Extracts

The First Chapter from:

IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU
Ratna

1

‘At its best, life is completely unpredictable.’
– Christopher Walken

Christmas was still a few days away but Gurgaon was already cold, with even the mid-morning air being distinctly chilly. Sammy was working on her laptop in the study with the usual steaming cup of tea by her side. She had decided against going to office today. A late night flight, that had been delayed getting into Delhi after a particularly gruelling work trip, had left her exhausted. Her team would not grudge ‘Samaira ma’am’, as they referred to her, taking a day off. She led them well. She delegated often and controlled projects through careful, directed advice and precise instructions rather than vague or confusing orders. That was who she was – a successful woman in corporate India – confident, self-assured and sensitive.

Stifling a yawn, she stretched and stood up in her favourite flannel pyjamas. As she caught a glimpse of herself in the long mirror in the corner of the room, she couldn’t resist grinning and muttering, ‘You’re still quite hot, old girl!’ Walking across to the plate glass windows overlooking the golf course next to her apartment complex, she thought wistfully about how long it had been since she had played a round. Far too long! But she didn’t get time for golf any more. Being a single mother with a challenging corporate career left her playing catch up on most days, never quite being able to find time for indulgences like a three-hour game on the Arnold Palmer-designed golf course so close to home. She had to make do with yoga, dance and the gym downstairs in order to keep herself in shape.

A Paresh Maity on one wall and a Hussain on the other, she also had several of her own paintings elegantly placed across her home. She should paint and exhibit more often, her friends would tell her. Someday perhaps, but for now an occasional exhibition and the satisfaction of designing and maintaining a beautiful home would have to suffice. Carpets carefully chosen by her beloved Nani and added to over the years from Kashmir, Iran and Turkey. Contemporary furniture overlaid with cushions and bric-a-brac added dashes of colour that made her home unique and excited comments. The interiors had been featured in a design magazine a few months ago. The journalist was astonished that she had not used a professional to do up her house. It would not have been as personal, had been her comment.

And there were, of course, personal items. Some with memories of different times in her life. Some with memories yet to form around them. Photographs, too. Family holidays. Happy occasions. All candid shots because she disliked posed, studio photos. Two children, her little ones, dominated the frames – Aksh, a sporty and handsome sixteen-year old and Tara, his elder sister, an adult in her own right, who had turned twenty earlier that month. Many of her acquaintances found it difficult to believe that Sammy had a college-going daughter. She had aged well and could pass off for an early thirty-something, a decade younger than she actually was. She was elegance personified. She celebrated her children and had never attempted to recapture her youth, but took good care of herself as she, and they, grew older.

There was no man in the photographs. Not that the absence indicated a loss or a void. Sammy was content with her life. A group of good friends, several work colleagues whom she was happy socializing with and the demands of being a single mother, kept her too busy to look for romance or a life partner. Rishi, her ex-husband, and she had built a friendship that was fairly cordial, considering their past. It was good that he was in London though, for the warmth was best maintained at a distance.

Tara, her lovely and beautiful daughter, had moved to London for her undergraduate degree and was living with Rishi. The kids had always been a part of their father’s life and he loved them to distraction. But Tara’s relocation had created an emptiness in Sammy’s home. Aksh and she only had each other now. Like any two people who loved each other intensely, they had their disagreements too.

Aksh wasn’t a baby any more. He still had his childlike innocence and warmth, his deep affection and love for Sammy. But he was a teenager and often Sammy thought she didn’t understand him at all. Earlier, Tara used to play the interpreter and interlocutor but since her departure, a gulf had formed between mother and son. It almost set the tone of their relationship these days. ‘It isn’t only about your work and your life,’ he would often tell her. ‘Teenagers also have problems; don’t you understand that?’

This morning for instance – the thought brought a frown on her face – even though she woke up tired and a little grumpy, Sammy sat with Aksh as he prepared to leave for school. This was their morning routine, almost a ritual, as it had been since the time Tara and Aksh had begun school. Yet, lately, the once familiar and comforting start to the day had become forced and tense. Neither Sammy nor Aksh would talk, and a cursory ‘See you! Love you!’ would acknowledge the relationship. It was not that there was an issue between mother and son, and they were certainly not fighting. Plans would be discussed in passing, the day’s events mentioned almost as calendar entries. The depth of involvement in each other’s lives was less than it had been and communication was not truly open, though the love was as strong as ever. It was difficult for Sammy to accept that Aksh was growing up faster than she had imagined and she feared that she was losing touch with him.

After-school sports had become the issue that day. Aksh had wanted to stay back at school as the team practice was scheduled for late afternoon. Jay, his best friend from preschool days, would be with him and he had asked Sammy whether their car could drop Jay home after practice. Sammy, tired and a bit disoriented, had forgotten that she would not be going to office and had said that she would need the car so Aksh would have to come home at the regular time. One thing led to another, with Aksh eventually snapping that she didn’t care for his plans. Sammy, realizing her mistake, apologized and said that he could definitely have the car. Aksh left irritated and the matter remained unresolved.

Simple matters and small misunderstandings were becoming an issue with her son, thought Sammy.

There was not much that could be done at the moment though and Sammy resolved that she needed to sit down and have a proper chat with her son. Perhaps they could go out for a movie together and then to his favourite restaurant. Aksh was quite the foodie. Over a pleasant evening, they could talk and bring down the unnecessary wall that was coming up between them. She would suggest it to Aksh when he called on his way back from school, another family ritual.

They had other things to plan as well. Tara was coming home for the winter and Rishi had decided to take a vacation in India at the same time. They would arrive in a few days. Rishi, typical of him, had booked them into a hotel but Sammy hoped that Tara would stay at home instead. They would meet Rishi and do things together because the kids would want that. Sammy wasn’t quite sure how much of Rishi she could handle. She would have to speak with Aksh and see what he thought. Perhaps he had already been in touch with his sister and maybe they had made plans. Anyway, it was another matter that could be discussed over dinner.

Time for a shower and then a relaxing hour in front of the telly.

Not that the world outside was giving her an opportunity to relax! The newsreaders and talking heads on television seemed to be prophets of doom; interested only in regaling viewers with all the horrific acts that humans carry out on each other. Murder, rape, molestation on the metro, shooting in an American street, militia recreating boundaries in Eastern Europe. Sammy heard a popular security analyst talk about the increased threat of terrorism on soft targets in Delhi. She remembered hearing him speak about the brutal attack on a school in Pakistan a few days ago. She had been moved to tears upon hearing the story of innocent children being gunned down. ‘Senseless brutes,’ he had called the attackers and had strongly advised the government to step up its security at schools across the national capital.

Sammy wanted her children to be independent but she feared for them constantly. She had tried to create a cocoon of security around them as best as she could. Tara, however, was now on her own – in a safe city, no doubt, and with Rishi looking after her – but Sammy could not help but be concerned for her. Over time, she had taught herself not to worry about Tara. However, her concern seemed to have doubled for Aksh, almost stifling him in the process.

A salad with crisp toast would be her lunch today. Carrying the tray out on to the balcony, she sat looking over the expanse of greenery in front of her and at last felt her body relax.

Her phone rang a few minutes before one. At first she thought it might be the office but she saw that the call was from Aksh’s mobile phone.

Odd, she thought. The phone should still be with the class teacher and Aksh would only be allowed to use it after school hours. Slightly concerned, she tried to accept the call but the signal dropped before she could connect.

‘I wonder if he’s forgotten something at home?’ she muttered to herself as she dialled his number.