We sat on the wooden bench in the community garden, dad and I.
The fifteen inches of space between us, heavy with concern on one side and fear on the other was unbridgeable.
A squirrel nibbled on a blade of grass before us. Dad and I watched it stand up on its two feet, the grass blade in its two forelegs or ‘arms’ as they seemed to be functioning as such. Two brown butterflies flitted to nature’s music – sound of the wind, the swish of the leaves on the trees and the chirping of birds. They jived, turned and went in circles around each other. The women who were in charge of cleaning the grounds sat in a circle on the landing of the slide which was also connected to a swing, a monkey bar and a jungle gym, at the center of the garden, in bright orange, pink and red saris, enjoying their mid-day break: lunch followed by siesta in the monsoon sun.
Dad coughed. The squirrel paused for a moment and turned at the unusual sound that broke the rhythm, and then satisfied at the absence of danger, began nibbling again.
The garden belonged to the squirrels, the sparrows, the pigeons, the crows, the butterflies, the gardeners, pet dogs and the daily walkers. Nobody got in the other’s ways. There were snakes too. I hadn’t seen them but had heard of them from the domestic help. During the day, when the sky was blue and the clouds fluffy white, the crows were cawing, the snakes seemed nothing more than a figment of a vivid imagination which my domestic help was immensely blessed with but once the sun set, I murmured the names of all the Hindu Gods, just in case. I did not have crossing paths with a snake on any bucket list in the near or distant future.
The garden looked more like a rain-forest at night with overgrown trees and bushes and very little light. Thanks to the apartment owners taking a keen interest in environmentally friendly options, the lights in the garden had been removed to be replaced by L.E.D lights. That was 3 weeks ago. Thankfully Diwali was around the corner, so there was hope that new bulbs would be fit in, in the next few weeks.
A man in his thirties passed by, pushing a pram. The child, not more than 6 months old, was sitting up looking out of the pram with big, black eyes. And when she passed us, she bent over, her black curls falling over. She looked at dad for as long as she could; until the pram moved past us and she could see him no longer. And dad smiled. Dad’s smile was a rare phenomenon these days, as if held captive by the demons of fear that plagued his mind.
“With a pram like that, they should be careful. You never know if the child falls out,” the first line he had said since we had waked into the garden. For a moment at-least, his attention had been diverted. And true to himself, he had worried about the child, like he had done over my kids and prior to that, over me and my sister. In that passing moment, I saw a flicker of what he had been in the past- strict yet overly concerned; and many a time protective to a fault.
The squirrel continued chewing on the blade of grass, uninterrupted, undistracted.
We watched again in renewed silence until dad decided it was time for lunch. With dad, lunch was never about hunger. It was about time! The only times an exception had been made to this unwritten rule was when dad visited me and I was in charge of the kitchen. Since mom left, he had learnt to accommodate with this and had not made me feel guilty about it other than the occasional joke of how “he mustn’t think about lunch until 2.30 in his daughter’s home.” Fortunately for him, I was no longer in charge and food was served, as per his schedule.
Rising from the bench, I walked back home with dad; happy that he had agreed to walk down to the garden and grateful that there was still something of the past that I had been able to see; albeit momentarily.
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