Have you ever felt like something was fundamentally amiss with the world? Like the very air around you was… wrong?
The December night air is brutally cold, a chill I never thought Kolkata would ever experience. Even wrapped in a sweater under an overcoat, my fingers approach numbness and my ears hurt. And yet I stumble on aimlessly, going nowhere. I am in a place called Elaichigram, on the outskirts of this City of Joy. The earphones I have on are just for show; my phone’s battery ran out a while ago. Usually unable to survive without music, right now I hardly notice its absence. My head hurts from lack of sleep, and it takes an unimaginable amount of mental strength to stay upright, to not collapse to the ground, curl up in a ball, and stay there until I die.
And yet I stumble on aimlessly, going nowhere.
When my mom sat me down in my bedroom an hour ago with a grim expression on her face, I expected a scolding regarding my recent increase in smoking. She has never told me not to smoke, knowing that it would have little effect, but has always maintained that I must not cross a certain limit of her choosing. Over the past few weeks, I had been breaking that mandate with impunity, and I supposed that the time had finally come for a rigorous talking-to.
That was not the reason behind her consternation, however. And right now, I wish it were. Anything but what she just told me.
In the distance, I hear wedding music playing loudly. Sometimes, houses in Elaichigram are rented out to couples getting married. These houses are reasonably large, and come equipped with a sizeable lawn for mass gatherings. Without thinking, I set off towards the wedding. The stillness of the night is suffocating me, and I need some noise around me now. A crowd to disappear in, somewhere to hide. Something to numb my senses, blunt the knife in my heart.
As I walk on, random thoughts keep colliding in my head, robbing me of the ability to think clearly, with purpose.
‘You guys look nothing alike,’ they’d say when they saw mom and me, and it is true. I am tall, dark, thin. Gangly, even. My mom has always been fair as snow, stocky, short. Barely five feet. We speak differently, act differently, think differently.
‘The incongruity is so striking!’ they’d say, and then, with a giggle, ‘It’s almost like you’re…’
‘You’re twenty-one now,’ mom said while I sat staring into space. ‘You have a right to know. So now you know. I’m… sorry. I know hearing this must be difficult.’
‘Who…’ I started, before a coughing fit came over me. My throat was completely dry. ‘Who’s the father? And the mother? Have they ever reached out to you?’
Mom had told me before that dad had died in a car crash when I was a year old, and I’d never questioned it. Perhaps I should have.
‘No. I found you on my doorstep one fine morning. I’d never married, and had never planned on having any children, but when I gazed into your eyes… please don’t hate me. Whatever you’re feeling right now is completely justified, but as far as I’m concerned, I raised you. You were, are, and will always be, my son.’
It was then that I had stood up, and wordlessly left the house. Is this what shock feels like? The complete absence of cognizable thought, just a reasonless clump of words and sentences with no identifiable meaning? A meandering stream of syllables and sounds that fail to make sense?
What do I do now? What would you do?
‘Oh, excuse me,’ I say automatically, before realizing that I just bumped into a suited man.
‘It’s okay,’ he mutters, before returning to his conversation. Where am I? I am inside the wedding house, aren’t I? A quick look around confirms it; there are waiters walking around with refreshments and finger foods, groups of well-dressed men and women with permanent, plastic smiles on their faces, a burst of laughter here, a hug there. Colorful lights adorn the primary house, from inside which emanates the sound of wedding rites being recited, the repugnant yet intoxicating aroma of fire. Out here, people walk around, eat, take selfies. A break from the mundanity of everyday life.
Pushing my thoughts to the back of my mind, I wander around, gulping down soft drinks, chewing on delectable fish fries and kebabs, my mind a complete blank. The minutes pass by, and I begin feeling more at ease, like no one knows me, like I don’t ever have to leave here, never have to face the real world. Completely anonymous, completely incognito. A drop of water in a vast ocean.
For the first time tonight, I smile a little.
And then my eyes fall on her.
Across the lawn, we stand staring at each other, transfixed, each knowing who the other one is, each lost for words, paralyzed inside a moment neither had ever imagined would come.
I cannot breathe. It’s her. I can tell. I know. She must be fifty, tall like me, dark like me. Thick hair like mine.
Why did you leave me?
Was I not good enough?
Do you want me back?
Do you hate me?
Speak, mother. Speak to me. Why won’t you speak to me?
A man taps her on the shoulder, says a few words. Presumably asks her what’s wrong. Turning around, I break into a run. Almost knocking over an old woman in the process, I rush out of the premises, not stopping until I am in a quiet, deserted alley.
And finally, the tears come.
‘What’s wrong?’ mom asks, watching me curled up in a ball, bawling my eyes out.
‘I don’t know,’ I spit, even as she wraps her arms around me. ‘I feel… I feel alone.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ she says comfortingly. ‘You’ll never be alone as long as I’m alive.’
‘Something feels wrong. Something’s missing. I’m not seeing something. I dunno what’s happening to me.’
‘Shhh… I’m here. I’m here for you.’
‘You are? I’m not unwanted?’
‘No, and don’t you ever dare think you are. I love you with all my heart. All of it. If something happened to you, I couldn’t bear it. You are my everything, and I’ll always be there for you. I’ll always love you.’
I’ll always love you.
Somehow, the memory only makes me cry harder. Now I know what was wrong. I’ve found out what was missing.
Or rather, who was missing.
Suddenly, someone places a hand on my shoulder, and I instantly know who it is.
‘Please don’t cry,’ she says, her voice soft as velvet, mellifluous and welcoming. ‘Oh God, what have I done? I’m so sorry.’
Turning around, I face her, look her in the eye. She seems conflicted, unsure of what to do. A very pretty woman, but far from beautiful.
And suddenly, I know.
Over the next few seconds, I slowly force myself to stop crying. As I wipe my eyes with the handkerchief, I can finally feel cognition returning to my mind. I can think again, feel again.
I can finally be again.
Turning around once more, I begin walking away.
‘Wait,’ she calls out behind me, and I come to a stop. ‘Where are you going?’
‘Home,’ I say, back still turned to her.
‘Stay. Please. Tell me about yourself. Tell me who my son has become.’
‘She raised me,’ I say flatly. ‘You might have given birth to me, but you’re not my mother, and you will never be. I need to get back to my real family.’
Before she can react, I begin walking again, and this time, I don’t stop until she is far behind me, lost in an endless sea of faces.
You were right, mom. I was, am, and will always be your son.
Because at the end of the day, we all have the right to choose our family.