Trees don't spread their branches above this road any more. Our bus speeds by margosas, jamuns, and pipals by the wayside felled to make way for a four-lane highway from Bangalore to Mysore. Their branches reach up from the dust as though in a final plea.
Siddhartha squeezes my hand. "Don't worry, Mom. After the new road is built, they'll plant saplings." His large, dark eyes smile at me through thumbprint-streaked glasses. I resist the urge to wipe the lenses. A lingering hint of puppy fat below the stubble on his cheeks won't let me forget he's only seventeen.
Outside, the countryside passes by like a moving picture. The hills on the horizon shift almost imperceptibly as our bus rushes on. Tile-roofed cottages appear and are left behind, punctuating the emerald monotony of paddy fields. A flock of white cranes fly up from a lake, ruffling the pink lotus blooms on its surface. I want to touch the birds before they vanish above a coconut grove.
"After reaching Mysore we'll go to the palace," I say. I plan to treasure the next three days touring with my son. I wonder if I will have my only child to myself ever again after he leaves home for college next month.
"I hope I can still find my way around," I say. "Things must have changed in twenty-two years." Decades ago, I arrived here as a stranger. On this visit, faint memories emerge of a city I made my home before leaving on job transfer. I want to show Siddhartha the bank where I worked at my first job as a trainee manager, and where I met his father.
"Let's see the Maharaja's art gallery first," Siddhartha says. "We can explore the palace after lunch and see the lighting after sunset." Then, he returns his attention to the world outside his window.
I nod and remember 'egsploring' the rooftop garden in our home in Bangalore. Siddhartha was three then, and I was between jobs. As soon as my husband left for work in the mornings, my son would bring out his satchel of toys and toddle up the stairs. Leaving half-done curry on the stove, I would follow him and together we would race matchbox cars between pots of cacti, bougainvillea, and seasonal flowers. After the cars inevitably collided, he would examine me with his toy stethoscope and plaster the 'kochis' on my face and arms with strips of paper.
Now, my son reclines in his seat, his heavy-lidded gaze
piercing into something distant for a moment, and then reverting into
tranquility. I marvel at this change from the long legs in a hurry to
be elsewhere avatar I usually glimpse at home. Once, I knew that 'kochi'
meant pain in his baby talk. It's his new language of preoccupied silences
Three hours after leaving our home in Bangalore, our bus rumbles over a bridge. Truant monsoon rains have reduced the Cauvery River to a trickle. The walls of Emperor Tipu Sultan's ruined fort rise over the riverbank. I remember climbing those boulders with my colleagues and taking a coracle across the swirling water.
I peer out of the window and feel the wind on my face. "That's the tower of the Lord Ranganathaswamy temple," I say. "This island is named Srirangapatna after the Lord. We're only a half-hour away from Mysore now."
"I know, Mom." Siddhartha's deep voice has an unusual, impatient edge.
I check myself from belching out more information. He needs this break after the exhausting rounds of school board exams and entrance tests to medical colleges. I want him to cherish these moments stolen from our cluttered lives before he leaves home to return as an occasional visitor.
Soon, I see the arch over the highway that once welcomed my father and me to Mysore. As our bus drives through broad, tree-lined roads and crowded bazaars, quaint buildings with rounded domes stand as memories of a Maharaja's capital. Then, I see the familiar rust colored, gold-tipped domes crowning the palace.
After a quick lunch in my bank's guesthouse, we rush to
the palace. I pant, trying to keep pace with my son's long-legged, leisurely
stride. A group of white-skinned tourists come between us and block
the way ahead. Their guide waves at the fluted columns and high ceiling.
I push through the crowd, not wanting to miss showing my son a single artifact. Siddhartha signals to me to allow them to pass. Then, he places a hand on my shoulder to slow me down and together we climb the marble steps to the Maharaja's private audience hall.
I want to scoop up an ivory inlaid image of infant Lord Krishna. I almost tell Siddhartha how he sucked his plump toes like this when he was a baby. But he stands tall near a blue and gold pillar, and I sigh at the irrelevance of my memories.
I walk up to him and we study scenes from Lord Krishna's life embossed on a silver doorway. "I like this best, Mom." He points at a panel of Lord Krishna urging Prince Arjuna to do his duty and go forth in battle.
We move on to the public durbar hall, where famous musicians
continue the royal tradition and perform during the annual Dussehra
festival. When I lived here, my roommate, Rathna, bought us passes to
the concert. We sat like princesses under the sparkling chandeliers
and listened to the deep notes of a nadeswaram recital. I wonder how
they are now, Rathna the mischievous one, dignified and gentle Sita,
and Dorothy who took on an elder sister's mantle. I hope Siddhartha
finds such friends in college.
Siddhartha sighs, perhaps from the weariness of examining each elaborate detail. Then, he turns from those frozen images from the past to look down at me. I wonder if my son is preserving his own mental snapshots for lonely days among strangers, when he will face the almost overwhelming trials of a student doctor.
I remember the first time I arrived in Mysore fresh from college and with my first job. My father escorted me from our home in New Delhi, thousands of miles away in the north. When I toured the palace with my father, I pretended to focus my attention on those dancing peacocks in the stained glass dome. I wanted to momentarily forget the imminent parting from my parents.
Now, patches of blue, green, red, and golden sunlight filter through those stained glass peacocks. I blink to hold back tears as the colors fade with the approaching dusk.
It's a Sunday evening and soon the palace will glow with myriad lights. We stroll onto the palace lawns. With a face the color of ripe wheat grains, Siddhartha manages to blend into the crowd. But my lighter skin and taller figure mark me out as a Northerner among local women. Vendors flock around us offering roasted peanuts, picture post cards, and more.
"We aren't tourists," Siddhartha tells them
in perfect Kannada.
"You both are from " a popcorn seller ventures to say. His words trail away in an unfinished question as he tries to fit us into one of our country's many regional and linguistic communities.
"We're just Indians," I say. Siddhartha and I exchange smiles. We're used to arousing good-natured curiosity.
When I first came here from Delhi, I struggled to learn the local language in an effort to fit in. I still mispronounce the Kannada word for 'village' as 'lizard', and confuse tenses and genders. I muse in silence. Rambling old time stories may bore my teenager.
Darkness fills the spaces around us. The police band begins to play and rows of glowing lights outline each scalloped arch and every pillar and dome of the palace. We listen to lilting tunes and rousing military marches until the lights go off.
Back in our room in the guesthouse Siddhartha says, "I had a great time," and I know he means it. "But we've done only touristy things," he adds with a shrug. I sense weariness, perhaps a hint of disappointment in his voice. He picks up the remote control and rapidly switches TV channels. His glazed eyes tell me that the sports channels fail to exude their usual charm.
"Tomorrow, I'll show you the city as I knew it." I watch my son's face for a reaction. He smiles, perhaps out of politeness, but it's a smile nevertheless. Then, he clicks off the TV and rises from the couch to retrieve the evening newspaper the caretakers have slipped under the door. He flicks through the crackling pages, throws the paper aside, flops himself on the double bed, and hides his face in the pillow.
"Are you okay?" I ask.
"I'm fine, Mom. Just tired." His voice is barely audible through the pillow.
I fold the paper and gaze out at the starlit sky for half an hour, maybe more. My son tosses and turns for a while before relaxing his limbs and breathing steadily, his face still in his pillow. I wish my husband were here, that the bosses at his bank had permitted him leave to join us. Perhaps Siddhartha would have more to say to his father.
The next morning, we take an auto rickshaw into the bazaars near the palace. "I didn't know a soul when I first came here," I tell my son. "But soon, I made friends in the ladies' hostel where I stayed. We never let a weekend go by without an outing. Once, we hired one of those horse-drawn carts and after a rough ride through town, spent the whole week massaging each others' aching joints."
I scan Siddhartha's face for signs of boredom. His eyes
ask for more.
Then, our cart clatters down a quieter, narrower street with small shops and old houses. Through an open door, we see a lone gray-haired woman squatting on the red cement floor and shelling peas. A seemingly endless row of dark, vacant rooms stretch behind her. I clutch the cart's handle tighter and edge closer to Siddhartha.
Further down the road, we hear temple bells. Women in bright silk sarees emerge after praying inside. Like all local women, they wear strings of fragrant jasmine, roses, or violet jacaranda flowers in their long, braided hair.
"When I came here," I say, "I must have looked strange without flowers in my hair or a bright 'bindi' on my forehead. Back home in Delhi, such ornaments were reserved for festive occasions. I never thought of wearing them to work. It took me a while to understand that though we all belonged to the same country, people followed different customs here. In Delhi, it's considered perfectly normal to eat meat. But here, people shuddered when I longed for home-cooked chicken and fish.
"At last, my new colleagues decided to change my savage habits. 'Nice girls should feel sorry if animals are killed for their meat,' matronly Nalini, the bank's Head Cashier, said. 'If you behave like this, no decent young man will come near you.'
"'Then you shouldn't eat vegetables,' I argued. 'Plants are living beings too.' Anyway, they tolerated me and never gave me a chance to feel homesick."
Siddhartha eyes me with a deadpan expression. I flinch,
expecting him to say 'How does all this matter to me?'
"I think so," I say. Soon, I see four familiar cream and white buildings with pillared facades arced around an intersection. 'That's my bank." I point at one of the identical buildings. "The Maharaja's royal bank became a part of the State Bank of India group long ago, but people still call it 'Mysorebank.'"
We enter the high-ceilinged banking hall. Portraits of the last Maharaja and his minister, Sir M. Vishweshwaraya, hang on the walls beside those of Mahatma Gandhi and other national leaders. "People still respect their former rulers here," Siddhartha says.
I peer across the polished teakwood counter like I did on my first day here, and feel lost again in the sea of unfamiliar faces.
We walk out into the open road and I tell Siddhartha about the frantic rush for treasury payments on the first day of each month. "Most were salary checks or compensation for land acquired for public works," I say.
Responding to my son's keen look, I forget to worry about saying appropriate things and relive an incident that altered my perceptions. "I once passed a check compensating the family of a farmer trampled to death by a wild elephant," I continue. "The first time I faced that restless crowd, they spilled out of the banking hall and blocked the entire road. I thought a riot would start and waited at the door unsure whether to enter the bank or run back home to Delhi. Nothing they taught us at the university or the bank's staff training center had prepared me for this."
Siddhartha eyes widen. "What did you do then?" he asks.
"Well," I say, "Mr. Gundu Rao, who headed the Government Treasury department, guided me through the Himalayan stacks of checks and ledgers. Our watchmen ushered the crowd to form orderly queues that snaked down till that end of Ashoka Road. Nalini gave me the thumbs up sign as she led the cashiers in and out of the underground vault with chests of cash. Dozens of counter clerks and tellers teamed up, and we cleared thousands of payments by dinnertime. And in those days we didn't even have computers. When the next payment day came and people from all over the district jostled around the bank, I took a deep breath and sat at my desk. It was another day at work."
Siddhartha relaxes his grip on my hand and smiles.
After dusk, we return to the guesthouse. I flop down on the bed and Siddhartha puts his feet up on the couch. I look at him, wondering how the day went. His eyes sparkle under long, thick lashes and he smiles as if reading my mind. We rest together in silence, alone with our separate thoughts.
After dinner, when the lights are out, Siddhartha puts his arm around me and says, "Mom, am I doing the right thing?" I hold his hand and wait for him to continue. "Can I face the long years and hard work to become a doctor?" I nod.
"I know people lose their nerve dealing with disease and death and drop out of medical school. Wouldn't it be saner to do some three or four year college course and go for a regular job and a normal life?"
"You've proved yourself by sailing through tough entrance tests," I say. "Follow your heart and your strength will hold out. You'll be a fine doctor some day."
Siddhartha doesn't move or speak. I wonder if I need as much reassurance as him. We both know he will face tremendous pressures to live up to the Sanskrit meaning of his name and achieve his aims. He draws closer and his arm tightens around me. I breathe in his scent of cologne mixed with a hint of sweat and remember his milk and powder baby smell of seventeen years ago.
"Twenty-two years ago I, too, worried about facing the unknown," I say. "I wasn't much older than you then. Why did I have to take a job thousands of miles away from friends and family? I almost declined the offer but my folks persuaded me to face the challenge. So what did I get? Better career prospects, new friends, and the chance to travel."
Siddhartha sighs. I pause and say, "I met your father, too. So where would you be now, if I hadn't left home?" Siddhartha laughs, and his stiff shoulders ease. I rumple his thick hair. "You've chosen your road. Look ahead and keep moving," I tell him. We lie in our beds in silence and after a while, I hear him breathe softly in his sleep.
The next morning, we take a bus up Chamundi Hill to complete our trip with a visit to the temple of the Goddess Chamundeshwari. The temple's intricate carvings and the surrounding natural beauty draw me here as much as its religious significance.
There are few worshippers at this early hour. We wait our turn to offer coconuts and flowers. The priest chants holy mantras to the ringing of bells and tosses red hibiscus and orange marigolds at the feet of the Mother Goddess. The temple lamps produce countless reflections on the silver doors and golden throne of the royal deity.
Siddhartha kneels before the altar with folded hands. I join him in a silent prayer. Fragrant incense smoke swirls up around us and blends with the cool morning breeze.
After praying, we sit on the hillside and gaze at the city below. A cuckoo sings out and monkeys chatter on the branches above us. Siddhartha points out the palace gleaming like a jewel in the morning sunlight.
I glance at my watch and rise. It's time to return to Bangalore. My son takes a last, lingering look at the temple and city. "I don't want to leave yet," he says. I think of the kingdom Prince Siddhartha left behind, when he chose the path of penance and meditation to become Lord Gautama Buddha, The Enlightened One.
I lead the way to the bus stop. As our bus leaves Mysore, Chamundi Hill rises in the horizon. I look at the temple tower silhouetted against the sky, until it disappears from sight after a bend in the road.
"I want to visit here again next year." Siddhartha squeezes my hand.
"I do too," I whisper. I take in the curves
of his cheeks, his slightly upturned nose, and then look into his large
brown eyes. We have come far since our first encounter, when the nurses
presented my husband and me with our newborn. Those tiny fists like
unfurling jasmine buds have blossomed into strong hands ready to master
a surgeon's scalpel.
Siddhartha taps my arm, points outside, and smiles. They've completed this stretch of the new highway and planted saplings by the wayside.
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