“Ok, that is done. Now, when do you want to return? 27th would do? ” Parag asked without moving his eyes from the laptop screen.
When there was no answer, he woke up from the magic of the screen and looked inquiringly at everybody.
His mother was looking outside the window. Did she not hear the question? Or was she thinking about it? His father was looking at mother intensely. Was there anger? Was there frustration? Was there some expectation? Parag could not tell.
Parag looked at Neha, anticipating some help. She just raised her eyebrows and stormed out of the room.
Parag felt uneasy. There was something that he did not know, something that he did not understand.
However it was all normal. Since his childhood he remembered his mother visiting Kanyakumari every year in December. 13th of December had been her specific journey date towards Kanyakumari. Now the family could afford to fly, but Nalini still insisted traveling by 1081 Down Mumbai – Kanyakumari express – which was express just for the names sake. It took as many as 48 hours to reach Kanyakumari. Somehow the whole family had grown with this intricacy of Nalini. So, mother’s ticket booking for Kanyakumari by 1081 Down was an annual ritual in the family. Even their relatives and friends knew it. And everybody was well aware that Nalini liked to make this journey alone.
But this time something was strange. Mother was unusually calm. Father was unusually tense. Neha was unusually anxious. Parag did not know anything because he had returned home after six months assignment in New York.
“Mom, when would you like to return?” Parag asked loudly.
Nalini looked at him. “I don’t know”, she said listlessly. Her detached tone left Parag cold. He looked at father.
“Come on Parag. Don’t worry. Your mother is not going to Kanyakumari for the first time. When she wants to come, she can book her ticket in tatkal quota or she can fly back. Now shut down your laptop, let us watch the cricket match together”, father added hurriedly.
Nalini looked at Pramod and smiled. That was a mysterious smile. Was there some fight between his parents? Was there any other man or woman in their life? Was mother not keeping well? But Parag decided to give up for the moment. He would have to talk to Neha to understand what it was all about.
Nalini smiled to herself. It was her twenty fourth journey to Kanyakumari. Of course, when she made the first one, she thought that was the last one. But somehow she was destined to travel so many times. Coming to Kanyakumari was like coming to home for her. It always had been.
Nalini loved the Vivekanandpuram campus. The statue of Swamiji on the Rock Memorial always inspired her. The waves surrounding the Rock were musical. The clouds created different colors in the water. The Meditation room was so peaceful. She remembered those visits at Goddess Kanyakumari temple at 4.00 in the morning. The cool breeze early in the morning and the devotional songs by M S Subbalaksmi were like a lost dream. Watching the rising sun from the beach always brought the repeated-ness of the universe to her. Utpatti – Sthiti – Laya – she remembered Ayyarji’s voice telling her this philosophy. How she used to make fun of all that philosophy!
Nalini remembered the Pratahsmarana written by the great Shankaracharya; the yoga sessions; and her experiments with harmonium during devotional song sessions in the evening. She remembered tamarind collection, she remembered the heifer Kalyani that was born; she remembered her dislike turned into love towards Sri Ramkrishna Paramhamsa.
When Nalini came here 25 years ago, she came with passion, with commitment, with dedication. Her parents opposed her, but she made it. But unfortunately all that was short lived. Just like a dream.
Within two months of her arrival to Kanyakumari, her mother fell ill. Her father insisted that Nalini should return home. Nalini became emotional and decided to return home to meet sick mother. She planned to come back to Kanyakumari after a month. That was the worst decision she had ever made in life.
Because when Nalini reached her home, her mother was fully involved in planning Nalini’s wedding with Pramod. With so many guests in the house, with the distribution of wedding card, with no money in hand and with friends and relatives constantly surrounding her, Nalini could do not anything. She accepted her fate and without any protest married to Pramod.
Nalini had nothing to complain about Pramod. He was intelligent as well as sensitive. He cared for Nalini, he loved Nalini. He tried to make her life happy. He understood Nalini’s attachment to Kanyakumari more than anyone else. During the first year of their marriage, it was Pramod who suggested Nalini to visit Kanyakumari. Except for couple of years, when the children were very young, Nalini never missed her trip to Kanyakumari. Even when they were poor, Nalini’s visit to Kanyakumari was never cut off. Pramod took care of both the children when Nalini was away. He himself never visited Kanyakumari though.
Nalini never knew whether she returned every year to Kanyakumari or every year she returned home! She was not sure which was her home – Kanyakumari or the one in Mumbai?
For the first few years Nalini enjoyed her annual visit. She met some of her old colleagues, could read some books, and could spend lot of time on the seashore. But slowly things changed. The place lost its charm to her. Nevertheless she came, but the joy was fading away. She was in search of peace and joy, in spite of her visits here. She did not like the statue of Tiruvalluvur which was raised near the Vivekananda Rock Memorial. The cameras now were allowed on the Rock Memorial so it had become just like any other tourist place. She did not like the crowd in Vivekanandapuram. The recently built Ganesha temple could not make her happy. Within her heart she knew that she had lost the relationship with the place.
But then where did she belong if not to Kanyakumari?
Nalini was not able to face the question. She wanted to be neither in Mumbai nor in Kanyakumari. She did not want to stay anywhere and she did not want to return anywhere.
“Hello, by any chance you are Nalini?” someone asked her early in the morning on the seashore.
Nalini turned. “Soumya”, she cried with surprise! Soumya was her batchmate during her training days in Kanyakumari. They had been good friends. But then Soumya went to Arunachal Pradesh for wok and Nalini could never meet her during her annul visits. Later Soumya discontinued her association with Kanyakumari and Nalini stopped getting her news through her Kanyakumari colleagues.
Nalini hugged her with all passion. She laughed and cried. Soumya was quiet. She silently watched Nalini – and Nalini knew that questioning gaze very well. Nalini wanted to hide from Soumya but she also wanted her support.
It was evening time. Nalini and Soumya were sipping coffee in the canteen. They were talking for hours. They exchanged news for the last twenty years. And Nalini was complaining about the loss of the charm of the place.
“Do you still come here every year?” Soumya asked.
“Yes,” said Nalini.
“Why?” asked Soumya.
Nalini was surprised with the questions. “What do you mean by why? I love this place, you know.”
“Oh! That means you have made it a ritual”, Soumya laughed.
Nalini was irritated. “Don’t you often come here?” she asked Soumya.
“No, today I came here after twelve long years. I had been to Tiruvantapuram for official work, so came here for a day.” Soumya answered.
“Don’t you remember all those days? Don’t you want to re-live those? Are you not attached to this place?” Nalini asked a series of questions without a pause.
Soumya was smiling. “Why do you want to return to a place which you left by choice? Why do you want to cling to the past, which has actually disappeared? Why in the name of emotions you are spoiling your present? What is the point in replacing one attachment by other kind of attachment? Do you see how miserable you look? You don’t enjoy Kanyakumari now because you are imposing your personality on the place. You like to imagine that you would have been the happiest person on the earth, if you had not left, not married and remained here.” Soumya’s voice is steady but sharp.
“The fun in life is never to return to what you have left with full awareness. Remembering something once in a while is alright, but getting obsessed with past is a disease, it makes one weak. You can’t return to the past, you can only live in the present – the past might have been great and the present might not be that good, still one has to choose the present. You are committing a grave mistake by this annual ritual. Life needs to move on; otherwise it is nothing else but death. ”
"Return to present", were Soumya's parting words. Soumya was always like this – emotional but practical, rational but sensitive, always very balanced.
Nalini sighed. After saying goodbye to Soumya Nalini thought a lot over what Soumya had said. There was a point in what her best friend had said. Best friends always can catch you by ear and tell you some solid peace of truth which you have overlooked.
Nalini calls Pramod. She could sense his anxiety even from this distance.
“Pramod, I want to return to our home. I want to return with you. Why don’t you all fly here and pick me up? We will have a nice time here. You have never been to Kanyakumari, you will like this place.” Nalini says with enthusiasm.
Nalini can imagine Pramod’s happiness. She realizes how much he has suffered to make her happy. Her heart is full with love for Pramod, for Parag, for Neha, for Kanyakumari, for everything around, for Life. She has returned to her own self. Now she can live without any external support.