mrs. Mathur, then tugged at Avi’s right earlobe and whispered something into it. Avi smiled.
Mrs Mathur hugged her eldest.
Joy came running back and looked at the two of them suspiciously. “What are you two talking about, Mum? Let’s play frisbee noooo!” The cute six-year-old had brown curls like his father and they swung as he ran and panted and spoke. Mrs Mathur and Avi looked at Joy. Strange as it was, the little one spoke like his father too. Avi and his mother smiled at each other and got up to play. They knew they were thinking the same thing. The annual picnic that once orchestrated around Mr. Mathur had found its new cheerleader in Joy.
“Today wasn’t such a bad idea. I’d say it was a good day. Good sun,” Avi remarked as the Mathurs headed back towards the car parking with all their bags and baskets.
Mrs. Mathur grinned. During the drive back home, Avi took out the leftover strawberry cupcakes and passed it on in the car. As everyone ate Mr. Mathur’s favourite, Avi asked Joy, “What did you learn today?”
“Umm, I learnt that ducks don’t like apples,” Joy chuckled as he spoke, “What about you, bhaiya?”
“Resentment is always easier than gratitude. But it’s never the answer.”
Mrs. Mathur looked at her rear-view mirror and found Avi smiling at her.
Born and brought up in Agra, Poorvi is a freelance journalist and research scholar based in New Delhi. She reads, writes and daydreams in her spare time. This is her first fiction publication.