It is that time of the year when parents anxiously look at the cut-off lists and entrance exam scores, preparing to send their offspring to college – sometimes in the same city, at others to far off places to life in hostels. It is also a time of anxiety about the stretching of the umbilical cord. I am saying ‘stretching’ because it is by no means the sundering of the said cord, when the child leaves home. The bond is very elastic and brings them closer even as they go further. And though the heart aches when they leave, you know it their first step as independent adults who will make their way in the world. A time for trepidation tinged with the reassurance that we have given them the requisite confidence to be on their own.
Do take heart, because they come back, often transformed in more ways than one and oftener too for the better as you will see….
I was sleeping the sleep of one who has completed a duty — deep, undisturbed and peaceful. We had at last seen our first born into a very good engineering college, got him settled in the hostel and returned not a week since. And there I was, rudely being woken up by the harsh peal of the doorbell.
Groggily, I looked at the timepiece which proclaimed the hour as a few minutes past midnight. My first reaction was one of fear. Who could it be at this unearthly hour? The L&M was snoring loud enough to frighten away any unwelcome visitor. Taking heart from this fact, I went to open the door.
The apparition that stood before me had my stomach churning in terror. Bloodshot eyes sunken way into their sockets, clothes looking as if they had not been washed for at least a millennium, one hand holding up his trousers and hair that fell into untidy locks around a dishevelled face, completed the picture. Ah, but the face! It looked vaguely familiar.
Strange words of welcome greeted me — at least I presumed it was greeting because I espied white teeth in the unwashed face. The voice did it. Why, it was my very own first born!
You couldn’t blame me, could you, especially since it was not only his physical appearance that had changed, even the clothes he wore were unfamiliar.
‘Why are you holding up your trousers? Did you forget your belt?’ I asked him as I opened the door.
‘It has been confiscated along with all the others in the freshers’ hostel,’ he informed me laconically.
‘Confiscated?’ (He told us later that as part of ragging the belts had to be ‘surrendered’ to the seniors).
‘Is there some grub?’
That set me scurrying and I produced some leftovers from dinner and before I finished serving, it was gone.
‘Anything else to eat?’ he asked, clearly not satisfied with what he had got.
I was startled. Was this my son who had to be begged, bullied and boxed in the ears before he would eat a few morsels to ‘satisfy his old woman’? Shaking my head in wonder, I rustled up some more stuff.
What I was witnessing was the beginning of the ‘transformation’, as I was to realise in the next couple of days.
‘Next time, give me a ring before you come over, so that I can have some food ready.’ There was no reply. I peeped out of the kitchen to find him, hunched over his plate. He had fallen asleep.
The L&M was still snoring, only louder. With a sigh, I managed to pull and shove the prone creature (not a mean task considering my five foot nothing figure and his almost six foot frame) to bed and pulled off his shoes. He was dead to the world.
Before I had shut my eyes, I was being shaken awake by the younger one. ‘Ma, someone is sleeping in my bed.’
‘It is your brother, son,’ I wearily replied.
‘That was what I thought but this person actually wished me good morning, instead of punching me in the nose when I wished him!’
I had to agree with his assessment. May be I had rejoiced too early over the change in him. For the next morning after breakfast, he simply vanished as if from the face of the earth. Ah, I forget the meal times when he landed up to gobble up whatever was put in front of him and the time he spent with the phone receiver cradled in the crook of his shoulder. I was run off my feet answering calls from strange voices, both male and female, that most of the time didn’t identify themselves.
‘Where is our son?’ asked his father in the evening. ‘You said he has come, but I haven’t had a glimpse of him till now.’
‘I think he is home. If you follow the telephone cord you can find him,’ I answered, having become wise to his ways. And so it continued till the penultimate day of his departure.
It was Saturday and towards afternoon, he was home, clowning around with his kid brother, showering lavish praise on his old woman’s cooking and offering to help in shifting some furniture. His father walking in just at that moment was touched. Only he didn’t realised that his wallet would be touched soon.
During dinner he joined us, which was an honour — for us, that is. Later, he made himself comfortable on our bed. He actually replied civilly to his father’s queries about his studies and his mother’s inquiry regarding the teaching, his friends, the condition of his room and food. He even answered his kid brother’s questions about ragging, regaling him with the hilarious and not so hilarious details of the said convention. We were all enjoying each other’s company immensely when the cookie crumbled.
‘Dad, I need some dough,’ he began innocuously.
‘But I just gave you enough when I left you a week back!’ expostulated his father naively.
At this, his son produced a long sheet of paper. ‘Here, these are the expense details. You will see that I have had to borrow some money from one of the seniors.’ The last was said in an accusatory tone, which made his father squirm for having been so stingy.
It was his brother who noticed that the entries were awry. ‘Hey, what’s this? You have written ‘Food’ and then again ‘Eating out’. The amounts are the same too! And here! What did you photocopy for Rs.300?’
The paper was snatched forthwith by his elder brother. ‘You stay out of my affairs, do you hear?’ he growled, forgetting his new sugary image for an instant. It was an audible gasp from me that made him recover quick enough to explain about the figures most convincingly or so he thought.
Whatever it was, he managed to get his way and the money. The moment the money changed hands, he vanished like a streak of lightning. I mean, one moment he was there and the next, ‘poof!’ Just like that!
It continued to be like that; he still made unannounced nocturnal entries, but I began recognising his friends’ clothes soon. In fact, when he came back in his own clothes one time, I actually enquired as to whether he had quarrelled with his friends. And the bag of laundry that needed to be washed and the stink…
Things were decidedly awry when he was home.
‘Why are you wearing the new jogging shoes at home and the tie with your pyjamas?’ I asked his father during one visit.
‘To prevent them from being flicked by our beloved son, that’s why!’
His visits were tension filled for his father and brother, whose possessions were routinely ‘borrowed,’ but conveniently not returned, leaving the duo hopping mad the day after he left.
My first born might have begun having occasional trysts with his baths after going to college, but his great sense of humour had improved and he had acquired oodles of charm. He also spoke in complete sentences when addressed and deigned to eat at the table with the rest of us. And what was more, he actually ATE!
So what was I complaining about? Absence makes the hearts grow fonder and distance actually brings loved ones closer. What do you think, folks? Do you have similar stories to share?