The Old Suitcase
“Here take this”, Radha plonked a big old VIP suitcase in front of me, “one of the locks is broken, but I don’t think that should be a problem in keeping this thing shut.” I looked at the relic from the past and at my friend, “you’ll want this back, right?” “No, keep it, give it away, I am trying to clear out junk from the house,” she said eyeing the two labels on the either sides of the two locks that snapped shut that hard shelled brown suitcase – Radha Singh, her last name before she married. The letters stood embossed in bold white on a black plastic tape that was so commonly used for labeling then and could definitely only be found in the vintage labeling technology scene now. “I haven’t seen one of these in years! Is this your old luggage from B-School?” I asked. “The very first one to ship me out to Bombay. Those were the days!” said Radha, I could see her involuntarily falling into the reminiscing mode. “What a wild thing you were,” I teased and searched for mischief in her eyes. “And Mumbai was definitely Bombay then, and Rajiv Chowk was CP, and there was not even the slightest sign of the Delhi metro and there was definitely no far flung Gurgaon to call home,” Radha maybe didn’t hear me or chose to ignore what I said as she turned away and walked over to the easy chair in the living room. She shook the chappals off her feet and curled up in the chair. “Did you ever think I’d be a stay-at-home mom after all that!” she hadn’t ignored me after all. I dragged the suitcase to one side, and nodded to Kamla who asked if we wanted chai and namkeen, “and no sugar in either cup” I called after her as Kamala busied herself in the kitchen. “No” I said, “I did not,” we had talked of this a hundred times before and though we had all thought that she was poised to take the marketing world by storm, to choose to stay home for the kids was perfectly alright, I had always assured her. “But you are doing exactly what I thought you would be doing,” she responded, her voice turning misty.
“Shifting continents, wandering the world, moving from house to house all by myself?” I laid it on. “No, silly. Teaching college students and being all intellectual,” she rolled her eyes so theatrically that I smiled. “You know that suitcase of yours will be a great help to pack up the left over things; I was dying at the thought of running to the grocery store to look for another used cardboard box. Why is everything in this country so makeshift? People move all the time, why can’t one just buy moving supplies in one place,” the last few days of frustration, that packing up to move brings, unexpectedly found vent and took even me by surprise. Radha, not one to let the opportunity for a good quip go, immediately intoned “in my America one could just get everything done magically. ” She shook her head and laughed as she saw me turn bashful, “No matter how hard you try, it shows through you know all the years you spent there. I am so glad you came back though. I didn’t think you would. And now you are moving again.” “In the same city this time” I offered quickly, only glad to let the topic of teasing go. “You came back, and I came back and we are about to have chai together, like old times.” Kamla set the tray on the center table, wiped her hand on her pallu and handed us our cups of tea. “Can I leave now didi,” she asked. “Yes” I said, “but make sure to come at Seven tomorrow, I will need help with the final cleaning up. Did you pack up the food from the fridge? Don’t forget to take it. I have left a note for the guards on the table.” The mostly silent Kamla nodded and in a few minutes shuffled out of the apartment with the bags and the note; I got up to shut the door behind her. “Look who’s no longer awkward about giving instructions to her domestic help!” challenged Radha cupping her teacup and mischievously waiting for me to squirm. In all the years of graduate school and teaching in the US, I had missed the memo on how to be unperturbed by the grating inequality with which the privileged make peace in India, and of which the hired domestic help at home is a daily reminder.
“I am doing quite well for the fifteen years I was gone in the mere eleven months I have been back, thank you very much!” I decided to pick up the gauntlet instead as I settled back on the diwan across from her. The evening sun shone on her face and lit up the orange tinge of henna in her hair. Her deep smile was brimful with the happiness that was plain in her eyes to see. The first time I had met her in high school, I was enthralled by her joyousness. Everyone flocked to her; I did too. What do my uncolored gray hair and eyes tell her? I wondered. Always drabber in comparison, then and now, some things don’t ever change I suppose. “Here have some namkeen,” Radha was holding out the plate. “No, I am advised to avoid salt. I am hitting middle age with all its trappings, hyper-tension being just one of them,” I made light of the information that I knew would make her sit up. “What?” “Since when?” “Why didn’t you tell me this before?” she sulked. “It’s been a few years, the doctors suspect that I have had it all along but it was never diagnosed because I showed no symptoms. I am okay though, can’t skip meds and have to watch what I eat. I don’t talk about it much,” I thought I did a good job allaying her worry. I didn’t see coming, what she said next looking intently at a spot on the floor, “I am sorry, I didn’t tell you but that year, I lost a baby”. I sat up.
Behind Radha was her old suitcase by the wall, the one she took to go to Bombay for her MBA, while I stayed back to do my Masters in Delhi fighting to stave off an arranged marriage. That tumultuous year, which made me grow up and leave home, my closest friend and ally was in a different city. I was used to Radha being the hub of the social life around her, and she was often not as available to me as I was to her, though I vicariously participated in all her love interests and heart breaks. She also attracted a steady stream of “best friends” from her many circles of friends who displaced me for what initially seemed like forever, till I learned to see the solid core of affection she reserved for me. Unsure of myself in so many ways, I had held on to her friendship as a surety without questions. But that year, when she was away, and had suddenly stopped writing and calling, I registered betrayal like I had never known before. Plunged into that aloneness, I learnt the tough resilience it takes to survive being alone and with that the pride to not admit hurt. In the intervening years, we got back in touch again and resumed our friendship. Soon after I left for the US and formed other friendships that were more current with my life then. Radha was my nostalgia trip and a connection to my growing up years from which I had willingly accepted to be exiled. I never told her how badly I had felt then, what was the point! I focused on not thinking about it and gradually it dulled so much that I thought the betrayal was forgotten. Until right now that it hurt my stomach and caught me in a cramp. I felt like I hadn’t grown up at all.
“Chetan has moved back to Delhi. I ran into him at the golf club with Amit the other day. He is doing quite well for himself, Senior Vice President at McKinsey he told us. Amit of course doesn’t know we dated,” she looked at me but I couldn’t tell what that meant to her, “he broke up with me when I told him I was pregnant. It was in the middle of our final exams. He didn’t even pretend to want to care.” Her happy eyes suddenly didn’t look so happy any more. “I didn’t know what to do. Daddy would kill me of course, so there was no question of telling anyone at home. You know how scared I am of hospitals and doctors, even the thought of going to an abortion clinic was so scary that I figured that maybe popping some sleeping pills would be easier. How stupid I was!” Radha set her cold cup down on the side table. And then she looked at me squarely in the eyes, “and you know what, I did.” Between the churning in my stomach and her strange hold over me at that moment, I remembered that familiar feeling of never really being able to tell her what I wanted to. She wrenched sympathy out of me, in spite of me. “Whhat?” I gasped.
“Yes, so that was my smart plan. Good thing was I reached the hospital unconscious and don’t really remember much of when they pumped my stomach. And by the time I came to, Daddy and Mummy were both there. Miraculously the scare of me possibly dying helped them put the little matter of the miscarriage behind. They brought me back to Delhi. I was here for the next few weeks. I must have been depressed. I couldn’t bear to speak to anyone then. Not even you.” The long shadows of dusk had darkened her face. I could not tell if she was crying. In her voice, I sensed not much an appeal to heal a wound that I had carried but for acknowledgement from me that somehow I had been remiss. “I don’t know what to say. Such a big thing happened and you kept me out,” I found myself saying though that is not what I wanted to say. I wanted to say that there were things happening in my life and I needed you around. Unlike you, I wanted to share them with you. But I couldn’t because, because…. Radha interrupted my internal monologue, “I didn’t know how to share. I was so ashamed. You know even Amit doesn’t not know about this,” why did that last bit sound arrogant instead of helpless.
I wasn’t sure what was happening any more. So I rebelled against my family and walked out of home and scraped my way through the Masters while living in a dismal shared PG and put together my rent and fees in odd jobs around the University. So I lost touch with my family trying to find myself. So I desperately needed the one friend I had who had decided to shut me out. But none of this sounds big enough compared to your story of death and resurrection. “What made you tell me this now Radha?” was all I could afford by way of reaction that was not a scream. I got up and turned on the lamps. With the light the ambient sounds of this time of the evening invaded the stillness of the room; voices of children playing downstairs, cars squeezing themselves into tight parking spots, birds in trees nosily settling down for the night. I got myself a glass of water. Radha hadn’t replied; she sat quietly with her eyes closed, like a long lost baby come home. I went over and rubbed her shoulder first and then bent down and hugged her tight, “I am so sorry, you went through all this alone”.
I walked her down to her car, “give my love to the bacchas and say hi to the A-Man”. “I will”, she said, “and I can’t believe you are leaving tomorrow; if your sister doesn’t mind, why can’t you live in her apartment? Do you have to move into University housing?” Radha pouted and squeezed my hand. “I will visit you soon. And this will give you an excuse to come visit our old haunts again,” my heart melting, like it always did, when it came to Radha. The driver pulled the car away and I took the stairs back upstairs. Book boxes were neatly stacked and labeled on one side of the wall in the living room and on the other was the old suitcase. I laid the old thing on the floor and swung opened its lid. The fabric lining inside was frayed but there was no doubt that this was still as sturdy as any suitcase that there might be. I went into the bedroom and took a pile of clothes, an old pair of shoes, some utensils I might have taken with me but at that moment decided not to and dumped it all into the suitcase. Then I shut it and left it by the wall. I wrote a note for the guards downstairs so they would let Kamla take the suitcase home.
Image: Tom Varco from Wikipedia Commons, used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.